Grading the Knicks’ ability to establish a new identity in trying to change their culture

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Mike DeStefano continues his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing in a season that won’t be evaluated in wins and losses. Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here. Let’s dive into Part IV.

PART IV:  Establishing Identity, Changing the Culture

When we talk about a franchise’s culture, or a team’s identity, what are we talking about?  

IDENTITY should be fairly easy to figure out, right?  Identity connects to style of play, maybe even system, as well as traits that players exhibit on the court. 

CULTURE is…more abstract.  More intangible. More coach speak-ish. Truth is, I’m not sure what it means.  But we can figure it out together.

Mills, Perry, and Fiz have talked about building / changing / developing identity and culture since May. How have the Knicks progressed? Are they on the right track?

To answer the big questions, we first have to ask some smaller ones.

What do the Knicks run?

My fellow Knicks Film Schoolers and I have been discussing this for a while now, and one of our contributors broke it down thoroughly here and elsewhere. But from my perspective, some recurring actions aside, there’s no true system (in the traditional sense). And maybe that’s okay. I honestly can’t decide how I feel about it.  Here’s an argument I had with myself recently:

Thought: The game is moving toward a more free-flowing style, so no big deal if there’s no defined system. We’re finally entering the 21st century!

Counter: Calm down. A system would help with player development, which is the team’s top priority. The game at the NBA level moves so fast that young guys often struggle with even the most basic things. An offense with clearly-defined parameters would make them more comfortable because they’d already (for the most part) know the answers to questions like:

  • Where are my shots coming from?
  • Where can I expect my driving lanes?
  • What reads are available to me when I’m off the ball?
  • Where’s my outlet if I get in trouble?
  • When I do this, how will the defense react?  How will my teammates react?

This is particularly helpful because once they learn how to handle situations within the system, they can more easily recognize adjustments and make reads outside the system.

Counter: A system can also have the opposite effect on young players, especially if it’s rigid like our beloved Triangle. Complexity can be distracting – guys are too busy thinking about which way to run and which pass to make to actually play with any sort of instinct or improvisation.  

Counter: Watch your language. We don’t use the T-word around here. And while the overthinking point has merit, the pros of a system outweigh the cons. Beyond helping guys learn to see the game, it’d also help with: determent of hero-ball; fewer late-in-the-shot-clock Hot Potatoes; reduction of turnovers (we’re suddenly 19th in TOs); and increased calm and effectiveness in late-game situations.

Counter: Well, Fiz doesn’t seem like a system guy, and with better players- like KP and another guy with similar initials – a free-flowing offense with principles instead of rules will thrive. So I’ll deal with the current bouts of discontinuity and stagnation; hell, if they lead to Zion, I’ll welcome them with open arms.     

How do the Knicks want to play?

Another complex answer, though not one I needed to argue with myself about. It’s complex in that, the Knicks want to do a lot of things. I discussed a lot of these when I analyzed the F.O / Staff Leadership, but we’ll update the progress here, using the 10-game mark on November 4th as a starting point:

“I want to get up and down the court.”

On November 4th, the Knicks were 27th in Possessions per Game.  A month later, they’ve risen to 15th.

“I want to…attack the paint.”

November 4th, the Knicks were shooting 20.8 FTs per Game. By December 4th, that number was up to 24.6, good for 9th in the League at the time. Over the course of that month, their 3PA had also dropped, though slightly, from 30.6 to 29.2. Keeping the extra possessions (increased pace!) in mind, this would suggest a conscious effort to attack the paint.  

“I want to share the basketball.”

After 10 games, the Knicks were 29th in APG.  Over the next month, assists would dip to under 20 per, tied for worst in the League.  

“One-second hold. If you can’t get it done in one second, get off it.”

The Knicks have three guys – Burke, Trier, Mudiay – that hold for at least 4 seconds per touch. This is fairly standard. In analyzing the Eastern Conference, 6/15 teams have at least three players who hold the ball this long. The problem?  Three of those teams are bad (Knicks included), and the other three have stars like Kawhi, Kyrie, Lowry, and Simmons. Those are the guys who SHOULD have long touches. But Allonzo Trier should NOT be averaging more seconds per touch than those guys (he is),and Trey Burke should NOT be 7th in the entire Eastern Conference (above those guys and more).

“It’s a free-flowing, all-inclusive offense,an offense where everyone feels involved. Spacing is critical to it. Pace is critical to it. Ball movement is critical to it.” 

I wanted to use this quote because it’s all-encompassing and illustrates Fiz’s overall philosophy. But I also wanted to highlight the “where everyone feels involved” part.

WARNING: what follows is a theory based on general basketball experience and knowledge.                                                                                                             

Anyone who’s ever played pickup basketball has undoubtedly played with a chucker. Chuck shoots first three times down – sometimes without a single pass – and you immediately know you’re in for a long day. But you try to keep your head up, tell yourself, “I’ll do the other things.” You commit to locking up, and when you get rebounds, you push the ball and try to create opportunities for yourself and others. But still, by the tenth possession, Chuck’s shot eight times. You’re frustrated. Soon, the rest of your game suffers. You don’t even want to play anymore … and then he passes you the ball! You’re wide open. You load up, but the ball feels foreign in your hands. It’s a football. You lay a brick.

Could this be happening to Frank? Tony Parker thinks so:

The kid’s been molded to play the right way, force nothing, run an actual offense, and now he finds himself in lineups with guys whose first, second, and third priorities are to shoot. This could explain Knox’s inconsistency, too, but even if you consider this a reach, my eyes tell me that there are lengthy stretches of Knicks’ basketball where not everyone feels involved.   

“Defensively, I like to get up and pressure…”

On November 4th, the Knicks were 9th in Opp PPG and 7th in Forced Turnovers per game. Despite those strong numbers, they were only 25th in Opp FG% and 22nd in Opp 3PT%. Over the next month, they’d fall in every category: 26th in Opp PPG, 26th in Opp FG%, 26th in Opp 3PT%, and 18th in Forced TOPG.  

Many explanations:  quality of opponents improved, officials enforcing new points of emphasis differently, opponents making adjustments with more film to study, benching your best perimeter defenders for no apparent reason…either way, they are trending in the wrong direction.

Despite the defensive issues, overall I’d say they’re doing fairly well. One step at a time. Nothing happens overnight, and it was a near certainty that we wouldn’t see successful progress in every goal this soon in the season. But for me, hitting two goals before Game 30 is pretty good. We’ll revisit this at the All-Star break. 

Who do we like?

In other words, what kinds of players are the front office and staff into? The Spurs have a type. This year, the Lakers had a type (though that’s been met with mixed results). What’s the Knicks’ type? Many of these guys won’t be back next year, but it’s clear what Mills, Perry, and Fiz like. They want bigger, attacking guards, and they want versatility and flexibility in the frontcourt. They want switchability, interchangeability, positionless-ness. Fiz talked about that when he was hired, and we can see concrete evidence of this in both the development of Mudiay, Trier, and Vonleh as well as in the guys on the rise in Miami, the“culture” that made Fiz who he is.  

What are the team’s values?

At this point, a few rough showings aside, here’s what I believe we can expect from this team as far as intangibles are concerned:  

  • They’ll never give up. The Nets were just the latest example of a second-half blowout that somehow became close in the final minutes. This team has no quit in them. And I’m talking up and down the roster. It’s not always the same unit leading the comeback. When the game gets into the fourth quarter, there will always be five guys ready to make a push, and Fiz has been adept at finding that right combination over and over again.
  • They stay engaged. During every one of those runs mentioned above, the guys on the bench were the happiest people around. Against the Nets, THJ, the team leader (by default), found himself on the outside looking in. You watch those replays, and you’ll see a guy thrilled after every big bucket. The early-season Kanter issue aside, Fiz has his guys buying in even when they are not getting the minutes / roles they’d like.
  • Fiz will always say the right thing. This is where people get that “salesman” stuff from, and while outsiders seem to use it to imply fakeness, having a guy that knows how to handle the media is crucial in this city.  He defends his players to the death. He is blunt with team criticisms and other explanations, but he will never play the sorts of mind-games in the media that Phil played so often. I thought he handled all the questions about Frank’s DNPs very well. 
  • Communication is strong. Just like he is with the media, Fiz seems to be a great communicator with his players, and hopefully this will lead to great communication AMONGST his players. My favorite example of this openness thus far is how he handled Dotson’s DNPs. In Dot’s words: “For the most part, Coach is telling us he has a reason behind everything. So just as far as when I wasn’t playing the four games, he was steady talking to me, telling me we’ve got to get this rotation going right now, win a couple games. So I kind of understood it…Nobody is ever in the doghouse.”  Dotson came out of the DNPs on fire, so this quote is more than just lip service.  And Frank’s played well in his 36 minutes back from exile, so maybe there is a method to the madness?  I don’t agree with the DNP approach, but at least the players know what’s up.

  • One Negative: Some of these things were discussed in my “Leadership” analysis, but the Knicks need to be very careful with contradictions. I don’t like that Fiz abandoned his one second rule for Trier – “That rule has gone out of the door for Zo” – because it sets a dangerous precedent. I don’t like that he benched Kanter, and then Kanter bitched, and then suddenly Enes was back starting. Did that come from the top? Is he forced to play the centerpiece of the first big trade of the new regime? I don’t like that Mario is back starting with no explanation. Is that more about Perry and his Orlando connections? It’s been a long, uphill battle as the Knicks finally approach respectability, but they will never get there if they become the sort of organization that makes exceptions and decisions for non-basketball reasons.  

VERDICT: Have we established an identity? Has the culture changed?

The identity is coming.  While they’ve headed in the wrong direction in some key areas, and while the system is still a work in progress, you’ve got to consider one important point: the on-court identity of this team long-term is tied to Kristaps Porzingis, who has not played a game under his new coach. Once KP is back, you will see more defined roles, a more sensible rotation, and more consistency and chemistry.  

The culture is in an even better place. All Knicks’ fans really want, besides world dominance, is a team thatplays hard and tough. A team we can be proud of, even when they lose. I was proud of those young guys in that Nets’ loss. I was proud when they beat the Bucks. From an effort and energy standpoint, I haven’t felt disappointed more than once or twice this year.  Everyone’s working, everyone looks like they’re having fun — New York again seems like a place free agents will want to come to.

GRADES:

Establishing Identity & Changing the Culture – A-

Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits (F.O and Staff) – B+

Development of Individual Talent – B

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