Admittedly, the allocation of the Knicks backup center minutes isn’t the sexiest topic. It may, however, be the most realistic potential change David Fizdale can make to his early-season rotation.
Since our beloved French son Frank Ntilikina was, finally, four games ago, released from the ludicrous confines of Fizdale’s pocket, he has proceeded to kill, and emphatically keep, the starting point guard job. Rookie RJ Barrett will continue to play (too) many minutes. Marcus Morris has been undeniably spectacular of late as the starting small forward. Julius Randle, as the team’s financially-designated offensive fulcrum, will play heavy minutes. And Mitchell Robinson has done nothing to jeopardize his claim as the starting center, if he can stay on the court.
That just leaves question marks on the second unit. Backup point guard, backup shooting guard, and backup center. Kevin Knox has a fairly tight grip on the backup small forward spot. Elfrid Payton should be the backup point upon his return. The backup shooting guard battle is a mess for another day.
In framing the backup center tussle as a Taj Gibson versus Bobby Portis battle for minutes, I’m assuming two things. Firstly, that Robinson should — availability permitting — play the majority of minutes at the five. This should not be controversial. Mitch is already, at 21 years old, a one-man defensive wrecking crew. An athletic anomaly. An adolescent dinosaur surrounded by regular, unimpressive, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand-sized lizards.
The Knicks should be in the business of investing in, and nurturing the development of, potential defensive prodigies. That’s prodigies — plural — because in Frank and Mitch, make no mistake, we have two such commodities.
Secondly, and perhaps only slightly more controversial, is the assumption that neither Gibson nor Portis are the Knicks’ best option at backup power forward. With the impressive early season play of both Marcus Morris and Kevin Knox, one of these shooters should get the backup minutes at the four spot. Both guys are shooting upwards of a molten 44 percent from deep.
A small-ball lineup with one of these snipers sliding up to play the four whilst Randle sits makes sense for a Knick offense somehow perpetually starved of shooting. It also, to the same end, opens up a wing spot on the second unit by bumping everyone up a position. Damyean Dotson would be a nice fit, having shot 37 percent from three on 4.7 attempts per game last season.
If shooting is the argument for Portis not playing backup four, it’s also the argument — probably the only argument — for him playing backup five ahead of Gibson. Portis has three primary skills: 1) he can score the ball, 2) he can rebound the ball, and 3) he has wonderfully comedic — but also kind of worrying — crazy-eyes. He’s shooting just 30 percent from three this season, but is at 36 percent for his career. His problem is that his eyes are glued to the rim on offense. Those eyes want the ball, they need the ball, and they rarely give it up once they get it.
There are diminishing returns of any minutes with Randle and Portis in the frontcourt, where their offensive skillsets — as ball-dominant high-usage scorers — overlap. This is especially true if Morris is also on the floor. The ball can get sticky, the offense stagnant, the play-calls predictable. Regardless, the real nail in the coffin of the Randle-Portis tandem is defense. More specifically, the lack thereof. Both players are negatives on that end, and only amplify each other’s weaknesses.
It’s a very rare night in the NBA where the offensive benefits of Portis’ scoring will outweigh the hefty defensive costs of having two defensive liabilities in the frontcourt, together, for long stretches.
Which brings us nicely onto Taj Gibson. The 34 year old, even in his prime with the Chicago Bulls, was never more than a high-end role player. Taj was molded by former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, in an ecosystem that demands a strict adherence to defensive fundamentals. Gibson will be making on-time weakside rotations well after he retires, through sheer force of habit.
It’s not news that Gibson is a significantly better defensive player than Portis, but he also has quiet offensive virtues that make him a neater fit in Fizdale’s system.
So far this season, the Knicks run the most off-ball screens in the league, but are 28th in the NBA in points per possession — 0.75 — off these plays (per NBA.com Synergy Advanced Stats). Screening is an under-appreciated and under-publicized NBA skill, and in a screen-heavy Knicks offense, elite screen-setters stand to have a big impact.
In limited minutes this season, Gibson has been a devastating screener. According to NBA.com hustle stats, the veteran is averaging an impressive 5.9 screen assists — leading to 13.3 points — per 36 minutes. This mark is by far the highest on the roster, notably dwarfs Portis’ 2.2 screen assists — good for five points — per 36 minutes.
The Brooklyn native also — whilst we’re on the subject of under-the-radar fundamentals — leads the team in box-outs per 36 minutes at 8.7. Portis is right behind him, with 6.4 box-outs per 36 minutes. Good screens and consistent box-outs. Elbow jumpers and hard rolls to the rim. A general sense of industry, of calming competence, of hard-earned experience. These are the blue-collar specialties of Taj Gibson, the epitome of a steadying role player.
This is not (entirely) an indictment of Portis’ game as much as a recognition of Gibson’s. There is value in finding him more minutes; for his fit on this roster, in Fizdale’s screen heavy system, paired up for the most part with a talented, but defensively-limited frontcourt partner in Julius Randle. The reality, with Portis, is that he’s a gunner. Capable of blink-quick scoring bursts, but also one-dimensional and inconsistent. On this Knick team, perhaps, Bobby is better utilized as an ad-hoc energizer, deployed sparingly.
Gibson is short of a great basketball player, or even at this stage of his career a very good one. His game will not raise the ceiling of this Knicks team, but it will raise the floor. Having started the season 2-8, and having been on the wrong end of some truly painful blowouts already, this team cannot turn down the opportunity at an incremental bump in collective competence.
Portis will win one in every ten games by himself, as we saw in his vengeful outburst against the Bulls earlier this season. Gibson will do the dirty work — the little things — to help his team win every night.
For a week now, the Ntilikina hype-train has been picking up steam, fueled, at its core, by an appreciation of Frank’s relentless disruptive value on the defensive end. Fizdale and the Knicks should continue to value the little things, beyond the box score, the grunt work that goes unnoticed in the unglamorous guts of each possession.
Whilst Frank, at 21 years old, is finally getting the opportunity to explore the boundaries of his potential, Taj is at the tail end of a career spent in the NBA trenches. Gibson is battle-tested, and probably a little deaf after eight seasons of being berated by a gruff-baritone Thibodeau, whose heart beats for defensive minutia. One thing he doesn’t need is minutes on a rebuilding Knicks team to validate his 11 years in the NBA so far. There were, no doubt, 10 million other more persuasive reasons he chose New York in free agency this past summer.
Either way, the Knicks sure could do with utilizing another player who does the little things, that — piled up over a quarter, a game, a season — can make a big difference.