The New York Knicks have lost four of their first six games this season and are looking to shake things up in order to improve their record. The news buzzing out of Gotham yesterday was an ESPN report declaring that Phil Jackson was upset with how infrequently the Knicks were running “The Triangle.” This is misguided thinking, however, as the offense should be an afterthought in Knicks-land right now. Defense is what’s sinking the Knicks over the first two weeks of this NBA campaign.
New York is actually above-average offensively at the moment. Per NBA.com, they are scoring 104.0 points per 100 possessions. That’s the 13th best Offensive Rating in the league. The other side of the ball is a completely different story.
The Knicks are allowing their opponents to score a mind-boggling 110.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s the worst Defensive Rating in the NBA. To put that in perspective: No team has posted a DefRtg north of 110 over the course of a full NBA season this entire decade. Make no mistake, addressing team defense should be the top priority for the Knicks going forward. If they ever want to be a playoff team, let alone serious contenders, they need to improve their defensive dramatically.
However, they’re not going to make a major move this early in the season. They are not going to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade to revamp the roster. They will need individual improvement from within. They need a re-committed effort from each player, along with enhanced defensive schemes. Kurt Rambis has been empowered as the team’s de facto ‘Defensive Coordinator.’ Rambis’ resume isn’t overly encouraging, as the Minnesota Timberwolves ranked near the very bottom of the league in Defensive Efficiency when he was the head coach in Minnesota from 2009 through 2011.
Nonetheless, there may be additional options to be considered that might produce the desired effect of shaking things up in New York. One such potential choice head coach Jeff Hornacek might want to examine would be staggering the playing time of Kristaps Porzingis. There is no need to remove KP from the starting lineup, yet simply adjusting his minutes so he plays far more frequently with the second unit, as opposed to solely with the starters could conceivably remedy a number of the issues currently plaguing the Knicks.
The bench has been abominable this season. As a collective group, the Knicks’ non-starters are scoring just 92 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, they are allowing 110.2 points. Thus, according to NBA.com, their Net Rating currently sits at minus-18.2. Yes, that means they are getting outscored by over 18 points every 100 possessions. That’s the second worst Net Rating among all NBA benches, better than only the Philadelphia 76ers. The Knicks’ bench also posts just a 43.1 percent Rebound Rate, which ranks dead last in the NBA.
So, how can New York improve their overall production by reinvigorating and stabilizing the second unit? By playing their most dynamic player with this group more often. This is intriguing for a number of reasons.
First, it could be argued such a move would be best for the short- and long-term development of Porzingis. The fact of the matter is that this Knicks team isn’t going to compete for a championship this season. They will have to scratch and claw just to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. The future of the franchise rests within the 7’3 frame of Porzingis. Properly developing KP should be of primary importance for everyone in the organization. If/when the Knicks are actually, truly competitive again, it will be with Porzingis leading the way. Maybe it’s best to let him get a taste of what it will be like as the focal point of an offense. That simply won’t happen when he is sharing the floor for the majority of his minutes alongside Carmelo Anthony and a ball-dominant point guard such as Derrick Rose.
Rose and Porzingis have started to develop improved chemistry over the last few games, but the reality is Porzingis will very often be, at best, the third option on offense when he’s on the floor with the rest of the starting five. Despite being a year older and more experienced in his sophomore season, Porzingis has actually seen his usage rate dip this season. (Usage Rate is the “percentage of a team’s offensive possessions a player uses while on the court.”) As a rookie, KP posted a 24.5 usage rate. In 2016-17, that number has dropped to 22.5 percent.
Anthony (30.5) and Rose (25.9) lead the Knicks in usage rate this season.
However, unsurprisingly, Porzingis’ usage spikes when he plays without Rose and/or Anthony. In the approximately 25 minutes per game KP has shared the floor with Derrick Rose this season, his usage rate is 20.5. In the seven minutes per game KP plays without Rose, Porzingis’ usage rate jumps to 30.3 percent. There is a similar dynamic in effect with Anthony as well. KP’s usage rate with ‘Melo on the court is 21. Without ‘Melo, that number rises to 26.9.
By playing increased minutes with the second unit, Porzingis could slowly but surely get a feel of what it will be like to be his team’s primary offensive option. Surrounded by players such as Brandon Jennings, Kyle O’Quinn, Justin Holliday and Willy Hernangomez, Porzingis will be the focal point through which the offense runs. Play and pace could be catered, with the objective being to place Porzingis in positions to succeed. Another benefit would be allowing KP to play center more often, which is where his future lies.
Yes, reducing his minutes with the starters would negatively impact their overall efficiency and production. However, the starting five has been terrific offensively. As a group, they are scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions, which is the second-best mark in the NBA this season among starting units. Even without Porzingis, they will have plenty of offensive firepower. Defensively, however, they have been atrocious. Their 111.3 Defensive Rating is worst in the league. By subbing out Porzingis early in games with a versatile, defensive-minded player such as Lance Thomas, it might benefit the team’s overall balance.
At the very least, the strategy of staggering Porzingis’ minutes is probably worth experimenting with at this stage of the game.
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