Fixing the Knicks' Pick-and-Roll

Today is "Video Day" at P&T HQ, and by that I mean I've spent the last 2 hours watching and re-watching Synergy videos, then pacing around my house, wolfing Cracker Barrel cheese sticks, and mumbling to myself. The Knicks' offense is getting to my head. I'm certainly not alone in my hair-pulling over New York's offensive woes. You guys have been all over their issues in the comments and Alan Hahn spoke with Coach D'Antoni about the struggles after last night's loss:

"We have to get our pick-and-roll, definitely," he said. It is probably the best play we have. It gets everyone involved, it gets our shooters. We just have to get better. It's a work in progress . . . we'll get there."

Pretty much everybody agrees that, with Amar'e Stoudemire in the fold, the pick-and-roll can and should be the Knicks' first option. As the terrific Bandwagon Knick points out, that hasn't been the case:

Though it's early (and any comparison to a Steve Nash-led team is brutally unfair), a Synergy Sports comparison of the ways Amare scored last year with the Suns to this year with the Knicks are telling: with the Suns last season, Amare scored 19 percent of the time on Post-Ups, 18% of the time as the Pick and Roll man, 15% of the time in Isolations, and 14% of the time through Cuts to the basket. With the Knicks so far this season, a whopping 35% of his scoring has been through Isolations, 12 % through spot-up jumpers, and only 10 percent of the time has his scoring come as the Pick and Roll man.

If you've seen even a minute of Knicks basketball this season, you know what BK is describing. New York's go-to plan has been to toss Stoudemire the ball on the elbow, then let him try to create while the rest of the Knicks spectate (Clydeism?). This leave Amar'e to either attempt a contested jumper or, worse, dribble into traffic, which is a weakness of Stoudemire's the same way that blindfolded speed skating is a weakness of mine. (Also, metaphors). The "isolate the superstar" strategy works for some teams and even some big men, but that's just not the case for Amar'e and company. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll hasn't looked to be a much better option. Opposing teams plug the middle, and the guards are routinely forced to hit Stoudemire far from the basket, leaving him with too much ground to cover as a ballhandler. So, how can the Knicks find more quality P 'n' R opportunities for Stoudemire? Hours of video-watching and cheese-eating have led me to the following solutions:

1. Set real picks

Tommy Dee covered this days ago and he was right on the money. There is a time and place to slip screens, but for most of the simple, two-man sets the Knicks are running, Amar'e would be better off setting a good, hard pick on the opposing guard. Part of the reason Raymond Felton has trouble threading a pass into the rolling Amar'e is that his defender never really gets screened. If Stoudemire waits a beat longer, creates legal contact with the defending guard, and THEN rolls, he'll give Felton a cleaner look at a pass, as well as the opportunity to penetrate if Amar'e's man doesn't hedge enough. Raymond's short stature and toddler arms make it tough for him to pass over two defenders, so Amar'e's better off giving all the help he can.

2. Keep a shooter on the strong side

Teams are keying in on the pick-and-roll and clogging the paint with defenders. When the Knicks clear out the side for a pick-and-roll, smart defenses sag into the middle. Amar'e finds himself rolling into three or four defenders who are all facing the action, meaning he either has to finish over several people or thread a difficult pass over to one of the weak side shooters. An alternative to this would be to run the pick and roll with one extra shooter on the perimeter. Check out this play from Sunday:

See how Danilo Gallinari was stationed on the strong side? To my eye, this opens up the floor considerably. Gallo's positioning puts Thaddeus Young behind Stoudemire's roll, meaning the big dude has one less defender facing him head-on as he breaks to the rim. There are other factors at play (Elton Brand doesn't do much, Andres Nocioni helps late), but I'd emphasize that putting a shooter on the strong side pulls one defender behind the action and opens things up considerably for both the passer and roller.

3. Make use of the hand-off

The Knicks have run this infrequently, and not once with Stoudemire as the passer, but Raymond Felton has been effective in limited attempts following dribble hand-offs. He's made 8 of 11 attempts preceded by hand-offs, mostly coming from the supple, generous hands of Timofey Mozgov. Why not run this with Stoudemire instead? A nice shoulder-to-shoulder hand-off with no room for Felton's man to squeeze through should give Felton an extra step to operate. If Amar'e's man doesn't rotate, he can pop the jumper or accelerate toward the rim. If Felton's man is hung up and Amar'e's has to help, then Stoudemire should have an opportunity to roll to the rim. In effect, a well-executed hand-off is just like a solid pick.

4. Keep Ronny Turiaf and Landry Fields on the floor

Simply put, both of these guys move intelligently without the ball and pass well enough to complement Amar'e perfectly. Neither of the two is a deadly outside shooter, but both have shown an ability to creep along the baseline for easy looks if Amar'e gets mobbed. Opposing defenses need to be punished for focusing on Stoudemire. Meanwhile, Fields has shown (take the play above as an example) that he's got some of the instincts necessary to run the pick-and-roll, as well as the size to see over defenders.

The above isn't exactly brilliant analysis, but these strike me as reasonable alternatives to the problems plaguing the Knick offense. Pick-and-roll basketball should be New York's most effective tactic, and some simple tweaks to the current blueprint might make life easier for all parties involved. This type of stuff isn't my expertise, so I implore you to come up with better ideas for Stoudemire, Felton, and the coaching staff to make the pick-and-roll run smoothly. Leave 'em in the comments.
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