Phil Jackson's presidency over the New York Knicks has brought a sea change to the point-guard position. He upgraded at starter in the form of Jose Calderon, 32, and added promising 21-year-old Shane Larkin to share backup duties with returning veteran of the game Pablo Prigioni, 37. Now, like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant before them, these slightly more ancillary players will need to tailor their abilities to the triangle offense.
The 2014-15 season also marks the point of embarkation for rookie head coach Derek Fisher after 18 seasons played mostly at the point, 10 of which came during Jackson's tenure as Los Angeles Lakers coach. Fisher's experience as a guard in the triangle system should provide a unique angle to impart wisdom to his new charges.
However, as Jason Kidd proved with the Brooklyn Nets last season, copious experience playing the point does not necessarily make for a virtuoso coach of point guards. Fisher will need to harness the full breadth of his leadership and experience to produce success with the Knicks roster, which boasts Carmelo Anthony and more question marks than anything else.
The team has made a significant upgrade at PG already, but while Calderon and Prigioni clearly complement the roster, and Larkin brims with potential, each of them will benefit in different areas from the first-year coaching wisdom of "D-Fish."
But first, it is necessary to examine the new strength of the position and the new offensive system.
Making Trades and Drawing the Triangle
Jackson swung a nifty pre-draft trade in late June that sent Tyson Chandler back to the Dallas Mavericks along with Raymond Felton in exchange for Calderon and Samuel Dalembert, essentially a swap of starting point guards and centers. The trade also sent guards Shane Larkin and Wayne Ellington to the Knicks, plus a pair of second-round picks.
Tweets from ESPN's Marc Stein had suggested that the team was trying to move Ellington and considered including Prigioni or Larkin as a sweetener:
Instead, both remained in the backcourt, and the Knicks parted with budding big man Jeremy Tyler. Retaining both Prigioni and Larkin implies that Jackson and Fisher like what they have at the position and believe they can run the new offense.
According to NBA.com's David Aldridge, "Fisher thinks Anthony can do the same (in the triangle), operating out of the pinch post the way Jordan, Pippen and Bryant did." Anthony, the league's leading scorer in 2012-13, profiles as an ideal player to center the triangle around, and he will be found most often around the elbows receiving passes on the weak side.
Fisher reinforced his opinion of 'Melo during the Las Vegas Summer League, saying the following:
It's an area where he likes to operate, even before now, being able to play in this system. But it will be important that we don't just put him there and watch him play, which is easy to do with great players.
That means the point guards will have to be active—no "iso Melo"—but in the triangle system, passing responsibility diffuses throughout the team. Melo could very well lead the team in assists. The onus will be on the guards to maintain a strong shooting percentage from the perimeter and knock down spot-up jumpers produced through ball movement as a team.
Fortunately, Prigioni and Calderon both ranked in the top five for three-point shooting last season at 46.4 percent and 44.9, respectively. Only Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard made more triples than Calderon among all point guards. In stark contrast, Raymond Felton shot 39.5 percent from the field and 31.8 percent beyond the arc as the starting point guard last year.
Despite their gaudy long-range shooting, which meshes very well with the triangle, Fisher will look to isolate one aspect of both Calderon's and Prigioni's play which must be addressed.
Mask Calderon's Defense
The primary difference between Calderon and Prigioni consists in their defense. Prigioni plays like an effective agitator for his age, invading passing lanes and pestering the ball. Calderon, on the other hand, has mainly been a practitioner of the "matador defense" sometimes observed in previous seasons by Knicks announcer Walt Frazier.
The book on Calderon's D remains that he's an intelligent player who can get to the right spot, but he lacks both the athleticism and the quickness to prevent most guards from blowing by him.
Tim Cato from Mavs Moneyball phrased it well for Knicks blogger Scott Davis of Posting & Toasting:
Calderon has been a slow player ever since he entered the league, and the years haven't done any favor. He just can't keep up. His foot-speed is often several steps behind the player he's guarding.
Once upon a time, Fisher also knew the pain of playing against much younger, much quicker guards. The challenge for the new coach will not be coming in trying to convey loads of defensive know-how, but rather in masking Calderon's slow pace on the defensive end. He cannot get quicker, so the D will have to compensate.
Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert will be crucial factors in Fisher's ability to help Calderon when the other team has the ball. Hardaway showed plenty of offensive spark as a rookie, but his defense made him a liability when his shot wasn't falling. Shumpert makes a living off of his defense, but his field-goal percentage has dropped with each season, from 40.1 percent to 39.6 to 37.8 in 2013-14.
In the middle, Dalembert can still play effective defense, but the team lost a former Defensive Player of the Year in Chandler. Fisher will have to preach plenty of help on D with Calderon in the starting five, all while coaching up Hardaway to be a two-way player and helping Shumpert find a shooting rhythm.
Teach Prigioni the Joy of Shooting
Prigioni served as an effective contributor in 2013-14, as the Knicks netted four more points per 100 possessions than opponents with him on the court, per Basketball-Reference.
He also has something of an awkward-looking three-point shot despite hitting 46.4 percent of them. Within his shooting motion lies absolutely none of the grace of Ray Allen's stroke and not even a hint of Steve Novak's sweet form.
Instead, Prigioni seems to push the ball rim-ward, leaning and leaping forward with hesitation and hope in equal measure. Worse still, he's gun shy.
Carmelo Anthony talked about it back in December 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring (subscription required): "Sometimes he turns down shots, and I be like, 'What the (heck), man? You're wide open; shoot the ball!'"
Somehow, through two NBA seasons, the Argentine has managed to become one of the league's most proficient three-point shooters while maintaining a staunch pass-first mindset. Teams often left him on an island to instead bracket Carmelo, giving Prigioni plenty of open looks, but he hardly made a meal of them and passed up copious opportunities.
Fisher knows a thing or two about hitting big-time shots, and he can persuade Prigioni that sometimes you have to think "shoot first" if you're open. The triangle will require trust in the system to produce high-quality looks, and Prigioni proved proficient at that when he pulled the trigger. Of his 191 field-goal attempts, 140 came on three-pointers, and only Kyle Korver hit them at a higher percentage.
Mold Larkin into a Consistent Contributor
Larkin, who will be 22 when the season begins, stands just 5'11" with 176 pounds on his frame. Fisher measured only 6'1", proving that small guards can excel in the triangle and at the highest level of NBA competition. Larkin can meditate on that as he attempts to forge an NBA career from his wealth of potential.
He showed his ability to dominate inferior competition over four games in the D-League, averaging 15.3 points (on 47 percent shooting and 57 percent from three-point range), 8.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds over 35.8 minutes per game.
He also showed solid per-36 stats as an NBA reserve in 2013-14, via Basketball-Reference, but inefficient shooting (38 percent from the field) and too many turnovers (2.9 per 36) helped limit him to 10.2 minutes per game over 48 tilts with the Mavericks.
Fisher will have to harness all the versatility and skill Larkin has to offer, while also shaping the game of a point guard with a little more than half a season of experience.
For a young point guard like Shane Larkin, who's used to defaulting into screen-and-roll action with a big when the shot clock is winding down (instead of moving the ball and cutting through), the triangle is such a different animal. You must learn quickly that it's not your pass, but the next one, that might lead to a basket.
Based on the summer league results, Larkin will undergo a lengthy learning process. Expect plenty of "rookie moments" like these:
As the young guard irons out the foolish turnovers and ill-advised shots, among other things, the Knicks could possibly have a slightly smaller, much younger version of D-Fish in the making.
And Larkin will have a supremely qualified tutor to learn from. In the terms of ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk: "Even though he is coaching for the first time in his career, Fisher brings a wealth of championship experience, toughness and leadership."
Add that coaching to his team's increasing grasp on the triangle, and the Knicks could look back fondly on the decision not to send Larkin to Sacramento.