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Why the 2019-20 Knicks were a crime against spacing

Shooting is important, as it turns out

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

Ah, that familiar inevitability. In recent years, any New York Knick team-building strategy comes with a default presumption of doomed and inevitable endgame. The details don’t usually matter. But the decisions last summer by the Knicks’ then-front office have an impressively sour aftertaste, after they so violently diverged from league-wide norms of minimum offensive competence.

The 2019-20 Knicks were constructed seemingly in spite of the general idea of spacing. Existing now as a reference point, an extreme of non-spacing, a team only to be discussed in whispers at Sloan, late into the night, like some kind of mythical mathematical mistake. Much like the 2013-14 Detroit Pistons with the ill-fated frontline of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and Josh Smith... except worse, because that was seven seasons ago.

As a general rule, in the majority of real-life and basketball-life situations, never do what the Knicks did last summer, but specifically, as it applies to the successful development and evaluation of co-core pieces Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, do not do what the Knicks did in the summer of 2019. In fact, do the precise opposite.

Although that last paragraph in principle covers the solution to the great third year unleashing of Mr. Mitchell Robinson, dunker of basketballs and destroyer of rims, as with his historic individual efficiency, context is key.

Way too many of the Knicks’ roster this season can be offensively summarized by half or all of the following four words: Ball dominant, can’t shoot. This, in the golden age of off-ball shooting as an additive skill, is the essence of why the 2019-20 Knicks might be the worst shooting team since the NBA’s three-is-better-than-two eureka moment.

The roster was one big high-stakes Jenga tower of offensive redundancy. Robinson: Can’t shoot. Barrett: Ball dominant and can’t shoot. Julius Randle: Ball dominant and can’t shoot. Elfrid Payton: Ball dominant and can’t shoot. Paragraph break?

Just a few more: Dennis Smith Jr.: Ball dominant and can’t shoot. Allonzo Trier: Ball dominant. Taj Gibson, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Kadeem Allen, and Maurice Harkless; Can’t shoot.

This particularly reductive skillset was the foundation of the Knicks’ offensive struggles this year, which ranked 29th in half-court efficiency, per Synergy Sports. Watching that offense, especially in the early David Fizdale dog days of last season, was the basketball equivalent of staring at the sun and refusing under any circumstances to blink — not good for the old retinal health, really.

The diminishing returns of so many non-shooters could not be meaningfully mitigated by Marcus Morris (44% from three) having a career-best season shooting the ball. Or the return from injury of Reggie Bullock — a respectable shooter over his career — in January. Or the just-about-OK long-range shooting of trio Bobby Portis (35.8%), Damyean Dotson (36.2%) and Wayne Ellington (35%).

That means the Knicks had one player shoot more than 36.2% from three: Marcus Morris. On the whole roster. With no minimum minutes logged or games played. This would include any hypothetical specialists the front office could, in theory, bring on board during the season. Nobody, apart from Morris, of the 17 professional basketball players that appeared for the Knicks this year shot better than 36.2% from deep.

I harp briefly on this barely-analytical statistical sticking point because you have to go back four years, 118 individual team seasons, and a 3-point revolution to find another team with less shooting on the roster.

The 2016-17 Pistons had one player on the roster that year to shoot over 36.2%. It was Reggie Bullock, funnily enough, at 38.4%.

This was a historically bizarre philosophical hill for Steve Mills, former Knicks president, to die on. Not so much a ballsy zag as the rest of the league zigs. This was neither zig nor zag. This was just turning around and retracing the steps of statistical progress back to a simpler time, where progressive spacing had more to do with typewriters than NBA titles.

Needless to say, this wasn’t an ideal developmental environment for Robinson or Barrett. By the same token, it was a worst case scenario for both Randle and Payton to showcase their talents, who are in some ways positional variants of each other. Both have clear NBA talent. But the perception of both took a big hit this year.

Particularly Randle, who was asked to do one of the hardest things in basketball: take on a significantly bigger individual role for the first time in his career, on a bad team, with players seemingly handpicked to torpedo his offensive strengths and spotlight his weaknesses. He played badly, but was also in a situation where it was extremely difficult for him to succeed.

For Robinson, the answer to the question of how to best utilize his offensive talents next season is as simple now as it should have been last summer: shooting, shooting, shooting. Exclusively rim-running bigs like Mitch, even if they are elite efficiency-wise, are the least stylistically versatile player archetypes when putting together synergistic combinations of players.

Mitch more than pays his toll as a non-shooter with rim protection on one end and rim pressure on the other. Add RJ to the equation, a bad shooter at this stage of his career, and as a five-man unit you’re hovering around negative spacing equity already. Add Randle or Payton to this and you’re threading a very small needle. Put all four together and you can effectively forget about a functional offense.

Payton shot 20% on 69 3-point attempts this season. Only two other NBA players in the last five seasons have shot as poorly from deep on equivalent volume; Dewayne Dedmon and Theo Pinson (of course he’s now a Knick!), both this season, neither of whom are starting point guards.

Randle shot a tick under 28% on 231 three point attempts this season. Only four other players since 2010 were as inefficient from three on equivalent volume — Jordan Poole this season, Marcus Smart in 2015-16, Corey Brewer in 2014-15, and Josh Smith in 2013-14.

There are seven active players in the NBA (and only 16 this century) who have taken more than 540 career threes and shot less than 30% from deep; Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, Michael Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, Stanley Johnson, Julius Randle, and Elfrid Payton.

Those last two played over 1000 minutes together this season, including 647 minutes alongside a 19-year-old rookie RJ Barrett, who also struggled with his efficiency. I can’t think why. He’s probably not very good.

It seems unlikely that both of Randle and Payton will be back. Of the two, Payton is by far the easiest to replace, as his contract next year is not fully guaranteed. Having a point guard who is a threat in the pick-and-roll would be another low hanging fruit move to maximize Mitch’s vertical spacing. None of the Knicks’ most common pick-and-roll ball handlers were very efficient this season: Payton (28th percentile), Smith Jr. (2nd — eek! — percentile), Barrett (24th percentile) and Ntilikina (33rd percentile).

The Knicks have a deeply personal relationship with needing a point guard. There is a place in all Knicks fans’ collective psyches where we close our eyes and congregate at the end of every season, a safe space to sob and scream Jeremy Lin’s name into the void. It doesn’t hurt anymore, those nerve endings became scar tissue decades ago.

There are plenty of point guards available this summer — via the draft, free agency, or trade. The franchise is unequivocally due an upgrade, given the soporific succession of forgettable lead guards to don the orange and blue in recent years.

Payton, Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Jarrett Jack, Jose Calderon, Derrick Rose. Not the most inspiring of lists, and surely the most prolonged streak of unproductive point guard play in the NBA today. A failure to finally upgrade at point guard this offseason — especially considering the offseason for the Knicks stands to be about seven months long — would be remarkable.

I suppose there is a scenario where Payton could be back and Randle could be traded, and the non-shooting trio of Payton, Barrett, and Robinson could be rounded out by high-volume snipers like Danilo Gallinari and Joe Harris. That’s an upgrade, but is Payton good enough inside the arc to justify the compromise?

Seth Partnow, The Athletic’s lead analytics sage, recently pointed out that shooting is an additive skill not only in the sense that more shooting is better, but more shooting is exponentially better. As Seth puts it, “four shooters in a lineup is a bigger improvement on three shooters in a lineup than are the gains from going from two shooters to three.”

If the benefits of shooters are exponential, then the detriments of non-shooters are too. Last summer, the Knicks’ front office catastrophically whiffed on the cascading damage of four non-shooting players playing big minutes together, and the stodgy mosh-pit of an offense it inevitably resulted in.

There’s a twisted comfort in recognizing how inevitably doomed this Knick roster was, in that presumably, this summer, maybe the front office can just methodically not do the things that led to doom last summer?

Radical, I know.