By Zach DiLuzio
The Knicks had a real nice win for a young team on the road on Friday in Dallas. Typically, young teams will struggle on the road, particularly on defense — even against a moribund, sad, and largely unwatchable Mavs squad, so this was a nice win.
The best part, of course, is watching the game-to-game improvements of a literal (figurative) horde of young players. It’s a lot to manage, actually, and it’s making film review tough as hell. Having Courtney Lee playing rotation minutes was nice because you could … well … pretty much completely ignore him. You know who he is; you don’t need to watch vets like that very closely.
Now we’ve got seven or eight dudes who are all worth monitoring. In a basketball sense, it’s awesome. But let me tell you … the coaching staff has to have their hands full trying to monitor the development of these guys across the board. They’ve done a great job this season.
And with that, let’s get into some of the interesting tidbits I found upon rewatching Knicks @ Mavericks.
DAMYEAN DOTSON’S SHOOTING
Dotson has been a consistent and steadying force since arriving in the starting lineup. He’s been largely exceptional on the defensive end, he’s hitting his shots, and he’s doing it without the ball.
The interesting thing is, watching Dotson on film has me constantly thinking of a guy I already mentioned — Courtney Lee. Now, Lee is a pretty uninspiring player, so I should immediately make it clear that the similarities are in playing style and role ONLY; this isn’t a straight comparison. But look at these plays. These are the kind of plays Jeff Hornacek used constantly to get Courtney Lee great looks at will:
It’s hilariously ironic, to be honest. Hornacek ran these exact plays for the real Lee while he stapled the turbocharged version of Lee to his bench. Great stuff!
The main difference between the two, though, lies in the overall aggressiveness Dotson brings to the table on both ends of the floor. Obviously, Dotson is more athletic than an older Courtney Lee. But it’s deeper than that. I want to focus on the offensive end; specifically, the 3-point shooting.
Despite having slightly higher percentages, Courtney Lee was always hesitant to shoot 3’s unless he was wide open (to his slight credit, Hornacek was constantly harping on that exact thing when speaking to the media). Dotson does not have that problem, and it really changes the game for him compared to Lee:
That shot, while simple, is a big deal for a 3-point shooter. If you can hit that shot consistently (which Dotson has done so far), defenses need to guard you COMPLETELY differently. That’s when you get special attention as a shooter. That closeout from Harrison Barnes really wasn’t bad; Dotson made him pay anyway. When you make them pay anyway, defenses get panicky very quickly.
Of course, hitting those shots has a snowball effect. Defenders will close out harder, they’ll close out faster, and they’ll be hyper vigilant whenever they consider helping off Dotson. The extra spacing isn’t gonna help much right now due to the way the rest of the team is built, but the extra hard closeouts allow Dotson to get in the lane despite a generally subpar handle.
Watch how hard the Mavs are trying to recover to him in these clips, and as a result, how easy it is for Dotson to get in the paint:
That first play in particular is illustrative of what I’m trying to describe. Doncic is RIGHT THERE, in a solid position to contest, when Dotson catches the ball. But he hops out an extra step as soon as Dotson shows the ball, because he already saw Dotson shoot over that kind of contest earlier in the game. That extra step, combined with the change in momentum, gives Dotson the ability to completely blow by him. If that was Courtney Lee, there is NO WAY Doncic takes the extra step towards him, which means there’s no way he gets to the rim.
I applaud Dotson for taking those tough shots (and making them). Continuing to do so will be a game changer in the long term.
MITCHELL ROBINSON’S POTENTIAL
Pretty obvious breakout game for Big Mitch. I’m not here to throw the obvious stuff in your face. He’s improving at an astronomical rate — after seeing him in Summer League, I wrote a whole article about how he might need to start off in the G-League. David Fizdale alluded to the same idea before the start of the season.
That’s not gonna happen.
One of the biggest issues I had with Robinson in Summer League was his proclivity for really dumb fouls. He loved to reach on EVERYTHING, and he bit on EVERY pump fake. It was actually funny at points. I thought he would be fouling out in literally five minutes, barring a big change. Fortunately, that change has already begun, and it’s making a huge difference.
(Notice how he does kinda reach in a bit at the end? He’s still not quite there. But it’s been, like, 4 months. This is great progress).
Later in the game, he stayed down on JJ Barea and cut off the driving lane. Unfortunately, his muscle memory kicked back in two seconds later, as he reaches in on Harrison Barnes driving the lane and gives up the make plus one.
These are growing pains, and it’s totally normal. The same goes for the other end of the floor; Robinson, while having improved exponentially since Summer League, is still pretty bad at understanding the complexities of setting screens in the pick and roll. There were several examples, but this was the most egregious:
In this case, the focus needs to be on what Mitch Rob ISN’T doing. In that situation, with the defense forcing the ball handler away from a screen, Robinson should look to reverse the screen. Instead of setting the screen parallel to the sideline, Robinson can step across and screen parallel to the baseline, which provides a much more effective angle against a defense that chooses to defend the pick and roll that way (it’s called ICE, by the way). Here’s a great video that provides an overview of some effective counters to an ICE defense.
Of course, reversing the screen isn’t the only way to counter that kind of pick and roll coverage. In fact, if you watched far enough into that video, you saw a reference to the short roll, which is what the Knicks appear to be trying here. But even if that’s what they were instructed to do (which I don’t know — that would be a good postgame question for Fizdale), the spacing on the play is wildly off, which ties into Robinson’s inexperience anyway. ICE defense is a common defensive coverage in the NBA, and Robinson still doesn’t know how to correctly attack it.
(As a slight aside, it should be noted that Hardaway deserves some blame here as well; neither of them seemed particularly interested in running standard counters to ICE coverage. But we already know he’s not a lead ball handler. For the purpose of this review, we should focus on Robinson).
Anyway, I don’t say this to denigrate Robinson. The guy has played like 15 games against college and NBA competition combined; this type of stuff is expected. Even so, his performance was awesome, and highly encouraging on every level. I say this to point out that, despite his stellar showing, he still has SO MUCH TO LEARN. It’s mind blowing.
Watching him night to night will literally be watching a guy learn how to play NBA basketball. It’s going to be so much fun. Robinson still moves with a herky-jerky weirdness that clearly indicates a level of uncertainty when it comes to where, and when, he should be moving. But there are stretches where that goes away, and you really see the peak of his eye-popping athleticism, along with a glimpse of what he could be long term.
What makes the coaching staff happy, and what makes me happy, and what should make you happy, is that despite so many mistakes, he’s getting better every day. The sky really is the limit.