NBA Graveyard 2016: The Knicks’ Bermuda Triangle

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith. 

That sound you hear may be the death knell of the fabled Triangle Offense, which is being driven to obsolescence by this iteration of the New York Knicks.

knicks

Postmortem: The Knicks won 17 games in 2014-15 in Derek Fisher’s first season as head coach. Their offense ranked dead last in the NBA, producing just 91.9 points per game. By far, this was the worst output for a Phil Jackson-involved team that ran the fabled Triangle offense. The idea of the Triangle as a catch-all was on life support, while the narratives about Phil’s success being owed solely to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (three of the best players of all time) gained steam.

But Jackson is nothing if not stubborn. He and Fisher remained steadfast on fitting the Triangle into a square peg. The offensive strategy proved to have more staying power than Fisher, who was fired Feb. 9 after failing to run the triangle all the damn time. There was a shady incident over the summer when the Grizzlies’ Matt Barnes attacked Fisher for dating Barnes’ ex-wife, followed by rumors that Fisher was swimming in his own players’ dating pool. That didn’t help his cause, nor did his 40-96 career record.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Rewind to last summer’s draft. With the 4th pick the Knicks selected a relative unknown 7’3″ Latvian named Kristaps Porzingis. Knicks fans, being Knicks fans, booed the pick mercilessly. Yet immediately the rookie became a sensation once games were played and not the Linsanity kind either. It was clear the agile giant with three-point range would be more than a flash in the pan; he’s a matchup nightmare as a true stretch-5 whose game translates perfectly to the modern NBA.

The “Lativian Gangbanger” (as Michael Rapaport sublimely dubbed him on The Bill Simmons Podcast) instantly breathed new life into the Big Apple pro basketball scene. He and Carmelo Anthony – who’s bounced back after knee surgery – developed nice chemistry together. For once most of the on-court vibes were good with the Knicks. They had almost reached last season’s win total by the end of the calendar year (15-18), so yea, progress. But peel back the onion and you find serious limitations that they had no chance to overcome. The Knicks have no real backcourt, below average three point shooting and bad coaching. In January, Phil pulled the magic trick of turning a bad coach (Fisher) into a worse one (Kurt Rambis).

Rambis won’t be around next season, but the fact that Jackson reflexively resurrected him shows his continued commitment to running the Triangle. Which begs the question: is the Triangle dead, pro basketball’s version of the Latin language? Phil is the only NBA guy still trotting it out, and we’ve seen the results when he doesn’t have an all-time 2 guard or a dominant center. It’s pretty abysmal. One of the core philosophies behind the triangle is to spread out a defense, which other good offenses also do. But it was more of an advantage back in the illegal defense days, before rangy defenders could hedge and clog the lane. You almost need two knockdown shooters on the weak side of the floor to keep defenses honest. But in the Triangle’s motion each player spends some time on the weak side, so good luck filling the floor with five pure shooters. The Triangle also sets up for a lot of long twos, which have been proven to be inefficient. (Check out CoachesClipboard for a full breakdown of the Triangle.) Generally I’m not a supporter of any system that needs specific types of players in order to work properly. I think Gregg Popovich has shown that in the NBA you need to mold your offensive strategies to fit the players you’re dealt. The Triangle is a passive offense, in that it lets the defense dictate the offense’s movement. There are better ways to attack defenses, as the Warriors, Clippers, Rockets, Hawks, Hornets, Raptors and others are proving.

Low Moments: The Fisher-Barnes incident set the bar pretty low before the season even started. On the floor, a 1-9 stretch predated Fisher’s ousting. Even Robin Lopez’s mascot wars have grown tired.

In a 36-point loss to the Warriors on March 16, Porzingis was 1-11 for two points. He only got five shots off in the lane even though ostensibly he’d have an advantage against Warriors small ball in the paint. A potential reason for this was Rambis’ recent comments about turning Zinger into a small forward. This is insane. He was born to play stretch-5 in the NBA in 2016. Please keep this man away from Porzingis.

An ESPN story recently floated rumors that Phil Jackson would come back to coach, but only home games. Melo rightly responded, “Let’s dead that rumor.”

In the most tragic moment for these Knicks, small forward Cleanthony Early was shot during a robbery on Dec. 30. He has since returned but the incident certainly set back the development of the 2nd-year man out of Wichita St.

Bright Spots: This is Porzingis’ section. Nothing more really needs to be said, except that the Knicks have their centerpiece for the next 10 years. Unless they screw it up, which I wouldn’t put past them.

Assets: The Knicks could really have used their 1st Round pick this year, but they have a pick swap with Denver, and then their pick conveys to Toronto. The time is now to trade Anthony, if he allows it since he has a no-trade clause, as the future is Porzingis. They can still get decent value for Melo if they act soon. Asset ranking:

  1. Porzingis – He’s just 20 years old and already a star.
  2. Anthony – He’s the only real valuable trade chip on the roster and is still an All-Star talent.
  3. Jerian Grant – 23 and on a rookie deal. He’s had a limited role at point guard, but his per 36 numbers are decent. If they develop him he can be a bargain contributor in this point guard wasteland.
  4. Lopez – Locked up through 2018-19 and due $13.5M next season. He’s a solid center on defense and in a non-Triangle offense. Trouble is the Triangle seems to be here to stay with this team.
  5. 2017 1st Round pick – They own it outright and chances are it will be in the Lottery.
  6. Tony Wroten – Dealing with injury from last season, but he’s only 22 and owed just over $1M next year.
  7. Kyle O’Quinn – He’s 25 and under team control through 2017-18. Nothing more than a role player.
  8. Aaron Afflalo/Derrick Williams – Likely to opt out this summer.
  9. Early – A free agent this summer.

Free Agency prospects: If Afflalo and Williams opt out, they’ll have just over $56M committed for next season. That leaves them with plenty of cap space. This summer will be crazy because so many teams will have money to spend, but New York has an advantage since they’re a glamor market and guys may want to team up with Porzingis. Expect them to get meetings with all the big free agents and throw out some max offers. Should they move Melo and open up even more space they can fit three max guys. But we’ll see how eager marquee players are to join Jimmy Dolan’s circus.

Resurrection Scale: 50% (A Latvian Is Their Lazarus) – Any team in the league would love to have a 7’3″ 20-year old with the kind of tools Porzingis has. Now they just need to build smartly around him. If they do well in free agency in 2016 and 2017 and nail their 2017 1st Round pick, the Knicks will finally be back.

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