New York’s only two core pieces are 19 and 23 years old, with a third coming in this draft. New York needs to figure out which Warriors-inspired trends are here to stay and whether there’s more than one way to counter them.
Trying to learn anything about how to build a championship caliber roster from the recently concluded NBA Finals is like taking life advice from someone who just won the lottery…
“Well, I get up at precisely 7:15 every morning, and I always put exactly one and a half teaspoons of sugar in my coffee—no more, no less. I don’t respond to emails on an empty stomach, because you might say something you regret. Lastly, I never go to bed angry, because it’s always better to see the sun feeling like the day is brand new and full of possibilities. I also sleep on pillows stuffed with hundred dollar bills—that always helps me wake up feeling refreshed. I also use them as toilet paper to give me a little extra pep in my step.”
Listening to this is about as helpful as an NBA team trying to emulate Golden State or Cleveland.
The chain of events that resulted in the Warriors and Cavaliers finding themselves in four straight Finals is rarer than discovering a golden ticket in a Wonka bar. There is no way to game plan for acquiring four of the best 20 players in the NBA, just as there’s no strategy for ensuring that one of the three best players in the history of the league is born one area code over from where you play your home games. Sometimes, these things just happen.
The bigger question now is how the rest of the league, including the Knicks, continues to react to Golden State’s dominance. Is the right move to zig, as Houston did in constructing a roster built specifically to beat the Warriors? Or is it to zag, and rather than assembling talent with one particular opponent in mind, try instead to figure out what competitive advantages will exist in 2020, 2022, and beyond?
Given that New York’s only two surefire core pieces are 19 and 23 years old, with a third hopefully coming in this draft, New York needs to figure out which Warriors-inspired trends are here to stay and whether there’s more than one way to counter them. The two teams that came up just short of the Finals might be an even better place than Golden State to look for an answer.
Big Men, Big City
Give Daryl Morey this: he gave it a shot. With the Rockets up 3-2, he looked like a genius, but Chris Paul’s hamstring had other ideas. Similarly, had either Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward been around for Boston’s matchup with Cleveland, we might not have seen King James in his eighth straight NBA Finals. The fact that both teams made it so far (and might have made it further were it not for some bad injury luck) is instructive due to the similarities that exist between them, starting with defense.
With the possible exception of the Warriors themselves, no team in the league today switches more on defense than the Rockets and Celtics. Given the success of all three, there is a new sentiment around the league that a team’s defense is only as good as its weakest link or least-switchable cog. The Rockets and Celtics were often comfortable switching everything, while Golden State is happy to work around Steph Curry’s defensive shortcomings thanks to his otherworldly offense. The question is whether there’s any getting around this trend.
With shooting numbers continuing to rise (the league average eFG% 20 years ago was 46.6, 10 years ago it was 50.0, last year it was 51.4, and it reached 52.1 this season), going under picks or trying to fight over them is death, as it gives shooters the split second they need to release. Trapping is another option, which Jason Kidd tried to implement with the Bucks, perhaps the most athletic team in the league. They consistently hemorrhaged points, and before he knew it, he was unemployed. As long as new-age shooters need but a sliver of space to fire off a shot, switching seems like it’s here to stay.
This creates an obvious conundrum for New York and franchise player Kristaps Porzingis. Yes, he’s already one of the game’s best shot blockers, and if he keeps improving, he could be Rudy Gobert on defense. Great, right? Maybe not. When the presumptive Defensive Player of the Year was on the court against the Rockets in the second round of these playoffs, the Jazz gave up 110.5 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would nearly have tied the league-worst Suns. Utah was over five points stingier per 100 possessions when Gobert sat. What gives?
Quin Snyder isn’t stupid. The Jazz head coach was merely playing to Gobert’s strength, which is providing a Gandalf-level “You Shall Not Pass” style deterrent in the paint—something David Fizdale would love to do whenever Kristaps makes his return. Last year with Porzingis in the game, Knicks’ opponents shot 7.8 percent worse at the rim, which was in the 95th percentile for big men across the league according to Cleaning the Glass. Similarly, in the Utah series, Houston shot only 56.1 percent on field goal attempts within five feet thanks to Gobert. That was the lowest of the eight conference semi-finalists—and they still lost in five games. The Rockets bombarded Utah with 36 long-range tries per game, and only needed to hit 36 percent of them—a league-average mark—to get the job done against the second-best defense in the NBA during the regular season. The alternative would have been to switch more, but we just finished seeing where that got Kevin Love and the Cavs. These are not easy choices.
So what does this mean for New York, and more generally, for traditional big men? KP’s length and athleticism puts him a notch above Kevin Love, and he might even be better at moving laterally than Gobert, but as the Knicks (we pray) continue progressing and find themselves in high stakes playoff series, the best teams will put him through the ringer. If only there were a third option, a cheat code of a player who was able to dispense with screens and stick to his man, like prime Tony Allen or Kawhi Leonard. They would have to be big—a solid 6’6” or 6’7” paired with incredibly long arms—with quick hands and fantastic technique that was ingrained from his teenage years. Where ever could the Knicks get such a player. …
Oh, that’s right, they already have him. Phil Jackson’s parting gift to the organization has not only bulked up this offseason, but is apparently still growing. By the time the Knicks are ready to compete, Frank Ntilikina may give them an advantage even rarer than the elite shooters than dominate the game: a defender who you can throw on the opposing team’s best player that will fight through whatever chicanery the offense employs to dislodge him.
Having one such player is great; having two might be a real difference maker. Mikal Bridges is considered the best perimeter defender in this draft and has had Knicks fans (like yours truly) fawning for months. If these playoffs are showing us that elite defensive talent is the next unfair advantage, is he the pick? Maybe, but if the Knicks truly do go for the best player available like they’ve been promising, Bridges might lose out in favor of someone that at first glance is an odd fit.
Wendell Carter Jr. profiles as a bigger Al Horford and is generally regarded as a can’t miss prospect. There’s an obvious problem though: of the most successful teams this postseason, the Warriors and Rockets virtually never played two even semi-traditional big men at the same time, and the Celtics only paired Horford with the Paul Bunyan-esque Aron Baynes when the opponent they were matching up with gave Baynes a safe hiding spot. Against the Cavs, that hiding spot was Tristan Thompson, who, along with Love, formed the most prominently used and most successful big man duo in the playoffs. It helps that Thompson, like Horford, is comfortable switching out on the perimeter. Carter could grow into a player that could do the same.
On the other hand, selecting Carter Jr. would inspire some ugly flashbacks in the minds of Knicks fans (slowly raises hand again from the rear of the classroom) who remember Kristaps Porzingis flailing at corner three-point shooters as he sprinted from the paint. These playoffs showed us that such breakdowns won’t fly, and it’s reasonable to wonder if that would continue with a Porzingis/Carter pairing.
The smart money says it won’t. Porzingis always seemed to be late covering shooters not because he was couldn’t handle his matchups, but because he was cleaning up the mess caused by New York’s putrid pick-and-roll defense at the point of attack. Unlike Jeff Hornacek, who put out perhaps the worst defensive point guard/center combo in the league in Jarrett Jack and Enes Kanter, David Fizdale has functioning eyes and working synapses that process basic human thought. With Ntilikina starting, if the Knicks were to draft Carter Jr. or any other defensively-apt big man, those open corner threes aren’t likely to be as big of an issue. We got a sneak preview of it last season when the underrated Kyle O’Quinn shared the floor with Frank and KP; the Knicks gave up only 95.4 points per 100 possessions during those 133 minutes.
Still, just because two big men might still be able to survive on defense in the modern game, are there benefits to squeezing that square peg into a round hole to begin with? As with any other question, it depends on the personnel, but these playoffs showed us one trend that may be making a comeback that could be useful for a savvy big man.
A few months ago, Ben Falk wrote a fantastic piece about how reports of the post up’s death have been greatly exaggerated. His point was that, yes, the old style of posting up to isolate may be dead, but a new, playmaking post-up style has emerged. He highlighted how the Rockets took a lot of the (trigger warning) Triangle-style post-up stuff the Warriors ran and took it to a new level by inserting various screening and cutting actions. Sure enough, they generated 1.18 points per possession on post ups this postseason, albeit on only 22 plays. The Celtics, on the other hand, ran post ups over 10 percent of the time, and scored a better-than-decent 0.97 points per possession on those plays.
Unsurprisingly, Al Horford was at the center of a lot of that for Boston. How much more dangerous could such sets be for the Knicks with Carter down low and Kristaps Porzingis, the proverbial queen of the chessboard, causing matchup problems elsewhere on the court? One man who’d probably love to find out is the new head coach. Fizdale’s Memphis Grizzlies led the league in post-up possessions in 2016–17. They averaged 0.90 points on those plays—a respectable if unspectacular clip. With KP and Carter in place of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, that number could reach astronomical heights.
The second out-of-vogue trend that double-big lineups could bring out of the cobwebs is a commitment to offensive rebounding, which the league has largely eschewed in recent years. Instead, teams favor getting back on defense to avoid giving up easy transition buckets. It’s interesting to note that the playoff team who plays perhaps the biggest of all—the Philadelphia 76ers—easily led all playoff teams with a 29.1 offensive rebound rate and posted a respectable 1.8 Net Rating for the postseason.
The league-average offensive rebound rate has declined for seven straight seasons and is the lowest it’s been since the NBA started recording the stat. If a market correction is coming, the trend-setting team would need big men who are not only adept on the boards but also agile enough to get back in transition (read: not Enes Kanter). They’d also need interchangeable defenders at the other positions so that if transition opportunities did occur for the opponent, no time is wasted on figuring out who’s guarding who, which brings us back to the wisdom of selecting a Mikal Bridges. My head hurts.
Alas, maybe we’re making this all too complicated. Just like the economy, it’s shooting, stupid.
According to Cleaning the Glass, out of the 16 teams that made it to the playoffs, Houston, Cleveland, Golden State, and Boston took the first, third, fourth, and fifth highest percentage of their shots from deep this postseason, respectively. Interestingly enough, not one of those four teams shot even league average from deep over their playoff runs. Sure, some of that could be attributable to defenses getting better the further you advance (and in the case of Boston and Houston, some truly horrific shooting in elimination games). Still, it’s indicative of the fact that the threat of threes may actually be more powerful than the threes themselves.
It makes sense. When you play one of the better teams, it’s always “we have to stop the three.” In these playoffs, for as much success as opponents may have had in getting the dive bombers to miss more than usual, it didn’t end up working in the long run because other doors were opened up. Golden State finished second among playoff teams in hitting 71.3 percent of their shots at the rim, while Cleveland finished fourth at 68.1 percent. Converting threes wasn’t meaningless, considering that in the 18 Conference Finals and Finals games, only twice did the team that hit fewer threes win the game.
Enter Trae Young, a name that raises alarm bells for many Knicks fans. So much of the action that we saw work this postseason came down to one team finding the weakest opposing defender and targeting them Cyndi Lauper style (Get it? “Time After Time?” You see, she had this song, and it was the 80’s and… you know what, let’s just move on.) If Trae Young had been on the court, he’d might as well have been wearing a bullseye.
Still, the Warriors have won three rings behind a defense featuring Steph Curry. The Cavs did the same with Kyrie Irving. When you have a player who single-handedly bends a defense, you throw them out there and figure out the rest later. Trae Young is not an Isaiah Thomas–sized matchup nightmare. He stands only an inch and a half shorter than Curry and weighs only four pounds less than Steph did when he entered the league. With hard work, he’ll be functional. Whether he’s anything close to as transcendent of a shooter is anyone’s guess, although there’s some thought that we might be judging his so-so college shooting numbers a bit harshly.
In the end, if Young is there, he might be too good to pass up, and that’s to say nothing of Michael Porter Jr.
For all the discussion about trends, styles, and schemes—more than any other professional sports league—talent usually wins out in the NBA. The final four just so happened to feature arguably four of the five best players in basketball (with the fifth, Anthony Davis, vanquished by the eventual champs in the second round). Can you advance pretty damn far without one of the consensus 20 best players in the league, like Boston did sans Kyrie Irving? Sure, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
By all accounts, Porter Jr. may be slipping on draft boards despite being considered by many to be the most talented guy in this class heading into this season. If he’s there at nine, would the Knicks dare let him slide further? This author has unofficially adopted Frank Ntilikina as his son and would donate a kidney to the young man if asked, but even I’d be hard-pressed to argue the Knicks wouldn’t be better off with Donovan Mitchell. Passing on Porter could be far worse. Talent isn’t everything, but without enough of it, nothing else matters.
Talent and Intelligence, Above All, Drive League Trends
It leads us to hardest question of all: what, ultimately, do the Knicks take from these playoffs? Simply that they should only consider players who can both shoot and defend? That they should acquire the best talent at all costs? Or that they should commit to developing a team ethos—something synonymous with Knicks basketball going forward, à la Boston’s toughness, Houston’s versatility, or Golden State’s ball movement?
If they do pick the last option, perhaps the thing Perry and company should hang their hat on is the one tenet of the game we haven’t mentioned yet, but which showed itself more than any other in these playoffs to be a must-have if you want to win: intelligence.
The Warriors, Celtics, and Rockets are probably the three smartest teams in the league. The reason Boston was able to go so far without the best talent was because they never beat themselves. San Antonio has poured the foundation of their dynasty primarily by outwitting their opponents. Then there is LeBron, probably the smartest player in the NBA (unfortunately for him, J.R. Smith is, um, not). Is basketball I.Q. more important than talent? That’s a sliding scale argument the Knicks brass will need to have about each individual prospect and free agent target moving forward. Suffice it to say that the Michael Beasley’s of the world are wonderful for comedic effect and to get you through a down season, but little else.
There are many considerations and many players with different combinations of attributes. None of them are perfect. Golden State just showed everyone what perfection looks like, and while they don’t appear to be easing up any time soon, the next trend always happens before anyone is expecting it. What we do know is that the Warriors are unlikely to be beat at their own game. For the Knicks and everyone else, the key will be figuring out what the rest of the league will be trying to copycat five years from now.