Kevin Pelton, a writer who I trust and admire-- put together the NBA portion of ESPN's Great Analytics Rankings this week. The Knicks are buried, along with the Nets and Lakers, among the league's "non-believers" in advanced statistical analysis. They're actually ranked second-to-last in *all of pro sports*. You can read the whole Knicks blurb here.
That blurb includes, as far as I can discern, the following pros and cons regarding the Knicks' approach to analytics:
- The Knicks have a veteran analytics department headed by Mike Smith
- The Knicks were at the forefront of investing in tracking systems like SportVU and Catapult
- The Knicks still have at least one stat-friendly executive in Mark Warkentien, the guy who once hired Dean Oliver for the Nuggets
- Phil Jackson is a noted traditionalist
- The 2014-2015 Knicks suck ass
I see investments and staff that convey analytic intentions, with the counterpoint to each of them being "but Phil Jackson, so nah." Jackson didn't fire any of those people or dismantle their departments when he took over, so what's the issue?
Pelton points directly to this New York Times interview by Harvey Araton, something we gnawed upon back when it came out. He concentrates on a portion in which Jackson questions aloud if the emphasis on threes and spacing is truly the essence of smart basketball, but doesn't mention this part:
Jackson argued that the triangle was not an inflexible system. As much as he disliked the emerging overreliance on the 3-point shot, he saw the game moving in that direction, and "we did more with it during the last two championships in L.A." Now, he said, he would even endorse a 4-point shot being implemented a few feet behind the 3-point line.
Traditional? This dude wants fours!
But for real, I understand-- and fear, to an extent-- the notion that Jackson's Knicks are among the organizations unwilling to embrace the analytic thinking characteristic of the league's most progressive (and most successful) teams. I just don't feel confident seeing it that way yet. I see a team president who may bristle at changes to the sport, but has both demonstrated and expressed willingness to incorporate them when logic outweighs his own bias. And again, unless Dad ignores like a half dozen employees he inherited, he's still using many of the minds who built the highly stat-friendly '12-'13 team. I detect compromise, or at least promise.
I don't know about the point regarding this year's Knicks, either. They definitely generate statistically inferior shots. They definitely suck. They're also tanking, so I'm not too upset about this season's output. If Derek Fisher's team still leads the league in mid-range jumpers next season and lacks the personnel to make that work, yeah, that'll be a problem.
For now, though, I see a coach with explicit license (again going off that Times article) to modify his mentor's scheme-- something with which he's already experimenting despite a roster stripped of talent. Fisher is months removed from playing for one of the league's analytic "Believers," from which he snaggled two young coaches for his New York staff. He's got his team-- his bigs especially-- shooting more threes than they were to start the season. Fish might be cool! He might not be! Just like Phil's management, we don't have a clear idea yet of who Fish is as a coach because the team is still demolishing, not building.
The Knicks aren't outspoken proponents of statistical analysis, and Phil Jackson's offense does not in its "pure" form resemble a modern system, sure. I reckon there's more to the team's thinking than just that. I'll freely admit to seeing what I want to see from the available information, but I think someone who regards the Knicks as a straight-up "nonbeliever" in analytics is doing the same.