Yes, the Knicks lost to the champion Warriors. However, David Fizdale’s starting unit gamble proved valuing two-way players over one-dimensional dinosaurs is the most competitive measure.
I’d say David Fizdale’s surprising starting lineup overhaul was a roaring success, all things considered. Not only has the Knicks head coach proved himself to be charming, transparent, and reputable in his short tenure in New York so far, but now—with this, his first big decision—he’s proven himself to be outright ballsy, too. Benching the veteran trio of Trey Burke, Lance Thomas, and Enes Kanter for the young-gun group of Damyean Dotson, Noah Vonleh, and Mitchell Robinson can help the Knicks down the road by fast-tracking these kids’ development, but also this season by giving the Knicks a more complete and competitive starting group.
Let’s start with the subtractions—Burke, Thomas, and Kanter—all of whom were unceremoniously yanked from the lineup for the same basic reason: they are all fatally one dimensional, one-way, players. Kanter is defensively impotent and offensively outdated (although, in certain matchups, undeniably effective). Burke is okay at best defensively and a streaky scorer on the other end. But he specializes in inefficient mid-range shots that he generates in a dribble-heavy style which suffocates any semblance of offensive flow.
The bottom line is that both guys are good at getting bad shots (shots defenses want them to take), don’t make their teammates better (due to the realities of their offensive styles than any selfish dispositions, admittedly), and are blah-to-diabolical defenders. The combination of the two accentuates the weaknesses each player possesses. Heavy minutes together gives the Knicks an offense and a defense that probably tops out at league average.
Lance Thomas has the opposite problem. He’s a valuable, switchy defender but is offensively anemic. To say he has struggled shooting the ball would be an understatement, with the veteran burping up an impressively bricky 26 percent from the floor through six games. When he’s shooting this badly, he has to be playing some seriously impactful defense to be a part of the Knicks’ best five-man lineup.
Fizdale saw all this, and to his credit, shuffled the deck. Reputations, dates of birth, and (some would say) empty box score stats be damned. It didn’t matter to Fiz that the Knicks were playing the Golden State Warriors, the best basketball team of all time, on Friday night. And, surprisingly, it didn’t matter to the neophytes either.
Holdover—but positionally re-deployed (!)—starters Frank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr. lined up at point guard and shooting guard respectively. I could stop here, with this beautiful #MyPointGuard-centric sentence, and leave 99 percent of the Knicks fans that read this nodding in approval, by the way (if you find yourself in that lonely 1 percent, kindly take yourself over to the nearest mirror and have a long, hard, look at yourself. Thanks.). We don’t put our French Princes in boxes here at The Knicks Wall.
Defensively, the new starting lineup looked much sharper, athletic, and collectively-capable of competing. Frank at the one, guarding on-ball, is the best use of his length and instincts. Dotson spent non-disastrous possessions on Kevin Durant, which isn’t easy to do, and played his now-normal active, engaged, and energetic brand of D. Hardaway Jr. continued his encouragingly respectable, and suspiciously out of character, defensive effort. Vonleh and Robinson were solid on the front line, using their athleticism to disruptive ends, as per the Fizdale philosophy, and admirably holding their own when they were caught on switches.
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 27, 2018
This is the starting point of a good NBA defense. The absence of an obvious target to attack. A group of athletes, no-one shorter than 6-foot-6, who can switch and scramble when necessary. This is the type of lineup that suits Fizdale and his aggressive, turnover hunting, disruptive defense. Slot Kevin Knox in when he returns from injury for Vonleh, and you still don’t lose any length.
While the defensive gains of removing “Can’t Play” Kanter and the diminutive Burke were pretty obvious, the offensive comfort and cohesion of the new look starters was unexpected. For all of their flaws, Kanter and Burke do get buckets. The offense in their absence didn’t skip a beat, however. In fact, it added beats. Players moved more. The ball moved more. Instead of isolation, the Knicks ran a lot of simple but effective action.
This action was based around the dual-wing threat of Hardaway and Dotson. Both being able to shoot from three, and both being able to attack closeouts. Both guys are what NBA coaches crave in today’s NBA, the ability to shoot—and thus play off the ball—as well as the ball-handling skills to decisively attack the basket when the defense is forced to protect the perimeter—because they can shoot.
Typically the offense against Golden State revolved around the two bigs—Vonleh and Robinson—setting a double pin-down for Hardaway, who will either catch and shoot (usually this option), drive, immediately swing the ball towards the weak side, or start a two-man game with one of the bigs who just screened for him off the ball. Dotson can interchange with Hardaway as the recipient of the pin-down, as can Ntilikina, to a lesser extent. But crucially, the wing on the weak side not involved in the action, and the initiator (usually but not necessarily Frank) is a threat to shoot, and keeps the defense honest.
OH MY GOD FRANK OHHHHH pic.twitter.com/MyBIagYacV
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 27, 2018
Scattered in among this basic offensive architecture will be opportunistic post-ups for Vonleh on mismatches, double high screens for Ntilikina, and lob or duck-in plays for Robinson. Regularly, Fizdale had Robinson in mind on after timeout plays to keep the rookie involved beyond an unglamorous revolving duty of screening, re-screening, and rebounding.
Vonleh’s versatility in the lineup is something to keep an eye on. He’s had success playing with the bench unit as a center, but in this new starting lineup is the nominal power forward, where he’s mostly underwhelmed as an NBA player so far. For now, he can dribble and shoot just enough to survive in this role, but his raw tools are intriguing. There is untapped playmaking potential with Vonleh. Somewhere inside that block of marble masquerading as a body is a player who can dribble, pass, shoot, post, protect the rim, and switch—all at an average or above average level.
Dotson, Hardaway, and Frank combined are launching 20 threes per game this season, compared to the Knicks’ 23 attempts per game last season as a team. This is the fulcrum of the offense: spacing, lots of threes, and smart action designed to make up for the fact that there is no natural offensive alpha dog on this roster. Developmentally, the offense allows all five guys to stretch themselves as NBA players.
Frank as a point guard is empowered to run the show, shoot in the flow of the offense, and make use of his natural ability and willingness to facilitate for his wings. Dotson just needs minutes, and we’ll get to evaluate exactly what the limits of his 3-and-D archetype are—are we talking E’Twaun Moore solid or prime Wes Matthews solid? Hardaway Jr. has a very green light—a dangerous yet necessary light. Vonleh’s versatility threshold will be tested in all areas of the game. And Robinson, well, if he can stay on the floor, he’ll have value just by inhabiting that preposterously long-limbed upper body.
Thank you, David Fizdale. This will be fun.