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A look back at the 2018-19 Knicks offense, part two: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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When and why things didn’t work.

NBA: Miami Heat at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Much hullabaloo has been made about the state of the Knicks’ offense this year. We’ve all heard or asked variations of the following questions: Is it too isolation-heavy? Is there a system? Where is the ball and player movement? Is David Fizdale — pissed off that EA doesn’t make NBA Street anymore — just trying to get Trier to bust out a Level 2 Gamebreaker on some poor defender? And so on. This two-part article is my attempt to figure out whether those leading questions are leading anywhere reasonable.

In part one, I identified and explained several concepts that the Knicks rely on in their offense. In this article, I’m going to spend more time examining film. I’ll show you some cool examples of everything coming together and working really well, and try to identify the team’s biggest offensive problems. Finally, I’ll consider whether we should be optimistic that David Fizdale could successfully design and run the offense for a better team.

The Good

Let’s take a look at how things should look when the offense is humming. Here’s a few examples where the Knicks create advantages, maintain advantages, increase advantages, and leverage advantages into good shots using some of the concepts we discussed in part one.

Since we ended part one by chatting about drive-and-kick actions, but didn’t get into the film, let’s start by looking at a perfect example of this action:

The play starts with Mudiay getting a step on his man and drawing a help defender, and DeAndre Jordan diving to the rim. This forces the NuggetsGary Harris to leave Dotson in order to drop down to the paint to bump Jordan. Recognizing this, Mudiay kicks the ball to Dotson, who immediately attacks the closeout. The key to making this play work, however, is how quickly Mudiay gets back behind the 3-point line. His urgency prevents the paint from being too clogged for Dotson to penetrate and creates another perimeter option for Dotson to kick the ball to.

This next play is another simple drive-and-kick sequence. The spacing isn’t great on the perimeter, but DSJ does a good job getting out of the paint quickly after kicking the ball out:

Alright, now let’s look at some examples that include pin-downs, staggers, Horns, PnR, DHO, and screen the screener actions.

In this play, the Knicks start with a wide down screen. They then follow it up with a DHO and PnR (stacked together like this, it ends up functioning a lot like an on-ball stagger screen). These initial actions create an advantage for the offense — Mudiay and Robinson have a 2-on-1. In order to combat this advantage, Kelly Olynyk slides down into the paint to help on Robinson. But this leaves Kornet (Olynyk’s man) wide open on the 3-point line. Mudiay recognizes this and kicks the ball to Kornet. The defense brings help from the perimeter, so Kornet wisely swings the ball to where the help came from, and the Knicks end up with a wide open corner three. Picture perfect.

Take a look at this next example:

This play starts with a mishap — Dotson misses Robinson for an easy dunk. After that, the team flows into a PnR, which helps Kadeem Allen get an advantage on his man (sometimes called “shoulder-to-chest advantage” for pretty obvious reasons). This forces a series of rotations from the defense — Embiid leaves his man in order to stop the penetration, and JJ Redick is forced to leave Trier and offer help on Embiid’s man. At this point, Trier slides down into the corner to help create a passing lane, and all that’s left is the dish and the swish.

In this next example, the Knicks use a screen the screener action to get Kornet open, but the defense closes out quickly:

After the closeout, Kornet swings the ball and dives hard which forces the diminutive Collin Sexton to switch onto him. Allen notices, and quickly exploits this advantage. The Cavs bring help, which forces the defense to rotate and opens up a passing lane for the kick-out. Notice how Kornet skedaddles out to the 3-point line after making the kick-out. This keeps the lane open for the next drive-and-kick. Unfortunately this play ended with a block, but there’s lots of good stuff going on here.

The main action in this next play involves Mitch pretending to dive to the rim (these fake dives have been incredibly effective because of Mitch’s roll gravity), and a screen the screener action. PnR is used as a decoy:

Here the Knicks use an on-ball stagger followed by an off-ball stagger to create an easy layup attempt:

This time the Knicks switch it up. They start with an off-ball stagger and then flow into an on-ball stagger, which leads to open 3:

Here’s a PnR into drive-and-kick sequence:

This last play is DHO into drive-and kick-sequence, complete with Lance making a weird Lance cut:

The Bad (advantages missed and advantages lost)

While the Knicks’ offense isn’t particularly complicated, as you’ve just seen, the sets they run are perfectly capable of creating advantages for the offense. But, quite obviously, things went terribly for the Knicks’ offense this year. So what went wrong?

Probably the biggest problem with the Knicks’ offense is a lack of talent. But here are three major problems that showed up frequently on film: (1) The inability to execute drive-kick-replace and drive-kick-swing sequences consistently, (2) poor vision (lots of missed open dudes) and (3) not knowing where open shots are supposed to come from within the offense.

Here is an example of (1). Just watch how badly Mudiay cramps the space after a nice kick-out:

Here’s another example of a type (1) mistake. In this play, Dotson recognizes that Fred VanVleet helps off of DSJ in order to bump the roll man, and he makes a really nice pass to the corner. While DSJ should probably shoot that three, he decides to drive instead. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but, because Dotson doesn’t sprint to the 3-point line after making his pass, his man is able to stay in the paint and clog the lane. Robinson and Jordan also get stuck in the lane doing god knows what, and all of that results in DSJ driving straight into an impossibly-crowded paint.

Here are some examples of type (2) mistakes.

In this play, the offense creates an advantage, but Hezonja doesn’t see Dotson open in the corner and jacks an ill-advised mid-range two.

Here, Allen starts a drive-and-kick sequence, but Trier misses Hezonja chilling open in the corner. Instead, Trier does Trier stuff:

In this play, Kornet is wiiiide open in the corner and three Knicks take turns missing him. The play ends with a terrible shot:

Here’s one final example of a type (2) failure. The Knicks look like they are going to set two stagger screens in succession, but Lance Thomas notices that the help on the first stagger hasn’t recovered and slips the screen to the basket. It’s hard to imagine someone more open on an NBA court than Lance Thomas is here, but Mudiay still manages to miss him — instead, he passes it to a well-defended Dotson. This play ends with a joy-sucking mid-range fadeaway:

Here are some examples of type (3) failures.

On this play, Kornet comes open and Knox doesn’t even look his way, even though it’s one of the built-in options for the DHO:

Below, the team’s bad vision is again on display. This on-ball stagger works to perfection. Whiteside hedges, forcing Olynyk to guard Robinson. But this leaves Kornet literally unguarded. Of course, Mudiay doesn’t even check to see whether the play’s design worked??? I just... I don’t get it.

Again, this play works well, and results in Ellenson being wide open. But again, our guards don’t even check to see if the guy on the back side of the play is open:

The Ugly (wut even is an advantage?)

If that’s the bad, what could the ugly possibly look like? Typically, the ugly plays involve multiple mistakes. For example, if the Knicks fail to run any of their sets, miss open men, and settle for a contested mid-range shot... that counts as an ugly play. Brace yourselves!

Below is a play where literally nobody knows what they’re doing. I mean, Kadeem and Frank dance around in the corner for a while, the spacing is horrendous, Lance does weird Lance things... it’s bad. Nonetheless, Lance Thomas somehow ends up wide open in the corner, but Knox doesn’t see it. You already know that this is a running theme with this team — wide open men missed. In fact, it was so bad this season that defenses were happy to over-help on PnRs and leave men open in the corners. They knew that the pass was unlikely to come.

This is exactly what happens on this play. Typically, on a PnR, the weak-side defender will rotate down and briefly bump the roll man before recovering out to his man. Plumlee is the weak side defender on both PnRs in this play, and Plumlee doesn’t merely bump and recover here. He collapses all the way to middle of the paint and hangs out with Robinson long enough to play patty cake, effectively double-teaming Robinson at the cost of leaving the shooter.

As is fitting, this play ends with a Lance Thomas mid-range shot:

In this next play, the Knicks do not get into any of their sets. They take turns showing off how bad their handles are, and then post up Lance Thomas. Miraculously, the Knicks’ best shooter ends up wide open in the corner, but Lance doesn’t see or doesn’t care... and, whelp:

In this play, they actually get into their offense. They run two wide pin-downs. The first results in nothing, because Ntilikina struggles to handle the ball. The second results in Robinson wide open diving to the hoop. So, naturally, Dotson dribbles through his legs a couple times. The team then takes turns trying not to be the guy who jacks a contested mid-range jumper at the end of the shot clock:

Here the team actually starts running an offensive set, only Trier decides to ignore it because he has unilaterally decided that he wants to do Trier stuff. He literally waits until everyone clears out without checking or caring if an advantage has been created by the offensive set so that he can run a PnR:

Fair warning, this next set of plays may not be suitable for all audiences.

Here is something called “offense”:

Below, Mudiay collapses the D, leaving three men open on the perimeter... and then jacks a shot and gets it stuffed. The Knicks really know how to put the offense in offense.

And, this next one... Oh, how it makes me want to pull out my hair. The Knicks have a 4-on-3 transition opportunity. So, naturally, Hezonja puts up a jumper at the free-throw line (yay, offense!).

Conclusions:

Alright, alright I’m not trying to Clockwork Orange ya’ll, so I’ll leave it there. So, what’s the upshot of all this? How should we evaluate the Knicks’ offense? Here’s how things stand from my perspective:

(1) The Knicks’ offense sucks. The stats show this, the film shows this. It is so.

(2) The primary cause of this suckiness is probably not the offensive system. The system is not particularly unique or creative, but it doesn’t need to be. As you’ve seen, the offense creates plenty of good looks. Moreover, I’m not sure that the players could handle too much more complexity at this point. They are often incapable of making the most basic reads on relatively simple plays. Dudes come wide open all the time in the exact ways that the sets are designed to get them open, and they are left standing open. More complexity probably won’t help that.

(3) While the Knicks don’t have a lot of scoring talent, the biggest problem with the offense is the passing. The stats tell us this and the film tells us this. Of course, poorly-set screens don’t help. Not getting into sets all the time doesn’t help. Poor spacing that results from guys not replacing on the drive and kick doesn’t help. But the biggest problem is the passing.

(4) Alex Wolfe asked me to say a little something about whether I think David Fizdale could successfully design and run the offense for a better team (e.g. one with Kyrie & KD). In my view, this is incredibly difficult to judge. Here’s some thoughts I have, though.

Obviously, our sets would look infinitely better with Kyrie and KD running them (in fact, Kyrie looks great running stagger sets a lot like ours in Boston). But this is true of every team. What we should ask is whether Fizdale has the ability to create a system that maximizes those guys’ (or other guys’) talents. Here are a few considerations that support an affirmative answer.

(A) Fizdale introduced fake dives for Robinson because of his roll gravity, and this resulted in open looks on multiple occasions. He also customized certain sets that accentuated Dotson and Kornet’s abilities.

(B) Knowing how to create sets that get the most out of your guys is important. But, it’s also important to know when adding more complexity will be a hindrance. It seemed to me like Fizdale struck a reasonable balance in this regard this season. For example, the Knicks used a very small set of concepts to give defenses a really wide variety of looks (something Zach Diluzio pointed out in the piece linked below). This struck me as a wise thing to do for a young team filled with guys who often struggled to execute simple actions.

On the other hand, I do have significant worries. As many have noted, the rotations were often puzzling this season, and they certainly didn’t maximize the Knicks offensive talent. But it’s not clear what explains this — perhaps Fizdale was focused on tanking, or perhaps the front office wanted to get a long look at certain players, or even hide certain players from other FOs (Kornet seems like a plausible candidate here). But perhaps the explanation isn’t as benign.

It’s also the case that the Knicks offense — despite adding new wrinkles — didn’t improve its efficiency throughout the year. Just when you might have thought the only direction for the ORTG to go was up, the Knicks reached new lows in March and April. While there was some roster turnover, it’s not obvious that the players that remained were getting better at recognizing where shots were supposed to come in the offense, nor was it clear that Fizdale was pushing them to combat their weaknesses. For example, I’ve shown you a bunch of examples of guys failing to make simple passes within the offense. It’s hard for me to believe that Fizdale couldn’t have encouraged players to focus on, for example, hitting the screener on back door cuts off wide pin-downs or hitting the pop man in PnPs. It’s not like Mudiay, DSJ, Frank, or even Dotson are unable to make those passes. More often, they just didn’t look for them.

But, again, our evidence is murky. I do feel that Dotson made improvements as a passer this season. By the end of the season, he was doing a better job than our nominal point guards at recognizing where the bump man was coming from in the PnR and kicking the ball to his man. Perhaps that development was of his own accord, or perhaps Fizdale pushed him to look for that pass. Perhaps the other players, despite being pushed, were simply unable to improve.

So, ultimately, I think the evidence is too murky to make confident judgements. I think there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic and reasons to be worried. But it’s difficult to be overly confident either way.

A few acknowledgments:

I’ve learned a lot from reading and listening to Ben Taylor’s work, especially stuff related to offensive advantages (he likes to call them “power plays”). I’ve also picked stuff up from Mo Dakhil, Caitlin Cooper, and Ian Levy. And if you haven’t read Zach Diluzio’s really excellent piece on the Knicks offense from earlier in the season, you should!