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  • Pushing the Boundaries: How ‘Position-less’ Is Fizdale Willing to Go?

Pushing the Boundaries: How ‘Position-less’ Is Fizdale Willing to Go?

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration

With a new head coach and roster ready to be molded, the Knicks may be on the brink of their own small-ball revolution. Well, if they can fit the pieces together.

The New York Knicks’ hiring of David Fizdale was met with near-universal praise from both casual fans and pundits alike. The appointment of Fizdale, or “Fiz” as his players affectionately refer to him, represents a shift in philosophy in both player relations, and, arguably more importantly, on-court strategy on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

Fizdale is expected to modernize the Knicks’ offense next season, after the team, yet again, finished as one of the top mid-range shooting teams in the league following their 2017–18 campaign. While this could be more of an indictment on the Knicks’ roster filled with the Jarrett Jacks, Michael Beasleys, and Enes Kanters of the world, it was largely due to Hornacek’s unwillingness to bring players out of their comfort zones, and keep in line with the heavy analytical approach employed by the majority of NBA teams today. 

Fiz also mentioned how he wanted his team to place a higher precedence on defense—something the Knicks have struggled with, in essence, for the past 18 years (give or take a few outlier seasons). Fizdale is expected to employ a heavy-switch defensive scheme, something common in today’s pace and space, heavy pick-and-roll era of basketball. Ironically enough, Mike Woodson (who actually gave Fizdale his first coaching job) employed this type of defense during his tenure as the Knicks’ head man, and it resulted in some of the best statistical seasons defensively in recent memory (DPOY Tyson Chandler could have also helped a bit, but still). 

At his introductory presser, Fizdale talked about a change in defensive philosophy and the physical brand of basketball he wants his team to play.

“We’re going to be a team that really plays a pressure, physical style,” Fizdale said. “Get a lot of deflections, try to get a lot of steals, get into the open court, earn the right to go play a more free-flowing, attacking style of offense.”

In order for Fiz to employ a modernized offense and a switch-heavy defense, he will have to utilize a “position-less” approach to his lineups—something he alluded to when asked about Porzingis’ future as a five-man for the Knicks.

Here’s what Fizdale had to say back in May about KP’s prospects as a hybrid four/five man:

“Why limit it? Why put a ceiling on it? Right? I just see so many different ways to use him. Obviously, if you play him at some 5, it’s like that super lineup you always seeing from different teams, I don’t even know how you match up with him from that perspective. But he can play 4. I mean, if you have another space, speed guy at the 4, he might even be able to play just position-less.”

The term “position-less” is something Fizdale borrowed from his former boss, Eric Spoelstra, who utilizes a similarly modern approach to the game. The league’s top two teams: the Warriors and Rockets, also utilize interchangeable lineups, often times with three-to-four traditional “guards” on the floor at the same time.

But just how “position-less” is Fizdale willing to get with this Knicks roster, exactly? Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities we can see next season.

The Modern “Big Man”

Forgive me on all the Rockets and Warriors examples I’ll be referencing ad nauseam, but they’re the top two teams in the league that best exemplify the type of position-less basketball the Knicks can only hope to emulate.

For starters, both teams have a glue guy at the four, or “position-less guy number 4,” if you will. Both teams typically trot out a traditional big man at the five, and have a guy like Draymond Green or P.J. Tucker slotted at the power forward spot. However, in both cases, neither player sees themselves entrenched at those spots for long. And for good measure.

Draymond Green is the poster boy for the modern big man: an athletic defender that can switch on pick-and-roll and disrupt the ball handler on defense, and on offense, a guy that can stretch the floor and make plays for others.

How often last year’s Knicks defended off position

A post shared by The Knicks Wall (@knickswall) on

Tucker, on the other hand, isn’t quite the playmaker Green is (and doesn’t need to be, considering he plays with two guys that can average 10+ assists a night). However, he is a stronger shooter than Green, and quite possibly, even more of a tenacious defender down low than Green, despite only being listed at 6-5. And, like Green, Tucker has the ability to shift to the five in small-ball (or “position-less,” if you will) lineups.

Tucker, who played shooting guard and small forward in college, now plays almost exclusively at the 4 and 4 in Houston. The same goes for Green, also only listed at 6’7″, and plays the majority of his minutes at center.

But do the Knicks have a guy that can play interchangeably between the 4 and 5, with the ability to guard any position at any given moment, while being able to stretch the floor on offense?

According to Fizdale, they do. And his name is Lance Thomas.

Fiz brought up Thomas’ name specifically when asked about the Knicks’ prospects on defense. According to the Knicks’ new head coach, he could be New York’s version of Draymond Green.

“He’s a Swiss Army knife–type of player that can guard multiple positions and you can run offense through him,” Fiz said on WFAN. “I think he can push the ball off the break a lot like Draymond Green plays. Obviously, the thing I’m going to demand from Lance is to play defense like Draymond. And be a guy that’s pushing to be a First Team All-Defender.”

While the Green comparisons are a little bit of a stretch, Thomas’ skill set does feature some qualities that today’s teams look for. On defense, he has a high defensive I.Q. and an ability to switch and guard almost any position. He’s a solid rebounder as well, although he could definitely afford to be a bit more tenacious on the board if he’s going to regularly be playing the four.

Where he differs from Green, however, is his natural playmaking instincts and his ability to put the ball on the floor. His handles are a bit suspect, but, when healthy, he can be a knockdown three-point shooters, especially in the corners. For me, personally, he’s more of a P.J. Tucker than Green, but still valuable, nonetheless. Additionally, when Kristaps Porzingis eventually makes his triumphant return (whether that’s this upcoming season, or next), Thomas can help with some of the blue-collar, physical, lunchpail work that can help Porzingis concentrate on his highlight-reel game—while also giving him more space to operate on offense. He could just be the versatile “big” that the Knicks need.

The Knicks’ Guard Situation Is A Good Problem To Have

Last season, the Knicks entered their campaign with a significant roster problem on their hands: they had a surplus of true centers on their roster, something that didn’t bode well for their lineup flexibility in an up-tempo offense. Joakim Noah, Kyle O’Quinn, Willy Hernangómez, and Enes Kanter are all traditional, throwback big men that don’t necessarily gel with today’s perimeter-centric offense. None of them truly thrive in the pick-and-roll, and none of them are plus shooters. So, the Knicks traded Hernangómez and exiled Noah, but in the process, they found themselves in a similar conundrum after trading for former Nuggets lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay: a guard-heavy roster.

Unlike the center situation, (which could be further rectified with Enes Kanter and O’Quinn opting out), the Knick’s current guard surplus could actually be a good problem to have. At least, in regards to today’s NBA.

The guards currently employed by Knicks include Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee (who may likely be traded this offseason), Ron Baker, and Damyean Dotson. With the exception of, say, Mudiay and Baker, the young stable of guards have the three primary skill sets that most teams today covet: the ability to shoot the three, defend, and handle the ball.

For the Knicks, we could expect to see some three and possibly four-guard lineups, depending on opposing matchups. This is also something we’ve seen from Warriors, who, at times, will have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young at the floor at the same time. The same goes for the Rockets, who try to get Chris Paul, James Harden, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza together as much as possible. Lineups like this, at least defensively, make it easier to guard the pick-and-roll while keeping an eye on flanking three-point shooters. With lineups athletic and disruptive enough to switch on every single pick, it’s difficult for the opposing team to generate good three-point looks, as the defense isn’t (ideally) forced to rotate. And if they are, they have the speed and length to do it.

Additionally, there’s a slew of positives in having four smaller guys on offense, especially alongside a versatile big. This ensures that the team has five legitimate ball handlers and scorers at all times, making it nearly impossible to guard with a traditional lineup. In other words, all five players are doing the same thing at the same time, making each role, essentially, the exact same thing. Again, position-less.

From what we’ve heard from Fiz so far, it seems like he is looking to build the Knicks into something similar. With the plethora of playmaking guards on his team and a versatile defender like Lance Thomas, this is definitely feasible (to some degree).

Let’s start with Emmanuel Mudiay, someone who Fiz has high hopes for.

While Mudiay struggles with a consistent shot and is not known for his defensive chops, he’s still just 22 and David Fizdale has high hopes he can coach up the young guard, considering he has the athleticism and physical tools at 6″5′ to be a two-way talent on both offense and defense. He fits the mold of the type of “position-less” player Fizdale wants in his lineup. Even if he doesn’t develop into a strong shooter, shooting a respectable 35 percent, along with an improved defensive acumen, could make Mudiay an ideal fit in the Knicks’ lineup. However, those are some pretty big ifs. It will certainly be interesting to see if Fizdale can turn the former lottery pick’s career around this upcoming campaign.

There’s also last year’s breakout player, Trey Burke, who figures to shoulder a sizable offensive role with Porzingis still on the mend. Burke showed the ability to score the ball at will last season and is the kind of penetrator teams look for in today’s pace and space game. He shot a career-high 50 percent from the floor last season, and his three-point shot also improved over the last couple of seasons (44 and 36 percent, respectively). Burke stated he’s going to make improving his trey a priority during the offseason, as Fizdale’s offense will, in all likelihood, feature a lot fewer pull-up twos from Burke. Unfortunately, Burke struggles with defense, so it could be possible he only really sees time at the point guard position, due to his lackluster size. And since he doesn’t necessarily fit Fizdale’s model as a two-way, versatile player, he is probably more suited for a sixth man role this season, where he can easily slide into heavy-point guard lineups with Mudiay or Ntilikina…or both.

Now, the next three guys could be vital for the Knicks “position-less” lineup: Tim Hardaway Jr., Damyean Dotson and the aforementioned Frank Ntilikina. They’re three young, versatile players who can fit interchangeably between the 1 and the 3 for the Knicks.

Ntilikina could be the Knicks x-factor in making this whole thing work. He’s shown he can play with the ball, or off of it, and his switchability on defense allows for position (or, position-less) flexibility in various lineups. For example, the Knicks could trot out a bigger lineup of let’s say Mudiay, Ntilikina, Hardaway Jr, Thomas, and whatever center is on the roster at that moment. (Obviously, the Knicks draft also impacts potential lineups, but let’s just go with the known commodities, for now.) Frank could guard the opponent’s best player, whether from the 1 through the 3, or he can just guard the primary ball handler, where he thrives as a pick-and-roll defender. Either way, he’ll most likely find himself guarding a number of different types of players on switches. Good thing, he’s now reportedly listed at 6-6, because there’s a solid chance he’ll be guarding wing players on a pretty consistent basis, given the Knicks’ current roster construct.

And don’t forget Ron Baker, who (expectedly) picked up his player option last week. Baker is a plus defender and an improved playmaker but struggles to shoot from deep. He showed minor improvement in that area last, with a 34 percent stroke, up from the 27 percent he posted his rookie year. While his grit and intangibles could make him a surprise rotational candidate next season, he’s going to have to beat out the better athlete and stronger shooter in Dotson, someone who’s skill set better translates to today’s style.

With the logjam at guard, the Knicks undoubtedly have an imbalanced roster. However, for a team looking for ball handlers, shooters, and versatile defenders, it isn’t necessarily the worst problem in the world. Especially for a team like the Knicks, who are trying to move away from traditional basketball lineups.

How It All Comes Together

When the opposing team goes small, however, that’s where we will really see the whole “position-less” thing really take hold. A big, athletic lineup like Mudiay, Hardaway Jr. Ntilikina, and Thomas could give a lineup up five athletic players 6″5′ and taller, who can shoot, dribble, and defend multiple positions. Again, all players will have, essentially, the same role on offense, which is a function of most of the successful teams in the league.

Ideally, on offense, no particular player should dominate the ball for the majority of the game. Throughout history, some of the most potent offenses have relied on steady ball movement, swift, sideline-to-sideline passing, and intelligent player movement. Having five players that can work interchangeably will only facilitate this proven successful style of play.

While it’s unlikely the Knicks will be competitive next season, there are three factors that will determine the Knicks future success under Fizdale’s new philosophy: their 2018 draft pick, Frank Ntilikina’s offensive development, and Kristaps Porzingis’ rehab from an ACL injury.

As for Frank—an improved skill set is vital to this team’s future success on the court. Like Lance Thomas, Frank will likely have to be a “Swiss Army knife” of sorts—on both offense and defense. He’ll likely get the chance to display his chops as a primary ball handler, and off the ball shooter. On defense, he’ll also probably be tasked with defending the opponent’s best player on a nightly basis—whether that’s a traditional point guard, or off-ball wing. His development on offense will be crucial for his ability to stay on the floor and provide matchup issues on defense with his size and length.

Now Porzingis is obviously the Knicks’ main cog in all of this—regardless of what style of basketball they play. However, this may be our chance to see KP truly flourish in the modern style his game is tailored perfectly for. Gone forever is the Triangle, and any of its remnants, and, alas, we can finally see Porzingis’ guard-like skill set operating in a spaced-out offense. He has the chance to be a true game-changing stretch big man for the team, and, hopefully, with additional strength, he can take advantage of size mismatches in the post when teams inevitably switch on screens. His passing still needs work, but if KP gets the chance to operate in a modernized offense, sans a space-eating big man like Enes Kanter or Kyle O’Quinn on the block, perhaps we will finally get to see the seven-foot Latvian’s true offensive repertoire come to fruition.

On defense, however, he’ll have to work on his lateral quickness, as he will most likely be asked to switch more frequently. This could be troubling, considering he’s 7’3″ and just tore his ACL. But KP did show improvement in that area last season, and displayed some ability to guard in space on switches, in addition to his usually shot-blocking prowess.

While there’s obviously no telling exactly how Fizdale plans to implement his philosophy moving forward, we can speculate based on some of the things he’s said and done thus far.

I’d say, when we see KP back in the lineup, we could possibly see a long, athletic, interchangeable starting lineup, of, say, Frank, Hardaway Jr., (hopefully) a wing like Mikal Bridges, Lance Thomas, and Porzingis. This would adequately space the floor on offense while giving opponents no breathing room on defense with heavy switches and disruptive size. If the Knicks choose to neglect drafting a forward, perhaps we can see something like Mudiay, Hardaway, Ntilikina, Thomas, and Porzingis.

Obviously, anything could happen between now and the end of the next season, but it’s fun to postulate just how “position-less” Fizdale is willing to get with his lineups, nevertheless.

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