This was a tough opening matchup for any team, let alone one that added seven new rotation pieces in the offseason. With the Rose trial removing him from practice and most of preseason, an adjustment period was inevitable.
Before we dive in, it's important to keep in mind that the Cavaliers are really freakin good, and LeBron James is still in the prime of his career (which is amazing). The Knicks struggled on both ends, but not everything was as bad as it looked. The defending champs were locked in defensively, which has a major ripple effect for unfamiliar squads like the Knicks, and lineups with Channing Frye at the center position blitzed the Knicks just like they did in the Eastern playoffs last season.
I'm going to sort my player specific observations into three categories: good, bad, and meh. At the end, we'll take a look at the game as a whole and try to distill a general overview of how this team can/will perform moving forward.
1. Justin Holiday
Holiday was excellent in his Knicks debut, continuing his recent hot streak from range while playing the best defense on the entire roster. His shooting touch has been inconsistent throughout his career - something to keep an eye on - but when his shot is falling, he will be a productive player. As an afterthought in the Rose trade, it's possible that he may actually provide more value for the Knicks than Jerian Grant will for the Bulls moving forward.
This sequence sums up his night nicely - Holiday does a great job keeping a body on JR as he tries to navigate the screen, and after a bit of help by Noah, he recovers nicely to cut off the attempted drive. Once he forces the miss with a good contest, Holiday beats everyone down the floor for a nice catch-and-shoot trey in transition.
That's the exact sort of thing the Knicks need. You cannot get out in transition without defensive stops - long defenders like Holiday are excellent for bothering routine moves and making opponents uncomfortable, something the Knicks have lacked for quite some time. Expecting him to become a reliable shooter from range is almost certainly a recipe for disappointment, but if he can provide strong defensive play along with 36% shooting from 3, he can be a valuable rotation player right away.
2. Kristaps Porzingis
Shocker. Porzingis is really good. We saw it in preseason - since last year, his shot release has quickened, and the noticeable lack of arc he debuted with has just about disappeared. He didn't get many possessions in face up situations, but once the Knicks got him involved with plays outside of the typical Triangle playbook, he showed enough to get excited.
This play is an example of how creative you can get when operating with Porzingis at the 5. KP executes a zipper cut off a screen from Lee, which flows directly into a high pick and roll with Rose. Porzingis slips the screen when he reads Love helping on Rose's potential dribble penetration, leading to an open catch-and-shoot 3. Porzingis ends up too high on this play - he should have been right up to the line - and misses the shot, but there's a lot to like here. With a non-unicorn, the high pick and roll would flow normally with Kevin Love a step behind to defend thanks to the screen-the-screener action, but since KP is incredible, he can pop to 3 instead of rolling to the rim. This is easy pickings, and should be a staple in the offensive playbook moving forward.
Defensively, KP didn't have a great night. The blocked shots are a given at this point, and man, are they fun, but Porzingis continues to struggle closing out on offensive players who can shoot or put the ball on the floor.
His feel for help rotations is remarkable for such a young player, and his footwork in most situations is also a marvel, but he'll need to focus on leveraging his length to contest shots, allowing him to hang back further to recover if his man decides to attack the rim.
3. Mindaugas Kuzminskas
Not much to say here. Kooz remains a complete liability on defense, but he hit a nice baby hook in LeBron's face and followed it up with the money trey after LeBron left him alone on the perimeter without a closeout. He'll need to continue to establish that jumper, and I doubt his defense will ever be good, but he's got great touch around the rim and a silky jumper.
His handle is really bad, though. He always pulls up short when he's in traffic because he knows it, too. Could be worse, I guess.
1. Brandon Jennings
Almost everyone on the team was a net negative, but it would take too many words to include them all. A couple, like Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas, are probably due for some positive regression as well. It's an easy choice here, though - Brandon Jennings was almost unequivocally terrible, only salvaging a 14% shooting night by baiting Cavalier defenders into stupid fouls. After showing some promise in the preseason, he's regressed considerably. Jennings' shot selection is abhorrent, and he'll often just do whatever the hell he wants instead of running the offense.
See the above, where Jennings doesn't recognize Kyrie Irving switched onto KP (LeBron correctly picks him up eventually, but the opportunity was there), choosing instead to dribble around for half the possession. Later in the game, he wasted a 5 on 4 transition opportunity in favor of a pull up 3, which he predictably missed.
His defense was notably bad in one-on-one and help situations, making matters even worse. Jennings shot 28% in preseason (23% from 3), shot 37% last year, and went 1/7 last night. He needs to pick it up, and if he doesn't, look for Ron Baker to get some actual minutes to see if he can provide a steady hand off the bench.
2. Kyle O'Quinn
Stop taking 3's. Seriously. Stop. Move the ball, set screens, and dive to the rim. Shoot the midrange only under the following circumstances:
Wide open catch and shoot situations OR Less than 8 seconds on the shot clock.
Otherwise, Kyle O'Quinn needs to be limited to layups and dunks. The fluctuations of his level of play on a game-to-game basis challenge my mind in a manner quite similar to quantum mechanics. O'Quinn's pick and roll chemistry with Jennings in the preseason leads me to believe they will collectively be the most inconsistent pairing in the league.
1. Derrick Rose
Well...there's a lot to sift through here. Watching him score in the paint, both in transition and the halfcourt, was like coming back from a year in Vietnam and eating a cheeseburger. In this hypothetical, Jose Calderon is literally the Vietnam War. It was that bad. For that reason alone, I'm going to put him in this spot, because everything else was not too encouraging.
I wrote a detailed scouting report on Rose in the offseason, so give that a look if you haven't already, but I'll sum it up as concisely as possible: Rose is still an elite athlete who can get to the rim with ease. He's got a nice midrange game out to 16 feet - combined with his prowess on push shots, jump hooks, and floaters, he can score pretty effectively from 3-16 feet. But the loss of his vertical explosion that made him arguably the best NBA athlete ever severely hindered him last year. Rose struggled to finish at the rim and got to the line at a remarkably reduced rate. His range outside of 16 feet is unreliable on a good day and flat out terrible on a bad day. And, most importantly, Rose has developed a pretty mean case of tunnel vision.
Fortunately for me (but unfortunately for the Knicks), this scouting report has proven to be pretty accurate. Rose was able to get to the rim all night, but could not finish effectively, and only got to the free throw line twice. Rose also didn't notice wide open shooters on the perimeter at least 4 or 5 times. Like, no exaggeration, there is nobody within 15 feet of Porzingis on this play.
Rose's lone assist provides a look into what the Knicks will need from Rose. As an actual dynamic threat, Rose can draw defenders (hopefully in the flow of the offense, as it is below), leaving teammates to feast on open looks.
The tunnel vision is worrying because of Rose's track record, but there is a fair argument to be made that Rose has not had time to adjust his game to the new personnel around him. The Bulls were never really able to surround Rose with catch-and-shoot monsters like Carmelo and Porzingis, so it's possible that explicit coaching combined with increased familiarity will increase Rose's proclivity to drive and dish. Especially since Rose missed almost all of the preseason, including practices, thanks to his trial. But this is pretty easily the biggest question for the Knicks moving forward.
2. Courtney Lee
Lee looked like he was overthinking things. As a player who often relies on his feel for the game and decision making, it feels prudent to chalk this one up to nerves and unfamiliarity. He missed a LOT of shots that he's canned reliably for his entire career (and in preseason), and gifted the Cavaliers some extremely uncharacteristic turnovers - likely in part a function of team chemistry (or lack thereof).
Defensively, there's not much to say. He had his moments, but only played 20 minutes, as Hornacek opted to ride Justin Holiday's shooting instead.
3. Lance Thomas
Lance had a pretty bad game on the offensive end, continuing what was an inevitable regression from last season (he hit more 3's last year than he had attempted in his career - both college and NBA combined). Even with that in mind, Thomas' shooting has become a negative blip that will require monitoring. His floater game remains hilarious.
What put LT in the "meh" category was his defense. Kevin Love took him to school a couple of times, but overall he continued to play with impressive effort on that end of the floor. Love is a really good player, and placing Thomas on Love is really pushing his defensive abilities to the limit. As mentioned above, Porzingis was struggling with Love in his own right, so Thomas was tasked with bodying him down low for a good stretch of time. Lance competed hard and didn't get completely hammered, which is really all you can ask for.
The Knicks actually did a pretty good job hanging with the Cleveland starting unit. Their starters bring a different dynamic than the bench - better defense and rebounding at the expense of offense - but lineups with Tristan Thompson at the center position were pretty ineffective in the halfcourt. Per NBAwowy.com, the Cavs shot a dismal 25% eFG on possessions ending with a defensive rebound with Thompson at center (12 total possessions). Those lineups were propped up by two things - transition opportunities thanks to live ball turnovers, and offensive rebounding. Turnovers absolutely killed the Knicks during the non-blowout portions of the game, and lineups with Thompson on the floor blitzed the glass, recovering 38% of their own misses.
The offensive rebounds were bad, but not unexpected - that's basically the biggest asset Tristan Thompson brings on the offensive end, and Kevin Love is no slouch, either. The turnovers, however, were unacceptable.
It's impossible to say for sure, but the nature of the turnovers (for the most part) heavily implied that chemistry was the major contributing factor (and rust on the part of Rose). Rose turned the ball over a bunch of times due to a bad handle, but most of them were actually unforced - you'd expect that to regress as he settles in.
The pick and roll chemistry is just not there, particularly with the Melo-Noah and Lee-Noah combinations. Check out this play, where Porzingis and Lee are both occupying the weakside corner while Melo and Noah run the pick and roll. This is terrible spacing, likely caused by unfamiliarity. If either KP or Lee was in the correct position above the break, a skip pass from Melo would have generated a wide open 3 pointer for either player.
That will (hopefully) come. While the turnovers were extremely worrying, let's wait and see a couple more games before declaring it a genuine issue.
Anyway, the subtler issue with the turnovers is that it limits how effectively the Knicks can get out in transition. 18 Knick turnovers combined with 37% shooting from the field allowed Cleveland to run out and generate easier shots, just like the Knicks aspire to do, but it also forces the Knicks to take the ball out and execute their half court offense. The Knicks were able to run when they got live ball turnovers and stops. They just didn't get many of those.
When you have to emphasize your halfcourt offense thanks to your own medly of self-inflicted turnovers, but your lack of chemistry makes executing in the halfcourt with turning the ball over extra difficult, and you're playing ridiculously potent offensive AND defensive squad...you get last night.
But that's just the starting unit. Everything fell apart once Channing Frye came into the game at center in the 2nd half.
Many may view this as a really bad thing, but I'm not so sure. If you go back and watch the Eastern Conference playoffs from last year, the Cavaliers absolutely blew every team out of the water offensively when Frye played the 5. They had already perfected a series of sets they can literally run over and over, and they are pretty close to unstoppable for normal teams when they do so. Once they brought Frye, they went right to work with the same stuff we saw last year. They alternated posting up LBJ and running horns sets with Lebron at the elbow; basically, the Cavs set up Bron with the ball in ideal position to throw dimes to shooters. Those shooters were sprung by virtue of off-ball action and ridiculous spacing. This is exactly what they did against the Raptors in the ECF (while literally setting shooting records from beyond the arc).
Lineups with Frye at center on Tuesday scored an absolutely absurd 1.42 points per possession on 68.5% true shooting. That's just stupid. During those stretches, they shot 46% from the promised land and generated three dunks - dunks made possible by the impeccable spacing those lineups provide.
So, all in all, it seems prudent to take a deep breath and relax. The Cavaliers won the Finals for a reason, and they returned most of their key players. They made Toronto (finished 11th in defensive efficiency) and Atlanta (finished 2nd in defensive efficiency) look like fools on the way. No need to panic just yet.
The Knicks need to get Porzingis involved early and often. The box score shows 13 shot attempts, but one was a tip-in, and one was a completely accidental make that got credited to him because he was loosely involved in the scramble for the ball. In reality, KP only took 11 shots, and that's just not good enough.
Besides the play detailed earlier, there's all kinds of ways to get Porzingis involved without the ball. Pin-down screens from Carmelo on the weak side. Flare screens at any point during an offensive possession. Drag screens in transition (I expect to see this a lot - the lack of opportunities for him was likely tied, in part, to the lack of transition opportunities). I don't really care what they do - they need to take advantage of the unicorn.
Next game is 10/29/16 against the Memphis Grizzlies, who may be without their prized offseason acquisition, Chandler Parsons. That game should be a much better barometer of where the Knicks are at right now.