On Ronny Turiaf: Should He Be Playing More?
Once you've watched a handful of games by a Mike D'Antoni coached team -- a good one, anyway -- it's not hard to figure out where his preferences lie. He's well known for preferring small, tight rotations of seven to eight players, he prioritizes offensive efficiency and players who can move the ball and space the floor well. The last two years of rebuilding forced D'Antoni to manage so much expiring contract dross that his lineups took some anarchic turns, but with good players that know their roles, there's a reasonable consistency to his lineups and substitutions. Like any coach, there will be tweaks depending on the opponent and game situation, but a big part of his coaching philosophy is giving players a comfort level with how they will be used in a game.
Ronny Turiaf has been one of the notable exceptions to the lineup consistency. He started the season as one of the first subs off the bench, then became a starter after missing four games due to a knee sprain -- his first six starts were as a center replacement for Mozgov when it became clear the rookie was overmatched as a starter, After another knee flareup during a loss to the Hawks in the 17th game of the season, D'Antoni made the decision to replace Turiaf with Chandler and use Amare at center for the bulk of games since in a smaller lineup.
Turiaf returned as a starter for some games after Gallinari's knee injury against the Pacers, but for the majority of his games this season, he's played with the second unit for 8 to 10 minutes in the first half and a bit less than that in the second half. For many games, he's played the expected role of an "energy guy" contributing solid minutes (mostly on defense), similar to Toney Douglas, and occasionally spelling Stoudemire when he encounters foul trouble.
A closer look at Turiaf's deployment in various lineups shows some interesting tinkering, maybe even revealing some conflicted concerns on the part of the coaching staff regarding how he is best used. The numbers are in his favor for games in which he plays over 20 minutes, whether as a starter or off the bench: in 15 games where he's played 20+ minutes, the Knicks are 10-5. The Knicks have won all five games that Turiaf has played 30 or more minutes.
Early in the season, Turiaf was considered one of the most important players on the team as a glue guy and defensive quarterback of sorts on the floor , and he's always been one of the most demonstrative and emotional players for the Knicks. He's a particularly good post defender (ranked 24th in the league according to Synergy) and is 33rd in the league in defending isolations. These numbers stand out on a team of mostly mediocre to bad defenders. Basketballvalue.com has him second only to Landry Fields in terms of plus/minus on the team. He's a part of the most effective Knick unit among five man units that have played at least 70 minutes together.
Yet his minutes have fluctuated oddly, even taking into account his frequent injuries. He averaged only 12 minutes a game in December after averaging 22 minutes a game in the first month of the season. He's played more minutes since Gallinari was injured, but D'Antoni's see-sawing between small and big lineups in recent games -- especially with the emergence of Shawne Williams and Bill Walker -- resulted in peculiarities like Turiaf logging 13 minutes against the Suns and 7 minutes against the Lakers, followed by 38 minutes against the Blazers.
So why isn't Turiaf playing more, and even being used more consistently as a starter, given the success of the team? Here are some possible reasons:
* Preference For Amare at Center and Small Lineups: This is the explanation most commonly given by the coaching staff -- that the team is more effective when Amare plays center surrounded by four shooters. It's hard to argue with the logic here given that this is the seeming essence of D'Antoni's system: a standout pick and roll tandem (Felton-Amare) surrounded by strong spot-up shooters. Turiaf has some underrated skills on the offensive end (more on that later), but outside shooting isn't one of them -- he's taken only 13 shots outside of 10 feet all season. Defenses can play off of him and have Turiaf's man help on Amare, and at times the offense does bog down when Turiaf has the ball.
* Foul Trouble: Turiaf does have a tendency to commit fouls, given his sometimes grabby and gambling tendencies on defense, and the way he goes for shot blocks when a perimeter player has turned the corner on him. His fouls/40 minutes don't stand out among the league at large (60th among all players), but when you remove the big stiff foul-machines plying their trade on various NBA benches - the Seraphins, Scalabrines, Petros and Gadzurics - and hone in on players with at least 15 minutes per game who've played 20+ games, Turiaf is sixth in the league in fouls/40 minutes, behind only Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins, Shaq, Amir Johnson, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
* Periodic Preference for Even Smaller Lineups: The emergence of Shawne Williams has enabled D'Antoni to play some interesting small-ball units where Williams plays center. He's far from great at defending, and as an offensive player he has his limits, but he's had such a hot streak of shooting that it's emboldened the coaches to roll the dice and almost dare defenses to match the Knicks' offense. Sometimes it works (the game at Phoenix was effectively ended with two Williams daggers), sometimes it sort of does (against Orlando, where the Knicks stayed in the game even though they couldn't get a stop), and sometimes it just gets ugly. But more minutes for Williams has meant less minutes for Turiaf in a few notable games.
* Injuries: This has been brought up a couple of times already - Turiaf has a tough time staying healthy. This is an issue that is more out of the coaches' control, though one wonders whether his injury track record makes the coaches more careful with how they allocate minutes. While it seems unlikely the coaches would actually hesitate to play one of their better players for fear of breaking him, given the way they play everyone else 30+ minutes without a second thought (even poor Toney Douglas with zero good shoulders), there's certainly a fear lurking in the back of some people's minds (like mine) that it may be too much to ask of Turiaf to assume too many games with large workloads.
Despite all this, assuming Ronny really is in better health these days, I agree with Kelly Dwyer that he should be playing more, for the following reasons:
* Offense Wouldn't Be Hurt That Much, and Might Improve In Some Areas: Of the 15 games where Turiaf played more than 20 minutes, the Knicks's offensive efficiency was below average in only five of them, in terms of points per 100 possessions, and three of those games were at the start of the season, with Mozgov still getting significant minutes. What the Knicks lose in terms of perimeter shooting, they would gain by having a very good screener, a willing passer of the ball, and someone who is very good off the ball: Synergy has Turiaf 1st in the league in points per possession(PPP) as the Pick and Roll man, and 29th in the league in PPP from cuts off the ball. The pick and roll attack has floundered significantly in recent games, and having Turiaf involved more to diversify the attack could reap significant benefits.
* Defense Would Stabilize/Improve: Turiaf is a defensive player, and he has played a big part in winning games for the Knicks by shutting down players like Blatche and Aldridge in the fourth quarters of tightly contested games. His communication on defense helps his teammates maintain focus, and he also takes a load off Amare, whose interior defense is already suspect and turns dire when he encounters any sort of foul trouble. (Also, Turiaf at center defensively allows Amare to roam for weakside blocks more effectively). Ronny's record is more mixed when he has to go out on perimeter shooters with some quickness, but even there he's not notably worse than his teammates.
* Wing Players Might Benefit From Expanded Rotation: As well as the small ball lineups have done in producing one of the league's best offenses, there's a sense that diminishing returns are kicking in (the Knicks have been very below average on offense in 3 of the last six games), and players like Wilson Chandler look especially fatigued late in games these days. Gallinari is still recovering from his knee sprain and may take a while to get fully back to form. Making Turiaf part of an expanded rotation could yield added benefits in keeping the wings (whose minutes would be reduced slightly, and who wouldn't always be defending bigger players) a bit fresher.
There are clearly trade-offs, and I sense that the coaches remain conflicted on the offense/defense trade-off when it comes to Turiaf. It's been fascinating to observe actually, given how much D'Antoni likes to settle into a rotation by this point of the season. The Knicks are going through a very bad stretch currently, one that's similar to their six game losing streak in November. That dry spell was triggered by Turiaf's absence to a large extent. He's here now, he's healthy, and I hope he gets the chance to play a bigger role in turning things around.
Note: I wrote most of this post before the news came out that Turiaf would be starting tonight's game in place of Wilson Chandler (though I had a hint that Turiaf would return to the starting lineup). It's interesting that Chandler is coming off the bench instead of Gallinari, as Seth points out, but ultimately, I think this is a good move.