New York Knicks Zach LaVine, Taj Gibson
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

First and foremost, the New York Knicks want to dominate the paint, but is this strategy conducive to long-term winning?

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NY—Fans at Madison Square Garden witnessed a clash of styles on Saturday night. The New York Knicks favor an old-school approach predicated on protecting the paint and attacking the rim. The Chicago Bulls, on the other hand, are happy to hoist three-pointers from anywhere at any time.

Advantage: Knicks.

New York physically manhandled Chicago inside, scooping up 50 rebounds—17 of the offensive variety—and poured in 76 paint points en route to the 125-115 victory. Even with Zach LaVine, Coby White, and the rest of the Bulls knocking down threes at an alarming rate (17-for-35, 48.6%), the Knicks’ advantage inside was enough to overcome the onslaught from the perimeter.

“I feel it was a similar theme to the last time we were here, 76 points in the paint, 17 offensive rebounds,” Chicago head coach Jim Boylen said after the game. “Their physicality, their size, was hard on us. … Felt they got middle on us too much. Thought that created situations at the rim, lobs, you have to shift, the offensive rebound opportunities are open.”

Of those 17 offensive rebounds, Mitchell Robinson pulled in seven, while Taj Gibson and Kevin Knox corralled four apiece. That trio gave Chicago fits. Gibson’s fast start in the first-quarter laid the groundwork for Robinson to come in and stake his own claim on the real estate in the painted area. The center tandem combined for 40 points and 18 rebounds.

But despite Saturday’s positive result for the orange and blue, defending the three-point line has been an ongoing issue for this roster. They rank 29th in the league, allowing opponents to knock down 38.5% of their attempts from distance.

“They made 17 threes and it’s more than we want,” Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller said after practice on Sunday. “We’re trying to hold teams, on average, the last 35 games I think we’re giving up 13. We’re trying to cut it down to something manageable. We said, can we cut it down to 11?”

The philosophy all season—under both the ousted David Fizdale and Miller—has been to pack the paint and build out from there. This scheme is in lockstep with the offseason plan of general manager Scott Perry and banished team president Steve Mills. The front office pairing brought in a slew of big men to bulk up the frontcourt after whiffing on max-level free agents this past summer.

Packing the paint in this way isn’t doomed to fail, but it’s going to be tough for the Knicks to continue their winning ways if they allow teams to convert on nearly 50% of their threes. Although I’m no mathematician, threes are worth more than twos and teams who want to trade the former for the latter have had success against the Knicks.

With all this said, the question remains: is this sustainable? Yes and no. In games when the Knicks outscore their opponents in the paint but hit fewer threes, they are 11-13 (10-11 under Miller). Their record in these types of outcomes far outpaces their current record of 18-42.

But the biggest issue with this current philosophy is that when the Knicks aren’t executing the gameplan to perfection, they have a tough time staying in games. Teams that hoist tons of threes can often stay within striking distance despite being thoroughly outplayed. When the orange and blue aren’t dominating the paint, they run the risk of letting teams run away with dominant victories.

After all, New York has already lost 20 games by double-digits this season, 14 of which were losses by at least 15 points. Good teams steal games they have no business winning. The Knicks don’t do that and until they can, they’ll have to be perfect in the paint. There’s little margin for error with the current scheme, but it’s one that was foisted on Miller and Fizdale this season.

On the bright side, the Knicks actually have some semblance of an identity for the first time in years. They are first in the NBA in offensive rebounding, sixth in overall rebounding, and eighth in percent of points that come in the paint.

The key for the organization this summer is to add some shooting and perimeter defenders to help mitigate their three-point woes. There’s no need to do a complete 180 and neglect the interior, but better balance is needed.

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