Schmeelk: Knicks Are Figuring It Out With Difficult Stretch Ahead

John Schmeelk
November 19, 2019 - 9:59 am
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The Knicks might be figuring things out.

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They’ve won two out of their last three games, with their loss against the Hornets coming on a late three-pointer where the team played relatively well. This doesn’t mean they are going to go on a playoff run or finish near .500 but they have looked a lot more like a competent basketball team. 

Beating the four-win Cavaliers at home without Kevin Love and Larry Nance isn’t a statement win, but the Knicks seem to finally be adopting a consistent rotation. With 11 straight games upcoming against teams that made the playoffs last year, David Fizdale and his team will get a chance to show if they can stay on this track against better competition. 

Fizdale settled on a five-man starting lineup of Frank Ntilikina, RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle and Taj GIbson. The group is now the team’s most-used lineup and has a +6 net rating. Their 105.2 defensive rating would put them 15th in the league and their offensive rating (111.3) would rank fourth. 

The offensive number is likely to regress close to the middle of the league given the unit’s lack of three-point shooting, but the defense is real. Aside from Randle, the group has four switchable defenders. There’s a decent balance between ball movers and shot takers. The group, at least for now, works. 

It also helps when the Julius Randle who the Knicks thought they were getting shows up. Against an overmatched Cavs frontcourt, he scored 30 points on an efficient 12-of-17 from the field and 3-of-5 from behind the arc. He also had four assists and no turnovers. The Cavaliers rarely double-teamed him and had no one-on-one matchup with Kevin Love hurt, but it’s a performance that could spark him. The next few games will show if it is just a flashpoint or a true sign he is altering how he plays that can make a long term difference. 

Brad Penner / USA Today Sports

The Knicks signed Randle because they needed efficient scoring, but he hasn’t given it to them. His true shooting percentage has plummeted from .600 last year to .506 this year. His three-point percentage is down from .344 to .240. Despite having the ball in his hand a lot, he is shooting fewer free throws than he has the last two seasons. 

The Knicks desperately need this version of Randle to show up more often, given the poor shooting from the Knicks’ starting backcourt. If he is a league-average efficient player, his defensive problems and other liabilities become much harder to deal with. If he scores, the other defensive-oriented players that start with him can hide those problems. 

Frank Ntilikina and Taj Gibson may put up underwhelming numbers, but they make winning plays. Whether it is rotating properly on defense, making a defensive stop, or making the right play on offense, they are perfect support players whose contributions often do not show up in the box score. It is no surprise that Ntilikina leads all players with at least 130 minutes with a -1.2 net rating. 

Fizdale had not previously shown an appreciation for those types of players when putting his lineups together, often opting for volume scorers instead. WIth Gibson and Ntilikina in the starting lineup, and Damyean Dotson a big part of the bench rotation, he has made proper adjustments that need to continue. In 129 minutes, Damyean Dotson has a +3.3 net rating. 

Knicks point guard Frank Ntilikina controls the ball against Chicago Bulls point guard Cameron Payne on Nov. 5, 2018, at Madison Square Garden.
USA TODAY Images

Along with Dotson, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and Bobby Portis make up the bench lineup. Dotson, Knox and Portis can stretch the floor and free up Smith and Robinson to run properly spaced screen and rolls. Dotson and Robinson provide perimeter and interior defense. Wayne Ellington also played nine minutes against the Cavaliers, and his shooting can make a difference if Fizdale (wisely) goes with more small lineups. 

There are still things that Fizdale can do better to maximize the players on the roster, but he has been better the past few games. Simply sticking with a set starting lineup and rotation helps. Consistently playing the team’s best defensive players is a big deal and Fizdale is doing it. 

The next few weeks are going to feature some trying times as some good teams will probably blow the team out a couple of games. Both the players and coach have to stay the course, and not make any panicked rotations moves that destroy any of the recent progress the team has made. 

You can follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can also check out “The Bank Shot,” his Knicks podcast, on most popular podcast platforms.

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