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Bing-Bongs To Ding-Dongs: What's Going On With The Knicks?
Diving deep into the Knicks' up-and-down year
Note: All stats current as of Thanksgiving. Stats from Cleaning The Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
The Knicks have a lineup problem. You’ve likely heard some variation of this stat, but consider: according to Cleaning The Glass, the Knick’s starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson gets outscored by an astonishing -16.1 points per 100 possessions, second-worst of all high-use lineups in the league behind the execrable Rockets starters. Their all-backup lineup of Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, and Taj Gibson obliterates opponents by +30.4 points per 100 possessions.
Add it all up, and the Knicks are doing OK; 10-8, currently with a +1.9 point differential per 100 possessions. They’re seventh in the East, with the 11th-best offense overall and 14th-best defense. But, in the last two weeks, they’ve gone ice cold. They’re scoring seven points per 100 possessions fewer despite playing a string of bad defenses. Their offense was below league average in each game against Charlotte, Orlando, and Houston, among others.
So what’s going on?
The team is actually playing a much more modern style of offense this year. 40% of the Knicks’ shots are threes, ninth in the league, and a third are coming at the rim. Last year the Knicks were split evenly between the rim, mid-range, and long-distance. They’re shooting well from range, too, with the third-best accuracy from behind the arc. The mid-range game has disappeared for them, though, and they can’t hit a 15-footer to save their lives.
A big part of that is Julius Randle. Although it looks like he’s choosing better shots this year compared to last year, he’s clanking them:
But there’s a little more to it than that: maybe he’s not shooting better shots, after all!, as opposed to 43% last season at 45% eFG%.
This has come at the expense of catch-and-shoots; 19% of his shots at 50% eFG% this year, compared to 24% of his shots last year at 60% eFG%.
Catch-and-shoots are almost always a better shot than jumpers off the dribble, so trading the latter for the former isn’t usually a good idea. Basically, Randle is doing more self-creating than last season, and he’s doing worse at it.
Accuracy-wise, he’s shooting about the same as he did before last season (when he rode hot shooting to Second Team All-NBA). It might be that his career year was an unsustainable outlier. But Randle has still been the sole source of relatively steady offense on this starting unit. Beyond him are three players struggling with inconsistency: Kemba Walker, RJ Barrett, and Evan Fournier.
Kemba has shot quite well on jumpers but can’t finish at the rim anymore. Years of injuries have sapped the electric quickness from the undersized point guard, and he can’t acrobatically maneuver around defenders in the paint, if he can even get there in the first place.
Fournier, after his overtime heroics in the first game against Boston, has struggled with his shot and turnovers. He looks lost as a tertiary option after being the primary ballhandler in Orlando for years.
Barrett has been the hardest to figure out. After scoring 20+ points in five straight games near the turn of the month, he’s been mired in a horrific shooting slump, and it’s affected his confidence to a noticeable degree. Hopefully, going 3-5 from three against the Lakers before Thanksgiving will shake him out of whatever mental murk he’s in, because the Knicks need him to be their second-best offensive player.
The backup squad has been shooting 41% from deep and rampaging to the hoop like an ostrich stampede. Rose, Burks (absolutely fearless in letting it fly from anywhere), and Quickley are en fuego, and Toppin’s been playing like a madman in transition. He manufactures fastbreak points where none should have existed simply by outrunning defenses. Rose has been as good as ever at penetrating the defense and getting into his floater range.
One area for improvement: ideally, the Knicks would have better ball movement. They are second-to-last in the league in potential assists, just like last year, and rely heavily upon the ballhandler in pick-and-roll and isolation plays. This offense works when Julius Randle is an All-NBA player, but if he’s not at that level, they don’t have the sort of superstar who can make efficient use of these plays.
Offensively, I think the Knicks will end up an average to slightly above-average offensive team. Barrett and Fournier are better than they’ve been playing, and they’re often getting decent looks. Improvement from the starters will offset regression from the backups. Greater familiarity with each other and with the offensive system will remove some of the sludginess.
If that doesn’t come quickly enough, an easy option would be to replace Fournier with Burks or Quickley in the starting lineup. Fournier can take on heavier usage in a more limited role, while Burks and Quickley could space the floor with the starters.
However, this team was an elite defense last year, and even with some new offensively-focused starting guards, expected to be top-10 this year. What’s happening on that side of the ball?
The Knicks under coach Tom Thibodeau play an aggressive helping scheme designed to keep ballhandlers away from the middle of the floor. Players help on the ball and in the paint and then make hard-charging closeouts to contest jump shooters as much as possible.
Here’s the dirty secret about Thibodeau’s defense: it gives up oodles of threes and layups. It’s a defense that requires high effort and high IQ to pull off correctly. When it works, players are whirring around, helping, digging, tagging, recovering in a beautiful (and exhausting) dance. When it doesn’t, it leads to open shots of the worst kind.
Last year, the Knicks gave up the 23rd-most threes and 21st-most rim attempts per Cleaning The Glass. However, opponents couldn’t hit the ocean from a boat: the Knicks had the lowest allowed FG% from both of those spots. The hard closeouts spooked perimeter players, who would rush a shot or pump-fake and dribble into the lane (explaining how a team that plays so much help defense allows so many paint shots), but drivers were met there by ferocious shot-blockers.
This year, New York allows the 28th-most threes and 24th-most shots at the rim. They’re still protecting the paint at a league-best rate (thanks to Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, and Taj Gibson, a trio of threatening rim protectors). But teams are shooting at average accuracy against them from deep now, which is a problem when giving up a massive number of threes.
Look at the picture below. There are five Knicks players around the lane despite only three Lakers in the vicinity. This is how the defense is designed: attack the ball and help the paint. The problem, of course, is that weakside shooters are always going to be open. And in this case, it’s Wayne Ellington (#2 at the top of the picture), an excellent shooter for his career, who gets a wide-open look from the corner. Notice how #5 on the Lakers, Talen Horton-Tucker, is waving at the ballhandler to pass to Ellington in the corner:
Here’s what it looks like live. Watch how the Knicks aggressively help on the pick-setter, Deandre Jordan, and the player by the basket.
And that’s what happens when the defense works. What happens when it doesn’t? I’m glad you asked:
Malik Monk, #11 for the Lakers, runs around a double screen set up at the top of the video. Evan Fournier tries to switch onto him but bizarrely cuts towards the paint and literally runs into his teammate, Nerlens Noel, before belatedly closing out on the shooter. It’s possible that Noel was supposed to help on the shooter, but it’s more likely that Fournier should have kept tailing Monk around the perimeter. Either way, there’s a clear breakdown in communication, resulting in another wide-open three.
Fournier has generally been lost on defense. Kemba Walker’s defensive effort has been there, but he’s tiny and can’t bother jump shooters with his closeouts. His lateral quickness has taken a hit, so he can’t keep opposing players in front of him anymore.
Randle’s defensive work was a sight to behold last season, but this year he hasn’t brought quite the same ferocity, and he’s had some weirdly low-effort plays. RJ Barrett has looked quite good defensively and is the Knicks’ best perimeter defender by far. He rises to the occasion when matched up against high-profile stars like Jayson Tatum and Zach LaVine, especially. Like many young players, his offensive struggles can occasionally lead to defensive lapses, but he’s more than done his part.
Robinson/Noel/Gibson have all been good at the center position. One intriguing thing: the starting lineup has been excellent in limited minutes with Noel at center instead of Robinson. Noel has long been underrated as a center capable of both shutting down the paint and getting low to stick with opposing ballhandlers, and hopefully, Thibs will explore this combo further.
The backups have been better than the starters defensively and bring higher effort, but they’ve also benefitted from a ton of luck. Whereas opponents can’t miss against the starters, opposing teams look like Ben Simmons against the backups - just 22% from three! A group of four Scottie Pippens and one Bill Russell couldn’t defend that well. That number will tick up eventually, and the backups won’t look like the greatest defensive squad in basketball history, but they should still be a strength for this team.
Thibodeau’s defensive principles were honed while he was an assistant on the Celtics’ championship team over a decade ago. They can still be effective, but teams have gotten so much better at cross-court passes and shooting in general that the weaknesses in this system grow ever more apparent.
The good news is that this defense can be better. New players still learning the scheme will react quicker and blow fewer rotations, and effort can be coached up to some extent. The bad news is that succeeding with an increasingly outdated strategy leaves less margin for error every year. A little flexibility from Thibodeau, even if it’s just running some more zone or mixing up coverages a little, will prevent the defense from being too predictable.
The Knicks have the personnel, with several good defensive centers, to run something like what Utah does around center Rudy Gobert. Utah tells its men to stick with their mark on the perimeter at all costs, trusting Rudy to deter drivers. Gobert, a sentient tree, is the best in the world at this, but I’d love for Noel or Robinson to similarly act as the safety without having all the help that the Knicks typically provide.
The Knicks improved significantly throughout last season, and they could do the same this year. Although I don’t think a top-four seed is really in play, that’s due more to the increased strength of the East than any failing of the Knicks, and they should definitely be in the battle for the six-seed to skip the play-in tournament. But to avoid anything other than another first-round loss, the Knicks are going to need to revert to last year’s effort levels or modify their defensive schemes. And to really bring back the Bing-Bong, they’ll need to do both.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
eFG%: effective field goal percentage, which gives extra weight for three-pointers since three is worth 50% more than two. E.g., if a player’s only shot in a game was a made three-pointer, his eFG% would be 150%. If a player made one three-pointer and one dunk, his eFG% would be 125%, etc.