While the regular season is still months away, the New York Knicks already have a few certainties locked in for 2014-15. Under new coach Derek Fisher, the team will primarily be running the triangle offense, as shown during the Las Vegas Summer League. The roster seems essentially set, too, with 15 players already signed on.
But in an awkward in-between phase of a short-term rebuild, that roster is mixed between long-term assets, short-term fillers and leftover albatrosses from the prior regime. Still, in a more balanced Eastern Conference, the Knicks could contend for a playoff seed. But that will largely depend on how they plan the rotations moving forward.
There's no question New York has its centerpiece in Carmelo Anthony, a scorer who the triangle system was seemingly tailor-made for. But with the strange combination of frontcourt players behind Anthony in the pecking order, Fisher will need to play his cards almost perfectly to have his personnel fit his system. But after a combined decade of running the system under Knicks president Phil Jackson, he seems to be the one capable of figuring it all out.
Cutting Ties with Poor Fits
Ripping the band-aid will be the first step Fisher needs to take in courting a competent lineup for the triangle, and if it doesn't happen right away, it should certainly happen sooner rather than later: Sending Andrea Bargnani, and maybe even Amar'e Stoudemire, packing.
The Knicks taking on Bargnani before last season never made sense in the first place, and his poor performance in 2013-14 was a microcosm for all the team's failures last season. He was relied on to stretch the floor and shot a career-low 27.8 percent from three-point range. His unbearable defending made whatever offense he supplied insignificant. After he went down with an injury, the team went 22-18. Their offense, ranked ranked 19th (subscription required) in efficiency with the 7-footer logging 30 minutes a night, improved to fourth-best after the injury according to NBA.com.
In terms of his fit in the triangle, there's not much to talk about. Big men in the system are generally relied on to create offensive looks for themselves with their back to the basket, which Bargnani cannot do efficiently. According to Synergy (subscription required), he posted up just under 10 percent of his offensive plays last season and shot 27.7 percent.
The system is dependent on mobility around the floor, and among the six Knicks that averaged at least 26 minutes per game last season, Bargnani was last in distance traveled per game, according to NBA.com's player tracking data.
Stoudemire poses less of an issue than Bargnani, strictly because he's actually been an efficient low-post scorer over the last two seasons. He ranked 48th league-wide in post-ups last season, per Synergy, shooting 48.8 percent and posting 0.91 points per play. From December on, he averaged 13 points a game on 57 percent shooting over 24 minutes.
But where both players fail spectacularly is in their decision-making. The triangle isn't comprised of plays but rather options for players to run based on reading defenses. When the ball has been in either players' hands during their Knicks tenures, they've had one objective: to put up a shot. Among rotation players, STAT and Bargs posted the two highest usage percentages on the team aside from Carmelo Anthony, and among the lowest assist percentages, per Basketball Reference.
Neither player has been comfortable finding teammates, or doing anything with the ball besides forcing the issue. Neither player plans to be a part of the Knicks' future, and neither are a fit in the present. Cutting ties as soon as possible would be the most logical move—regardless of their bloated salaries—and will help the new regime focus on the other pieces throughout the roster, and their fits within the system.
Making Sense of the Rest
Aside from Bargnani, Stoudemire and Anthony (and considering J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are both shooting guards), four other frontcourt players figure to factor into the rotation at some point next season: Samuel Dalembert, Jason Smith, Cole Aldrich and Cleanthony Early. Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw provide depth at the small forward spot, but the former has been a spot-minutes supplier over his career and the latter has never contributed much besides sporadic bench production.
It'll be interesting to see how Fisher divides time between the team's three centers—it's reasonable to assume one will fall out of the rotation eventually. But all three could seemingly fill some type of role on the Knicks.
Dalembert has never been an offensively skilled center, but he's the best rim protector New York has. He's tended to fall out of rotations throughout his career, but on a team as defensively challenged as the Knicks project to be, that trait alone is valuable.
Jason Smith isn't the type of post threat that triangle centers prototypically are, but he is very effective in the mid-range area, making him a threat in the pick-and-pop. Sixty-one percent of his attempts last season came between 16 feet out and just inside the three-point arc, and he shot a respectable 47 percent from there.
General manager Steve Mills said after the trade that Smith may wind up playing some 4, which would help alleviate the logjam at center. According to ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
"He's a mobile big that can play the 4 and the 5. He's got a great midrange shot. I think he'll fit within sort of the triangle," Mills said. "He's got good hands, he can space the floor and he's got great size."
While such a move would bump Anthony back down to the 3, it would supply him with a floor-spacer beside him and could be worth a look early on.
Aldrich will also play a part in the conversation after ending the season with a string of strong performances last year, despite almost a full season of being overlooked by Mike Woodson. Though it's rarely pretty, he's a suitable scorer in the paint, shooting 69 percent within three feet over his career. He's never gotten an extended look over his four NBA years, but a little tinkering with Basketball-Reference's play index shows that Aldrich's combination of rebounding and (a little) playmaking puts him in fairly rare territory.
Early isn't an easy player to project, but he certainly has the athleticism to make the cuts and slashes necessary in the triangle. He shot 37 percent from three-point last season at Wichita State, but he was an astoundingly poor playmaker, recording 50 assists over his two years as a Shocker—one for every 40 minutes he played.
He's been exposed to Fisher's rendition of the triangle in Las Vegas, which gives him an edge over Outlaw and Acy, who were acquired from the Sacramento Kings last week.
Acy doesn't bring much to the offense outside of point-blank attempts and a few surprisingly effective mid-range Js, but he is valuable in other energy areas like perimeter defending and shot-blocking—which don't directly factor into the triangle but could earn him minutes. Outlaw, who will be 30 at the start of the season, has averaged just 14 minutes per game over his last three years. He doesn't shoot it especially well, but he can defend competently and adds depth to a previously barren position.
The team will have a number of big men to choose from—each adding a unique trait valuable in the triangle—and also has options to play closer to Anthony at the 3 or 4. While none of these options are particularly talented, none are necessarily poor fits, and they could help out in one way or another.
In the short term, the Knicks should be able to get by with those run-of-the-mill ancillary parts. Because they have the one player who the triangle could've been built for—and the one player who needed the triangle the most.
Anthony surely knows by now that the triangle was tailor-made for scorers of his approach. It's made and defined the careers of ball-dominant scorers—see: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant.
The system, in part, brought championship greatness to both. Before Jackson introduced the triangle to Jordan's Bulls teams, His Airness had spent his first half-decade much like Anthony has spent his first full one—averaging 32.6 points per game for his career, racking up individual accolades, but without a championship ring.
Red Kerr, former coach and Bulls broadcaster during Phil's coaching tenure in Chicago, spoke in 1992 about the triangle's effect on Jordan's early days. According to an article found in an April 1992 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:
"When Michael came into the league, every coach Chicago hired tried to get him the ball and get out of the way," Kerr said. "The last couple of years, the team has gone to the triangle that spreads the offense and makes Michael a better player."
The system is designed to avoid double-teaming and to open up passing and cutting lanes. It has taken the pressure off Jordan and given other Bulls more shots.
"They were all longing for the right system," Kerr said.
And they found it when they found the right coach.
To Anthony, this should sound similar to the situation he finds himself in now—one that should put a smile on his face.
In the triangle, Anthony would be able to get his preferred iso looks as a chunk of the team's offense, with the difference lying in his teammates. Instead of acting as lifeless spectators, there's four players moving to curtail the defense's effort and focus while 'Melo goes to work. And if he can't find a shot he likes, at least one Knick should be in position to receive a meaningful pass.
That's an area of 'Melo's game that has been often derided, but it's hardly been his fault. When he finds a teammate after drawing attention to himself, that next shot is usually successful.
Per Synergy, Melo's passes to spot-up shooters out of double-teams have led to an 77.3% effective field-goal rate -- best in the NBA.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 26, 2014
Woodson's one-man offense didn't exactly give his star many fallback options.
Fisher's triangle could cater to Anthony what Mike D'Antoni never got the time to do, and what Woodson never bothered to: Implant a star's individual talent as a portion of a complex, multi-faceted attack that keeps a defense on its toes for 48 minutes.
The Knicks have plenty of parts, and they may just be weird enough to fit together—around Anthony, that is. If Fisher can figure out his supporting cast, the Knicks may even find themselves playing meaningful basketball again next spring.
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