Iso-Melo is an unfairly vilified offensive playcall.
It really shouldn't be — Carmelo Anthony is an extremely good isolation scorer, and if you have an extremely good isolation scorer, you should get him an abundance of isolation possessions. But sometimes, Melo takes a long time to read his defender (and the defense) during his isolations, only to chuck up a brick. And in past years, the Knicks were entirely too reliant on isolations late in games (cough Mike Woodson cough), leaving many fans with a bad taste in their mouths. Therefore, it’s understandable that so many are averse to the idea of isolations.
The real issue with iso-Melo has often been the predictability, combined with a helping of incompetent execution. It was always so freakin' obvious — here come the Knicks, clearing out the weak side, obviously aligning the guard to make an entry pass to Melo at his spot. So, so, so obviously. Opponents knew it, too; smart teams fronted Melo to deny the entry pass while shading help defenders to take away the pass over the top. And when that happened, those offensive possessions often sunk like a rock tied to another rock (especially with the dearth of talent on the roster since 2013).
Picture this, and try not to be triggered into a fit of rage: the Knicks clear out, and Melo moves to a spot somewhere between the elbow and the low block. His defender puts in a ton of effort to make the entry pass difficult, but [Insert random Knicks guard here] can't make a safe entry pass, so he stands there, waiting for Melo to fight off his defender. By the time Melo is able to clear space for that entry pass, the shot clock is at 6, and he has to rush his shot. And when Melo can’t clear that space in time, he has to move closer to the guard to receive the pass, leaving him isolating 22 feet from the rim — outside his sweet spot.
Historically, that's been the bigger problem with iso-Melo; too often, the peripheral execution involved just isn't effective, and it undermines the entire philosophy behind an isolation playcall.
To help alleviate these issues, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has installed a bunch of interesting plays designed to give Melo his standard flow of isolations with some unorthodox tweaks. As far as Melo is concerned, these plays end up looking like his standard isos. The difference in execution, however, makes them a much better play than the stuff we’ve seen in the past.
If you've watched NBA ball long enough, you might recognize this play -- this here is basically an Iverson cut, a play the Philadelphia 76ers used to constantly run for Allen Iverson. Shocking. A ton of teams continue to use this set, but it's usually reserved for point guards; those double screens artificially create space, and when you've got someone like Iverson (or Kemba Walker, or Isaiah Thomas, or any other PG who can score from anywhere on the floor), that extra space, combined with a head of steam, makes it extremely difficult to defend.
Obviously, Carmelo is not a speedy point guard; he's not really a speedy anything. Hornacek runs this for Melo in order to ensure prime position for the isolation, while also guaranteeing an easy entry pass. In that clip, Aaron Gordon does a decent job getting over the first screen, but the second screen forces Gordon under, and Melo gets right to his spot with a TON of time on the shot clock.
They'll also run slightly different variants of that same set, but they essentially serve the same function. Check out these plays from Tuesday's victory over Indiana. The Knicks ran the same variant of that Iverson cut three times over a two minute span, and Melo used the opportunity to clown his defender every single time.
In this instance, after Melo comes off those same double screens, he runs towards the ball handler (KP) as if he's going to set a screen, but slips it at the last second. Combined with the screens, the offensive playcall has already put Paul George in a tenuous position; you can see that he’s pretty fair behind right off the bat. Basically, the offense has once again ensured perfect positioning and a free, uncontested entry pass to Melo on the block. No more battling for position for 5 seconds while the defense homes in. In this instance, it's even more effective; PG-13 is so far behind the play that he doesn't have any opportunity to get set. By attacking quickly, Carmelo is able to take advantage. Take note of the remarkable footwork on this make, too. Goerge played some pretty good defense here; Carmelo's just really freakin' good.
This one is a little simpler. The Knicks actually brought three screens this time, with Rose dropping down to assist, but the idea is ultimately the same. You can even see that Paul George is ready for it this time; he's not buying that fake ball screen, and he's all over it when Melo slips to the rim again. Even though George is ready, though, the Knicks are still able to get the ball inside, to a good position, quickly and effectively. Another beautiful move and counter-move for the easy make.
The Pacers clearly weren't able to stop it, and Melo was red-hot, so Hornacek pretty much ran it into the ground.
Once again, three screens for Melo, but this time Melo uses some of that veteran savvy (also known as "the refs let everything go off-ball") to pretty much throw PG out of the way and cut under all of the screens. This shook George off his case enough to generate a switch, and the Pacers were very fortunate to have Glenn Robinson III in prime position to pick up Melo in his stead. Again, though, Melo's momentum makes it basically impossible for his defender to deny the ball or push him out of position without fouling. Like clockwork, Melo goes to work on a textbook isolation possession by attacking Robinson's front foot and beating him baseline. This in turn drew help from Myles Turner, who was tasked with guarding Joakim Noah at the start of the play. Jo does a good job moving parallel to Melo with his hands ready once Turner makes his move, and Melo throws a positively sublime pass for the easy layup. This is beautiful basketball.
Hornacek has also installed a really cool modification to the classic Spurs loop that the Knicks run for Courtney Lee four or five times a game; if the initial look to Lee is denied, as it is below, the Knicks can flow right into a Melo ISO as a secondary option.
Jo and Melo screen for Lee on the loop, which automatically places Melo in good position for his typical post up; it helps that Noah is a pretty good entry passer. So you've already gotten Melo the rock in prime position to post with very little effort. But that's not all; Hornacek has also thrown in another change to the typical Iso-Melo. Many times, either Noah or Kristaps Porzingis will bring a ball screen to Melo at the elbow before he even takes a dribble. This is one of those occasions, and in this case, Jo's screen is so good that it forces a switch. Aron Baynes tries to cover Melo out at the 3-point line, and he's toast. This isn't a great shot, but Carmelo Anthony is a bad shot maker, especially when he knows his defender has no chance of getting a good contest.
Here's the typical version of that pseudo-iso — this time it's KP bringing the ball screen. Melo generates the airspace he needs with a patented jabstep, but the screen from KP played a role as well. Deng, who is tasked with guarding Melo, has already started to shade backwards as he notices KP approaching; once the jabstep really gets Deng moving backwards, Porzingis scoots his way into that space, ensuring that there is absolutely no contest on Melo's jumper. That shot is butter.
They ran it again Wednesday night vs. Orlando for an and-one midrange jumper. Look closely, and you’ll see this play every game. Jo’s screens are absurd.
This kind of stuff is typical of the job Jeff Hornacek has done so far in New York. He hasn't made any major role changes for the studs on the roster, but he's made enough slight variations on standard actions to make them even more effective than they were in the past. Combined with his management of what has become one of the better benches in the league, if not elite; Hornacek has been a spectacular addition to a budding Knicks squad.