Small ball is taking over the NBA, but the New York Knicks should go against the grain and emphasize long, athletic lineups.
The New York Knicks are at a crossroads. With a new coach in David Fizdale, there’s new life in the organization. But the Knicks should look to pave their own way and break the mold under Fizdale rather than conform. He’s emphasized positionless basketball and he refuses to pigeonhole his guys into a specific position or role.
What better way to do that then by going against the grain and utilizing long, athletic lineups as opposed to following the crowd and employing “small ball” lineups in the wake of the Golden State Warriors dynasty?
Steve Kerr and the Warriors shook up the NBA with their small ball, “death lineup” of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Once they swapped Kevin Durant for Barnes, they became virtually invincible. All across the league, teams have followed suit. There are even rumblings that the Lakers will use their own small-ball lineup with LeBron James at the five this season.
While the rest of the league is trying to emulate the Warriors, the Knicks should be looking to do the opposite. That may sound strange at first, but there was a time where people thought that playing 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at the five would leave Golden State vulnerable to lineups with size and strength.
The point is, the Warriors found something that worked for them and it was something they were uniquely qualified to run. Green’s defensive tenacity and awareness overcame his lack of height. A version of the death lineup was something that teams had done before, but never so effectively.
So what can the Knicks learn from Golden State’s example? Play to your strengths. The Warriors could run teams into the ground utilizing a “pace and space” approach with the smaller lineup. What’s the Knicks strength right now? Length and athleticism.
Much of this hinges on the development of the younger players on the roster. Kevin Knox looks like a future star, but he’s 19-years-old and bound for some growing pains. Frank Ntilikina shows flashes of brilliance at times, but he also has a tendency to disappear on offense. Mitchell Robinson is one of the most intriguing prospects from the 2018 NBA Draft despite falling to the second round. He’ll likely need some seasoning in the G League, but his ceiling looks super high from the small summer league sampling Knicks fans were treated to.
All three showed positive signs in summer league, but take that with a grain of salt. Summer league success doesn’t always correlate with success in the NBA.
The trio of Knox, Ntilikina, and Robinson are crucial to the success of a long lineup, but Kristaps Porzingis is the linchpin (when he returns from injury). Standing at 7-foot-3, the Latvian is the Unicorn for a reason. His unique skill set coupled with his impressive size make him a complete mismatch at the four. Of course, Porzingis will play a lot more at the five going forward, but he still should see a lot of time at power forward.
There are a number of different lineups that Fizdale could play around with at some point this season, but the most intriguing one might be the combination of Ntilikina-Hardaway-Knox-Porzingis-Robinson. Offensively, this lineup can space the floor despite having two 7-footers. Porzingis can shoot the three ball so the defense wouldn’t be able to completely cheat off the two bigs. Knox and Tim Hardaway Jr. would man the wings. But the biggest question is whether or not Ntilikina can survive as the primary ballhandler. If he can, this lineup would be dangerous, but not just because of their offense.
Defensively, this squad has the potential to be the all-encompassing, suffocating defense that New Yorkers crave. Porzingis was on pace to contend for the Defensive Player of the Year prior to his injury. He led the league in blocks (at the time of his injury) and solidified himself as one of the elite rim protectors in the NBA with outstanding defensive field goal percentage numbers within six feet. Slide Mitchell Robinson in at the five and there are no easy shots at the rim. Robinson is still very raw, but in summer league he showed a keen instinct, especially at closing out on shooters. His interior post defense leaves something to be desired, but that’s something that should improve with maturity.
The question is whether or not KP and Robinson would be able to run three point shooters off the arc against smaller lineups. Porzingis is often labeled as a below average defender in space, but that’s somewhat of a misnomer. Drew Steele of Posting and Toasting does a great deep dive into KP’s perimeter defense. But the short version is that his perimeter defense isn’t as bad as most people perceive, but he’s still best served as a defensive anchor protecting the rim. Once again, Robinson appeared to have a natural ability to use his length to disrupt shooters during summer league action. It will be interesting to see if he can develop that ability with the big boys. If he can, perhaps he can take opposing fours and allow Porzingis to focus on protecting the interior. At that point, Robinson can use his instincts and athleticism to make plays while KP anchors the entire unit. There should be no easy shots at the rim against this duo.
Ntilikina is fully capable of developing into one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. If he truly is on his way towards an NBA All-Defensive Team, the Knicks would have their lockdown man on the outside to mitigate the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Hardaway is inconsistent at best and Knox isn’t beginning his career with many lauding his defense, but if Fizdale is the right man for the job, he’ll be able to get the most out of these two.
Will this lineup work? Maybe. Maybe not. But the important takeaway is that Fizdale needs to focus on emphasizing the team’s strengths—length and athleticism. It wouldn’t be the first time that an NBA team went big. In fact, it would be a throwback. Sometimes when everyone else zigs, it’s time to zag. Fizdale claims he wants to play positionless basketball. Using this specific “long lineup” would be a great way to prove it.