Since the turn of the century the Knicks have won 50 games once. They have made it past the first round of the playoffs once. It doesn’t take much brain power to grasp that whatever methods the New York Knicks have used to operate in recent years has failed miserably. In an attempt to try to break their string of failures, Phil Jackson was hired to oversee the basketball operations department this year.
Jackson’s method is singular, in that he has a certain culture and style of basketball that he has implemented wherever he has gone. Phil has had nothing but success with his beliefs, and he’s currently trying to institute the same policy with these New York Knicks.
The Knicks have had precisely one successful season in the 21st century. During that glorious 2013 season (as Knick fans, we have an extremely lower tolerance for what constitutes glorious) New York found an identity. New York thrived using some pretty basic alignments, playing Carmelo Anthony at the four with a defensive minded center whose main role on offense was to set ball screens and dive to the rim. To fill out the rest of the lineup New York used point guards and wings who supplied ball movement, penetration, and spot up shooting.
There are situations in basketball when a team fits together well, each individual player’s skill set complements the others and as a unit can be better than expected. Those Knicks fell under this umbrella, and the philosophy was effective.
Unfortunately, ever since 2013 the Knicks have done whatever they possibly could to avoid the type of basketball which gave them that success. A simple plan for the Knicks after the 2013 season would have been to sink all of their available resources into re-creating that same dynamic. However this isn’t what happened, which brings us to where we are today.
When Jackson decided to pay Melo over the summer, he put his Knicks legacy (the second one) in Anthony’s hands. Now Jackson (and Fisher) have a choice on how to build the identity of the current roster. They can continue with what they know best, or deviate from it in an attempt to best optimize the player they chose to build their team around.
Running the triangle with Kobe/Shaq or Jordan/Pippen worked wonders for the Zen Master, but we don’t know how that will play out with Anthony. Carmelo’s skill set and strengths differ from all of these players. In 2013, Anthony was able to raise his level of play on the offensive end with the Knicks by shooting a higher volume of three pointers and doing it at a better percentage than he did earlier in his career. He attempted 6.0 three point shots per 36 minutes, almost double his current career average of 3.1.
Melo at the four allows him more outside shots against slower footed players less suited to defending beyond the arc. It can also create switching and confusion as teams try to adjust their lineup to match-up defensively. Melo fits extremely well in a spread pick and roll system with a lead guard that can break down a defense off the dribble.
Playing power forward also helps hide Anthony’s flaws defensively. Instead of chasing guys around on the perimeter through screens and closing out on a three point shooters, he can defend posts up and do his wavy-reachy-arm-stuff that has become weirdly effective.
To this point Fisher has decided to use mainly traditional lineups with Anthony at the small forward position (65% of the time according to basketball-reference.com) and has cut way back on the amount of PnR the Knicks run.
New York has started the season 3-8 and the reasons are more widespread than Carmelo not playing the four often enough. I do think they would be better in those alignments, but with the lack of a strong defender at the five, those lineups have more room to get exposed.
It’s only been 11 games, and I’m not saying what Fisher and Jackson are trying to accomplish will fail. The Knicks will have five years to find out if trying a different method to win with Carmelo Anthony will be successful. As more talent gets infused to the roster it very well could end up working. On the other hand the 2013 season provides a template for success with Anthony as the fulcrum. So in an contradictory way, by playing it safe and doing what he has historically done, Phil Jackson is taking a risk. What Jackson wants to do is known to him, but it’s an unknown for the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony as their best player.