by Brendan Campbell
For Knicks fans, little else happening on the night of Thursday, November 14, 2019 mattered. Kristaps Porzingis was set to return. The Garden was packed. The fans were rowdy. When starting lineups were announced and Porzingis’ name was called, the fans let him have it.
The atmosphere was nothing shy of electric. Marcus Morris Sr., who sealed the victory for the Knicks with a smooth step-back three, credited the crowd for making the 7-foot Latvian unicorn play “rattled.” Porzingis finished the game with 20 points and 11 rebounds, shooting 7-17 from the field and 1-5 from three-point land. Amidst the crowds’ boos, belittling snipes at Porzingis, and weirdly appropriate praise for Carmelo Anthony, the Knickerbockers excelled at exposing Porzingis’ inability to post-up smaller guards in switches. This hurt the Mavericks down the stretch and set up Frank Ntilikina to ice the game with a pair of free throws.
The Knicks have swept the season series against Kristaps Porzingis. Again, for the people in the back: THE KNICKS HAVE SWEPT THE SEASON SERIES AGAINST KRISTAPS PORZINGIS. This is important. The fans and the organization got revenge against Porzingis.
It is a fact. Fans will be a call upon this fact no matter how poorly the rest of the season goes. Locals in bars throughout New York City will shout this at unsuspecting out-of-towners. I will be one of the aforementioned shouting, menacing locals. It will be glorious. But where does this team go from here? The boost from beating Porzingis, I think, could act as a turning point for the Knicks’ season. The ball club’s two wins against the Mavs were far from perfect. Despite Thursday’s late game heroics from Julius Randle and Morris Sr., the duo still combined to shoot a bricky 15-37 from the field. Randle had 6 turnovers. This win was big for the team. I’m not sure fans outside the New York City-sphere will ever appreciate what this meant for fans of the 2019-2020 Knicks. For one night, this win was all that mattered. The on-court product, however, still leaves a lot to be desired.
Offensively, there are three ways to improve the Knicks: scheme, shot selection and rotations.
The Knicks need to space the floor better. Randle’s penetration does not yield good shots, and too often yields an ugly post-up, an offensive foul (Randle sometimes acts like he is a human bowling ball, over-zealously throwing his body into defenders who are all too happy to fall down and win possession), other turnovers, or stagnant offense as the shot clock dwindles. Barrett’s drives have been better, despite recent shooting slumps, but seldom result in something other than a contested layup for Barrett (this is a good thing; Barrett’s usage is key to his development and something Coach Fizdale should not waver on). Having Dennis Smith Jr. be a productive, attacking ball-handler like he was against the Mavs helps.Mitchell Robinson is extremely effective on offense when the floor is spaced, and it doesn’t hurt that he is third in the NBA in effective field goal percentage. Frankie Smokes, while providing a spark on defense, still hasn’t fully figured out his confidence issues. Knox has been good spacing the floor, and if he can keep this shooting up, he projects to play an important role this season and beyond. Using Randle as a screen setter who make great plays rolling out of screens is the best way to improve his shot selection and limit his turnovers. Guards need to get better about getting paint touches and circulating the ball after drawing help defenders. This roster is not talented enough to iso its way to anything more than 10 wins.
Shifting schematically away from isolation goes hand-in-hand with improving the teams shot selection. For starters, cut down on long twos. This is as much an eye-test takeaway as it is an analytics takeaway. The offense looks ugly. When the ball stops moving, virtually everyone but RJ and Mitch default into taking contested mid-range shots. While Morris Sr. is a decent mid-range player, no one on this roster is talented enough to consistently get buckets in the mid-range. Spending too much time looking at the Knicks’ mid-range stats on basketball-reference.com will keep you up at night. Some lowlights, (these won’t haunt you tonight, but will replace the need for a late afternoon coffee): Dennis Smith Jr. is 1-11 shooting from in between 10 feet and the 3-point line. He has played in five games. Taj Gibson is attempting 23.3% of his shots from 16 feet to the 3-point line, his highest since the 2011 season. Alternatively, Gibson is shooting 65.2% within 3 feet of the hoop. Fizdale is doing a good job of letting guys play freely on offense, but when the flow of the offense leads to bad shots, changes must be made.
Where Fizdale seems to be lacking is with regards to rotations. A confession: I was less perturbed about the infamous “4 Power Forward signing of 2019” than most. Judge me if you must. It was the first time in YEARS where I felt confident that the Knicks had 10 actual NBA-caliber players rostered (lest we forget John Jenkins had minutes in over 20 Knicks games last year). I am now ready to acknowledge that this sentiment was, in part, off-base. The glut of tall, shaky shooters is obviously a spacing issue, especially when Fiz is playing 3 of the Mitch-Taj-Morris Sr.-Randle-Bobby Portis group at once, but I am not ready to cede that this is unfixable. According to the New York Post, Fiz plans to keep bringing Mitch off the bench to bolster chemistry with DSJ. Robinson obviously projects the best out of this group, due to his athleticism, defense, rim-running, lob-catching, and youth. He should continue to see the floor regularly no matter what. The problem lies with the four new guys. Whether or not you like his game or volatile personality, Morris Sr. sets himself apart with his floor stretching and his ability to get a bucket in a pinch. Randle has been ineffective in his isolation-heavy role. He can either play as center or with one other big on the floor. Ideally, he is setting a screen and rolling into space, where Gibson or Portis is situated in the dunker spot. Essentially, what this comes down to is one of Gibson or Portis falling out of the rotation. It is not an easy decision: Portis can hit corner threes, but Gibson knows his role. Neither projects to be a long-term piece for the organization. One solution: play Portis now, and shop him in a sell-high situation when trade activity picks back up after December 15th. He won’t net much value, but it’s not like the roster as currently constructed needs all the bigs.
Most chatter around the league is that the Knicks are jockeying with Golden State for the worst team in the league. Whether or not this game versus the Mavericks will act as a turning point for the Knicks is almost irrelevant. The team has the pieces and infrastructure to play better than the 20-wins it is currently on pace for.
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