I grew up a Knicks fan, but for the last, say, 25 years or so I really haven’t been much of a fan. Over the last two weeks I found myself watching the Knicks on purpose for the first time since the late 90s.
Not only were the Knicks pretty good this year – making the playoffs as the fourth seed in the East – but they were incredibly fun to watch. They played a lot of guys, with 11 or 12 guys getting regular minutes in most games. They finished with a different crew almost every night. They shot the ball really well, spreading teams out on offense and sharing the basketball. They also defended their asses off. They went from being 27th in the league in defense to being 1st in the league in a year, a credit to the job Tom Thibodeau did in changing the approach and the culture.
I was excited to see the Knicks play games that mattered again, but it was also great basketball to watch. They had a lot of guys who could hurt you and they got leading contributions from different players every night. It was pretty disappointing to see them get handled by the Hawks in five games in the playoffs – and the Hawks clearly looked like the better team.
The Knicks looked completely different. One major change was in the rotation. Thibodeau stopped playing so many guys and cut down the rotation. He went with Derrick Rose for the most part at the point, leaving Elfrid Payton, who started a lot of games during the year, on the bench. With the shorter rotation, the Knicks seemed to lose some of their identity and their energy. The ball didn’t move quite the same. There was a lot more isolation ball being played.
Now you can make the case that the Hawks defended really well and outplayed the Knicks from the jump, and that is why the Knicks tried to adjust. But it seemed to me like they lost what made them so good in the first place. The versatility, the connection and the different weapons that come with a deep rotation were gone. They weren’t the same team.
I know it’s conventional theory to shorten the rotation, but I’ve never really bough in to that approach. It seems to me like something Pat Riley did in the 80s and 90s, and everyone just followed suit. I guess I’m not a big fan of conventional theory. I’ve always loved playing a lot of guys as a coach, because I love what it can bring to your team. It makes you really dangerous and hard to game plan against. It really helps your teams confidence because everyone is engaged. It makes your practices better, because everyone shows up knowing they can earn more time on the floor (not that this matters much in the NBA, as they hardly ever have live practice). It gives you a lot of guys you can count on, and a lot of different weapons. It also seems like it creates a different energy – a connection within your team because everyone plays a key role.
I know the NBA playoffs and college basketball post-season are very different, with so many more games to play in a 7-game series. But I never liked changing my rotation in the post-season. Whenever I did, I usually didn’t like the result. I felt like when things weren’t going well in a post-season game for us, I got tight and shortened the rotation. It’s natural to want to go with your best players as much as possible. But if your team is in trouble with your best players out there, it probably means they aren’t playing that well. You probably need a different energy, and your bench can bring that for you.
I always tried to remind myself to trust the bench in the post-season. Forty minutes is still a long time, and if you start to change and your team senses you are tight, they will get tight as well. I felt like the Knicks played tight most of the series. If playing a lot of guys and having a deep rotation was part of your success in the regular season it can have the same impact in the post-season. You just have to believe in it.