The Knicks Are Starting to Look Like A Modern NBA Team
On October 26, prior to the Knicks' NYC showcase to Kevin Durant, it was announced that David Fizdale was overhauling the starting lineup in favor of the team's younger, more promising talent. I was genuinely shocked — I couldn't believe that the organization was actually making the proactive move, one that fans had been clamoring for but never imagined would actually become a reality. It seemed that the Knicks, yes, the Knicks, had a viable and firm vision for the future in place, one centered around youth and development. Over the years, Knicks management has fielded some truly flawed rosters. From the Melo-Stoudemire-Tyson frontcourt to the Rose-Melo-Noah starting lineup, the concept of spacing has often eluded the Knickerbockers. Now, led by Scott Perry and Steve Mills (I guess), they are the youngest team in the league, and the assets that they've collected seem to be headed in the same direction as some of the league's trendiest trends.
Pace and space has taken over the NBA, and after first phasing out traditional big men for shooters, it's now demanding more from just about every player out there. In a league that's shooting more 3-pointers than ever before, it is no longer enough to just be a one-dimensional shooter like Steve Novak. You've gotta be P.J. Tucker, and the value for three-and-D players has never been higher. To keep up with the rapid pace but also gain an edge, length has become massively important. The advantage comes in playing small ball with bigger players, and has made guarding multiple positions a necessity. After years of Knick teams centered around ineffective midrange isolation players, the Knicks seem to be turning the corner: they rank 20th in 3-pointers attempted through 9 games, jacking up nearly 31 a game after being ranked 29th last season with just 23 attempts per. Plus, Fiz has got the kids playing! Damyean Dotson and Frank Ntilikina are second and third on the team in minutes respectively, averaging 30 minutes apiece (Hornacek would have rather watched the Knicks burn than give those two meaningful minutes). After starting Frank at small forward to begin the season, Fizdale has realized that maximizing Ntilikina's value comes from playing him at the point. Aside from the fact that Frank is a natural point guard with point guard instincts, playing him at the 1 gives the team defense a leg up by default. At 6'6", his size has proven to be a problem for guys like D'Angelo Russell, and the fact that his pick and roll defense is already elite means that he's tailor-made to play in a modern, switch-heavy defensive scheme. Feast your eyes on how he handles the following situations:
In both instances, Frank is switched onto a bigger man following a screen. For Durant, it came after an off-ball screen and the footage speaks for itself: Ntilikina shows off his defensive prowess against the best offensive player in the league as he forces him into taking a contested fadeaway two. He displays similar technique against the Pacers by switching onto Myles Turner and uses his length and frame to force a reset pass out of Turner. That play started with a pick and roll between Collison and Turner, and Frank's excellent recovery was the reason that Turner had nothing to do but pass out for a bailout Oladipo jumper.
Frank isn't the only one in the revamped starting lineup who's held his own in mismatches: Noah Vonleh has been spectacular, and perhaps the Knicks' most valuable offseason acquisition. Vonleh was brought in to be the Kyle O'Quinn replacement, however he's proven to have a much more dynamic game than the endearing but slow-footed O'Quinn. Check out the versatility that the 6'9" Indiana product shows on the perimeter when faced with a smaller matchup:
Vonleh doesn't have the freakish length of a Frank or a Mitchell Robinson, but he's shown an ability to stay in front of his man and will usually have the size advantage when put in a mismatch. In the second clip against Russell, we see how effective the Frank-Vonleh combo is at defending the pick and roll, and it's a tandem that opposing teams will have to avoid when running their sets. Playing Vonleh at center will always be a gamble because he's not a rim protector, but as a four that can guard most perimeter players he's a dynamic piece that the Knicks front office deserves credit for snagging.
It's been a while since there's been so much positive stuff to say about a Knicks defense, but what're ya gonna do, times are good. On the other side of the ball things are also looking up, as the Knicks are finally coming around to a concept that is now dominating the NBA: movement. It's being reflected in the league's new freedom of movement rules, which some believe is responsible for this year's scoring spike. The Knicks have cashed in on this trend too, with players like Dotson and Tim Hardaway Jr. creating easy looks through being active on offense. It sounds simple, but just moving after passing is a great way to generate looks. A solid strategy for a young team that's still figuring out its identity on offense is to look at the guys who do it best: Klay Thompson is a master of movement, and when teams have to expend that much energy on guarding one shooter it often means that there's an open man elsewhere. Earlier this year The Ringer detailed how Thompson's unpredictable patterns and smart decision making make him such a tough cover.
"It’s just about making the simple play," Thompson told The Ringer. "Teams are so happy just to jump at me that you just gotta hit that open man and then get to the top of the key and relocate. Early in my career, me and David Lee got a couple of those every game where I would come off his screen and just hit that little dump-down pass and it would lead to a dunk or a layup."
That type of read is something Hardaway has began exploiting this season to emphatic results:
The better Hardaway shoots from three, the more respect opposing teams must pay him, which will in turn open up space for everyone else. He's averaging career highs in 3-point percentage (41%), attempts (9.3), as well as makes (3.8), and it's in the Knicks' best interest to allow Timmy to continue jacking up threes at will. Hardaway's ability as a playmaker overall and in the pick and roll is still pretty raw, as he's an average passer that often suffers from tunnel vision, but by virtue of being the team's number one option he's going to continue to be forced into creating for the Knicks offense, especially when starting alongside more team-oriented players like Frank and Dotson. Luckily for Timmy's pick and roll game however, other young Knicks have flashed elite potential in that category, and the more starts that Fiz gives them the more we get plays like this:
The Knicks are 5th in the league in frequency of pick and rolls that involve the ball handler shooting (21% of possessions), up five points from last year when they were ranked 20th, according to NBA.com. It indicates a newfound dedication to the pick and roll in the Knicks offense as a whole, and with Frank and Robinson there's a duo in place that could be picking and rolling like this for years to come:
Fizdale seems to understand the direction of the league more so than Hornacek did, and realizes that the talent is here for a contender. Despite the encouraging signs however, the Knicks offense is far from complete. The team ranks dead last in cuts, according to NBA.com, and given that the roster is actually a bit thin on 3-point shooters, that is unacceptable. Frank is generally a rather passive player, so in situations when he gives up the rock early he should follow the lead of teammates like Dotson and give the offense more life. Another perk of that thing called length is the ability to use that size on and off the ball. Watch here how Ntilikina absolutely obliterates Caris LeVert with a screen to set up an open Hardaway triple:
Frank could also benefit from more cutting, but there's plenty of time for the 20-year-old to add that and so much more to his repertoire. It's hard to think of the last Knicks team with this much youthful energy and such high potential — I can't even process the thought of these guys sharing the court with fellow aliens Knox and KP. The Knicks organization finally seems ready to hand the keys of the franchise over to the farm, and in due time the Trey Burke's and Enes Kanter's will be completely phased in favor of an actual twenty-first century basketball team. The path to assets and an identity has looked dark at times, but whatever vision Scott Perry had in place for the Knicks is beginning to take shape and like most things in the NBA today, it's happening faster than any of us could have envisioned.