Knicks could make a serious lineup change in 2024-25

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau high fives New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) with guard Donte DiVincenzo (0) and forward OG Anunoby (8) and guard Jalen Brunson (11) during the first quarter against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the New York Knicks’ success in 2023-24 was predicated around their strong interior presence, but after the way the 2024 offseason has unfolded, analysts believe that the franchise could head in a different direction next year.

With featured center Isaiah Hartenstein departed for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and backup big man Precious Achiuwa testing the waters in free agency, the Knicks could be facing a thin lineup at center. They’re expected to counter the void that will be left in their frontcourt depth chart by adding a big man or two next to the recently re-signed Jericho Sims, whether or not they hang on to featured center Mitchell Robinson this summer.

The Knicks will have to work with the tools at their disposal, though, which had a pair of NBA writers forecast the Knicks playing small-ball lineups more frequently in 2024-25, as Scott Davis of The Sporting News collected the sentiments of on Wednesday:

“I do think they can,” said an NBA scout to Newsday’s Steve Popper of New York going small. “The argument for it working is, yes, it should work when OG [Anunoby] is playing because he’s so versatile and defending all over the place. And there should be somewhere that you can put [Julius] Randle.”

Fred Katz of The Athletic followed that up by saying this on the “Knicks Film School” podcast on Wednesday:

“I don’t think OG is their backup five or anything going into the year, but I could see a world where that’s something they deploy way more regularly than they’ve ever deployed an unconventional five in the Thibs era,” Katz wrote.

The Knicks lack a robust small-ball sample size to justify a big shift in 2024-25

Jan 18, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) controls the ball against Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma (33) during the third quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks deployed 50 unique lineups last season, including five-man units that only saw the floor together one time. Of those 50 unique lineups, only two were sent out without one of their four centers in Hartenstein, Robinson, Sims, or Achiuwa. Both of those lineups saw Taj Gibson, a natural power forward, man the five slot. There was one of those two lineups with Gibson that saw court time together four times at an average of 6.4 minutes per game.

Albeit, that sample size was small and was more of an outlier on the season than a trend that stuck its course. The Knicks thrived in 2023-24 behind their amplified offense which stressed ball movement, accelerated pace, and floor spacing, while also benefitting from elite offensive rebounding and rim-running in the pick-and-roll.

Should the Knicks increase their small-ball lineup usage next time out, they’ll have to assess how playing Randle, or even Anunoby as makeshift five men will impact Jalen Brunson’s efficacy in the pick-and-roll and how that will also affect their rim-protecting and rebounding abilities.

How would an increase in small-ball lineups impact the Knicks next season?

May 19, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) brings the ball up court against the Indiana Pacers during the third quarter of game seven of the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

While Brunson finished with 3.5 PPG in the pick-and-roll last season, which was No. 12 among all screen-and-roll scorers, his usage of the play type in and of itself has been and continues to be a mechanism that helps him weave around traffic inside the arc and find his shot, which usually is a mid-range pull-up jumper around the free throw line extended or a runner in the lane.

Having Anunoby and Randle as his screen-setters, and predictably Josh Hart as well should Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau indeed downsize his lineup, will bring natural five men out to challenge Brunson with more confidence and could create a domino effect where his screeners get shown less respect when they dive to the basket. This could counteract any scrambling the Knicks offense could try to force opposing defenses into on the perimeter.

On the boards, the Knicks went 25-10 when they notched 47 or more rebounds in a game. They also outrebounded each of their 35 opponents when they reached or exceeded that rebounding total. Individually, Robinson’s league-leading 4.6 offensive rebounds per night and Hartenstein’s 14.4 percent OREB percentage went a long way for the Knicks in creating second-chance opportunities and offensive momentum for the ball club.

Anunoby will be needed to play top-shelf defense against a stacked slate of small and power forwards in the Eastern Conference next year including Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on the Boston Celtics, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Milwaukee Bucks, Paul George on the Philadelphia 76ers, his former teammate Pascal Siakam on the Indiana Pacers and the talented young duo of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner on the Orlando Magic, to name a few. It may be best for the Knicks to pick up another traditional center off of the free agent pile to ensure that all of their pieces are sent out to to their jobs next season and not throw off the great rhythm they established in 2023-24.

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