Big men create big troubles. In the simplest description: the Knicks have a logjam at the center position.
As Kristaps Porzingis inches toward his prime, the foremost priority is to pair him with peers who complement his interior defense without stifling his mid-range output. It’s not very often that teams have a frontcourt tandem that can coexist for years without stepping on each other’s toes–literally.
In the modern era, we’ve been able to witness the brilliance of Timmy and The Admiral, Shaq and Horace Grant, and the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. Those duos tormented opponents series after series. However, an underrated reason why those teams were able to be consistently competitive was the way big men made the difference in swinging pivotal games. As important as guard play is today, knowing how to manage your roster’s bigs is what ultimately defines a coach’s close wins and losses.
Last season, Jeff Hornacek seemed to struggle to find a groove for distributing minutes among the centers, particularly in the games where the Knicks were without KP. To give the illusion that tanking wasn’t a thing, Hornacek favored Kyle O’Quinn, who was almost always first off the bench in the rotation. While O’Quinn is a serviceable defender, he shouldn’t be in a time-share with the Knicks’ second-best rim protector this time around.
Willy Hernangómez is going to be good for a long time. One of us here at TKW believes he has all the makings of a Marc Gasol. I think he’s more in the Tiago Splitter/Mehmet Okur vein. Neither are anything to scoff at, especially when the league is trending away from stout centers. Hernangómez was grossly under-utilized last season. By the time he was deployed as a starter, it was too late. Willy is too talented to merely be the last resort.
Pairing KP and Willy in the frontcourt helps with spacing and ball movement. They run the high pick-and-roll perfectly. Because they know each other so well, the anticipation they have off-ball is something you can’t teach in open runs. With KP at the helm of this offense, it’s imperative that Hornacek leans on this brotherhood to give the Knicks an advantage on the court.
Additionally, Willy has the body type that stands out as an iron curtain in the paint. He has the physicality that KP lacks in terms of playing bullyball down on the block. Willy is the attack you need against Anthony Davis, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, and every other big guy who doesn’t shoot volume threes in the league. We’ve seen KP get into foul trouble out of frustration from going mano a mano with more physically gifted players. Preserving KP for 40 minutes per game means giving Willy more opportunities for 22-25 minutes on the floor. His defensive presence will not only absorb that contact but also help curb the hemorrhaging of up-and-under buckets.
Let me go back to Kyle O’Quinn. I like the guy. In my opinion, he’s the Knicks’ “cleaner.” Part of why Hornacek preferred him to Willy for a chunk of last season is because of the former’s ability to block shots and his resolute demeanor to shoot in solid situations.
In his second season as a Knick, O’Quinn finished the season with a career-high from the floor at a robust 52 percent. Along with high percentage looks, he finished with a career-high average in rebounds as well. He generally contributes in small ways defensively. The Knicks seem to love what he brings. If nothing else, O’Quinn’s energy should be enough to help infuse some life into Hornacek’s second unit. He also provides good productivity in limited minutes: in 15.6 minutes per game last season, O’Quinn contributed a 3.7 Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), 1.8 Defensive Win Shares (DWS), and an eyebrow-raising 20.5 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), via Basketball-Reference.
New ‘Bocker Enes Kanter, on paper at least, seems like a great fit for this offense. A big man who can shoot and run pick-and-roll? We got you, mijo! Having averaged 14 points in 21 minutes per game last season for Oklahoma City, I’m warm to the idea of KP moving to the 4 sometimes with Kanter in the middle. Kanter spent 74 percent of his playing time at the center last year and based on viewing some of his film, that’s going to create a lot of open looks on the perimeter and the baseline.
The question is, how long will Hornacek play them together and in turn give up points in the paint? Despite his size, Kanter is no Boogie Cousins. For as decent as he is at getting to the cup, he’s not known for blocking shots or disrupting the passing lane. Compared to his points in the paint (9.8), Kanter gives up more than double that, per NBA.com/stats. Additionally, he is coming from playing with guards who are excellent passers (Westbrook) to an unknown rookie. 50 percent of his field goals last season were assisted. His offense could take a step back if Frank Ntilikina is starting.
At age 25 with an $18 million paycheck coming his way this year, you’re not going to be able to change his game too much. In my opinion, Kanter is the perfect sixth man who is a stretch four. Therefore, it’s a mistake to play him and KP together for long periods when the goal is to be a more defensive-minded team. This point brings us finally to Joakim Noah.
The Knicks aren’t short on buckets. Even with ‘Melo gone, this is a roster that’ll likely put up 100+ points per game for the 2017–18 season. They finished 26th in defensive rating last season, and I can’t help but attribute some of that to not having Noah.
There are 54 million reasons to despise Noah. Put that aside for a second. He is necessary for an offense that has too many bodies that can shoot and not enough that can consistently defend. As crazy as it sounds, Noah not being able to shoot is his strength. With KP as the leader now, you’re going to need a veteran to step in Carmelo Anthony’s role as a buffer with the media. As long as he’s playing and relatively healthy, Noah is that vocal leader. Lastly, I stick by what I wrote last year: Noah is the mentor KP needs in order to correct his bad habits in man-to-man defense and show him better techniques to make that next step towards being an elite defender.
“Too many big men” is a good problem to have as a coach. Hornacek has the talent to toy with when it comes to matchups. He can try to out-shoot teams by plugging in KP and Kanter or he can get gritty and start KP and Noah with Willy first up off the bench. When you have this many big men, someone is going to be the odd man out. Fortunately, though, the Knicks are in a position to get creative. At worst, Hornacek’s innovation with this group cultivates value for one of them to be able to win a trade.
— James Woodruff, staff writer