The Knicks’ first win should have taught their players and coaches some valuable lessons. It was clear throughout Monday night’s 105-98 victory which combinations of players worked and which ones didn’t. The reasons why were also abundantly clear to anyone paying attention.
Coach David Fizdale needs to alter his starting lineup. Playing Elfrid Payton (or Frank Ntilikina), RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson together is not going to work. There is simply not enough shooting to keep defenses honest and out of the paint. With no true floor-spreaders, defenders collapse into the paint and clog everything the Knicks are trying to do.
It makes things impossible to run any sort of pick-and-roll game with Mitchell Robinson. Randle can’t navigate the paint without getting double-teamed, which helped lead to his eight turnovers against the Bulls. Barrett doesn’t have open lanes to get to the basket. It is a congested mess and has led to the isolation-heavy offense that has plagued the team early in the season.
So far, the Knicks starting lineup has a horrendous minus-20.3 net rating. The combination of Robinson, Randle and Morris together on the floor has a net rating of minus-19.3. In 13 minutes per game on the floor together, the starting unit is averaging less than two made 3s. Something has to change.
Barrett is playing like the team’s best player and is its nominal point guard on offense. He can’t sit. He needs a secondary ball-handler to help him and someone to guard quicker point guards, making Ntilikina or Payton necessary on the floor. Robinson’s rim protection is needed. Randle was the team’s big offseason acquisition and should be its most efficient offensive player.
It really doesn’t matter if Fizdale chooses Ellington or Dotson. Either would provide the necessary shooting to help the starters feature a more balanced lineup. It would leave the shot creation to Barrett and Randle with three players around them who can help off the ball and on defense.
Morris is a proud player, and one of the five best players on the roster, but finding the right lineup fit is more important than playing the best players on the team. This is the product of some of the roster construction issues of the offseason that is up to Fizdale to iron out. He needs to be able to explain to Morris why heading to the bench is best for the Knicks and won’t hurt his ability to contribute to the team.
His minutes won’t even necessarily be affected and his new spot or the bench will give him more responsibility to be the top option when he is on the floor. He will still have every opportunity to close games based on the flow of the contest.
This is a fairly obvious adjustment Fizdale needs to make. You cannot win without shooting on the floor. If he doesn’t, the Knicks would continue to dig themselves into holes early in games that will be hard to climb out of.
• As bad as Bobby Portis can be defensively, his ability to shoot the 3 and stretch the floor on a team that lacks shooters is valuable. Fizdale could opt to put him in the starting lineup in place of Mitchell Robinson, but then there wouldn’t be nearly enough defense on the floor with the starters. Portis’ shooting was the difference in the team’s win against Chicago.
• Barrett has had a great start to his career. He is shooting 50%, hasn’t forced many shots and is playing good defense. He is not displaying some of the same problematic tendencies he did at Duke. I’ll be curious to see if he can still get to the lane and finish as consistently as he is now once defenders get a feel for his game, but so far, so good.
• With Payton dealing with an ankle injury and Dennis Smith Jr. mourning the death of his stepmother, now is the time for Ntilikina to claim his point guard minutes and play well enough to hold them. Despite shooting 0-for-6, he played a good floor game against the Bulls and contributed game-changing, elite perimeter defense. Fizdale recognized the impact Ntilikina made postgame. I hope he continues to roll him out there and Ntilikina shoots and plays well enough to stay there.