The Sixers have tanked and processed, making the playoffs last year while sweeping their season series with the Knicks. How can New York slow down the process?
The New York Knicks’ division rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, are set to be a playoff-bound team for the foreseeable future while the Knicks’ destiny remains in shaky hands. Although the two franchises’ windows for success are greatly contrasting, one quality they share is embracing position-less basketball. Starting lineups for both teams are still unknown, but no matter what the Sixers do, the biggest issues the Knicks face are two-fold: deterring perpetual triple-double threat Ben Simmons and stifling All-Star Joel Embiid. How can the Knicks hold their own against a top offense in the league?
How to Stop Ben Simmons
When it comes to matchups on either side of the ball, Ben Simmons is a menace. The 6-foot-10 point-forward terrorized the league last season, becoming noticeably better as the season wore on. Everything points to the same happening this season. David Fizdale will have to get creative when facing off against the reigning Rookie of the Year. If he chooses to lean on a traditional lineup with a point guard defending Simmons, New York’s head coach will have no choice but to entrust Frank Ntilikina with the task. Ntilikina, a second-year player himself, bulked up over the offseason and will need every ounce of muscle to stop Simmons from penetrating in the paint. It’s worth noting that forward Lance Thomas was tasked with defending Simmons last season. Whomever Fizdale chooses to start at the 4—at least against Philly—should have a very detailed method of defending Ben Simmons, because anything less will leave the ‘Bockers burned.
Ben Simmons completely fools Michael Beasley, Knicks: pic.twitter.com/uN6b8h0Tyw
— Reid Goldsmith (@reidgoldsmith) March 28, 2018
Ben Simmons took a total of 11 three-pointers last season. He made zero. Stretching his defender out to the three-point line is a fool’s errand. He’ll either muscle his way inside or blow past the defense. Simmons is practically harmless until he gets near the high post. And it’s there that Ntilikina can truly exploit Simmons’ most obvious weakness: the boy would rather die than shoot a jump shot.
Simmons only makes 31 percent of jump shots, per Basketball-Reference. His numbers from three feet out to the three-point line aren’t very promising either, which is good news for Ntilikina & Co. The key to containing Simmons may not be sophisticated when given a hard look. Simmons’ passing is just as deadly as his ability to drive, so a long-armed defender camped out near the pinch post will keep him at bay. As long as the French Prince can keep his draftmate from backing him down all the way into the paint, the Knicks stand a chance at neutralizing Simmons.
Teams often make the mistake of utilizing help defense from the wing when Simmons gets too deep into the paint. It’s a similar defensive strategy teams use when defending LeBron James. The 76ers have effective three-point shooters in Robert Covington, J.J. Redick, and Dario Saric. If necessary, help should typically come from the weak side big covering Joel Embiid or Amir Johnson. Embiid is an exceptional scorer on the inside, but if Simmons is smothered there won’t be a pass to make. Granted, this gives Embiid a higher chance for an offensive rebound, but it’s not a strategy to be used every time Simmons gets near the paint. He’s still not automatic, so the Knicks shouldn’t treat him like it.
However, the 76ers’ other key player is.
Slowing Down Joel Embiid
Enes Kanter and the other New York bigs will have their work cut out for them this season when they play Philly—there’s no other way to put it. Joel Embiid is a killer and he knows it. He was the runner up for Defensive Player of the Year and is a consummate scorer, although his three-point shooting is lacking in efficiency (you can’t have everything). He gets the shots he wants when he wants them, but therein may lie the key to stopping him: slowing him down.
Brad Stevens, the braintrust behind the Boston Celtics success, drew up a masterful game plan to limit the big man last season. Aron Baynes, a middling undersized big man, proved to be his foil. Much like how Gregg Popovich unlocked Boris Diaw’s potential, Stevens used his strengths to undermine Embiid; he tired him out.
First, the Knicks’ centers need to deny Embiid a position down low. Kanter is a strong fellow, albeit not very mobile. Embiid has the ball-handling skills and the footwork to back down his opponents, but forcing him to back down a 245-pound Kanter is surely tiring. He may get his way the first couple times, but if Enes can stay aggressive and keep him from turning the corner, The Process will falter.
It’s similar to the way boxers tire out their opponent. Think Rocky, or for a more realistic comparison, think Floyd Mayweather. Your opponent can start off as hot as they want—they’re the superior athlete, but they can’t keep it up for forever. At some point, tenacious, unrelenting physicality forces them into sloppiness. The 76ers-Celtics series only went to five games, but the stats are telling—Embiid shot 44.1 percent and averaged 2.8 turnovers with Baynes and Al Horford, an All-Defensive team honoree last season, making Joel fight for every point in the series. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but when Embiid isn’t challenged properly, he puts on an offensive clinic.
While Kanter is physically equipped, his understudy will still be finding his bearings in the NBA. Mitchell Robinson has the length and instincts to be a great defender eventually, but he doesn’t appear to be nearly as strong as Embiid. What he lacks in strength, Robinson can make up for in energy. Part of Baynes’ strategy was forcing Embiid to fight for position in the low post, which Mitchell may have trouble doing. On offensive possessions, Mitchell can wear out the big man by being active. No one is sure if Mitchell’s shot is real, but his athleticism sure as hell is.
A seven-footer, Mitchell can run the floor and get open looks. He is still an enigma to the NBA; no real scouting report exists for Mitchell yet, so his shooting ability will be evaluated by opposing teams during the regular season. Banking on that isn’t a surefire way to keep Embiid expending energy, but being active offensively with motion is a great way to keep him out of the paint and focused on his man. That’ll allow any of the slashers (Burke, Ntilikina, Hezonja, Knox) a fair one-on-one shot at the rim on occasion.
On offense, Kanter is still damn good around the basket. Even with Embiid lurking, Kanter managed to average 19.8 points and 14.8 rebounds on 51 percent shooting in their four-game series (via Basketball-Reference). The goal for Kanter and Robinson on offense is to tire out Embiid and at least match what he manages to post. In essence, stifling The Process is what Fizdale should focus on when playing the 76ers.
With two of the five players on the court busy thwarting Embiid and Simmons, the rest of the team will have their hands full with a wealth of capable role players.
The Fultz and Redick Factor
The shooting guard or the 2 for Philly isn’t completely clear either. J.J. Redick, their go-to three-point sharpshooter, is no slouch, and the addition of the enigmatic Markelle Fultz raises unique concerns.
Fizdale plans on using Tim Hardaway Jr. as a shooting guard this season, which is his optimal role. His defensive acumen needs work, but he’s athletic enough to work well in a scheme that has him playing man-to-man.
Redick, at 6-foot-4, is a bit undersized even in today’s “small-ball” NBA, so his big-bodied teammates setting screens were essential to him averaging 17.1 points per game last season. He’ll need to be wary of Saric, Embiid, and Robert Covington forming walls that he’ll run into.
On the other side of the ball, THJ may be able to gain the upper hand due to his greater size and physical ability. He averaged 9.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in three games against the 76ers last season, a mediocre statistical profile. The advanced stats get even uglier—an Offensive Rating of 73 and a Defensive Rating of 117 (per Basketball-Reference). That’s a perfect example of how unplayable he can be. Ideally, Lee, the superior defender, would take the court while Redick plays. Lee doesn’t wow anyone, but he’s the obvious first choice to stifle the Sixers’ veteran shooting guard.
Redick’s alternate, Markelle Fultz, may be much less of a problem for Hardaway. He’s a natural athlete with basketball instincts, but without his jump shot, Fultz is impotent on offense. In the 14 games he played last season, Fultz took one three-pointer. As far as anyone knows, he’s just as scared of three-point shots as Simmons. Therefore, the Knicks could take advantage of him just like the 76ers’ lead ball handler. Giving Fultz space when he gets on the perimeter or goes under screens dares Fultz to take a shot they know he won’t. A natural basketball mind, the sophomore guard does have his passing and rebounding, but his lack of pure offense leaves the 76ers shorthanded.
On the other side of the ball, Fultz can still give Hardaway problems. His chasedown block against Melbourne this preseason suggests he can still be a two-way threat his time at the University of Washington pointed to:
Markelle Fultz with the nasty chase-down block!
The 2017 #1 pick finished with 14 PTS, 4 AST, 2 STL, 2 BLK in 23 MINS. pic.twitter.com/EiMC8LjDoa
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) September 29, 2018
Last season, THJ posted a piss poor 31.7 percent three-point field goal percentage. As one of New York’s premier shooters, he can’t have a year like that again. While it isn’t his forte, and probably never will be, if THJ can push that back up to a respectable 35 percent, it will allow for improved spacing on the perimeter. The mid-range game will be scaled back this season, even though it was Timmy’s favorite spot last year. Refining his game to better inside shots and consistent outside shooting would do wonders for the Knicks on offense. THJ’s scoring load will be notably greater with Kristaps Porzingis still out, giving him the opportunity to showcase what those offseason workout videos were all about (except for the one where 16-year-old Zaire Wade torched him).
This is where the Knicks need to edge out their rival. Robert Covington is the quintessential 3-and-D wing that teams have been raving about for the last couple seasons. He’s a 6’9” small forward who knows his role in head coach Brett Brown’s offense. It took the Sixers some time to get to this point, but RoCo is a Swiss army knife, and this matchup that will serve as the litmus test for both rookie Kevin Knox and former fifth overall pick Mario Hezonja.
A game plan for defending Covington requires looking around him. He’s not exceptionally quick or strong, nor is he a superior ball-handler, but he knows exactly where Simmons needs him to be. Covington is the Robin to Simmons’ Batman (Jason Todd’s Robin—not Dick Grayson or Tim Drake). He takes cues from his teammate like he can read his mind, naturally exploiting sleepy defenders. In the way that a point guard is an extension of the head coach, Covington is an extension of Simmons. Last season, Covington shot 36.9 percent from behind the three-point line and 63.6 percent at the rim (per Basketball-Reference). Good numbers for a role player who specializes in defense, but what jumps out as his greatest weakness is that 90.4 percent of his field goals were assisted on. Watch any highlight video of RoCo and you’ll see how Simmons tallies up so many assists.
It also showcases his great weakness: Covington couldn’t find his own shot if it knocked on his front door. Denying the Tennessee State product with the wingspan of a griffin is tough, but Knox’s 6’11” wingspan and physicality could keep Covington off balance on the three-point line, giving the rookie a chance to edge out the Philly forward.
There’s no easy way to say it, but RoCo is a tough defender. The only thing that’s been Kobe-ish about Hezonja thus far is his shot selection. He had a mini-renaissance near the end of last season, but that doesn’t mean it will translate into Fizdale’s offense. He shot 69.1 percent at the rim last season, and he’ll need every trick in the book if he manages to get there with RoCo hounding him.
Knox showcased his athleticism in Summer League, but scrubs and dubs who aren’t even in the NBA are light years away from RoCo, who made an All-Defensive team for his work last season. Covington has a 7’2” wingspan, so the floater Knox displayed in college won’t be there if he gets to the low block. His best bet is to use his three-point shooting and cutting to the basket.
Dario Saric, a promising young forward from Croatia, is another great compliment to Ben Simmons. He shot 39 percent from three last season and 64.3 percent at the rim. A surprisingly sharp passer, he averaged 2.6 assists last season. As usual, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. He’s not a scrub by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s manageable with the right defender on him.
In this case, Lance Thomas might be the guy. Luke Kornet, KP’s stunt double for this season, may find himself defending Saric, but Thomas should have the most success. Thomas’ most valuable on-court skill is his defense and, although he’s undersized at the power forward spot, Fizdale might have been on to something when he compared him to Draymond Green. Thomas would pride himself on going after the toughest player on offense in the G League. That aggressive mentality will go along way when dealing with a player who, like RoCo, is the guy Simmons dishes to when he can’t drive. Traditional defensive principles are all that’s required when dealing with Saric—he’s not peak Kevin Love. Denying him the three-ball is probably the biggest objective when facing up against him. The man doesn’t have a single post move in his skillset.
It’s difficult to hope Thomas or Kornet can find success on the other side of the ball. Neither have any real capabilities besides decent three-point shooting. The best case scenario would be a wash at the 4 spot. Discipline when it comes to help defense will prevent Saric from draining the open triples that Brett Brown may design for his offense. Trusting their teammates to prevent open looks inside will be imperative if the Knicks hope to come away with a win.
Zhaire Smith’s draft profile will double as a scouting report. Smith wasn’t known for having an exceptional handle or shot in college, but the rookie did showcase a ton of bounce. Most likely, he’ll be defended by members of the guard corps. Smith shot 45 percent from three in his single college season on 1.1 attempts per game, so it remains to be seen if he’s an actual threat from deep. The most obvious advice one can give anyone on the opposing team is to box him out. He will jam on you. His versatility as a defender may be a problem for the Knicks as well. RoCo and Smith on the wing defending Hardaway Jr. and Knox could be troublesome if the offensive sets aren’t creative enough.
An Old Friend
The addition of Wilson Chandler will be interesting for the 76ers, although they’ll miss him for a couple weeks due to a hamstring injury. The former Knick arrived via trade after not adding much to the Denver Nuggets in recent years. It’s a bit sad, but I’m sure cash considerations will do well in Denver. At 31 with his career winding down, Chandler will probably backup Saric and Covington. The Knicks may not have a wealth of shooters, but if Hezonja or Knox find themselves in what may be a mismatch on the wing, they should be given free reign.
When the Knicks finally play the 76ers it could end up being an awful experience for the team in orange and blue. Their young, tenacious core will need to be aggressive and smart against a team so far ahead in development. Fizdale may be clever enough to draw up better strategies than the ones above, and the new guys on the roster might be surprisingly competent once November rolls around.
Success isn’t certain, but a game plan is a start.