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A Less Exasperated View Of The Knicks Home Opener And Ye Olde Triangle Offense

There’s been a lot of scorn heaped upon the New York Knicks after they received a thorough drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bulls for their home opener.  Some of it deserved.  Some of it exaggerated and begging to be printed on yellow paper.

I covered the Knicks for New York Resident from ’03-’05.  I also lived in Chicago for the better part of 20 years.  I’m familiar enough with the Knicks and I’ve seen an awful lot of the triangle offense – including the attempts to keep it in the post-Jackson/Jordan/Pippen years.  I think, perhaps, it is time for a more level headed review of what happened.

First off, if you thought the Knicks weren’t going to get their head handed to them by the Bulls, you were delusional.  The Bulls had a good record last year, finished strong and have Derrick Rose back.  The Knicks are learning a new offense that’s notorious for throwing teams for a loop while implementing, had a couple (theoretically) rotation players out and, let’s face it, aren’t exactly what you’d call a deep team in the first place.

The positives: Samuel Dalembert and Amare Stoudemire look like good fits for the triangle.  Dalembert can hit the open elbow jumper and was making nice drop-off passes.  Stoudemire was always at his best cutting to the rim.   The Knicks only had 11 turnovers while learning a new offense and playing the Bulls.  That’s lower than expected and less than the Bulls had.  Cole Aldrich is, at minimum, an active body who can get some rebounds as a backup center.  Quincy Acy can also rebound a little and hit a short jumper.

The secret to the triangle, aside from all the players understanding it and instinctively knowing where they’re supposed to move and pass the ball to is this: at a certain point in the shot clock – call it 5 seconds left, for the sake of argument – the team needs to have one or two designated players that can be handed the ball with the greenlight to go one-on-one and create a shot.  In Chicago, this was Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen.  In LA, it was throwing it to Shaq/Pau in the post or handing it to Kobe.  With the Knicks, it may well be that Carmelo is the only real option for this and it isn’t at all clear who will try to fill that role in the second unit.  J.R. Smith?  They need to get the “Carmelo Clear Out” failsafe option installed soon than later.  That’s just part of the triangle.

The negatives: As expected, the Knicks look HORRIBLE on defense.  That’s not really a shock and that’s going to be downfall of the Knicks this year.  They’re going to have to outscore people, because they certainly don’t seem likely to stop them.  The defense was the real problem in the home opener.  The next biggest problem was psychological.  The Bulls mentally broke the Knicks towards the end of the third quarter.  The Knicks deflated and it was over.  That’s a mental toughness failure and something coach Fisher is going to need to work on.  There was also a problem with cold shooters on the bench.  J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway, Jr. were a combined 4-18.  For that matter, the Knicks were 3-17 from beyond the arc.  Have all your streak shooters go cold at the same time, it’s a problem and the Knicks have their share of streak shooters.  The rebounding wasn’t great either, and that could also be a lingering problem.

Now, Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani didn’t play in this game.  Neither one of them is going to do much to improve the defense, but they do represent some potential offense that was missing.  Calderon is a decent outside shooter for the first unit and while the triangle doesn’t exactly lean on a point guard, it’s not a bad idea to have one around while you’re learning the system.  It can help with breakdowns.  Bargnani is likely to be a floor spacer on the second unit and with Aldrich demonstrating a bit of energy, second string PF is likely to be between Bargnani and Jason Smith.

If the Knicks are going to make a run at the 8 seed, they’re going to have to outscore their opponents.  They way this could theoretically happen is a lot of ball movement and cutting to the rim.  The triangle isn’t exactly the Princeton style of backdoor cuts/lobs.  It’s more about drop-offs and hard drives, but that’s a close enough point of reference.  The floor spacing may be better than anticipated, but any three-point shooting in the first unit is going to be from Carmelo or Calderon.

The second unit is likely going to have to be J.R. Smith’s turn as designated scorer or Fisher will just have to hope that there’s a hot hand between Smith/Hardaway/Bargnani on any given night.  There’s no low post threat to toss it to in the second unit.

Can the Knicks make a run at the 8 seed?  Maybe.  The triangle is more about feeding the open man than feeding designated scorers, but Carmelo is likely going to need to be averaging Jordan/Kobe-like numbers and the second and third scorers need to emerge.  If the rotation looks the way it did in the first game, it’s time for another round of “can Carmelo and Amare both score in the same frontcourt?”  And if they can, then it becomes a stronger argument for the triangle.

It’s silly to judge a new offense by how well it does against the Bulls.  This offense will likely be a work in progress through late December or early January.  There will be some game won by hot shooting and lost by cold shooting between now and then.

Figure Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, Washington, Toronto, Atlanta and Charlotte are likely to be seeds 1-6 in some order.  That leave the Pacers (or what’s left of them), Knicks, Nets, and maybe the Pistons jockeying for the 7 and 8 seeds.  Can the Knicks slip ahead of a very injured Pacers team or the Nets?  You’d like to think that Carmelo could score enough to get you in that conversation, but that defense might just be too awful to get it done.  Still, you’d really hope the Knicks would be better than Orlando, Boston, Milwaukee and Philly.  The Eastern Conference is not all that and the Knicks ought to be right around the middle of the pack.

Let’s be a bit calmer and check back in around mid-January when it will be a little more apparent what we’re dealing with.  Knicks fans should just be glad they aren’t in the Western Conference, for there wouldn’t be even a glimmer of hope over there.

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