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Film Study: What kind of offense are the Knicks running?

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A look at David Fizdale's offense through the quarter-season mark

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

As the NBA regular season marathon reaches the quarter-way mark, we’ve seen enough to start to draw certain conclusions. Statistics begin to normalize as sample sizes grow and hot streaks fade into the background. We can now discuss year-long trends without having to put large caveats. And for the film nerds, we finally have enough material to start to unpack the way the coaching staff is installing schemes on both ends of the floor.

This is important, because there has been an interesting trend developing with the offensive playcalling for this team, and it’s interesting for a couple of reasons. In a more meta sense, David Fizdale has largely been disregarded as an “X’s and O’s” coach. It seems he’s been labeled a “motivation” guy -- some may view that as an insult, and others may not. I’m not here to persuade you in either direction, but I do wonder how different that perception would be if more information, similar to what I’m about to show you, was available for regular consumption.

The real interesting part, however, is reflected in the overarching challenge of coaching a young team. This isn’t just any young team, either -- it’s a jumble of flunking lottery picks and high-upside raw talent, with just a handful of veterans to point to. The cherry on top? Most of these guys are new to the organization, and obviously the coach is new as well. That’s not an easy thing to handle when it comes to designing a scheme. When you’re working with vets, those guys have seen basically everything, and they know the minutae of each task on an instinctive level. When you’re working with young guys, though -- especially young guys who haven’t had much success in the league -- you can’t necessarily teach a play without teaching everything that comes with it. A simple screen serves no purpose if a ball handler is vacating too early, or isn’t setting his man up for that screen. A rim roll provides no advantage if you can’t do it at the right time. Running a reliable play can backfire if opposing veterans see it on film, know the counter, and force you away from the action you want -- do you know the counter-punch?

I say that to give you an idea of what David Fizdale has had to do here, and as context, because Fizdale’s offensive system to start the year was simple.

I’m sure you’ve seen this play a hundred times, and I’ve written about it before, but this is a staple of Fizdale’s offensive scheme in New York:

That’s a double pindown screen to the corner, usually for someone like Tim Hardaway Jr. or Allonzo Trier. You can read this article if you’d like a little more detail, but basically, this is a simple play that can form the basis of an offensive scheme because it’s:

  1. Versatile, with interchangeable parts
  2. Easy to set up and execute (this can be run to kickstart a halfcourt possession, in transition, in semi-transition -- doesn’t matter)
  3. A good way to put your players in a position to take advantage of their skillsets

This is something the Knicks love to run for Hardaway, and It’s a good play for him. By allowing Timmy to sprint up from the corner, come off two screens, and THEN get the ball, it essentially guarantees Tim is taking less dribbles, which helps mitigate one of his weaknesses -- ball handling. That’s putting your players in a position to succeed.

The beauty of the double pindown is the simplicity and flexibility; if you’re looking to attack a particular matchup, you can run it with one screener rather than two on short notice. You can also use basically anyone as a screener. The simplicity... that seems pretty self explanatory. And if that’s not good enough for you, keep an eye out for it the next time you’re watching an NBA game, even if it’s not the Knicks... I bet you’ll see it. (Probably more than once.)

Those key ideas -- simplicity and flexiblity -- reappear in a lot of the other plays that can be considered a staple of the Fizdale offensive diet. Here’s another double screen action, this time at the top of the key (double high screen), and almost all of the same points I just made for the double pindown apply here as well:

Remember how I said anyone can be a screener on these plays? Here’s Tim Hardaway Jr. helping to screen for Mario Hezonja. You won’t see that every day:

In fact, if you step back far enough, you could go so far as to say that the double pindown or double high screen is essentially the same thing -- two screens for one guy. And that’s the point! This overall philosophy -- simplicity -- has been obvious in the early season, and it tracks logically with the task at hand. If you’re trying to install an offensive scheme with a bunch of young guys who have never played together, you’re going to want to keep it simple. You would never expect a college freshman to jump into mathematical theorems right out of high school, right? You need to learn the basics first. Start with algebra, master that, and then move into precalculus to gain the next layer of knowledge. And so on and so forth. That’s the basis of education as a whole, and that idea applies to basketball as well. Run the simple plays, focus on the execution of those plays, and go from there.

But you can’t keep it that simple forever, of course. Simplicity is a good way to provide the base of knowledge, but this is the NBA -- eventually, teams will figure you out if you continue to operate on a single wavelength. So, once you have that base of knowledge, and once you’ve established good habits in terms of execution, it’s time to expand outwards. And that’s exactly what Fizdale and his staff have started to do.

Check out this funky little play. It’s called Spain pick and roll, and it’s taken the league by storm over the last couple of years.

The key mechanism here is the back screen onto the help defender, a unique way of scheming a help defender out of the equation. Instead of providing two screens on the ball, there’s one screen on the ball, and one screen set on the big man who is defending the screener (in this case, Nikola Vucevic). To put it simply, just watch Emmanuel Mudiay. The sneaky little backscreen he brings to Vucevic is planned, and Vucevic is caught completely off guard.

This play is a step up in difficulty from the ones we already addressed. It requires a heavier dose of timing, tact, and execution to pull off correctly. For that reason, presumably, the coaching staff has only begun to roll this one out in the past two weeks, give or take. The base of knowledge was already established at that point -- it was time to build on that. And build on it they have; it seems like the Knicks have gotten a bucket nearly every time they’ve broken this play out.

Of course, you can still see plenty of mistakes if you watch closely. Check out this attempt at running the same Spain pick and roll, and focus on Allonzo Trier. He’s late to set the back screen, so the primary help defender (Giannis) doesn’t get taken out of the play quite as effectively as he should have. Kevin Knox scores anyway, but you can see how these more advanced plays still aren’t second nature for these young Knicks.

The coaching staff has continued to introduce new plays as the games pile up, so I’m sure we’ll continue to see interesting and creative plays as the season progresses. David Fizdale has done an excellent job so far, and the results have been better than expected.

Even more importantly, however, I pray that this patient, steady mindset reflects the mindset of the organization as a whole. These guys are learning; it’s slow, and not always linear, but it’s progress nonetheless. The Knicks (and by the Knicks, I really mean James Dolan) must continue to let this play out. Things look promising in various respects, but an outside part of it all can be directly tied to this slow-but-steady methodology.

Let’s keep it that way, shall we?