If the final quarter of this season will involve, as Jeff Hornacek said, assessment on what players fit the Triangle Offense, it should also be an assessment of lineups. For most of this season, the Knicks were a team that struggled at the start of games and also struggled with defense.
So when Hornacek made a last-second change in the starting lineup before the win in Orlando, it made Wally Szczerbiak nod with approval during Knicks Game Night on MSG.
With Kristaps Porzingis back in the lineup and Willy Hernangomez out with a sprained ankle, the first plan was to start Kyle O’Quinn at center and have Porzingis at the four and Carmelo Anthony at the three. Szczerbiak contended that the Knicks would be better served to keep Lance Thomas — who has started while Porzingis was out with an ankle injury — in the starting lineup. Melo has also proven to be more effective playing at the four spot and Hornacek earlier in the season wanted to use Porzingis more at the center position.
Right before tip-off, Hornacek switched back to Thomas at the three with Melo back at the four and KP at center. The move worked as the Knicks got off to a great start and took an early lead they never relinquished.
And we spent the entire postgame show dedicated to the return of the Lance Thomas we remembered from last season.
Check the numbers: Thomas last season had a team-best defensive field goal percentage (41.4%) and was excellent at closing out three-point shooters (31.1% 3PT Def FG). It was believed that if last season took a sudden downward turn when Melo sprained his ankle stepping on a referee’s foot, but the bottom dropped out when Thomas injured his knee and tried to play through it.
Thomas proved during the first half of last season to be an invaluable versatile defender, who guarded everyone from point guards to stretch fours.
He’s had to deal with more injuries earlier this season and has tried to recover from the knee issues from last season. Then came the freak accident in which he broke his face right after one of his great defensive moments — when he dove for the loose ball to seal a dramatic road win in Milwaukee on Jan. 6.
Subsequent headaches and a concussion continued to limit his season until he returned to the lineup on Feb. 12. The Knicks are 3-3 in the last six games since Thomas was reinserted into the lineup.
Thomas has re-emerged as the Knicks’ best wing defender and boasts a 38.2% Defensive Field Goal Percentage, which is the best on the team.
So consider Thomas with another of the Knicks’ top perimeter defenders, Courtney Lee (team-leading 30.8% 3PT Def. FG%), in the starting lineup with Porzingis, who is fourth in the NBA in Rim Protection (44.7%), and Hornacek now has his best defensive lineup.
Yet it doesn’t negatively impact the offense because of Derrick Rose, Melo and KP are on the floor to provide plenty of scoring. The one concern with this lineup is rebounding, but analytics say Porzingis should be an effective rebounder when close to the rim on defense and the rest of the group can focus on gang-rebounding.
So now we ask this question: if this is the best starting five and KP can be an effective player at center, then what does Hornacek do with Hernangomez when he returns from the ankle injury?
The answer is simple: bring him off the bench. Yes, KP and Hernangomez have very good chemistry and could be aligned in the front court for many years in orange and blue. Just because they don’t start together, it doesn’t mean you can’t play them together for long stretches of the game. Hernangomez could be the first sub for KP in the first quarter and then start the second with KP while Melo gets his usual rest.
It sounds simple, but obviously, it isn’t. The numbers suggest this is the right lineup to assess and if this is a period of assessment for the team, it would be the best way to go. The Knicks used the lineup to hold consecutive opponents to under 100 points. They’ve kept teams under 100 points only 11 times in 61 games so far this season and three times over the last six games.
“We’re probably still trying to figure out how that we can play this hard on defense,” Hornacek said after the win in Orlando, “and still have energy on the offensive end.”
Though there is a re-emphasis of the Triangle Offense, Hornacek is also making defense a greater priority. This lineup does that.