Exploring why the New York Knicks have failed to click in the early season
Let us be honest and say that there is quite a lot wrong with the New York Knicks right now.
A week and a bit into the 2016/17, the Knicks have only won one of their four games. And in their three losses, they have looked pretty awful. The offensive rating of 98.3 is third worst in the league, the defensive rating of 110.2 is fifth worst, the rebounding rate of 47.5 is sixth worst, and their opponent turnover rate of 12.5% is seventh worst. They can't stop the other team when they have the ball, can't force it off them, can't win it back on the boards, and then can't score on their own end.
There are problems with this supposed Super Team, and many of them can be found amongst the playing staff. All over the court, there are playing pieces that are ill-fitting, struggling, or both. This is true first of all of the pieces they acquired this summer. In the backcourt, Courtney Lee is doing usual Courtney Lee things – adequate spotting up from three, decently shooting pull-up twos, defending those much bigger than he to decent effect, being a tertiary ball handler and creating little. He’s not doing much, but he’s a system player waiting for the system to come together around him, so there is little reason to worry. He’ll be fine.
There is, however, plenty of reason to worry about Derrick Rose. The Knicks acquired Rose this summer in an absolute marriage of convenience – the Bulls had to move Rose, everyone knew it, and yet the Knicks were pretty much the only team who needed a front line point guard without a young player already earmarked for the job. However, despite a 16.3 points per game average and the occasional “ooooh!” play at the rim, Rose is struggling. Rose has struggled since his injuries. But Rose does not seem to be struggling because of his injuries. Instead, Rose is struggling because he simply isn’t very good at many aspects of the game.
Last week, we took a look at the Chicago Bulls’ offense. It is crisp, unselfish, balanced, efficient, pacey and fluid. We did not take such a look nor draw such conclusions about the Bulls’ offense last year, because it was absolutely not these things. And while the reasons for such a transformation on their part go far beyond the departure of Rose, his leaving was certainly a part of it, because Rose’s on-court game is by and large the opposite of those things.
While not a ball-stopper, Rose is often guilty of wasted dribbles. He often dribbles without purpose, without shifting a defense, and is not the half court slasher that he once was. (This is the main thing his injuries robbed him of – he has never had a nuanced handle, with changes of direction and subtle fakes and the like. He never need it; he was just quicker than everyone else. But he needs it more now.) When he drives, he drives only to score, and while that significant limitation makes himself look pretty good, it inhibits a team’s offense if the passing angles created by a quick slasher such as Rose are not exploited. He has never demonstrated this ability.
It is not just when on the drive, either. Rose’s playmaking game is limited in general. He does move the ball which, can’t hit a roll man to save his life, and while not being selfish, his passes rarely lead to assists. Partly because he hasn’t the best passing vision, and partly because he doesn’t throw his passes to players in such a way that it leads them into positions to score. They are too often at the knees, or slightly behind them, or somehow sub-optimal.
Rose, then, is not a floor general, and he never was. He also is not a defender or a shooter. His jump shot form – flat, inconsistent and with a slight hitch in it – means he likely never will be a good shooter, and while his early years were highlighted by a really quite incredible pull-up two point jump shot, that has left him now for whatever reason. What made Rose great in his brief period of greatness was not just his serious physical advantages over other players, but his shot making talent within the arc. Rose has never been a three point shooter, has never gotten to the foul line much at all, and thus has always done it from two point range, but it was salvaged by the sheer amount of layups he used to make, often with high degrees of difficulty.
This unique talent has gone now. It went four years ago. The transition game remains, and Rose can still get to the rim with a slither of space. He’s still quick. Yet he is not now as explosive, and thus he is not now the elite finisher he was. He is a good finisher, not a great finisher, and combined with the above, that makes him an inefficient scorer whose game is still built around scoring.
Furthermore, shoehorning a player with such weaknesses into the Triangle offense is a tough ask. The Triangle offense is based around off-ball movement, intricacy, reading-and-reacting, cutting and diving, all the things Rose was never good at. He is not a fundamentally sound player, and never has been. He cannot disguise that now. Rose’s transition play gives the Knicks’s offense an element it lacked before, but he is not particularly good for their half court.
On the plus side, the other big addition from Chicago, Joakim Noah, is absolutely fundamentally sound and good for anyone’s half court. Noah sees the game like few other big men, not just in his passing instincts and vision (a team high 5.5 assists thus far this season, compared to Rose’s 2.5) but in every facet of the game. He rotates with purpose on defence, provides some spacing offensively with his passing (and in transition through his decoy runs, which few other big men do), and of course is always a presence on the glass.
However, for all his brilliance and smarts elsewhere, Noah can no longer make a shot (only 2.0ppg). His driving signature lefty banker shot left him two years ago, as did any above-the-rim game, and he never had a hook shot. Nowadays, though, his ability to make right handed layups and pick-and-pop jump shots (which was never particularly good, but which wasn’t nearly as bad as this) has gone as well. Noah remains a great rebounder, help defender, switch defender and passer, a completely logical fit for the Triangle. But with his ageing, the explosion and foot speed (and thus the frequency of his transition runs) have tailed off some, and thus so has about a third of his effectiveness.
Carmelo Anthony, too, is in decline. Coming up to his 1,000 th NBA game (972 at the time of writing, excluding preseason and All-Star games), Anthony’s mobility and athleticism is starting to go, affecting him both offensively and defensively. All declines are eventually terminal, and Anthony’s has begun. He remains incredibly skilled, remains the Knicks’s best player and remains a great shot maker, but it is increasingly hard to get the looks that he wants.
Behind them, in the first year of a $27 million contract, Lance Thomas has had a bad first week. He has always been offensively unskilled, but the 40% three point shooting from last year gave hope to having some offensive role alongside his defensive versatility. However, he has yet to make a three all year, and nor does he make most of the foot-on-the-line two point jump shots he carelessly keeps taking instead.
At backup point guard, Brandon Jennings is thoroughly unreliable, while up front, the talented Kyle O’Quinn is also struggling, as he cannot seem to stop fouling. Justin Holiday is a bright spot on the wing, but he stands alone as such.
The team’s hope remains in Kristaps Porzingis. Porzinigis is a good player now, and a potentially excellent one in the future. His 14.5ppg is a bright spot in a slow start, and it is by no means a fluke. This is an NBA 20 points per game scorer someday soon. He’s good. Very good.
However, Porzingis is going to need developing to achieve that potential. Hornacek has readily benched Porzingis for defensive reasons, especially late in games, but ultimately Porzingis needs to be taught defense, of how to guard switches, of the right rotations and positions to take. Indeed, the whole team does – for all the offensive talk above, the defensive concerns are bigger. And they come from the coaching staff. Take for example the quote released by ESPN’s Jeff Begley this week:
Courtney Lee says the Knicks should "practice against more game-like situations" rather than practicing against the triangle offense. "We run the triangle, we practice against it a lot. I think we need to practice against pick and rolls, practice against other looks and whatnot and get comfortable with that because tha's what other teams are running."
This is madness. The Knicks are unique in the current NBA in being the only team to run a substantial amount of the Triangle offense, and while there is plenty of valid discussion as to whether this is a good decision or an offense with any value, such discussion need not have to arrive at a conclusion for the word "unique" to be the only one that truly matters here. Only the Knicks run the Triangle. Which means no one else is doing it. Which, self- evidently, means YOU DON'T NEED TO PLAN AGAINST IT. You won’t need it.
At best, by learning to guard your own offense, you learn how to expose your own weaknesses. At worst, you waste practice time on drills and schemes that don't need learning. Due to all the plane flights, there is very little practice time in the midst of an NBA season. What little there is must be used optimally. Lee, never one to rock the boat, is being tactful in saying the above in the way that he said it. It is, if true, ludicrous. You absolutely should practice defending against pick-and- rolls. You haven’t got time for much else.
Therein lies the biggest concern with New York. The playing pieces are struggling, but they are always in flux anyway – New York’s opening day roster will surely not be the same as the one that ends the season. Above them, however, lies the entrenched belief in the Triangle offence. The Triangle is not in itself the problem; the implementation of it is.
The Triangle Offense is here to stay for as long as Phil Jackson is, and Jeff Hornacek has been brought in to facilitate it, just as was Derek Fisher was before him. But to do so, Hornacek will have to fit square pegs into round holes.
He will have to fit various pieces (Rose especially) into the offense that relies upon skills not everyone has, and he will have to instil defensive schemes and principles that may be at odds with those of his own franchise.
They aren’t doing that, though. And it is very much a “they” situation, because while NBA franchises have a clearly defined line between front office executives and coaches – note to wannabe executives out there; don’t go dispensing any coaching advice, and practice is sacred; you aren’t welcome – Jackson doesn’t do it like that.
There is hope here still, most of it in the form of Porzingis. As he goes, so shall the Knicks. But that includes defensively, and the benchings of Porzingis rather prove the point. There is no cohesion on defense, poor rotations, a lack of schemes and insufficient personnel to do it (which point guard is going to provide ball pressure?).All the roster turnover rather handicaps internal development, and with a president violating the inviolable line between his role and coaching, there are a lot of voices not saying the right things.
Melo is a trooper as ever, but his best years have been mishandled, and with he and Noah both into their 30s, their declines as players are regrettably underway. To turn it around, Hornacek must instil a defense ranking much nearer to 10 th best than 30 th . But to do so means practicing pick-and- roll traps, not automatically benching the brightest light.