Schmeelk: Knicks Need To Focus on Skill Over Raw Talent

Randle, Robinson Will Lead The Way For NYK

John Schmeelk
October 22, 2019 - 2:19 pm
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With the start of the Knicks' season Wednesday versus the San Antonio Spurs, David Fizdale doesn’t know what his starting lineup is going to be yet. It appears that Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and RJ Barrett are secure as starters while the point guard position is still a question mark, although Robinson is questionable with a sprained right ankle. 

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With so many players who believe they are worthy of playing time and the differences between them more a matter of style rather than talent, Fizdale has tough decisions ahead of him and throughout the season.  

Fizdale cannot concern himself with putting the lineups together that have the most raw talent. Instead, he needs to create groups with complementary skills that form a balance of shot creation, shooting and defense. 

Given the four players who Fizdale appears locked in as starters, Dennis Smith Jr. should not be the Knicks' starter at point guard to begin the season. With Barrett, Randle and Morris all already in the starting lineup and needing the ball in their hands to be successful, Smith doesn’t complement their weaknesses. He is not a strong defender, doesn’t spread the floor with his jumper and prefers to operate with the ball. 

Smith could thrive with the second unit, where his ball-handling and shot creation would work well with players who are finishers, like Kevin Knox, Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. He would run the offense and be the initiator of the offense every time down the floor. 

It leaves Frank Ntilikina or Elfrid Payton as potential starters. Neither can shoot well, though Ntilikina probably has a better chance of improving from there. Payton is the better creator off the dribble, but Ntilikina is the superior defender. Ntilikina would be the better choice, since his defense could combine with Robinson, Morris and Barrett to form a very good starting unit. Barrett could handle the initiator role, which is something he did at Duke. The starting five would also have three strong defenders (Ntilikina, Morris, Robinson), a promising one (Barrett) and a weaker defender who can be protected (Randle).

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  • Frank Ntilikina (Defender, secondary ball-handler)
  • RJ Barrett (Primary initiator, PnR ball-handler) 
  • Marcus Morris (a little of everything, secondary scorer)
  • Julius Randle (Primary Scorer) 
  • Mitchell Robinson (Rim runner, shot blocking demi-god) 

Given the roster and the expectations of the players on it, it would be a very good and realistic starting lineup for Fizdale to roll out there that can succeed. The problem remains that any starting unit that includes Randle, Robinson and Barrett is not going to have enough shooting to spread the floor. The paint will be crowded for Barrett’s drives, Robinson’s rolls to the hoops and Randle’s and Morris’ isolations. The lineup also has Barrett at shooting guard, where he might struggle to guard quicker opponents.

There are four players who the Knicks could add to the lineup to add the necessary shooting: Wayne Ellington, Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier or Kevin Knox. Fizdale should consider moving Morris to the bench where he could lead that group. Trier needs the ball too much to make sense, and the addition of Knox would keep Barrett at shooting guard. 

Starting either Dotson or Ellington could help the defense by pushing Barrett to small forward, and spread the floor by adding much needed shooting. Dotson’s defense gives him the edge for me. My starting five would look like this: 

  • Frank Ntilikina (Defense, secondary ball-handler)
  • Damyean Dotson (Shooting and defense)
  • RJ Barrett (Primary initiator, PnR ball-handler) 
  • Julius Randle (Primary Scorer) 
  • Mitchell Robinson (Rim runner, shot blocking demi-god) 

Leaving Morris in the lineup would be preferable given he is a better shooter than Randle or Barrett, but the latter two can’t be taken off the floor. Barrett is needed for his initiator skills and Randle’s efficient scoring is needed to drive the offense and create double teams. Neither of those players, nor Mitchell Robinson, are heading to the bench.  

The lineup would also give Fizdale the chance to build an identity with his starting lineup that revolves around size, strength, defense and dominating the paint. It would lack 3-point shooting but with bigger players than average at every position, the team could live in the lane and try to get to the free-throw line for efficient shots. It would be their best bet for making up for the lack of 3-point shooting. 

It would make the Knicks’ second unit look like this: 

  • Dennis Smith Jr. (Primary initiator, PnR ball-handler)
  • Wayne Ellington (Catch and shoot) 
  • Kevin Knox (Shooter, Secondary Scorer) 
  • Marcus Morris (a little of everything, secondary scorer)
  • Taj Gibson (Defense and rebounding) 

This group isn’t as strong defensively on the perimeter but you can get away with that against backups. They could run in transition a little more than the first unit and they have more shooting to spread the floor for Smith Jr. pick and rolls. 

Payton would be the third point guard who could play if either Ntilikina or Smith struggled. Portis would be the extra big man who could play if his front-court shooting is needed. Trier could be instant offense and take minutes from Ellington or Dotson if the team is having trouble scoring. 

The Knicks need to maximize the limited talent on the roster by matching the team’s style to the players' strengths. This group is never going to have the shooting and scoring acumen to be a high-level, efficient run-and-gun team. They aren’t going to outscore teams. They do not have a go-to perimeter scorer to carry them offensively at the end of games. Instead, they will have to rely on a rookie, Barrett, and a power forward, Julius Randle, to get those points. 

The team does have the right players to be a higher level defensive team — something the Knicks haven’t been since Jeff Van Gundy left — Ntilikina is a high level perimeter defender. Damyean Dotson is a good defender. Barrett looks like he can guard bigger wings. Taj Gibson and Morris are strong defenders. Robinson is an elite rim protector.

The pieces are there, but Fizdale has to embrace the identity and implement the right defensive tactics for the group to succeed. He has not prioritized defense before, but he has to now if the Knicks are going to exceed expectations, which are not very high.

You can follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. His Knicks podcast, "The Bank Shot" can be found on WFAN.com, RADIO.COM, iTunes, etc., including his two most recent season preview podcasts.

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