The New York Knicks have a glut of young talent on the wings. Between Tim Hardaway, Jr., Shane Larkin, Iman Shumpert and Cleanthony Early, there won’t be enough playing time to go around for all of them in the rotation. Add to that the minutes that are going to be soaked up by Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and point guards José Calderon and Pablo Prigioni, it’s going to be a battle for minutes. The news that Thanasis Antetokounmpo will be playing in the NBDL next season eases the crowding somewhat, but he was the least ready for significant burn to begin with.
Who, then will emerge as the front runners for the lion share of playing time? With new coach Derek Fisher presumably running Phil Jackson’s preferred triangle offense, certain skill sets will be at a premium.
How much point guard play?
The triangle is a somewhat unique offense in the NBA to the next in to the extent it de-emphasizes point guard play in the traditional sense. While most NBA offenses are built in large part on pick-and-roll, the triangle is based more on high-post passing and off-ball cuts. This renders the ball-handing and pick-and-roll acumen of most top point guards somewhat irrelevant. Instead, shooting, defense and the ability to move off the ball become much more vital for backcourt players in the system.
That said the most success found the triangle in the in in the NBA have been with teams that had wings you could take on much of the responsibilities of a “traditional” point guard. With Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc, the Chicago Bulls had many guards who possessed those skills in abundance. Similarly, with Jackson’s Los Angeles Laker teams, Kobe Bryant and Ron Harper again possessed many of the same traits.
Though Carmelo Anthony is an underrated playmaker and passer from the wing position, he’s not quite the ball-handler most of these players are or were. Certainly, the Knicks don’t want Melo bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense with any regularity. For that reason some degree of traditional point guard play will probably be necessary for New York. Whether this comes from Smith and Shumpert filling that role, or one of Calderon and Pirigioni operating in a more traditional sense, a sizable chunk of perimeter minutes will go to players in that group. Larkin probably finds himself the odd man out of the early rotation as he doesn’t have the creativity to make up for the edge the other players have in size, steadiness and shooting.
Calderon in particular is pretty close to the ideal point guard for the triangle scheme (offensively at least). Not particularly aggressive with the ball, either in terms of driving or attempting difficult passes, Calderon is most comfortable making entry passes and spotting up around the arc, especially above the break:
Prigioni plays a similar style, but is even less aggressive with his shooting (though he is a far superior defender even at his advanced age, as Calderon is one of the worst point guard defenders in the NBA):
As for the other wing positions, how many minutes are available will be determined by how much time Anthony spends at small forward. The more pure triangle the Knicks run, the less time Melo will spend as a smallball 4. Forcing Melo into too much high and mid-post play takes him away from his best scoring spots and will encourage him to take more mid-range jumpers than might be healthy:
Best guess is there will be about 60-70 total minutes available to be divided between Smith, Shumpert, Anthony and Early. Smith is as always a wild card, but he’s by far the most creative guard the Knicks have with the ball in his hands, as his playmaking and passing tend to be completely overshadowed by the rest of the J.R. Smith Experience. Barring injury or an extreme meltdown, he’s getting at least 25 MPG.
Shumpert’s defensive ability probably wins him the next spot in the rotation, and perhaps even a titular starting role if Smith is assigned the 6th man spot. He might even get some point guard minutes. Though he has struggled in that position in the past, much of that difficulty came as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, where he’s averaged an extremely poor .6 points per possession while turning the ball over 20% of the time for his career according to Synergy. Since the triangle reduces the need for pick-and-roll play, Shumpert can attempt to score on threes and drives only, a recipe that saw him have decent success in his second, best pro-season (unsurprisingly, 2012-13 was the year Shump spent the least time as the ball-handler in PnR:
Of course if Shumpert turns out to be the mediocre long-range shooter he was during his first and third NBA seasons (shooting 31% and 33% from three-point range respectively), the door will be open for Hardaway, Jr. and Early to move up the depth chart. Hardaway’s porous defense will be an issue, and Early is likely to be not much better as a rookie (if ever). Hardaway, Jr.’s offense certainly fits, as his shooting profile and relatively inability to put the ball on the floor mesh nicely with the shots the triangle can generate for wing players:
Early is potentially a more versatile player offensively, with more skill off the dribble and even the occasional post up. However, he will probably be in for some dues paying bench time over the first few months of the season and have to be ready to step in if (and more likely when) one of Smith, Shumpert or Hardaway start to struggle.
The Knicks clearly have a very jumbled rotation on the wings, and it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out by the time the new year rolls in.