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  • Can the Wing-Heavy Knicks Find Balance on Offense?

Can the Wing-Heavy Knicks Find Balance on Offense?

Photo: via Knicks.com

The ‘Bockers could jump-start their rebuild with unconventional sets on offense—led by a bevy of intriguing options at the wing that completely changes the scheme.

The New York Knicks have had a lot of free press this offseason—and for all the right reasons. Their summer league stint proved fruitless come tournament time, but to anyone who watched orange and blue, the Knickerbockers were the real winners. This year’s draftees, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, were both standouts in Las Vegas, garnering buzz with electrifying moments scoring and otherwise. Lost in the shuffle was Frank Ntilikina’s performance. A project player in his second year, the Frenchman demonstrated more aggressiveness than fans witnessed last year, much to his credit.

Despite being hailed as a “player’s coach,” new head coach David Fizdale with have his hands full making adjustments on the fly in order to foster growth in the inexperienced players, like Knox and Robinson, along with New York’s young core. What opportunities does this immature roster offer on offense?


Ambiguous Personnel

It’s far too early to decide which offensive plays and formations could be staples for the Knicks this season, but the personnel decisions alone leave a lot of questions to be examined. The Ntilikina-Hardaway-Hezonja-Knox-Kanter/Robinson lineups appear to be the most positionally ambiguous on-court possibility. But is this a problem for the Knicks or everyone else?

A four-out, one-in formation would boast four wing-adjacent, perimeter players and one center serving as an anchor on the inside. This could lead to outside-inside action more fluid than the Knicks have seen in years.

Kanter, one of the most offensively-gifted big men could do battle down low uninterrupted for at least a couple of plays each game. As an uninhibited double-double machine, he’ll get his buckets throughout the course of a game. During the 2017–18 season, Kanter shot 68 percent at the rim and 52 percent on hook shots fewer than 10 feet away, per Basketball-Reference. The average field-goal percentage for the NBA last season was 46 percent. If efficiency is where the NBA is headed, getting the ball to Kanter down low is a good start.

Defenses know Kanter can be tough to stop if he gets the ball deep inside the paint, and the Knicks need more of a strategy than “Iso-Kanter.” The best way to get options for their perimeter personnel is to turn to an old friend—the Triangle Offense.

Hear me out! The Knicks’ iterations of the Phil Jackson-mandated Triangle Offense of years past were quintessentially different. Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony were extremely talented basketball players once upon a time, but their rigidity made whatever Triangle sets Hornacek decided to implement abject failures. He himself lacked creativity when it came to the offense and his dual point-guard lineups proved to be a gimmick only worthy of praise in Phoenix.

However, Fizdale’s four-wing lineup could be the stuff of the future. Ntilikina, Hardaway Jr., and Knox are all players who can handle the ball. None of them may be elite ball handlers, per se, but under certain conditions they may not need to be. Knox’s 2.3 assists per game don’t do him justice as the SummerKnicks’ obvious frontman. His catalyst, a little space from a screen, is all that’s necessary for him to lunge his way to the hoop. While he’s not afraid to take a jump shot, his willingness to get to the rim is key for spacing if the Knicks choose their four-wing lineup.

Tim Hardaway Jr., although greatly overshadowed by his father, is an underrated ball handler in his own right. This past season he averaged 2.7 assists, a career best, but nothing out of the ordinary. Although he caught fire in November averaging 19.2 points and 3.5 assists, Timmy never quite found the same stride, even after Porzingis went down. Still, Hardaway can be a reliable scorer and playmaker, especially if he can get in his bag and pull one of these on the go:

One nifty highlight play isn’t indicative of a player being a superior ball handler, but it’s definitely not pointing in the opposite direction.

As for the third? Ntilikina, the only official point guard in the quartet, is serviceable bringing the ball down court even though he has been recently out-shined by Trey Burke. Due to his own shortcomings in the traditional sense of a point guard, it’d be best to refer to Frank as a wing in these situations. You can either pigeonhole Ntilikina as a point guard or embrace position-less basketball—you can’t have both. The fact of the matter is that the former serves no one. After getting over that hard truth, a four-out offense leaves the Knicks with a handful of ways to weaponize their wings.

Having four wings on the court at one time allows the Knicks to innovavote the Triangle instead of being limited by it. The personnel changes, specifically at the forward spot, will allow the Knicks to stretch the floor and the defense. Minutes reserved for Michael Beasley and Lance Thomas are going to be replaced by Kevin Knox and Mario Hezonja. Although neither are proven three point shooters, Fizdale’s best bet at modernizing the offense is to nix the long twos the Triangle once was designed for and extend those plays to the three-point line. With important rotation players new to the roster and a coach in his first year, the Knicks are in the perfect place to build an offense designed for the future.

Fizdale has already suggested bringing the Knicks into the 21st century with quicker basketball. So, the fact that the Lakers go into the play as soon as they hit halfcourt is a perfect example of how fast they may be running these sets. The stagger screens in the paint free up Shannon Brown for a long two, which the Knicks would run out to the three-point line. If the play were flipped with Knox or Hezonja in the pinch post and Kanter on the weak side low post, the scoring options could include a highly efficient hookshot from Kanter, or an open three by whichever catch-and-shoot wing it was designed for. Right now, Ntilikina leads the pack in three-point, catch-and-shoot field goal percentage at 36.1 percent, per NBA Stats. That’s four marks above his total average for three-pointers last season and better than both Hardaway Jr.’s and Hezonja’s catch-and-shoot three-point numbers (via Cleaning the Glass). Since the league average three-point field-goal percentage was 36.2 percent, Ntilikina isn’t too far off from where he needs to be in terms of three point shooting—his shot selection simply needs to be better.

The initial setup for the Triangle also gives them scoring options on the opposite side of the floor. Here, the Warriors use a big to get Curry space for a three among a couple of other shots:

Alternatively, after feigning strong side action, the Knicks could move the ball to Knox on the opposite side with Hezonja or Hardaway as a screener. He may not be as crafty a ball handler as a two-time MVP, but from what he’s shown, open space is where he can break down a defense. Choosing to slash inside, Knox’s long strides could result in a layup, floater, or one of the high-flying dunks he showcased in summer league. That’s all without going over what happens when Porzingis returns as the roll man in those situations.

While it may prove useful, the Triangle Offense shouldn’t be the end all be all of the offense. At it’s best it would be a quick two points or even simply a way to expose mismatches in an ill-equipped defense. Another way to create mismatches in on-court personnel is creatively utilizing the Knicks’ unique strengths. One specific example is putting Ntilikina where few point guards dare to roam.

Ntilikina’s New Moves

Ntilikina evidently struggled from the field last season. The only thing keeping people from saying that he stinks is his stellar defense backed by statistics and the occasional assist. His 38.2 percent field goal percentage should see improvement this season, especially if he subscribes to the three-point advice above, but perhaps his most efficient shot is down low.

During Summer League he showed a couple moves in the post that fans weren’t used to seeing from him:

It’s not everyday you get a little French Post, but it was a welcome surprise. Now standing at 6’6” and bulking up for the NBA’s physicality, Ntilikina might be able to beat small defenders down low if he can fight his way into position on either the low or high block on given possessions. The play above could be an automatic two points if he perfects the move. Even more, a couple of post moves in his arsenal would make Ntilikina a dangerous option in isolation. If he’s indeed the project player Jackson decided he’d be, a seven-foot wingspan that can shoot over guards is a great place to start, even in year two. It needn’t be an offensive set that the Knicks go to, like throwing the ball to Kanter in the paint and letting him go to work, but it could lead to defensive breakdowns due to a quick pass to the three-point line or to an opening for Mitchell or Kanter.

Offensively, the coaching staff has a lot to look forward to if they keep an open mind to who can be on the floor at the same time and what role they’ll play. Basketball is a game of buckets, obviously, but the point of every screen and every pass is to break down the defense and create opportunities. Plays are created and developed to move players to the best place for those opportunities. Triangle action and French Post shouldn’t be the only thing the Knicks have in their bag of tricks, but it’s a good start.

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