A blockbuster trade and two massive signings later, Phil Jackson has completed his revamp of the New York Knicks’ starting lineup. Call the group of Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joakim Noah whatever you’d like—Marc Berman of the New York Post dubbed them the Jackson Five, which gives us the incredible image of Porzingis as massive Latvian Michael—but no matter what you call them, this is the best starting lineup the Knicks have rolled out since their 54-win 2012-13 season.
Jackson took a lot of gambles in assembling this lineup—gambles on health, fit and age, as well as a gamble on Porzingis’ ability to develop playing alongside two ball-dominant players in Rose and Anthony. It could all fall apart, but that’s true of any lineup on any team in any era. When you have the chance to field a group with this much talent, these sorts of gambles are worth taking. Take the weighted names away from these players and what you’re left with is a 27-year-old former MVP, a solid 3-and D wing, an all-time scorer coming off playing the best all-around ball of his career, a sweet-shooting shot-blocking wunderkind, and a former Defensive Player of the Year. That, on paper, is a pretty impressive group, one that has enormous potential if everything breaks just right.
If it all does break just right, this is a lineup that will maximize each player’s ability on offense while providing the tools necessary for a competent defense. That’s as much a testament to the way these players fit together as it is to their considerable talent. Anthony has always played best when paired with competent point guards, and Derrick Rose is at least that. Rose, for his part, has never played with as gifted a scorer as Anthony, and the game will come easier to him when defenses are stretched to cover Anthony and Prozingis. Lee is the exact sort of two-guard you need alongside Rose and Anthony, one who can take the tough wing assignments on defense, doesn’t need the ball in his hands (he used only 14.7% of Charlotte’s possessions in his time with them last season), and still provides enough shooting to make up for Rose’s inconsistent jump shot. Noah, though he has declined in recent years, is still a massive plus on both defense and offense. Even in his last injury-shortened season in Chicago, the Bulls rebounded better, blocked more shots, and moved the ball more fluidly with him on the court. His screen-setting, passing, and ball-handling will work wonders for whatever triangle-ish offense the Knicks run, and will help to open up all kinds of space for his teammates.
Finally, none of these guys have played with anyone resembling Porzingis (the exception here is, of course, Anthony, who has actually played with Porzingis). He’ll benefit immensely from playing with good passers and a penetrating guard, and he’ll feast on the trailing 3s and pick-and-pop actions Hornacek has talked about running for him. He and Noah will be truly scary protecting the rim, and, with another off-season of conditioning under his belt, he should be better at chasing fleet-footed stretch fours around the perimeter than he was last season.
People will talk about the immense potential for things to go wrong with this lineup, and they’ll have a point. The injury concerns are real, and if Anthony and Rose fall back into their old ball-hogging habits, it could get ugly or, worse yet, hamper Porzingis’ growth on offense. Still, there’s so much talent and versatility here that some amount of injuries or natural decline in ability won’t derail the whole thing. If Rose is slowed by the residual effects of years of knee issues, he’ll still be working with so much space that penetrating to the rim should be attainable for him, even without his mind-melting explosiveness. If one of Noah’s many injuries flares up again, Porzingis is mobile and long enough to make up some of the difference when Noah gets beat off switches. If Noah is sidelined for a time, Porzingis can shift down to the five and either Anthony or one of the Knicks’ handful of front-court players can fill in at the four spot. If Anthony’s jumper still looks off or Porzingis shows some regression on that side of the ball, there’s still so much offensive talent in this lineup that someone else will be able to pick up the slack. Essentially, for all of its potential to get derailed, this lineup actually has a large margin of error within which it can still be successful.
The other story with this lineup has to do with the long-term trajectory of the Knicks’ franchise. By drafting Porzingis just a year after re-signing Anthony to a long-term contract, Jackson put himself in the position of having to straddle the divergent timelines of a rising franchise cornerstone and an aging superstar. This decidedly veteran starting lineup, which includes two players (Lee and Noah) on contracts that will outlast Anthony’s current one, signals that Jackson has decided to go all-in on competing during Anthony’s prime. This wouldn’t be possible had Porzingis not emerged as a solid two-way NBA player in his first season, and it’s a sign that the front office believes that he can continue to grow and even prosper surrounded by veteran players hungry for shots and touches. Besides, if the goal is to ultimately have Porzingis play the five full-time (and it should be), they could do worse than to have him learn from Noah, a vocal defensive floor general who doubles as one of the best passing bigs in the league.
And, of course, there are a couple outs for the team in case things go south. Lee and Noah are each signed to four year contracts, which, while great for continuity if they work out, also makes them very tradeable should things fall apart. Rose’s contract expires at the end of the upcoming season, and if he’s a disaster, the team can wash their hands of him and take another shot at finding a guard in the 2017 free agent class. Anthony’s contract is big, but, with the salary cap spike, has become much more reasonable, and finding a trade partner for the aging star shouldn’t be impossible if it gets to that point.
Basically, if this lineup is a total disaster, they can run the whole thing back pretty painlessly and start from scratch building around Porzingis. Even if it is a disaster, though, it will be fascinating one to watch. If it works, we could be looking a top-four starting lineup in the East with the potential for a deep playoff run.