David Fizdale will have plenty of options to decide his starting five by October 17th—does he prioritize offense or defense on a team devoid of two-way players?
Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time to consider the potential points-per-possession ramifications of defending a one-five pick-and-roll with Trey Burke and Enes Kanter forty times a night. It’s time to stare at the depth chart—as your face inevitably and involuntarily contorts into a slight grimace—and remember that Courtney Lee is still on the roster, and that he’s possibly one of the Knicks’ five best basketball players. It’s time to channel your inner David Fizdale in a quest to compile the most competitive collective of Knicks.
It’s time to talk about the starting five.
Granted, it’s not the sexiest or most star-studded roster the Knicks have started a season with, but it’s full of intrigue and uncertainty, given the youth of the roster and new head coach David Fizdale’s philosophy that minutes and starting spots are all up for grabs heading into training camp. In the name of culture, accountability, and competition, it appears the best group of five guys will start.
On the surface, this “minutes are earned” approach to playing time distribution could hinder player development in a season where player development is clearly a point of emphasis for a young and inexperienced roster. Fizdale and his staff, however, likely see the minutes-earned rather than minutes-given philosophy as a foundational building block in cultivating a culture of hard work.
This is especially important in a long season that will involve a lot of losing. As the losses pile up, it will be important for Fizdale to be able to engage and galvanize his young group around an organizational identity beyond wins and losses. Anyhow, the best five guys framework makes it easier to dive into who should start on opening night, October 17th, against the Atlanta Hawks.
Looking at the roster, one of the Knicks’ primary problems is a lack of two-way players. Offensively, the best five-man group would be something along the lines of Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kevin Knox, Mario Hezonja, and Enes Kanter. Defensively, however, Frank Ntilikina, Ron Baker (Burgundy!), Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, and Luke Kornet would be the stingiest lineup.
This is a problem. Usually, there’d be some overlap between these two groups, with the best all-around players giving the starting lineup some two-way balance around which specialists can contribute. The lack of Kristaps Porzingis—New York’s best offensive and defensive player—is glaring here, and really highlights how much the Knicks miss the Latvian, who will be sidelined with injury until at least Christmas.
Without KP, Kanter and Hardaway seem like the only locks to start, considering they’re the highest paid (outside of Joakim Noah), and most prolific offensive players. THJ is a gunner and full of potential as a scorer, despite shooting a woeful 32 percent from deep last year, which pegged him as the 12th (yes, 12th) best three-point shooter on the roster last season.
These numbers, the shot selection that underpinned them, and his weaknesses as a distributor aside, the mere idea of THJ as an effective offensive player is realistic given the lack of shot creation elsewhere on the roster. This all but guarantees Timmy and his highly inefficient (but no less fun) shimmy a starting gig. If he’d occasionally decline an opportunity to check his temperature in favor of making the simple pass, that would be a bonus.
SHIMMY HARDAWAY CHECKS IN pic.twitter.com/G684XI7yi6
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 13, 2018
Kanter, similarly, likely has to start because of his offensive production. He gobbles rebounds, finishes around the rim, is a savvy pick-and-roll big, and can score in the post if the offense is in a pinch. If his summer spent shooting threes is even a little bit real, and he can spot up in the corner occasionally, that will be a welcomed addition. Regardless, Hardaway and Kanter will be options 1A and 1B on offense, something which won’t hurt their trade stock as the season progresses. Scott Perry is no doubt acutely aware of this.
Both Timmy and Enes struggle, to varying degrees, defensively. Kanter’s limitations on this side of the ball especially should influence Fizdale’s choice at point guard, a choice that essentially boils down to Burke or Ntilikina—offense or defense. Emmanuel Mudiay, another lost-toy lottery pick on the roster, has neither the offensive skills of Burke nor the defensive skills of Ntilikina—something that showed in his disappointing minutes at the end of last season.
Burke’s offense last season was nothing short of remarkable; he was efficient from all over the floor, especially from the midrange where he was downright elite. He ran the offense well, didn’t turn the ball over, and generally pulled off one of the more jaw-dropping metamorphoses from having one foot out of the league to borderline starting NBA point guard in a span of 12 months. He has earned starting contention.
Questions, however, remain. Does Fizdale want a heavy dose of the midrangers Burke excels at? For that matter, will this midrange excellence regress to a less Nowitzkian-like percentage? And perhaps most importantly, can Burke—an undersized player at the 1—hold up defensively against starting NBA point guards?
This last question is the big one, not so much because of the diminutive Burke’s individual defense, but because of the collective calamity of Kanter and Burke together defending the point of attack and protecting the rim. The Knicks will be obliterated in the pick-and-roll, especially against NBA starters.
Kanter cannot survive out on the perimeter, and so Fizdale will most likely have him drop when defending screens. In drop coverage, Kanter will be zoning the middle of the floor, never too far from the paint, which will protect him from having to cover too much ground too quickly. Drop zone is difficult for the big to master; it’s about angles and space measured in half-steps, and it’s about baiting opposing guards into contested midrange shots while simultaneously protecting the basket.
Kanter will struggle in whichever scheme Fizdale employs, but the drop zone is the lesser of a selection of evils—a conservative scheme that protects the defensively challenged Kanter as much as possible. The problem for Burke is that playing the pick-and-roll this way puts the emphasis on the point guard to disrupt the offensive action.
Look man, Kyrie got the shot to drop but @Enes_Kanter played some damn fine defense here. Good D, better O.
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 22, 2017
While Kanter is dropping back and zoning the paint, the point guard has to fight over the screen, trail the ball-handler, and either contest a shot or execute a split second veer-switch (while trailing the ball handler, reading an imminent dump off to the rolling offensive big and preemptively switching). Burke has neither the athletic tools nor defensive instincts to consistently and effectively do this, but Frank Ntilikina does.
Ultimately, the offensive trio of Burke, THJ, and Kanter just isn’t potent enough to outweigh the carnage the same trio will invite on the other end of the floor. Ntilikina starting at point guard goes some way to tightening up the defense. Outside of pick-and-roll defense, it also provides the opportunity for Fizdale to switch all PnR’s not involving Kanter.
A few players are in the mix for the two remaining forward spots; Hezonja, Knox, Lee, Noah Vonleh, and Thomas. Although Lee is a rare two-way option who’s coming off a quietly efficient year last season, he’s just too small to defend most NBA wings. Playing both Hezonja and Knox is tempting, with the duo providing valuable size and shooting, but neither is a plus-defender, which would leave Ntilikina as the lone competent stopper in the starting lineup.
Picking between Hezonja and Knox is tough, but I’d go with Knox until proven otherwise. The theory of superior athleticism, which hopefully makes him more of a finisher at the rim offensively and a more versatile switch defender on the other end, are two areas that Hezonja struggles in. Plus, you know, Knox has a chance to be a franchise player.
My last starting spot goes to Thomas. As the longest tenured Knick on the roster, he’ll bring some much needed experience to the starting group. More importantly, he’s one of the Knicks’ best defenders at the forward spot, and he’ll be guarding a lot of the NBA’s unguardables. Heavyweights like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Ben Simmons loom large, and that’s just in the Eastern Conference. This New York roster has nobody else to even attempt to hang with these monsters.
At 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, Thomas will be defending the opponent’s best wing threat every night. Surprisingly, he’s only 30 years old, and Fizdale has already talked about seeing untapped potential in the veteran Thomas. He’s shot over 40 percent from three the last three seasons—albeit on low volume—which means at the least he’ll be spacing the floor on offense. It will be fun to see if Fizdale can mine some value from Lance as a small ball four, a la P.J. Tucker during his time in Toronto.
There you have it then: my starting five is Ntilikina, Hardaway, Knox, Thomas, and Kanter. Offensively, the Knicks will run through Timmy and Enes, as well as easing Knox into the mix and seeing what he can do as a primary pick-and-roll ball handler. Defensively, it’s “Operation Hide Kanter” in a conservative deep drop zone, and switching everything else one-through-four, leveraging length and athleticism everywhere outside of Kanter at the center spot.
Roll on to October 17th!