Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Sam Dalembert Problem

"We have what we have" - Melo on the Knicks roster

The Knicks have a new coaching staff, a new front office and some exciting young players, but when you really start to break down their roster, I'm not sure there's much reason for excitement. The problem starts upfront, where I think they will miss Tyson Chandler a lot more than most people realize.

They are asking Sam Dalembert to replace Chandler and that will go about as well as it went in Dallas, where Dalembert was a maddeningly inconsistent player who started but averaged only 20 minutes a game and was often the least effective of their three-man rotation at center. While there are still some things that Dalembert does well, one of the main reasons for his inconsistency is that he's only effective in certain match-ups.

At 32, he's no longer the athlete he once was, but he can still protect the rim and challenge shots around the basket. Where he struggles is moving his feet on the perimeter - he wants to stay as close to the basket as possible. Dalembert is most effective when he can bang with other big men, but there isn't much he can do when the game speeds up and teams go small against him, which is becoming increasingly common in the modern NBA.

Playing with his back to the basket has never been a huge part of his game and he doesn't have the ability to punish smaller players when they are on him. The real problem is that he's not very effective in the pick-and-roll game - his hands are not great and he's just not all that coordinated. Even when guys give him dump-offs around the rim, it's still an adventure. When Dalembert starts doing stuff on offense, comedy usually ensues.

That's one of the most underrated parts of Chandler's game. He's not a shot-creator either, but he's a very effective release valve for an offense. While Dalembert shot 57% last season, keep in mind that he was playing for a mega-efficient Dallas offense that spread the floor wide open and had a bunch of guys who could create open looks for him. In a similar role in the Mavs offense, Brandan Wright shot 67%.

That was the problem with Dalembert last season. He's not bad defensively, but unless he was making a huge impact on the game at that end, it was hard to justify keeping him on the floor when the Mavs have so many better offensive options at C. Unless they were playing a dominant post scorer at the 5, Carlisle usually gave Dalembert a few minutes to see where his head was at and then went to either Wright or Dejuan Blair.

The role he had in Dallas - as the bigger and defensive-minded part of a platoon that featured a really quick hook - is the best way to maximize his talents at this point in his career. The problem for New York is that he need him to fill Chandler's shoes - anchoring the defense and helping out the offense while playing 30 minutes a night.

There will be some nights against big frontlines where Sammy D does his part, but there are a lot of match-ups out East where he won't be effective. Who is he going to guard on Miami (Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts), Atlanta (Al Horford and Paul Millsap) or Cleveland (Varejao and Kevin Love)? A big man who can't move his feet on the perimeter or punish smaller players is a small ball team's dream scenario.

Here's where the domino effect comes into play - with the way of the rest of their roster is set up, they need to give big minutes to a defensive-minded center. Carmelo Anthony is going to play more at the 3 this season, which opens up minutes for Andrea Bargnani and Amare Stoudemire at the 4. If those two guys are in your frontcourt, you had better have someone who can block shots behind them. Then there's Jose Calderon, who is easily one of the worst defensive players in the NBA. There isn't a starting PG in the league whom he can match up with.

The Knicks turned the corner two seasons ago by embracing small ball, letting Carmelo play in as much space as possible at the 4, spreading the floor with shooters around him and counting on Chandler to hold things down as the lone big man in the paint. I'm not really sure going back the other way is going to work, especially with the personnel on hand - the only really good defensive player they have is Iman Shumpert.

Long story short, if they are going to surprise people this season, my guess is they will need to get a lot out of Cole Aldrich. He's had good per-36 minute numbers the last two seasons and he's probably better than Dalembert, which isn't saying all that much. Dalembert and Chandler isn't a difference in degree - it's a difference in kind.

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