What Exactly Do the Knicks Have Against Pick and Rolls?
The year is 2019: the NBA as a whole has officially embraced the basic concept that three is worth more than two and stylistic differences are becoming increasingly obsolete. That information is nothing new, but for a Knicks team that arguably started the revolution back in 2013, it's a much more foreign concept than it should be. Since the 2013-14 season, the Knicks have never finished higher than 21st in 3-point attempts, helping to guarantee five straight lottery finishes. To shoot a lot of threes, there needs to be some sort of gameplan in place to create decent looks, and perhaps the most common way of generating three pointers today is the spread pick and roll. The play dates back to Billy Donovan's Florida Gators, who popularized the concept en route to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007. The goal of the spread pick and roll is to attract two men to the ball handler to create a four-on-three situation with quality spacing. If the ball handler can get into the paint and the off-ball players do what they can to get open, then the offense is in business. Donovan deserves credit for pioneering this style of play at a time when hardly anyone understood the value of good spacing, and today there's a particular player and coach out of Houston that have built an entire offense around it. James Harden and Mike D'Antoni catch a lot of flak for their playoff shortcomings, but it's impossible to argue with their results from embracing simple math. The Rockets have led the league in 3-point attempts in each of the last three years, and take a look at how they generate a lot of those looks:
You'll notice that Harden is the fulcrum of Houston's attack, and as polarizing a player as he can be, stars that carry that much of the offensive burden don't come along too often. The Knicks don't have a single player that can compare to his playmaking or shot creation abilities, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be experimenting with more pick and rolls with the players that they do have. To be clear, there's nothing inherently good about running a lot of pick and rolls: the Rockets actually run less of them than the Knicks, but average a much better points per possession, per NBA.com. This is about finding ways to maximize the talent on the floor, and right now it's clear that being 10th in isolation frequency but 29th in efficiency isn't a winning strategy in the short term or for the future. Ultimately, the lack of an offensive identity falls on the coaching, and even though the Knicks are contractually obliged to treat Julius Randle as if he's LeBron James, David Fizdale has done little this season to promote accountability or selfless basketball. Basic plays require at least a basic level of effort, and watch how Bobby Portis sets two lazy screens before ultimately jacking up a low percentage midrange jumper:
Regardless of this subpar effort, Portis' place in the rotation doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon. Perhaps the offense's biggest problem is a lack of spacing: take for example Saturday's loss to the Hornets, in which Charlotte was 17/48 from three while the Knicks were just 6/20. Even the most efficient Julius Randle iso performance wouldn't be enough to overcome that disparity. More pick and rolls could mean more quality looks from the two most important places: in the paint and behind the arc. The Knicks may lack a transcendent playmaker (nothing new there) but that doesn't mean that they don't have competent ball handlers that absolutely deserve more reps. RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina are increasingly looking like New York's backcourt of the future, and Barrett in particular has already shown flashes of being a poorer and burlier man's Harden:
This play is especially impressive because the Robinson screen does little to create separation and Randle does RJ no favors by clogging up the paint. Barrett makes this drive look easy because he's already that talented, but just imagine if Fizdale committed to a spread pick and roll and instead Randle was in the corner for better spacing. No one expected RJ to be this good this quickly, but now that it's clear that he's a franchise cornerstone it would behoove the Knicks to employ a modern offense so to maximize his efficiency.
As for everyone's favorite Frenchman, consistent minutes have allowed Ntilikina's defense to flourish and he's increasingly becoming more confident on offense. Frank is arguably the Knicks' best passer and by far their most willing — a necessary balance to a starting lineup that includes two tunnel vision forwards. Part of why everyone loves Frank is his basketball IQ, so it makes sense that he's developed good chemistry with the team's savviest veteran: Taj Gibson. When all else fails, a basic pick and roll can be enough to manufacture some offense:
That sort of movement is especially encouraging for a team that cannot rely on talent alone to generate offense. All throughout the play, the Knicks remained spaced, leaving the paint open for the eventual Gibson roll while giving him options with four shooters on the perimeter. Maybe this group is gelling more than we think. For Frank to continue developing on offense, he'll need to improve his ball handling so that he's more unpredictable when using screens and eventually become a threat when he's in the paint. Ntilikina has always been a player that plays up to the level of his teammates, so instilling healthy habits of movement and spacing will help bring out the best version of Mr. Smokes.
Relying on RJ and Frank for ball handling duties will ultimately be beneficial in the long run, but will nonetheless include growing pains. However, what makes the Knicks' lack of pick and roll so frustrating is that they have two bigs who can be elite roll men. There should be little doubt about Mitchell Robinson reaching his potential as a Capela or Gobert-level screener — just look at the attention he attracts here, leading to a wide open Dennis Smith triple:
No one should be worried about Mitch, and the more pertinent player for this discussion is Randle, whose iso-heavy shot selection is so confounding because he's an elite finisher. His true shooting percentage has gone from 60% last season to 48% this year, despite taking less shots per game. I'm sorry, but Randle just isn't a "clear out and I'll get you a bucket" kind of player — something us fans have learned the hard way. Even still, when put in the right situations Randle has displayed flashes of being a very dynamic roll man, showing off his sneaky good passing ability:
Watching Randle make that read, I can't help but think of the kind of player he would be on the Spurs: their famous .5 second rule would work wonders for the Walking Turnover, and his best passes come when he's forced to make quick decisions near the rim. Having the floor spaced for a downhill Randle is a deadly proposition, and if Fizdale can adjust the offense so that he isn't simply languishing in the midrange then there's no reason that Randle shouldn't be able to return to being a 20 and 10 guy.
Through 14 games, the Knicks offense has looked scrambled and antiquated. Mixing in basic actions like pick and rolls can only help them become less predictable and look more like a 21st century team. The last couple games have been more encouraging in that respect, and perhaps Fizdale is beginning to learn how to manage a group of many dogs but just one bone. That, or they capitalized on a soft homestand and reality is about to hit harder than a DSJ brick.