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Are Derrick Rose’s drives to the basket helping the Knicks’ offense?

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Spoiler alert: yeah, probably.

NBA: New York Knicks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an understatement to say Derrick Rose has been a divisive player among Knicks fans this season. Opinions on his play seem to be either very positive or very negative, with almost nothing in between. This divide is especially present in reactions to Rose’s affinity for driving to the basket. Fans of Rose’s play appreciate his ability to finish at the rim, while detractors malign his frequent refusal to pass. Therefore, given that we’re about one-quarter of the way through the season, it makes sense to take a look at the pros and cons of his tendency to drive (NBA.com’s Player Tracking has him averaging more than 10 drives per game through Monday’s action).

Before we really dive into Rose’s driving ability, it’s worth noting that the mere presence of an athletically capable guard (yes, that is a direct shot at Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo) opens up a team’s offense, especially in the Triangle. Last season, opponents would often deny the ball to Calderon or Afflalo beyond the 3 point line. The standard counter to that kind of pressure is a backdoor cut, but Calderon and Afflalo just aren’t threatening enough off cuts to force a defensive shift.

When you have an athletic point guard who is actually a threat to score, it’s a different story — see this action below, where the Knicks use the Blind Pig, a common Triangle action, to counter Darren Collison’s ball denial. The Blind Pig, in this case, is basically a fancy name for a pressure release valve — you can see that Lance makes the entry pass to KP as soon as he notices Collison overplaying on Rose. KP immediately dumps it off to Rose cutting backdoor, turning Collison’s ball denial against him. They get an uncontested 16 foot make here.

Last year, the Knicks had a lot of trouble with ball denial and high pressure because that backdoor cut wasn’t a threat. Basically, while Rose clearly has a couple of glaring weaknesses (which we outline below), there are some benefits to having actual guard play, even if it isn’t always ideal guard play.

In an attempt to compare him to players in similar situations and with similar offensive tendencies, we narrowed the pool of players down to starting guards who have played at least 10 games and average at least 6 drives per game. While these criteria are admittedly arbitrary, it leaves us with 28 players to consider and no obvious omissions, so let’s chalk it up to a win.

Below, you can see the drive tracking stats for those 28 players. If you’d like to fiddle with these stats personally, this is a link to the exact table we used (though those stats will be slightly more current than what you see below). Again, this information is only good through Monday’s games:

The first thing that stands out is that Rose comes close to embodying the platonic ideal of a shooter when he drives — he’s voluminous, yet also efficient. Among the 28 players listed above, only two (Kyrie Irving and C.J. McCollum) have a higher field goal rate on drives. Yet Rose quite literally makes his shots on drives count, as he hits 55.1% of his field goal attempts. That mark is about 10 percentage points higher than his overall FG% and is good for fourth among the 28 guards on the list. Meanwhile, Irving and McCollum have hit 51% and 46.2% of their shots on drives, respectively, which provides a pretty good argument in favor of Rose being one of the most effective scorers off drives in the entire league (it also suggests that C.J. McCollum may need to rethink his scoring strategy, but we can leave that analysis to Blazer’s Edge). Another good argument in favor of Rose? At 79.3%, he ranks 4th of 28 in percentage of drives on which he scores points.

However, there is one pretty big weakness holding Derrick Rose back from scoring-on-drives immortality: a lack of free throws. Only 17.6% of Rose’s drives result in a trip to the line, a rate that ranks 18th of 28. For comparison, DeMar DeRozan, who leads in that category, almost doubles Rose’s free throw rate. Rose has complained in the past that referees don’t call fouls he feels are committed on him during his frequent forays to the rim, and that may contribute to his sub-par free throw rate. But Rose also has a tendency to shy away from contact at the rim, possibly due to a (completely understandable!) fear of re-injuring his knees. For example, check out this play from the New York’s loss to the Thunder; Rose contorts his body to avoid Enes Kanter, resulting in both a missed layup and no foul call.

As you can see, Rose drives hard at the basket, but pulls up when he sees Kanter and attempts to lay it in from the right side of the rim. Had he continued on his path to the left side of the basket, there’s an easy argument to be made that Kanter would have hit him and Rose would have had either 2 free throws or an and-one. There is some contact between Kanter and Rose here even with Rose’s change of route, so this looks like the type of play that Rose would argue should have been called. However, if Rose wants to get calls he feels he deserves, he needs to welcome contact, not shy away from it. Nonetheless, Rose’s lackluster free throw rate is a single negative mark on what has been an otherwise pretty impressive early season with respect to scoring on drives.

While Rose has clearly shown a strong affinity for getting in the paint and finishing, he still has some areas upon which he can improve — areas that might be able to launch the Knicks from an above average offensive team to an elite offensive team.

The simplest problem to fix actually stems from something entirely unrelated to his ability to drive to the rack — shot selection. Rose has definitely done a better job picking his spots of late (especially with the apparent resurgence of his midrange jumper), but he still needs to cut some of the early-clock nonsense we’ve seen at times. This is a 20 foot pull-up jumper with 18 seconds left on the shot clock; that’s just bad offense.

In this situation, Rose should have attacked the rim or moved the ball to the other side of the court. There’s too much time on the clock to settle for such a low percentage look. His shot selection will probably continue to get better as the season progresses; Rose has been adamant that he was forced to play the role of a scorer in Chicago, and he’s slowly shown progress with his shots as he’s continued to settle in. So overall, this is a minor issue, but it’s still worth noting.

The biggest problem with Rose off the dribble has been his inconsistency when it comes to finding his teammates. While the actual severity of this issue is unclear for reasons that we’ll expand on below, Zach noted the same problem with Rose in an offseason scouting report. Here’s the relevant excerpt, with a full link here for those who are curious:

This year, Rose only passes the rock on 28.6% of his drives; among the same sample of players that we used above, that’s the 5th lowest figure (Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are the only two point guards with a lower pass % off dribble drives). Obviously, based on his previous numbers, this is already an improvement; unfortunately, there’s still plenty of work to be done. Rose can clearly generate offense for himself, but more passes out of the paint should be beneficial for the rest of the team.

On top of that, Rose isn’t exactly creating golden opportunities when he does pass the ball off his drives. His assist percentage in those situations is only 7.4%, which is the 5th-lowest among qualifying point guards (out of 20 total PGs) and 8th-lowest overall (out of 28 total players).

Now, it’s important to note that striking a balance is an important facet of basketball. Committing too heavily to kicking the ball out after getting in the paint can allow defenses to home in on the pass, which can really dampen the effect of a drive-and-kick dependent offense. On the other hand, committing too heavily to attacking the rim can allow defenders to home in on Rose, collapsing into the paint without fear of giving up an open 3.

It’s also important to think critically when exploring these numbers. Are those passing percentages low because he runs a lot of pick and rolls with Joakim Noah, who is a pretty bad finisher? To put it simply, are the Knicks actually better off with Rose shooting the rock off drives, rather than Noah missing a layup? Are the numbers low because he runs a lot of pick and rolls with Porzingis, who often draws a defender out of the paint (the Dirk effect), giving Rose a ton of space to attack the rim? Is he really missing open shooters more often than the average lead ball handler, or is it just confirmation bias? Even LeBron misses open shooters from time to time. Is it potentially a byproduct of the Knicks offensive system? Or is it truly just Derrick Rose?

There were some extremely visible gaffes multiple times per game early in the season, when Rose was blatantly missing open shooters more often than not in favor of getting his own looks (seriously, there’s nobody within 15 feet of KP on this play).

On the other hand, Rose has pretty clearly improved as the season has gone on, and he’s already doing a better job distributing than he did last season.

With that in mind, in addition to his success when attempting to score off drives to the basket, Rose can be a quite useful asset to the Knicks on offense if he continues that improvement. Whether he’s a net positive is dependent on your opinion of his defensive ability; defense, of course, was not a consideration in this article. But regardless, we know one thing: Derrick Rose can put the ball in the basket when he drives to the hoop. Well, that and he’s better at passing out of drives than Kyrie Irving.