Former team president Phil Jackson publicly embarrassed himself three years ago with a typo tweet criticizing the soon-to-be champion Golden State Warriors. Now, the Knicks can correct themselves with a revamped offense under new head coach David Fizdale.
With the hiring of David Fizdale, the New York Knicks are one step closer to a fully-functioning basketball team and one step farther away from Phil Jackson’s aberration of tenure.
NBA analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs…seriously, how's it goink?
— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) May 10, 2015
It’s been three years since Jackson published that tweet, and it foreshadowed his entire tenure as team president of the franchise. As the team regressed in three-point shooting in favor of big nobodies and a declining Carmelo Anthony, the team’s backslide into irrelevance was expedited with bad roster moves. GM Scott Perry and Coach Fizdale explicitly expressed on court and off court strategy in Tuesday’s press conference. That being said, what are the first steps and the end results of the system Fizdale could put in place? And with which personnel?
Since patience has been the word of the day, maybe it’s time to put some X’s and O’s along with carefully considered analytics to the Knicks’ long-term assets.
According to NBA Stats, the Knicks finished the 2017–18 season ranking 12th in Pace, ranking 17th before Kristaps Porzingis’ late-season injury and 10th after. Obviously, the former, a configuration involving KP, is ideal, but for the time being KP is out of the picture. Therefore, the Knicks are assuming an offense designed for their young guard corps, namely Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke, and Tim Hardaway Jr.
With guards at the center of attention for the foreseeable future, the most obvious way to improve pace is by having the point guard push the ball up court. Burke, the quickest and most reliable of the primary ball handlers, is the exclusive lead guard able to keep a defense on their toes and dismantle them early in the shot clock on a whim. So, starting Burke may make some Knicks fans who still see Ntilikina as the point guard of the future cringe, but if Fizdale is serious about prioritizing speed on offense, the late-season addition may be key to his plans going forward. Ntilikina still would have an important role to play in the starting lineup as a secondary guard. In the aforementioned press conference, Fizdale mentioned, “I want to get up and down the court. I want to share the basketball, I want to attack the paint, but none of that will start without us being a great defensive team.”
That caveat, great defense, is where Ntilikina comes in. Ideally, a starting lineup, in my opinion, would have Burke, Ntilikina, and Hardaway Jr. manning the backcourt. The double lineups, Derrick Rose–Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee–Hardaway Jr., haven’t worked out well for the Knicks in recent years. The pair of Lee and Hardaway was much more fruitful than their defensively disastrous counterparts but still left much to be desired on both ends of the court. However, with the varied skill set between Trey, Frank, and Timmy, the future could be brighter under Fizdale’s leadership.
Simply put, Ntilikina locking down the greatest offensive threat on defense among the three is in the best interest of the team. The former Michigan running mates would then rely on their athleticism and quickness rather than the defensive acumen Ntilikina quickly established as his reputation. A “Deny Ball” mentality among the backcourt on defense could lead to deflections and steals, where the Knicks pitifully ranked 29th in the past season.
A backcourt the Knicks should try to emulate, for example, is the New Orleans Pelicans Rajon Rondo–Jrue Holiday tandem. I know I just said the dual point-guard lineup has been disastrous, but the numbers and the team identity speak volumes. Rondo, a past-his-prime point guard, and Holiday, an underrated guard who can do it all, served up Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in four games when NOLA swept Portland in the first round of the playoffs. These games weren’t anomalies. The team as a whole stifled their opponents three-point field-goal percentage to a 33.5 percent for the duration of their playoff run and 35.5 percent from for the regular season.
If Fizdale can utilize an undersized 1 in Burke instead of an undersized 2 in Jrue, it could lead to more fastbreak opportunities. Last season, the Knicks were second-to-last in steals, and consequently 29th in percent of points from fast break opportunities, and 27th in percentage of points from turnovers.
If Fizdale can get the team to buy into a defense system, Ntilikina’s biggest asset—his on-ball defense—and Burke’s own high velocity offense could lead to plenty of points in transition, easily eclipsing the numbers from this past season. Defense leading to offense is easier than it sounds, but if a modern NBA team can bludgeon their opponents with Rajon Rondo, then the Knicks have hope of developing a competent starting guard corps.
The Knicks’ former president Phil Jackson expressed his disdain for analytics favoring three-point-oriented offenses, but Fizdale agreed to embrace the efficiency-obsessed NBA of the 2010s. By claiming that he won’t limit anyone’s potential, Fizdale could be looking to focus on more than the obvious names going forward.
The starters aren’t the only potential pieces that need development. Damyean Dotson, the Knicks’ second-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, didn’t have much of a rookie season. From the sporadic and often times limited playing time he was given, any hardline declarations about his identity as an NBA player would be either rash or too general. However, if his original modus operandi—being a 3-and-D specialist—is still on the table, it would be worthwhile to utilize his skill set in the most efficient way.
Dotson just turned 24, making him a little late to the party in terms of being an NBA prospect, and his 32.4 percent three-point shooting suggests he won’t last long if he can’t even meet the few expectations that were designated for him. Nevertheless, with a team in development, a minimum cap hit should get a fair shake in their second season, specifically with designed development.
Often times, development becomes a catch-all general term, but it can be deliberately applied. In this case, applying it to a player, namely Dotson, is easy: make him Kyle Korver.
Korver, a peaking 37-year-old playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, had his niche carved out early. He was the prototypical three-point shooting wing, taking over the mantle of Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller at the latest turn of the century. His bag of tricks hasn’t seen drastic change over the course of the career, but as a reliable role player, why would it?
One play the Knicks could take from Korver’s long, prosperous NBA career is his bread and butter, “Floppy.” Admittedly, Floppy might be the “Spider 2 Y Banana” of pro basketball, but it’s not broken, so why fix it? Designed to free a 2 guard by an under-the-basket screen, Floppy could give Dotson the consistent looks from three-point land he needs to get comfortable. And, if he runs the play with Trey and THJ, it would give him the chance to improve his passing—a skill that would be necessary since all three are supposed deep threats. Whether it be catch-and-shoot opportunities or Fizdale and Dotson deciding to use a pass from the terrific Kyle O’Quinn for a backdoor cut, Dotson’s size and skill at the 2 would be excellent for Floppy.
Pick and Fade for Kornet and KP
Another space creating three-point play is the pick and fade between Trey Burke and Kristaps Porzingis, or, his understudy, Luke Kornet. It’s already been suggested that a penetrating point guard uses a collapsing defense to find an open shooter, but to expand on that, the Knicks should maximize efficiency with well-disciplined pick-and-pop action.
Kornet, the only big man on the active big man on the roster with range, is, essentially the Knicks replacement for Porzingis next season. Comparing Kornet to Porzingis is like comparing K-Swiss to Nike (no offense to the Luke-nicorn), but he’s the best offensive substitute in the context of the Latvian’s floor-spacing play style. Kornet attempted 4.0 three-point attempts per game and shot 35.4 percent from three over 20 games for New York, per Basketball-Reference. While those numbers aren’t spectacular, designing pick-and-fade opportunities for Luke is the best shot he has at proving he deserves a spot on the 2018–19 ‘Bockers squad. And remember, the setups aren’t for Kornet, they’re to build a foundation for the other 22 year old seven-foot forward-center on the roster when he returns.
Points in the Paint
After a long season of drama in the frontcourt, the Knicks once again have a dilemma before them. Whether Enes Kanter and/or Kyle O’Quinn choose to opt out of their respective contracts is only the first headache. The Knicks choosing to sign them to lengthy contracts, this upcoming season or the next, would solidify their approach to the center position for years to come. In both instances, though, Fizdale’s proclamation of desiring a fast offense would have interesting ties to one of the Knicks’ previous coaches. If a coach wants to implement a fast, vicious offense, then the Knicks need look no further than Mike D’Antoni’s seven seconds or less.
If O’Quinn and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Joakim Noah are both on the Knicks roster by the time October 2018 rolls around, playing “small ball” will be their biggest adjustment to the Fizdale regime. O’Quinn has become a passable, often times good, midrange shooter for the Knicks.
Further, pace is a principle, quick screen and fades or screen and rolls between O’Quinn and Burke could be the play action the Knicks need to distract from a lack of depth at the forward spot. Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire’s early play clock action with D’Antoni in Phoenix would serve as a great blueprint for what Kyle and one of either Trey or Frank could do.
As for Noah? He should stick with rolling to the paint in those quick scoring scenarios while the defense hasn’t gotten set like the rust on his knees. If early offense doesn’t work out, set plays with slashing guards like Ntilikina and Mudiay could work out well for O’Quinn, an underrated passer with a penchant for sweet dimes. The magic he had with Doug McDermott could be reignited with Frankie or Emmanuel, making Fizdale a miracle worker for the young developing Francophones.
It’s been a long three years since Jackson pushed the button on criticizing a league that was leaving his dinosaur philosophy behind. If Fizdale is as gung-ho about the Knicks propelling into the new millennium as he was about his Grizzlies team, then the young players on multi-year contracts could excel at what they do well and improve at what they don’t—with emphasis placed on developing a functional Fizdale system in New York that incorporates pace and space three-point shooting.