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The Knicks’ struggles in an offensive nutshell

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Space, or lack thereof, plays a part

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I was ruthlessly slapped in the face by a well-known NBA axiom this week. It was painful, refreshing, and dare I say it, hopeful. It was a two-part slap.

Part one was watching Steph Curry return to action from a broken hand against the NBA Champion Toronto Raptors, an elite defensive team. His presence palpably changed the dynamics of the game for his teammates. Teammates who have distinctly G League vibes. I found myself thinking thoughts of the “Hey, Dragan Bender is an interesting player!” ilk. Suspicious, I know. Such is the power of Steph Curry. Such is the power of spacing.

Part two of the slap — the painful part — was of course delivered by the Knicks. It was on a typically numbing night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where, in the year 2020, the Knicks went 0-for-8 from 3-point range in the first half. The Knicks, shockingly, went on to lose. But the slap was delivered in that first half by an NBA team seemingly constructed without consideration of the importance of the most powerful offensive concept in the sport: shooting — and the space that the ability to shoot creates — is very, very, important.

I’m stating the obvious, of course, but it’s the sheer obviousness of this very basic principle that shines an industrial-sized and appropriately-blinding spotlight on the Knicks’ systemic offensive problems. And, hopefully, the very basic solutions to those problems.

There are 245 four-man lineups in the NBA this season who have played more than 220 minutes together. Filter this list by total 3-point attempts, scroll to page 10 of 10, head to the bottom of the page, and you’ll find some evidence of why your eyeballs so often ache after watching the Knicks’ archaic attempts at efficient offense this season.

The last four lineups on that list are various combinations of Knick players who, for the most part, lead the team in minutes per game this season. Here are the 2019-20 Knicks — in a league-wide context, measured by a crude but telling single statistic — in a dusty, stylistic nutshell:

242 of 245: Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett have attempted 129 threes in 238 minutes.

243 of 245: Elfrid Payton, Randle, Robinson and Barrett have attempted 121 threes in 229 minutes.

244 of 245: Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Payton and Randle have attempted 119 threes in 236 minutes.

245 of 245: Gibson, Payton, Randle and Barrett have attempted 109 threes in 224 minutes.

Now, admittedly, this is slightly misleading, as the 245-group sample size includes quartets that have played hundreds more minutes than 220. But even if we limit the list to four-man lineups who’ve logged between 220 and 250 minutes, you get 44 groupings, with the Knicks bagging the four lowest totals. And the sixth-lowest. And the ninth-lowest.

The underlying point is that the roster, as currently constructed, does not have enough shooting. Take the most relevant four-player lineup to next year’s potential roster — Payton, Barrett, Randle and Robinson. They all excel in the paint and either can not or will not shoot from the perimeter. In other words, their common collective weaknesses diminish their common individual strengths.

The key unknown here is how each player would be affected by adding someone who can shoot to the lineup. What is the hypothetical impact on Randle of playing with Seth Curry instead of Payton? Or, conversely, the impact on Payton of playing with Davis Bertans instead of Randle? There is a theoretical benefit to both players in both swaps, and although Curry and Bertans are extreme examples of premium positional shooting, both were very much available last summer.

Whilst we’re contemplating dreamy hypotheticals, what is the impact on Barrett and Robinson of replacing both Randle and Payton with Bertans and Curry? And this really is the type of question that matters. Not this specific question, unfortunately; but having the potential impact on the production and development of RJ and Mitch at the heart of all decisions going forward.

Hopefully, this is the lens new President Leon Rose is viewing the offseason through. I’m glad he’s reportedly taking his time to analyze the roster for the remaining handful of games before making any decisions, but I’m equally skeptical that anything Randle or Payton (or, for that matter, non-shooting point guard alternatives Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.) can do to flip the fundamental fit of the roster.

Interestingly, the four-player lineup of Payton, Barrett, Randle and Robinson has the highest net rating (+4.6) of any Knick quartet to play more than 200 minutes this season. It’s interesting because it can be interpreted in two very different ways: either as evidence that everything is fine, that this foursome can function and maybe even thrive, that we should run it back; or, alternatively, that there are strengths in this group that carry this number, but are at the same time capped by the lack of shooting overall.

The strengths I’m thinking of here apply to each player: Mitch rolling to the rim, RJ going downhill, Randle with a physical mismatch on the block, Payton pushing the pace in transition. But every one of these specific situations would benefit from, be enhanced by, and unleashed in a roster with more — really, any — space.

It’s possible adding an elite shooter as the fifth guy on the floor coupled with individual development by everyone eases the offensive congestion. It’s possible, but unlikely. Mitch has yet to take an NBA long-ball. Barrett is a ways from becoming a consistent threat from outside. Payton is seemingly content with who he is at this point of his career. Randle has oscillated from horrendous to merely really bad from deep this season. It’s possible, sure.

Contracts and ages dictate that Payton is the easiest variable of this congealed offense to replace. It’s a point guard-heavy draft, although taking a teenager who can’t shoot is a beautifully on-brand possibility; the change that changes nothing. Nothing is more Knicks than that, as Steve Stoute recently reaffirmed to the world via his helplessly spotlit and perspiring forehead.

The prospect of moving on from Randle after only one year is the less likely but more aggressively forward-thinking move for both the Knicks and Julius. In a way, I feel for Randle being a lightning rod for criticism this season, in a role he’s not ready for and on a roster that is extremely ill-suited to his game.

Make no mistake, he can help a team. With two seasons after this year remaining on his deal, the last of which partially guaranteed for $4 million dollars in 2021-22, he’ll be entering his prime in the summer of 2022 and looking for the biggest contract of his career. Is this iteration of the adolescent rebuilding Knicks the best stage for him to land a big deal? I’d be seriously contemplating that question if I were in his shoes.

The question I’ll be asking over the next 20 games: Will Leon Rose be slapped with the same slap that I was slapped with this week? With the best intentions, Leon, I hope the answer is yes.