Brutal news for a Knicks team that had been holding its own defensively this season: According to the team (via Ian Begley of ESPN New York), Tyson Chandler, the rim protector at the core of New York's defensive structure, will miss 4-6 weeks after suffering a non-displaced fracture in his right fibula. The injury will not require surgery.
Chandler was injured during a loss to Charlotte on Tuesday, when the Bobcats' Kemba Walker barreled down the lane and into his leg. The Knicks center immediately went to the floor and grimaced in pain as he tried to collect himself. Chandler was helped off the court without putting weight on his right leg and did not return.
This puts New York in a miserable spot. Its only effective big man and most crucial defender could now miss up to 21 games, according to the initial timetable. In Chandler's place, the Knicks will have little choice and much dismay in depending on Andrea Bargnani, Amar'e Stoudemire (who is still under a heavy minutes restriction, and logged just 10 on Tuesday), Kenyon Martin and Cole Aldrich to fill the void. That group should inspire no confidence; none among them has proved capable of consistent play of late, be it due to injury (Stoudemire), age (Martin), inexperience (Aldrich) or more general misery (Bargnani). Getting by without one of the team's best players would be challenging enough under any circumstances, but doing so with such underwhelming replacement options could well be impossible.
All of which leaves Knicks coach Mike Woodson to sort out a rotation without sufficient remedy. Woodson has his general preference for bigger, more traditional lineups fairly clear, but his coaching calculus has to -- and undoubtedly will -- change with Chandler sidelined. At this point, running big would be a conscious, regrettable choice made with regard for style over substance. Even in trotting out taller players, New York's ability to defend the rim is compromised. In four games, the Knicks have allowed opponents to shoot 59.1 percent in the restricted area with Chandler out of the lineup compared to 50.8 percent with him on the floor. Their team rebounding has collapsed when Chandler checks out of the game, too, and this time he'll remain checked out for weeks. What, then -- if not defense, if not rebounding and surely not scoring -- would be the intended value of playing big in Chandler's absence?
That leaves a return to small ball as the best option by default, though even that lineup orientation now suffers from similar issues. Really, none of New York's flaws are unique to one approach or the other once Chandler is ruled out. The lack of competent rebounders and defenders will be problematic no matter Woodson's lineups, though perhaps the Knicks can mitigate some of those concerns by best enabling their offense with more talented shooters and creators. As long as Bargnani and Stoudemire continue to be marginal offensive contributors at best (and legitimate hindrances, at worst), the best means of accomplishing that goal lie in going a bit smaller. That such a shift would trim the total number of minutes drawn from New York's lackluster bigs -- as a result of Carmelo Anthony (and, to a lesser extent, Metta World Peace) filling in more often at power forward -- is a benefit in itself.
Martin is likely the best fit as a frontcourt counterpart for Anthony, though he won't likely start and is already paying the physical price for logging a mere 18 minutes Tuesday. Even then, Martin is 35 years old, he's a middling rebounder and he creates a drag on New York's offense. That the best option is burdened with limitation speaks volumes about the alternatives. Playing either Bargnani or Stoudemire as a standalone interior defender (with Anthony so lacking in that regard) would (and sadly, will) be an unmitigated disaster, to say nothing of their compounding troubles on the glass and lack of scoring. Neither can be counted on in the slightest -- not even for their supposed strengths. These are the problems that the Knicks now face. Chandler was positioned to be a rock on a team already looking for answers, but without him New York comes untethered. Its small-ball units suffer. Its bigger lineups wither. Its flaws become glaring weaknesses, and its entire playing rotation has now been put in question. Moves could be made, yet the Knicks are without many attractive trade pieces and lacking in the ability to spend any more recklessly than they already have. The fall, from here, is inevitable.