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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Assessing Knicks' the 2021-22 Season




December 15th, 2010...the genesis of my Knicks fandom. Yes, I first learned about the Knicks through NBA Live 08; they were the lowest overall team... 8-year-old me needed some easy competition. Yes, Nate Robinson might've lured me away from my hometown New Jersey Nets (yuck...can you imagine liking the Nets!) by winning the Slam Dunk Contest in his Kryptonite jersey. Yes...I listened to my father's poor advice and assumed Lebron James would come to NY and save the Knicks...only to be hoodwinked.


In my mind though, the December 15th game against the Celtics' 3-headed monster of Pierce, Allen, & Garnett will always be the beginning of diehard allegiance to the Knicks.


If I close my eyes, my core Knicks memory is unlocked. I can still feel my 10-year-old self glued to the TV in my parent's room. I feel the tears rolling down my face as Paul Pierce hits the game-winning shot. I remember the feeling of an imaginary knife in my heart as Nate Robinson, the man who lured me to orange and blue, leaped onto Pierce. [Love him, but why in hell was Nate Robinson on the floor in crunch time for a championship contender? Oh, right...Doc Rivers was the coach...that explains it.]


I still remember the pain I felt when STAT's game-winning 3-pointer with 0.4 on the clock was called off. It's the first time I got a true taste of Knicks fandom: the knife was removed from my heart, just to be impaled again, this time by my own team.


It was the first time I cried because of the Knicks, but certainly not the last. I cried when the Knicks barely lost Game 1 to the Celtics that same year. I cried when they lost game 2. And when they got swept. I cried when we lost to the Heat in 2011, and Amar'e punched the fire extinguisher. I cried when we lost Jeremey Lin. I cried when Steve Novak got traded. I cried every time Andrea Bargnani touched the ball (not really, but I should have). I cried when Lebron James capped off a 20+ point second-half at MSG with a dagger 3 over KP (The Frank vs. Lebron Game). Countless other times I cannot recount.


Allegiance to the Knicks has brought an incredible amount of pain. But still..I fell in love with this team. This team has made me fall in love with basketball. My love for this game has brought me on an incredible journey in my young life.


I played under an NJ Hall-of-Fame High School coach. I've been afforded the chance to learn about some ins and outs of NBA management and the Collective Bargaining Agreement under former GM and 2010 NBA Executive of the Year, Mark Warkentien. I've learned under Carl Berman, director of NetScouts, about scouting & video analysis at the collegiate and professional level. I currently manage for men's basketball team at my college, Elon University. The amount I learn a great deal the game working on a daily basis under the tutelage of such a great staff.


Maybe you share the Knicks as a passion. Maybe you love the game of basketball too. Whatever the case, let's take a dive in analyzing the Knicks' season so far.

 

The Good


3-point Shooting:


34 games into this season, the Knicks' performance from behind the 3-point arc has been positive. Most of Knicks Nation envisioned this, as the offseason infusion of additional shooting to last year's squad. Yet, in a season where it seems that what can go wrong will go wrong, at least fans can savor this accurate forecast. As the trend of the league is heading towards more and more 3-point shooting, it's settling to know that the Knicks are excelling in this area.

The Knicks are shooting 36.4% from the three overall, ranking 7th among all NBA teams. Compared to last year's team, the present squad is top 10 in attempts per game. There hasn't been a drop-off with the increased volume of attempts; roughly 39% of the team's points are coming from 3-pointers.


More importantly, the Knicks are generating clean looks from beyond the arc and knocking them down; they rank 8th best in open 3-pointers (defined as 4-6 ft. of space to closest defender) made per game (5.2) while rating 11th in the NBA in their generation of these shot attempts. On wide-open 3 pointers (6+ ft. of space) the Knicks, while around league average in producing these attempts, they are getting knocked down at an exceptional rate of nearly 40%.




Here's a table of each Knicks player's ratio of 3 point shots, attempts/game & overall 3PT%:










Scoring off Handoff Action:

I KNOW I cannot be the only Knicks fan who watches the Warriors move the ball like it’s in a pinball machine or how the Suns create a seemingly endless amount of scoring options out of repeated Spain PNR actions and ask: “Why can’t my team look like THAT?”


As has been the case since the days of Clyde Frazier sporting the orange and blue, we lack an elite point guard like Steph Curry or Chris Paul steering our offense. Not every team does, however; this is certainly a circumstance beyond the Knicks players' control. What is within our players' control? We CAN make a concerted effort to change sides of the floor with more passes, run secondary actions away from the ball to occupy the weak-side defense, or simply execute our sets with more pace and conviction.


Can you tell I get frustrated by the Knicks' offense?


Though I'm rarely satisfied with a Knicks' half-court set, our offense is elite at generating points through dribble hand-off (DHO) actions. Scoring about 1.18 Points per Possession (PPP), this is by far the best in the league. Our personnel matches well with the advantages of running DHOs: the action is great for initiating a big and ball-handler into a two-man game. Julius thrives in his role as a facilitator and screener in DHOs: (1) he's a skilled point-forward who can set hard screens with the threat to pop out and shoot from 3 and (2) he does an incredible job orchestrating dribble-handoffs to place the defense in a bind. Our ball-handlers are excelling as a result: RJ, Kemba, Rose, and IQ all thrive in wake of these actions, ranking in the league’s top 10% of PPP off dribble-handoffs.


Let's analyze some film from the game against the Lakers on Nov. 23rd. Randle brings up the ball, allowing the Knicks to immediately flow into this action. Notice how he initiates the DHO with R.J. Barrett while the other three Knicks are occupying the weak-side defense with a double-stagger action for Fournier. As the Lakers go under Julius' ball screen, RJ pops back and knocks down the 3.

It's simple enough, but this is the advantage of DHO actions: the defense gets put in a bind, allowing the offense to take what's given to them. Let's look at another example:


Here, the Knicks get into the action with a bit more pace. Avery Bradley is late to initially react; though he tries to whip the ball screen and get under, it's too late...Kemba is too fast. Walker recognizes his defender's mistake and is downhill towards the basket before the defense can recover. DHO actions favor guards with elite quickness for this reason.

This next clip isn't the Knicks scoring directly off a dribble handoff, but instead an example of a quality set initiated by a DHO. I think the Knicks can utilize more sets with secondary action off a dribble-handoff. It's simple: more people movement causes more defensive miscommunication.

This final clip starts similarly to the action in the previous clip. However, Randle senses the defense cheating, fakes the DHO and takes the ball to the hoop:


Dribble-handoffs clearly work well within the Knicks' offense based on personnel. This action creates many different scoring opportunities by displacing the defense. A bit below league average in their frequency of DHOs per game, I think it would be beneficial to increase the usage of this action in the half-court.

 

The Bad


Defense:


After placing in the top 5 of nearly all defensive metrics a season ago, the contrasting level of buy-in and execution among this years’ squad is disappointing. This season, they rank 23rd in defensive rating (111), meaning they surrender approximately 111 points per 100 possessions (1.1 PPP). The once relentlessly tenacious Knicks who took pride in stifling and disrupting offenses on a nightly basis has been nowhere to be found. Though largely the same roster, it almost looks like an entirely new team; the unconditional focus and intensity required to guard under Thibs’ system have significantly waned.


Thibs’ defensive scheme is centered around elite help defense. While off-ball defenders wait in their gaps, they are ready to both stunt to prevent the drive, while equally prepared to close out to outside shooters. Ball pressure is imperative within this system because it not only disrupts the opposition's offensive flow but also forces them into the strength of our scheme: the help defenders.



It’s a complicated game plan to execute in a winning context: Thibs' strategy surrenders what analytic buffs deem a poor "shot profile". Essentially, opponent shot attempts are being encouraged in high-value areas: at the rim and from 3-point land. By funneling ball handlers to the rim, the Knicks allow opportunities at the basket, while the drawn-in defense also encourages kick-out opportunities from three. Communication and effort have to be at an elite level, as well as the rotations and close-outs. Unconditional buy-in on a nightly basis to relentlessly guard is simply the only way to excel using this defensive system; there's a fine line between an elite and substandard defense, as evidenced by the disparity between the 20-21 and 21-22 squads.


Let’s take a look at a perfectly defended possession from early this season under Thibs’ scheme. This clip from preseason demonstrates the execution of the effort and focus required to excel under Thibs. Watch how Fournier connects himself to the ball-handler as the screener approaches. He (1) becomes harder to screen and (2) fights over the pick, forcing the ball handler into the strength of the defense. Randle is the star of this possession...notice how he slides into his gap to prevent the initial drive. Also ready to close out to the shooter, Duarte tries to drive past Fournier again and Randle makes a second effort to stunt again and stop the drive.

Most apparent in this clip is the intensity and focus of the Knicks' defense. As the season has progressed, however, it is hard to deny that the focus and energy have diminished. Defensive mistakes will happen, but it's hard to accept ones stemming from a lack of effort. It is easy to play hard on Christmas Day or a national broadcast, but on Mid-December night against Houston, maybe not so much.


Watch this clip a few times at .75 playback speed and try to find the three players at fault for this defensive breakdown, as well as many mistakes as you can:

The orange and blue do an awful job of guarding this zoom action (dribble-handoff into a double stagger). Let's see how many things you noticed (maybe you saw something I didn't!):

  1. McBride (2)- Duece recognizes the action late and makes himself easily screenable by not attaching to Eric Gordon's body early enough. The refs don't call it, but he commits a foul by ramming through Jae'Sean Tate's screen; he needs to go over the screen or whip it using the space between Fournier and Tate. By being easily screened, the rest of the defense is put in a vulnerable position.

  2. Fournier (13)- Kenyon Martin Jr. slips the second screen while his defender, Randle, is in a short drop. Fournier fails to "tag" KMJ, essentially leading to the dunk. He HAS to be more of a speed bump for the roller, Martin Jr.; instead, he weakly extends his arm, which is about as effective as using a Cheeto as a deadbolt. While Fournier has the responsibility of his own man too, the effort to stop an easy two points has to be greater.

  3. Quickley (5) He is partially at fault here as well: IQ abandons his position as the low-man of the defense too quickly (pun not intended). Probably not much he could have done against Martin Jr.'s explosiveness, but IQ still needs to see the action through before rotating back to his man in the corner.

The Knicks’ on-ball, perimeter defenders are getting shredded this year, and it's one of the main reasons for our poor defensive performance. Without Elfrid Payton pressuring opposing point guards the full length of the floor and Reggie Bullock’s ability to hound ball handlers, opposing offenses have really been able to pick apart the defense at the point of attack. At the start of the season, the duo’s replacements, Kemba and Fournier, gave commendable effort in Thibs’ system, though their defensive IQ & abilities aren't up to par. As the season has progressed, the focused tenacity required on a nightly basis has dwindled. Maybe it's been wear and tear or the compiling frustration of mostly subpar. results, but the declining effort has been undeniable. As a direct result of decreased resistance for opposing ball-handlers, the entire defense is easier to break down, being forced into more rotations and suffering as a whole. A complete 180° from last season where Knicks’ opponents shot lowest in the league from 3, this years’ team is in the bottom 5 of opponent 3 PT %.


Quick basketball analytics lesson: Dean Olivers's four factors for analyzing success in basketball are scoring efficiently (EFG%), protecting the basketball on offense (TO%), limiting/grabbing as many offensive rebounds as possible (ORB %), and getting to the foul line as often as possible (FTA).


With all these issues the Knicks’ opponent EFG% is still 10th best in the NBA, mostly thanks to quality rim protection. Despite poor execution, Thibs’ defensive scheme is still generating favorable results in opponent shooting efficiency, that factor that holds the most weight of Oliver's four. However, the other three areas are deficient on the defensive end as well. The Knicks are bottom 5 in the NBA in forcing turnovers, there's clearly a lack of disruption of opposing offenses. Too many free points are being surrendered as well: the Knicks rank bottom 10 in opponent ORB%, bottom 25% in transition defense and in the bottom half in opponent FTA/game.


Thibs' system, when executed well like last season, allows suffocating ball pressure with a strong backline of compact help defenders. This year, however, the intense rotations and closeouts are more comparable to scrambles in an attempt to make up for defensive breakdowns.

 

The Ugly


Stagnant offense:


What is the goal on offense? Simply put, it's ball movement and player movement to create as much space as possible. The defense's goal is to limit that space. Drawing back to my earlier complaints about the Knicks' offensive sets, nothing is more infuriating than when they defer to iso-ball on the offensive end. From the Melo Era to the days with KP, to today's Randle era, too many trips down the court being and end with a lone post entry.


The ball sticks WAY too much on the offensive end for this Knicks team. The most touch-dependent player is clearly Julius Randle; he averages 47 front-court touches a game, while the next highest is Fournier at 29/game. Sometimes it almost feels like it's a requirement to put the ball in Randle's hands at least once per possession. When he's on the floor, the Knicks' play undeniably orbits around the 2021 All-Star and Most Improved Player. I recognize playing through your best player and its advantages. At his best, Randle's whipping passes around the hardwood, setting brick wall screens to free his guards and playing his two-man game with pace and conviction. This is where the Knicks thrive. However, this hasn't been consistent on a nightly basis like last season. Randle's lack of shotmaking hasn't helped his case either; this is especially the case in the mid-range, where a large majority of his attempts stem from. He's shooting 36% there this year, the bottom 27% in the NBA. Whether it's a result of this or other factors, Randle's level of play, focus, and energy is in constant flux.


As a team, the Knicks run about 10 isolation plays per game (≈ 9% of possessions), which ranks 4th highest in the league; Randle owns half of these isolation plays himself and converts at the exact same rate as the team, .9 PPP, which is in the 65th percentile of the league.


"This isn't THAT bad", you may think...


Sure, I concede that though we run too much isolation, we do score at .9 PPP, which isn't a complete hindrance. Isolation can be a viable action in ideal situations. However, our players are easily seduced by this style of play and it affects the quality of which we run our other sets. At times, there's. simply not enough ball and player movement to generate quality looks consistently. Listen to this stat:


Of all NBA teams, the Knicks average the most dribbles per touch (2.53) and seconds per touch (3.29). Think about that!!


Watching this team, the ball seldom pops around the floor and rarely gets reversed more than twice in a possession; if their initial action gets blown up, they revert to iso-ball with no movement at the end of the possession. Our off-ball movement is incredibly poor as well; besides Obi, our players rarely make any cuts (never-mind hard!). We don't make ourselves difficult to guard! Think from a defensive perspective: which team is easier to defend? Team 1 runs one action and scrambles to iso at the end of the shot clock, OR a team that cuts and moves with pace, whips the ball around the floor, and truly makes the opposition dig in & guard for 24 seconds? This doesn't take a genius to answer.


Listen, I understand we don't have an elite facilitator captaining this ship. I understand our offensive system isn't designed to generate league-high ball movement. But to be DEAD LAST in scores per game off of BOTH cuts and screens is humiliating. The highest three teams in scores on cuts per game: Warriors, Cavs, and Heat....hmm, I wonder why those teams are at the top of their conference standings.


Too much standing around and not enough ball movement!! Team assist numbers further evidence the lack of ball movement. The Knicks are second to last in team AST/game (21.4) and last in potential AST/game (40); this team has really hindered themselves on the offensive end by failing to move the ball.

 

Still...there's hope

Sure, the Knicks' struggles on both ends of the floor have led to a disappointing season thus far. Yet, there's still reason to hold out hope. Can I be negative about the Knicks? Yes...because it's frustrating to not see them performing at their potential.


I genuinely believe in a scenario where the Knicks turn this season around, finishing outside the Play-In Tournament as a 5 or 6 seed.


Roster moves are likely looming. It's no secret that Leon Rose has done a great job constructing the organization with cap flexibility. Tradable contracts and accumulated assets put us in a favorable position moving forward.


The young guns have also provided excitement about the team's future success in the lackluster season. Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Duece McBride, Quinten Grimes, and Jericho Sims (and even Knox!) have had their bright spots on the floor. Their youthful energy has not only been a breath of fresh air but has also produced results on the court. I'm confident in each of their ability to contribute at the NBA level when called upon; their value lies in their evolution over time. Since the new regime has taken over, our scouting department and player development staff has done an extraordinary job.


The recent stretch has supplied a sense of improvement with this team. Perhaps it's been the return & resurgence of Kemba. Maybe the expanded opportunity due to the number of players in COVID protocols has provided a jolt. It's possible that they're simply playing weak, depleted teams. Hopefully, however, the players are starting to ride the same wave as Coach Thibs...the energy has picked up a bit, resulting in increased defensive effort and execution. It's not just the eye test too; in the last 6 games, the Knicks are 6th in Defensive Rating (107.2), with a NET rating of 5.8, also 6th during that span.


The Knicks' offense has remained inconsistent. It's extraordinarily frustrating when signs of life are followed by extremely inadequate spells, In the past two games against the Timberwolves (12.28) and Pistons (12.29), the Knicks had a quarter where they looked like a high school team. Credit to the opposition, but an NBA team shouldn't have 15-point quarters on back-to-back nights. Against Minnesota, they seemed to get dictating the flow of the game in the 1st Quarter, getting open looks at will; however, they followed up with an abysmal 15 point second quarter. The lack of ball and player movement was challenging to witness.


If this group wants to be anything more than a team hovering around .500, the consistency on both sides of the ball needs to improve immensely.


If you've made it this far, I want to thank you. If you care about the Knicks as I do, you're probably upset by the play this season. While I can't guarantee that this team gets back on track, it sure does beat the days of Andrea Bargnani...doesn't it.

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