The NBA has always been a copycat league. If a formula works for one team, every other coach tries to follow suit. The evolution of small ball has taken over the league a lot faster than many anticipated. Teams that used to thrive off posting and toasting have remodeled their roster in order to keep up with the rapid tempo that the Golden State Warriors have established.
The Indiana Pacers have Paul George playing the power forward. The Memphis Grizzlies have Matt Barnes starting over Zach Randolph sometimes. The Washington Wizards have made some incredibly wacky lineups, throwing Jared Dudley at center. It was only a season ago that those teams would rely on their bigs to make plays, but they are now playing a completely different sport.
A team that is not following this trend is the New York Knicks. Against the Joakim Noah-less Chicago Bulls, Coach Derek Fisher had the mentality to play bully ball. On his first substitution he put in Kevin Seraphin, Kyle O’Quinn, and Lance Thomas to join Melo and Calderon. This super-big lineup enabled the Bulls to run all over the floor and get to the rim at will.
In defense of Fisher, he doesn’t have the right roster to play consistent small-ball. The Knicks don't have any game-changing guards, so it would be fair to say that Fisher is playing to the roster’s strengths. However, Fisher needs to understand that he has the most dangerous small-ball weapon: Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis is currently playing power forward, but Fisher has given him some time at center and he’s looked pretty comfortable. Porzingis can establish a new era in small ball if he gets enough minutes at center for multiple reasons.
The obvious reason is his ability to shoot. If you have a 7’3” player who can consistently make jump shots, he will begin to pull in defenders creating open lanes for his teammates to utilize. Rim protectors like DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside would be forced to guard Porzingis on the perimeter, which would open a crazy amount of space for Melo and friends.
Another reason why Porzingis would thrive playing center exclusively is due to his quickness. Opposing centers would be put in tough situations where they would have to guard Porzingis on the perimeter, where they are not comfortable. Porzingis can put the ball on the floor, and even more athletic big men are rarely disciplined enough to guard fundamentally sound ball handlers. Take this play against Nerlens Noel for example.
A question you might be asking is “If Porzingis’ future lies at center, then why did the Knicks pay Robin Lopez $54 million this off-season?” Phil Jackson made that move as insurance, because no one knew how much of an impact Porzingis would make right off the bat. Lopez is a solid traditional big man. He is a scrappy player who consistently tries on defense, which, as a Knicks fan, is refreshing to watch.
The bad news is that players like Robin Lopez are starting to lose significant value in this league, and will become extinct in a couple of seasons. In the 2015 finals, the Cavs and the Warriors had a super-small ball showdown. Big men like Timofey Mozgov and Andrew Bogut were getting pulled off the floor.
When you think of guys like Mozgov, Bogut, and Lopez, you think of defense. You put in those players in order to establish a defensive identity. It turns out that Mozgov and Bogut were taken out due to their inability to play defense against small lineups. Mozgov couldn’t run with Draymond Green on the perimeter and since Green could hit shots, Mozgov had to play outside of the paint. It either resulted in an easy drive for Green or Curry due to the fact that Mozgov was not near the rim. Porzingis has that same effect on opposing centers.
Jackson needs to remodel his team with long athletic guards like Harper and Pippen back on the 90’s Bulls teams. I like all of the Knicks’ big men, but the Knicks have an unnecessary amount. The Knicks average 8.2 fast break points per game, which is dead last in the league. Putting Melo at power forward and Porzingis at center can open up a lot for the Knicks, especially if that front court is paired with long athletic guards who D up and like to run.
The last time the Knicks played small ball with Melo at power forward, they went 54-28. Having speed at every position is a luxury that is incredibly valuable at this state of NBA basketball. Everyone can shoot now, so it’s harder for defenders to sag off and play help. The Knicks must transition out of meaningless post-ups with Robin Lopez and do more pick and rolls/pops with athletes like Jerian Grant and scorers like Melo and Porzingis.