The Knicks Fix: Starting From Zero

Derek Fisher gritted his teeth through his answer as the Knicks once again were unable to meet at the intersection of Focus and Physicality.

“We talked ad nauseum about keeping this team out of the paint,” he said of the Pelicans, who racked up 54 points in the paint in Tuesday’s win over the Knicks. “I’m not sure why we couldn’t hold onto that thought while we were out there on the floor.”

Derek Fisher speaks to reporters after the Knicks' loss to the Pelicans and explains what went wrong in the defeat to New Orleans.

It’s as far as Fisher will allow himself to go right now — at least publicly — when discussing his struggling team. In getting to know him while shooting episodes of MSG’s weekly Nothing But Knicks show, it’s clear Fisher has a very intense side that he keeps hidden behind a public stoicism that is there to maintain composure and control.

And what I’ve seen is as he learns to be a coach, he is still following a standard he set as a player: by doing most of his talking — save for a few quick timeouts early in the third quarter — behind a closed locker-room door.

The Knicks are obviously in the embryonic stage of a massive rebuild directed by Phil Jackson, who referenced “the culture that is being taught” when he met with reporters Monday. Jackson called out a “loser’s mentality” that exists within the team and how “old habits outweigh” the “new skills and culture.

Despite recent struggles, Knicks president Phil Jackson remains optimistic the Knicks can turn things around with competitive team play and more positive thinking on the court.

Fisher took it a step further Tuesday when he said the team is “allowing ourselves to be boxed into what the team used to be.” You can ask the question “what does he know about what this team used to be”? Fisher knows from his experience as an outsider and the reputation of the franchise over the past decade-plus. He knows from reading a book on Knicks history — not just the championship years, but the entire story, from 1947 to present — which was given to him over the summer. He carefully read the book to gain a full understanding of exactly what he was getting himself into.

“We’re starting from zero in terms of how to build a basketball team,” Fisher said, “and how to build habits that don’t allow you to win every now and then, but to become a team that every season, every week, every month, you know you’re going to be one of the best teams out there on the floor.”

Coincidentally, a major part of the rebuild is Fisher, a neophyte coach who is learning on the job.

“This is a building year and this is an opportunity for him to grasp it from its fullest extent,” Jackson said of Fisher, who six months ago was playing in the Western Conference Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I think he’s a remarkable character that shows up and he’s got a resilient attitude about what he’s doing. I think he’s determined and I think he’ll make it work.”

This is the definition of baptism by fire, with Jackson being extra careful not to have too large of a presence to undermine Fisher’s authority among the players. But Jackson emerged Monday perhaps as a way to support Fisher and show that management is not wavering on it’s long-term plan and it’s belief in the Triangle Offense, while the players, as expected, begin to push back.

Players are open to new concepts — both on offense and defense — as long as they prove to be successful. But when something does not work right away, they quickly return to their comfort zone. It’s human nature. They’re the ones out there being booed.

“There’s been some resistance to discipline and order and culture change and things like that,” Jackson said.

The Triangle Offense has its issues in the modern NBA, especially when there isn’t the presence of a great passer in the high post or great shooters to space the floor. But for the Knicks this season, it has shown, at times, to be very effective in getting open shots. And we’re seeing ball movement, passing and assists at much higher rates than in recent Knicks seasons.

In fact, here’s a stunning collection of analytics for you: According to NBA.com’s SportVu statistics, the most effective passer on the team is Carmelo Anthony.

It’s true, 73.3 percent of his passes go for assists, which is the highest rate on the team among the rotation players. Teammates are shooting 47.6 percent off his passes.

Right behind him is J.R. Smith, who boasts a 70.7 assist percentage, with teammates shooting 54.1 percent from the field off his passes.

Perhaps it isn’t the passing, or the willingness, that’s the issue. Perhaps it’s the lack of effective perimeter shooters and, even more importantly, slashers and drivers and the notable lack of rim-finishers. The Knicks are last in the NBA in Drives Per Game, according to SportVu, with just 12.4 per game. They’re scoring a league-low 13.9 points per game on drives to the basket.

And then there’s the open shots the system creates for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. The “shooting guard” trio collectively attempt 26.4 shots per game and are shooting 40.7 percent from the field.

It calls to mind my favorite Mike D’Antoni saying: I don’t need shooters, I need makers.

Then there is Sam Dalembert, the center acquired in the Tyson Chandler trade, who in the first month of the season had the ball in his hands a great deal as part of the Triangle Offense. While his presence as a shot blocker and rebounder is needed, his 4.0 turnovers per 100 possessions suggest he shouldn’t be handling the ball or making decisions with it.

Perhaps Andrea Bargnani will be a better fit there, once he is, of course, healthy enough to play.

Jackson said Bargnani would not be “the panacea” for the Knicks, but did use his injury, plus the early-season injury to Jose Calderon, as an excuse for the struggles. “We did not anticipate that Shane [Larkin] would have to be a starter or Quincy [Acy] would have to be a starter when the season began,” Jackson said.

This is a case of a system not fitting either the skill set or mentality of every player on the roster, including some that are getting major minutes.

“We see some guys that don’t have the skills that are really necessary to operate,” Jackson said, “but they’ll learn those.”

Believe it or not, the Knicks are closing in on being a top 10 team in two key defensive categories: Defensive Field Goal Percentage and Points Per Game Allowed. The critical area that needs improvement is defensive rebounding, which is the final step in the all-important defensive stop.

Check out these numbers:

LOWEST DEFENSIVE REBOUNDING TEAMS/DEFENSIVE FG% (RANK)

Team D-Reb D-FG% Rank
Jazz 29.8 47.8% 27
Lakers 29.7 48.1% 28
T-Wolves 28.6 50.1% 30
Knicks 28.6 45.1% 12
Heat 27.5 48.1% 29

*-Knicks allow 12.0 Offensive Rebounds per game (3rd most in NBA)

*-Knicks allow 99.3 Points per game (12th lowest in NBA)

The Knicks also need to continue to decrease their fouls per game (23.7), which is the fourth-most in the NBA. They are giving up 19.9 points per game at the foul line, which is seventh-most in the league.

These are just numbers, not the entire reason why the team is 4-19, but certainly gives us a look into what areas need to be addressed to improve the performance.

It’s easy to say, just rebound or just drive the ball to the hoop. The reality is, the Knicks can’t really address the low rate of driving the basketball, because don’t have a guard who can break down a defense with dribble penetration. They don’t have a bona fide rebounder on the team to improve the issues on the boards, where the Knicks are 29th in the league.

So the challenges for the players on the court, the challenge for a rookie coach on the bench, only heightens the challenge for Jackson to find a way to improve the team without sacrificing the future, which includes a first-round draft pick and the flexibility of salary-cap space. Both of those tools allow him to find the players that do fit the system.

“What we have to do is protect our future,” Jackson said. “We can’t get so enamored with what’s happening right now that we don’t protect what’s ahead of us. So that’s a concern.

“If we evaluate a player and see that he’s going to be a long-term person that can fit into this organization well, we’ll do that. But right now those things aren’t jumping out.”