By John Schmeelk
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Pythagoras, the New York Knicks are not.
The common refrain from everyone observing the Knicks this year has been that the team has not adjusted to the triangle, and that’s why they are struggling. It’s true that as bad as the defense has been, the offense has been nearly as brutal. Only Oklahoma City scores fewer points per game than the Knicks (91.1), but when pace is taken into consideration the team ranks 21st in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions).
But it’s too simple to say, “The team doesn’t get the triangle.” A system that is not understood by many, the triangle simply puts players into position to do the same things as other systems: get spot-up jump shots, post up, isolate on the wing and high post, and even run the pick-and-roll. The triangle simply facilitates those common basketball plays. Other teams are dealing with the same issues. There’s an adjustment that has to happen, but as coach Derek Fisher and president Phil Jackson have both said, the team isn’t making basketball plays when the system affords the opportunities.
Here are the Knicks biggest issues (all stats via NBA.com):
Lack of penetration, free-throws and three-pointers:
Any offense needs to work inside-out and the triangle is no exception. It doesn’t matter if the ball gets into the paint via dribble penetration, interior passing or post-ups, the offense has to get the rock to the rim. The result is often the three most efficient shots: ones at the basket, free throws and three-point attempts.
The Knicks rank 18th in the league in shots within five feet of the rim. The two players on the roster with the ability to get to the basket from the perimeter are Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Anthony, however, has taken more long two-pointers between 15 and 24 feet (53) than he has shots at the rim (35). Shots within five feet of the hoop make up only a little more than 20 percent of his attempts. Smith has taken more than twice as many long twos as he has shots at the rim. Amar’e Stoudemire is holding up his end of the bargain, accounting for 50 of the team’s 187 shots at the basket.
No team has taken more shots from between 16-24 feet than the Knicks with 189. The Lakers have taken the second-most with 147. The Knicks have taken the fifth-most shots from 8-16 feet, but only 16 fewer than the team that has taken the most. Long-range two-pointers are the most inefficient shots in basketball, and no one takes more than the Knicks. A guy like Jason Smith is limited to shots like that, but players like Anthony and Smith have to take fewer of them, because they are athletic enough to get to the basket.
The free-throw problem is even bigger. The Knicks are averaging the fewest number of attempts per game in the league, almost three behind the next-worst team. The Kings and Raptors are both averaging more than twice the number of free-throw attempts per game than the Knicks. Anthony is averaging just 4.6 free-throws per game. Iman Shumpert (2.4) and Amar’e Stoudemire (2.3) are the only others averaging more than two per contest.
The Knicks are only shooting 18 three-point shots per game (23rd in the league), which almost negates the rather impressive 38.4 percent from beyond the arc (seventh-best in the league). The team is not spreading the floor well enough and moving the ball from side to side in order to create the number of three-point shots a team needs to get near the top of the league in scoring.
The Knicks play slowly. I mean, they’re really, really slow. They have the fewest number of possessions per game in the league, with just 91 on average. That’s two fewer than the next-slowest team in the league, and 12 fewer than the fastest-paced team in the league, the Golden State Warriors. Fast breaks yield high-percentage shots, including layups, free throws and three-pointers. Living in the half court will keep the Knicks’ offensive efficiency very low. Once Jose Calderon returns, a player much slower than Shane Larkin, the team might play even slower.
Movement off the ball:
The triangle is built on movement off the ball more than most modern spread offenses in the NBA. Once the ball goes into the post, there are picks set with a lot of movement to the basket for back-door cuts and outside for spot-up jump shots. One reason Shumpert has played so well this year is because he moves off the ball to find himself open looks. Tim Hardaway also runs well off the ball to free himself. Other Knicks players need to mimic that effort when the ball isn’t in their hands.
Not enough pick-and-roll:
On the weak side of the triangle there is actually an opportunity to play pick-and-roll basketball in a two-man game, but the Knicks have rarely implemented that part of their offense. They need to do it more to facilitate more movement to the basket and free up shooters.
Those are the major factors that are killing the Knicks’ offense. Playing the right guys and executing the offense correctly impact both the types of shots that get taken and how many are made. Personnel is a big part of the problem. When the team traded Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler in the offseasonm they lost one of their best dribble penetrators and their best finisher at the rim. Both players had flaws, especially Felton, but the Knicks are missing those skill sets right now in getting higher-percentage shots.
Likewise, the Knicks lack true post players outside Stoudemire, who must have his minutes limited due to defensive issues. No other player besides Anthony can create their own shot in the post, something the triangle offense really depends on. The ball enters the post in the triangle much more than it has in years past. The times that Stoudemire is in the game, he needs more touches down there simply because no other player can score or draw fouls in that position.
As for three-point shots, Hardaway is going to have to get more time, because no other guard moves off the ball as much as him (besides Shumpert). Hardaway can catch and shoot from long range. Shumpert has been great, but his shooting is bound to regress.
With the current team, some of these problems are not going to change. The Knicks, in many ways, don’t have the roster implement the necessary tweaks. Realistically, only Anthony, Smith and Stoudemire can create their own shots. New York doesn’t have a point guard that can get into the middle of the defense, almost a prerequisite in today’s NBA.
Bottom line: Derek Fisher is going to have to make due until the roster turns over next season.
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