The New York Knicks started the season 20-20. Their rookie, Kristaps Porzingis, looks to be a future multi-year all star. Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks premier player, has battled injuries all season, and is still having a revitalizing year. NBA journeyman Aaron Afflalo is joining Anthony in having a career season. A second unit built around Langston Galloway, Derrick Williams, Jerian Grant, Lance Thomas, and Sasha Vujacic has been beyond effective. Nonetheless, the Knicks recently lost nine out of their last ten games, consequently resulting in Phil Jackson firing Derek Fisher.
So why did this happen? Why, with all of this season’s improvements, have they suffered through a horrendous losing streak and thus fired their coach? The reasons vary, but nevertheless, it can boil down to two key issues: rotations and the offense.
First, let’s look at some of the Knicks rotations. The biggest issue is the team simply has not used small ball effectively whatsoever. Below are two pictures, both of which look at seven selected Knicks lineups, their minutes, and their net ratings.
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page
Here is what Figure 1 demonstrates: Derek Fisher has played the worst Knicks’ lineups the most minutes, and the best lineups less minutes. More specifically, between Anthony, Porzingis, and Afflalo the Knicks have the talent to play small-ball without giving up size. This is because they have long players that play at smaller positions than their size would suggest.
The advantage of having the opportunity to play these types of small-ball lineups is you get all the expected offensive firepower without giving up easy buckets on the other end. Nevertheless, Fisher simply could not establish solid rotations throughout the season. Consequently, the former Knicks’ coach’s arrogance in press conferences was mind-boggling.
The Knicks aren’t a team like the Timberwolves, Magic, or even Cavaliers who have a limited rotation where the best eight are clearly the best in any situation. The Knicks have players that should be playing together, and for whatever reason, currently are not. So, was Fisher just a low-IQ basketball coach, or was there another reason for his insistence on poorly performing lineups?
Considering Fisher’s IQ as a player, it is unlikely he did not realize the limits of his most used rotations. More than anything, this was most likely a result of being unable to make adjustments at the appropriate moments. For anyone who watches the Knicks, it is clear that Fisher was a smart coach. He was able to mobilize Carmelo Anthony, rookie Kristaps Porzingis, underachieving role players, and a below-average bench to win more games than they should have. This was because he implemented defensive schemes brilliantly and successfully utilized an offensive system that many claim to be archaic. This leads to my second point: the offense.
Before I begin with the critique, let me be patently clear, the triangle offense was not at the core of Fisher’s offensive problems. Rather, it was the misuse of the triangle that doomed the Knicks.
Frankly, the Knicks more than likely do not have the talent to run the triangle offense. For those of you who don’t know, the triangle offense has won current Knicks president Phil Jackson eleven NBA championships. Moreover, the offense forms two posts, one on the strong side with the team’s center, wing forward, and guard; whereas the other post is formed by the team’s other guard and weak side forward. Consequently, because the weak side forward and center can change positions, a two-man game is created with three players acting primarily as floor spacers.
Nonetheless, the spacing dynamics that made Phil Jackson’s triangle offense NBA dynamite simply did not exist under Fisher’s Knicks. Earlier this season, in a Lakers-Knicks game, Kobe Bryant clearly stated, referring to the Knicks’ offense, “That’s not a f—ing triangle, that’s a square.” And Kobe, ever the basketball savant, was perfectly correct.
A few weeks ago, in an article for ESPN, Ian Begley analyzed the differences between Jackson’s and Fisher’s triangles. Outside of a variety of interesting statistics, the most permanent deals with the largest critique of the triangle: that it generates too many midrange shots in an era with athletic wings and high-volume three-point shooters. Here is the problem, according to Begley, Phil Jackson’s Lakers teams ranked 24th in the NBA in midrange shots created. On the other hand, the Knicks, this season, rank second.
The ball movement in each team’s respective triangle, additionally, was different. Let’s look below:
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page
What this means, before the efficiency era truly began, Phil Jackson’s triangle resulted in significantly more meaningful ball movement and a more efficient offense. Thus, the offense is not archaic, rather, Fisher’s offense was.
Thus, the Knicks are faced with a few questions. First, where do they go from here? The short answer is Kurt Rambis, who just took over as interim head coach. Long-term, though, is a little murkier.
Many reports are suggesting that Jackson wants to hire another former protege (mainly Bryan Shaw or Luke Walton), however, Frank Isola posits that there is a likelihood that Phil Jackson will return to the Los Angeles Lakers after this season ends. If that is the case, the instability facing the Knicks will more than likely continue, even with rookie phenom Kristaps Porzingis.
But secondly, this season, what can Rambis do to aid the Knicks? First, he must fix Fisher’s broken rotations. Doing so will allow for the Knicks to create mismatches with other teams. Additionally, Rambis must work with Phil Jackson to find a true point guard that can run the triangle. Whether the answer to that question is someone on the roster, like a Jerian Grant, or someone on another team, the Knicks will not succeed without finding the solution.