Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Knicks are Playing Offense Differently and Doing It Really Well

Last night, the Knicks beat the Heat for their ninth consecutive win and increased their Atlantic Division lead to five games over the Nets. The Knicks' success this season comes almost entirely from their offense, as their defense is merely 16th in points per possession. Their offense, however, ranks third in points per possession at an impressive 108.2 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the Thunder and the Heat. The Knicks certainly have talented offensive players, particularly Carmelo Anthony, but it is their strategy on offense that's more interesting. Their combination of isolation, three-point shooting, and never turning the ball over has somehow made a team that cannot drive, doesn't get offensive rebounds, and shoots a mere 44% into an elite offensive machine.

Let's start with the three-pointers. The Knicks attempt 28.7 three-pointers a game, tied for first with the Houston Rockets this season (and ever). This statistic is further skewed by the fact that the Knicks average six fewer possessions than the Rockets (92.2 for the Knicks, 26th in the NBA, compared to the Rockets' 98.5, the most for any team). So essentially, the Knicks shoot threes on nearly one-third of all possessions.

The three-pointer, particularly from the corners, has come into vogue in the last decade as NBA teams have finally figured out that a three-pointer is, you know, worth an extra point. In a recent Zach Lowe Grantland article, the Toronto Raptors shared the fact that their executives believe that a three-point shot that goes in 28% of the time is more valuable than a two-point shot that goes in 42% of the time. They justify this because three-pointers have the added benefit of producing long rebounds, giving the offensive team a better chance of getting a rebound. More and more three-pointers are being shot every season and it appears that the Knicks are out in front on this new strategy.

So the league is growing into more of a three-point shooting league and that's all well and good, but a contested three-pointer is still incredibly hard. Most teams that thrive on three-pointers take three paths: 1. they have elite shooters, 2. they have a run-and-gun offense, like the Nash Suns or Harden Rockets, or 3. by posting up one elite offensive player and surrounding him with shooters, like Dwight's Magic.

The Knicks, however, buck that trend. As noted before, they go at an incredibly slow pace (insert Ray Felton cupcake joke here). They don't have an elite offensive post presence, and they don't have an elite three-point shooter (with the exception of Steve Novak, who only shoots 4 of their 28 threes per game). So how the hell do the Knicks not only shoot all these threes, but make them at a 37% clip, good for sixth in the league?

The answer is that Carmelo Anthony forces double teams, igniting a ball-swinging offense that is keyed by willing passers like Felton, Kidd, and Prigioni. Additionally, J.R. Smith and Melo can get three-pointers at any time they want, and make a decent portion of them. Thirdly, the ability of Tyson Chandler as a screen setter and a rim roller collapses the defense whether he scores 2 points or 20. The Knicks space the floor remarkably similarly to the Heat in the sense that they all stand on the perimeter. Even Tyson Chandler, an elite finisher around the rim, simply roves from wing player to wing player setting screens, and if the opportunity presents itself, he rolls to the rim for a possible alley-oop.

Whereas the Heat use a vacant lane to give James and Wade space to drive, the Knicks rarely score in the paint (only 33% of their points), and when they do, it is more in transition or on drives by Melo from the left elbow. The Knicks aren't using this inside space other than posting up Melo and initiating their offense from 18 feet out, and it doesn't matter. They've found a way to use the three-point shot with more frequency while maintaining a high percentage, a huge component of their offensive success. The Knicks understand that making three of eight three-pointers is incredibly valuable, and have encouraged chuckers like Melo and Smith to chuck from 25 feet instead of 21.

The Knicks are also elite in terms of never ever turning the ball over. They turn the ball over on 11.9% of all possessions, a league-best mark that is aided by the fact that they rarely drive the ball. Their offense is slow, methodical and ideally ends in someone catching and shooting without dribbling once. The Knicks can afford to shoot 44% because they get more shots than their opponents by never turning it over, and the shots they get are worth more.

As a side note, the Knicks shooting more shots than their opponents leads announcers to criticize their rebounding because they get fewer rebounds than their opponents. When you look more into it, the Knicks actually get the 4th-highest percentage of defensive rebounds in the league. Offensive rebounding, where the Knicks rank 20th in the same stat, is a different story. Here the Knicks, as noted previously, have fewer people near the basket and don't have the athleticism to run in for the rebound without getting beat down the court in transition.

The Knicks' offense doesn't resemble a traditional NBA offense in one crucial stat, a stat that drives fans crazy: field goal percentage. The Knicks as a team shoot 44.5%, 20th in the league, and their leading scorers -- Melo, J.R. Smith and Felton -- are shooting 44%, 41.3%, and 42.5% respectively. When 60 of your 100 points come from guys shooting below average (the NBA shoots 45.9% as a whole), it frustrates fans, especially when a fair number of these shots are "no-no-no-yes" J.R. Smith specialties. However, the Knicks overcome this because they shoot threes, they shoot more threes, and they never turn the ball over. Field goal percentage is only one piece of the puzzle, and the Knicks have minimized its importance not through offensive rebounding but by shot selection (3sssssssss), and getting more shots by not turning the ball over.

Critics of the Knicks' offense said that after the team's hot start, they wouldn't be able to keep shooting threes at such a high clip (41.6% in November), but they've settled in at 37.4%. The Knicks' offense is not an issue and has not been all season. Through Melo's ability to command a double team, Chander's ability to collapse a defense and set screens, and a bunch of shooters capable of making 35%+ of their threes, the Knicks have created an elite offense despite shooting a low percentage, getting very few points in the paint, and lacking the ability to penetrate consistently. The Knicks aren't running a normal offense by any stretch of the imagination, and it often looks strange to see a team shooting 40 threes in a game, but Mike Woodson's strategy has worked remarkably well. The Knicks don't do things traditionally, they don't do things uncontroversially, but for the first time since Sprewell was able to feed his family, they've got an offense capable of making some noise in the playoffs.

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