How will Kristaps and friends fare in a world without triangles? The answer lies in a wide-open offense.
This is a preview of the Knicks big men for the 2017–18 season. But bear with me. I’ll get to them. Because first, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves how Jeff Hornacek’s newfound control of the offense will shake things up.
First off, we’re heading back to modern times. Hornacek believes in getting shots for his players in a position where they can be the most successful. The head coach on his offensive style this season:
“The biggest thing for us is to put our guys in the best position — if it’s post-ups, if it’s outside shooting 3-pointers. You look at the roster, you look at the players’ strengths and try to build from there.” (via NY Post)
Sounds like basic basketball, right? Well, they’re coming from a system (dare I say the name? Dare me? Yes? You do? THE TRIANGLE!!!) that’s designed to get its players open shots, no matter where their strengths happen to be. And usually, it’s for a long two.
This season features a different philosophy. The end result is that Hornacek’s offense will be a player-friendly offense that focuses on each player’s strengths and getting them the ball where they’re most comfortable to succeed.
Here’s what I mean. The Knicks placed four players in the top 40 of an incredible stat called “Elbow Touches,” which sounds pervy but isn’t. It just highlights where people are getting the ball. One of them (Kristaps) we’d be fine with. That’s getting him the ball where they can be successful. The other two Knicks in the top 40 are Willy Hernangómez and Joakim Noah. Yikes? Yes. Yikes. (The other was ‘Melo, in case you’re wondering. You probably knew that, though).
So to look at this season, let’s roll back four years. Hornacek’s Phoenix teams typically started their offense with a pick-and-roll action, with the aim of getting off a shot in eight seconds or less. Now, the Knicks don’t have Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, or Isaiah Thomas to instigate the offense, but Frank Nkilitina ran the pick-and-roll extensively in Europe, and Ramon Sessions is considered to be a PnR specialist. By who, I don’t know, but that’s his rep. (And yes, we could do better, but it’s who we got).
So, for our big men, and I told you we’d get back to them, expect a large serving of pick-and-rolls with quick shots, ball movement, and off-the-ball action. Also, expect a lot of Porzingis at the 4. The majority of most frequent 5-man lineups during Hornacek’s reign at Phoenix went with a traditional Center.
And that’s helpful, considering we have one power forward and four Centers on this roster. Or, at least, that’s what it looks like from the outside.
Let’s take a peek.
Outlook: This is the year. Everything is falling into place. Fitting his game into a rigid offensive system is gone. Having a flow that is designed to play to his strengths is in. He’s coming off a confident and inspiring effort in the EuroBasket. And the deference to ‘Melo is over. He’s the man. He’s stronger than ever. And there’s a Phil-sized chip on his shoulder. It’s all here for our Unicorn to put it together. Will he?
Yes. A million times yes. We should all be exceptionally excited to see Kristaps in this offense.
We’re finally going to see him doing what we know what he’s destined to do: thrive in the pick-and-roll at the top of the key to instigate the offense. Or slipping the pick to hit a three. And it’s gonna be there for him. When Hornacek coached the Suns, that play is what Channing Frye did to great success with the Suns, and that was Channing frickin’ Frye!
And with nobody else dominating the ball, we’ll see him unlock his potential as a playmaker, just because he will be in control early and often, with a chance to do something with it. It’s an exciting time for him–and for us to watch it happen.
Not all is rosy. The Knicks have the worst backcourt in the league, which doesn’t help a player who depends on them for getting the ball. He’s still a defensive liability, although he was one of the league leaders (behind Robin Lopez, ironically) in another stat named Contested Shots, whatever that means. But I’m picking nits here because I’m a Knicks fan, so how can I not?
Key stat and how to capitalize on it: While playing for Charlotte, one of the most frequent pick-and-roll teams last year, 41.3 percent of Ramon Sessions’ passes went to Frank Kaminsky or Spencer Hawes –two players who are basically pick-and-pop threats. And considering that Porzingis was at his best shooting from three with fewer than two seconds from when he catches the ball (37 percent), we can expect to see a lot of Sessions/Porzingis pick-and-pop from the top of the key, with Ramon feeding Kris for a quick catch-and-shoot three at under eight seconds off the shot clock. And once teams overbite on that, it’s on our Unicorn to make them pay with drives to the hoop. And dunks on their heads. And awkward glares in their directions.
Best case scenario: Hornacek unlocks the big piece to the Porzingis’ puzzle, making him the undisputed star of the team and city. He puts on consistently breathtaking performances that a player of his size has never achieved. For his efforts, he earns his first NBA All-Star nod and third-team All-NBA. And perhaps he dates a stunning 20-year-old Latvian model who ends up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Worst case scenario: He improves slightly while working his way through a bizarre love triangle with Blac Chyna and Arianda Grande.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “Porzingis is using the off-season motivation by Phil Jackson to lift his game to new heights. Whether you agree with the Zen Master’s tactics or not, you have to give him credit. It’s working.”
Outlook: Everyone claims that Kristaps was Phil’s greatest success as President, but he was the pick to make at that time, and the Zen Master was actively trying to trade away from that slot. So I don’t buy that. However, picking up young Willy in the second round (drafted by Philly and traded to NY for future seconds) was an absolute steal that he should get credit for. If Hornacek keeps with playing a traditional lineup, then Hernangómez will surely get a big share of minutes as the anchor in the paint.
He’s an excellent defensive rebounder, which makes him another type of unicorn on this team, especially next to Porzingis, who is shockingly mediocre for someone of his size and athleticism. That’s going to be his biggest responsibility. He also needs to improve his outside shot because he’s going to have opportunities shooting the pick-and-roll for a foul-line jumper.
Key stat and how to capitalize on it: He wound up in the 79th percentile of roll men in the pick-and-roll. So that’s a great sign too. More of that please.
Best case scenario: By vacuuming every errant shot that comes his way on the defensive boards, he further cements his place as the custodian of all the dirty work that frees up Porzingis to do his magic. To commemorate his newfound status, he buys a flat in SoHo that fits his European sensibilities and background.
Worst case scenario: He solidifies the impression that his game is outdated and he can’t protect the rim or perimeter. He also rents a one-bedroom apartment in DUMBO that has a troublesome rat infestation.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “Hernangómez is proving to be a valuable young asset. However, his potential is hurt by not having Phil Jackson around to teach him the finer points of the low-post game.”
Outlook: O.K., we got him. But what do we have, really? This is what we know. He’s an excellent offensive performer with great hands and really nice athleticism. He’s a finisher around the rim and on the break. He’s a ferocious offensive rebounder. And he’s an elite defender.
(I’m just checking to see if you’re still with me!)
He’s an awful defensive big guy. His lateral movement defending the PnR is comical at best. He doesn’t block shots. And he’s slow on his rotations. Other than that, like I said, he’s elite.
How will he team with Porzingis? Well, offensively, I think they’ll mesh extremely well. Kanter needs to be accounted for down low. He’s truly gifted. He’s also another nice option as a roll man, if the Knicks are looking to be deceptive with their pick-and-rolls, flaring Kristaps as a decoy.
It’s just the defense. Supposedly he’s lost weight this offseason, so maybe that helps him move laterally. And it’s not like teaming him up with other defensive marvels will help him.
Key stat and how to capitalize on it: Remember when I said he was an awful defensive big guy? Well, last season, he did much better as a power forward when teamed with Steven Adams. Opponents put up a paltry 12.5 PERagainst him at the 4 last season. And the year before that? They put up an 11.5 PER. So maybe, just maybe, he spends a good amount of time playing PF for this team with Noah (a defensive specialist) at the center. In fact, considering how few power forwards we have, I bet we see this more often than not.
Best case scenario: Just that. He proves his worth as an offensive centerpiece when spelling Kristaps at PF, and his play on the court along with his salary cap hit goes from being a giant gulp to a mid-size gulp followed by a phlegmy cough. His unibrow and mustache become an accessory you can buy as stick-ons in the Knicks Team Store.
Worst case scenario: He plays full-time at Center and completely messes up our defensive rotations, which causes Kristaps to develop bad habits trying to make up for his digressions. And once again, his unibrow and mustache become an accessory you can buy a stick-ons in the Knicks Team Store.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “Kanter’s awful defense was the reason Phil never tried trading with OKC. It goes to show the desperation in this front office that they went there. Phil, wherever you are, please know that Knicks fans turn their lonely eyes to you.”
Outlook: He’s always hurt. He’s in a precipitous decline. He’s coming off a drug suspension. And the NBA he thrived in five years ago doesn’t really exist anymore. Oh, and he’s egregiously overpaid. There’s not much to like here with Joakim, right?
Well, let’s dig in.
If he’s healthy, he can provide some bulk and playmaking to an offense that will suffer from bad guard play. And his defensive genius is still intact to bark directions to the four defenders in front of him. So that’s something, and that’s all valuable in their own ways.
And here’s this: he’s still an elite level boards man, finishing in the top 10 in Rebound Rate, and was second in Offensive Rebounding Rate. In fact, they each spiked from his previous seasons. Could be noise. Or it could just be a migration of his game to focus on what he’s able to do physically.
As with everything and everyone, the biggest question moving forward is how does this player fit with Porzingis? For Noah, it’s as a rebounder, distributor and a vocal leader on the defensive backline. It’s taking care of the subtle small things for ‘Staps to shine. It’s being a locker room mentor. It’s as bulk and force when a shot is missed. It’s using all this savvy to make something positive happen. And it’s making the right pass at the right moment when shorting the pick-and-roll. And, above all, for the love of all things hoops, do not shoot.
Namely, the outlook isn’t bright, but there’s a space and a role for him if all goes right.
But that’s a big if.
Key stat and how to capitalize on it: He shot 49 percent from the field, which was his highest since his 2011–12 campaign. He also shot 43 percent from the free throw line, which was his lowest ever. And any time he shot off the dribble, he was awful. So catch-and-shoot and avoid the foul. Sounds easy, right? Right?
Best case scenario: He stays healthy enough to rebound like a beast, while everything else in his game proves to be a shadow of a shadow of his former self. That works for ten minutes a game and not a second more.
Worst case scenario: He stays somewhat healthy, which means he rebounds back to his normal career rates, while the rest of his game proves to be a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of his former self. That works for ten games a season. Maybe nine.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “Noah provides veteran leadership in each game that shows that the contract the Zen Master gave him was justified–and maybe even a deal!”
Outlook: Hey Kyle. It’s us, Knicks fans. I know we’re a bit temperamental, but here’s the deal. We really like you, and it goes beyond you being from Brooklyn. Your game fits who we are. We get you. And you obviously get us.
So let’s keep that going.
Keep banging the offensive boards. Keep blocking shots. Keep working harder than anyone else on the floor. Stop making ill-advised passes. And in this offense? Just roll to the hoop and put it in. Don’t get cute.
Key stat and how to capitalize on it: Kyle blocked three shots per 36 minutes, which ranked him second behind JaVale McGee and ahead of Rudy Gobert. Keep that going, Kyle. Keep that going. Block those shots.
Best case scenario: He keeps up his rebounding and blocked shot rates, which were both career highs last season. It’d be great if he improved them, but beggars can’t be choosers. In short, he becomes the hometown folk hero we all deserve.
Worst case scenario: Those stats come back down to earth, which is fine, but not newsworthy. And because of those raised expectations, he’s forced to defend himself from online trolls by creating a fake twitter handle named @notkyleoquinniswear.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “Even though everyone is suffering by not playing in the Triangle anymore, O’Quinn’s game has really taken a nosedive. What is Hornacek doing?
Outlook: This is what I remember from his days at Wisconsin: He’s not going to be a star, but he’s comfortable doing the dirty work. He was great as a sophomore, disappointing as a senior. He’s tough. And he’s really smart and opinionated. New Yorkers would love him–if he didn’t call the Big Apple “dirty” before the Sweet Sixteen. Could he gets minutes on this team? Possibly. But he looks Westchester-bound.
Key stat: No Nigel has ever been a Knick. Not one.
Best case scenario: Knicks fans ignore his New York bashing because there’s a hint of Draymond Green in his game (and length), and the faithful recognize the effort in mop-up duty.
Worst case scenario: Because there’s only one Draymond Green, and he continues to be Nigel Hayes, undrafted free agent, Knicks fans don’t recognize him at all.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “Hornacek doesn’t appreciate his value. They don’t know what they have in this kid. He’s better than ‘Melo.”
Outlook: I didn’t watch many Vanderbilt games (correction: I watched no Vanderbilt games), but the internet tells me that he’s a seven footer who can shoot from three. And whenever I hear that, I ask, “Who can he guard?” And it’s usually the same answer: crickets. Well, not literally crickets, I mean, he could easily step on them and end that threat, but metaphorically, the sound of crickets. The point is that if he could guard anyone, he would have been drafted. So he might get some time on this team. Hell, Marshall Plumlee did, so anything is possible.
Key stat: Averaged 7.9 rebounds per 40 minutes in college (per Sports-Reference). For a seven footer. In college. That’s, that’s, that’s not good. And rebounding stats translate to the NBA!
Best case scenario: Because of his deep shooting and underdog story, the name “Luke Kornet” becomes known to every basketball fan in New York City, Novak-style.
Worst case scenario: Because he isn’t ready for the NBA grind, the name “Luke Kornet” becomes known to every cashier at the Stop & Shop near the Westchester Knicks practice facility.
Eventual Charley Rosen blurb: “The Knicks are screwing up this kid, who reminds me of another Luke — Luke [sic] Longley! He could have been good under another regime’s direction.”
Before we go, we need to talk about the rotations, or namely, how will all these pieces play together. Well, that’s gonna be tricky. But consider this to be my best guess, based on last season’s lineups, Hornacek’s previous tendencies and this mishmash of misfit toys.
So here’s how I think they team up, per game:
Per game minutes allotment for tandem
Which adds up to this, per player, per game:
And look, that’s not ideal, but things will tend to work themselves out. Noah’s gonna get hurt (plus he’s suspended to start the season). Those minutes would be distributed to Hernangómez and O’Quinn. The Kanter-at-PF idea might not work with these pieces. And I haven’t even added in any lineups with Kristaps at center, just because I don’t know who to take those minutes from. But that will happen too.
The end result? The Knicks’ bigs are undoubtedly the strength of the team in a league that’s moving away from big man play. Maybe that makes them a unicorn. Or maybe it’s just growing pains from a mismatched roster.
Either way, they’re gonna produce.
—Steve Tornello, columnist