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Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

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My weekly writing schedule covers several sites. On more than one occasion I’ve had the feeling that I’m pulling on a single string, stretching out a lengthy monologue and tossing the components into different places. One such thread has now brought me to the Knicks offensive struggles. It began with the Kings lack of ball movement. From there it wound through how different teams balance their pick and roll attacks and made a brief daliance in Dallas with the idea of offenses guided by systems and those that are guided by principles. All three of those ideas have taken up residence in Madison Square Garden.

Before we go any further, I should point out that almost everything I’m about to write has already been discussed by the likes of Zach LoweBradford Doolittle, Matt MooreSebastian Pruiti, and the man known as Bandwagon Knick. If you have developed a taste for my awkward prose and reasoning skills, or are a Knicks fan with a masochistic streak, then by all means keep reading. Everyone else you are forgiven for checking out now.

It’s safe to say that things are not going as planned in New York. Tyson Chandler and a few other changes have made a difference at the defensive end. The Knicks have seen their defensive rating go from 110.1 last season, 22nd in the league, to 100.1, a respectable 11th in the league. That’s a lockout-sloppiness aided improvement of 10.0 points per 100 possessions. The problem is that the offense has gotten worse and by an even larger margin. Last season the Knicks scored 110.9 points per 100 possessions, 7th in the league. This season they’re scoring 99.8 points per 100 possessions, 23rd in the league, a decline of 11.1 points per 100 possessions. For a team boasting Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, that number is rightly seen as unacceptable.

Within those numbers are footprints of all the memes that brought me here. The ball moves at a minimum in the Knicks offense and they record an assist on just 54.5% of their made baskets, 23rd in the league. Combined they’ve run 218 isolation plays for Anthony or Stoudemire, which adds up to 12.1% of their total offensive possessions. Those  facts wouldn’t be so troubling if they weren’t averaging 0.65 and 0.58 points per possession respectively on those isolations. Regardless of the individual skills of each player, defending an isolation provides the lowest cognitive load on a defense, and right now the Knicks are making themselves much easier to be defended.

The next step up in engagement from standing and watching your teammate pound the ball, is the two-man dynamics of the pick-and-roll. Unfortunately for Knicks of lower profiles, the team sports an incredibly lopsided pick-and-roll attack. 78.82% of their pick-and-roll possessions are used by the ball-handler, the second highest percentage in the league. While their ball-handlers have been fairly effective in that set, averaging 0.82 points per possession, it also minimizes the impact of their athletic bigs who are averaging 1.16 points per possession. As a side note, pick-and-rolls involving both Anthony and Stoudemire were averaging 1.23 points per possession. The Knicks had run just 13 of them heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Bobcats. Hat tip to Jared Dubin for explaining to me that Mike D’Antoni is uncomfortable with Chandler’s ability to space the floor when Anthony and Stoudemire are running pick-and-rolls together, hence the infrequency.

In watching footage of Anthony handle the ball in the pick and roll, I was amazed how often the screener, usually Chandler, was setting up above the three-point line. While this is still technically a pick-and-roll, it functionally removes the options we typically expect to see out of this set. When rolling off a screen at the three-point line Chandler needs three or four steps to get to a spot where he can be any sort of threat. The time required to cover that distance means he’s a bystander more often than not, setting up Anthony for an isolation with a head of steam in a 4-on-4 situation.

But problems with passing and bizarre pick-and-roll sets are just symptoms of the deeper problem. They lack a focus. They don’t lack a player to be the focus of their offense, or a handful of favorite sets to be the focus of their attack. They lack an understanding of what they’re trying to do on offense, the details around getting the ball in the basket. Their offense lacks a guiding principle. An elaboration, previously written -

Some offenses are guided only by that original intent of putting the ball in the basket, with very little conscious thought to the best strategic ways to score. Some offenses are guided by a system, a specific way of doing things, often dictated by personnel. The rare, transcendent offenses, the ones we remember long after the season is over, begin with principles and build a system based on both the personnel and those principles. Mike D’Antoni’s Suns built their offense on the principle that it’s easier to score when the defense isn’t set. Their seven-seconds-or-less, pell-mell, fastbreak, pick-and-roll mashup was an extension of that idea shaped by the players on the roster. Steve Nash made the whole thing go, but Goran Dragic was able to do a passable Nash impersonation because he was allowed the freedom to pursue the principle, not just run the system.

Almost of all of the discussion on the Knicks offense has been focused on system issues – pick-and-rolls, too much isolation, poor shot selection. Any fix to those issues, for example Anthony’s recent deliberate passing on shots in favor of passing to teammates, are just band-aids. It’s become a media mantra that D’Antoni needs a pass first point guard to make his system work. Hope abounds in New York that Baron Davis can be that piece. But again, that’s still a question of system. D’Antoni can and should be looking to pursue his principle, attack an unsettled defense, with a system that works for the pieces he has.

Instead, that principle appears to have been set aside and everything has been built from the personnel up. In my piece on the Mavericks I made a snarky comment about offensive systems built strictly from personnel up, and how often they end up with some variation of ‘get our guy the ball in his favorite spots.’ I didn’t specifically think of the Knicks as I typed that sentence, but I can’t think of a better single phrase to describe what they run.

As I was putting this piece together, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop wrote about the Knicks addressing the same issue with different words - Carmelo Anthony doesn’t know what’s he’s supposed to be providing.

David Thorpe, who thinks like a coach, had a different first thought at seeing Anthony’s quote. He saw a star player, someone integral to the team’s entire offensive system, saying “I don’t know” and alarm bells went off.

“This,” says Thorpe, “is ‘whoa,’ if you’re on the Knicks coaching staff. ‘He’s not really sure what we need from him. That’s our job.’”

Mike D’Antoni and his staff are already under the gun. Coaches have limited power to make stars listen under the best of circumstances, and now the Knicks are disappointing, D’Antoni’s in the final year of his deal and Phil Jackson rumors are circling like police choppers.

Maybe there’s nothing D’Antoni and his staff could say or do to get Anthony taking only shots that are highly likely to go in. (George Karl wrestled mightily with that particular challenge.)

But nevertheless, it certainly appears Anthony remains unclear about how and when to shoot. He followed that 10-of-30 game against Denver with a miserable night in Charlotte. He missed seven shots and got to the line for his single point not by drawing a foul, but by being selected to shoot a technical free throw. The Knicks beat a bad Charlotte team missing its starting point guard. Clearly, though, Anthony still has not found the right mix of when to shoot and when to pass.

He was quoted after the game saying that he is pleased with how he played, telling The New York Times: “I told you the other day I would try and do a good job of distributing the ball, getting the guys more involved, and finally, I did that tonight.”

He did have four assists, and the Knicks did win. But I’m not convinced Anthony’s any closer to knowing which pitches to swing at, and so long as that’s true it will be tough for the Knicks to be anything like what they might be.

Anthony is a talented and confident player, and asking him to reform his shot-selection using just the qualifier of good shots is going to be frustratingly inadequate. He thinks he can make every shot, and therefore his definition of good shots will be inherently at odds with what the coaching staff is asking of him. The path through the jungle is to change the shot selection criteria from ‘is this shot likely to go in’, to ‘does this shot serve our offensive purpose?’

The advantage of a principled offensive system is the loose-tight role definition and flexibility it provides. Each player’s job is defined by the principle and limited by their skill-set. It allows a team to compensate for a tough shooting night, or a uniquely difficult defensive matchup. Like in the case of Nash and Dragic, it allows for a synergy of emulation and extension by the full roster. It provides structure in which to make every decision from distributing minutes to running plays. Those choices can be guided by more than just the immediate circumstances.

D’Antoni has been a man of principles in the past and he desperately needs to find a binding agent for this Knicks offense. He needs to help get everyone on the same page, but the first task is selecting a book.

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