Last season, New York’s third-ranked NBA offense was fueled by small lineups, great floor spacing and record-setting three-point shooting. Through the first few games of this season — in some cases due to necessity, if not by design — the formula had changed. Canadian import Andrea Bargnani was inserted into the starting lineup and Carmelo Anthony was pushed back to his natural small-forward position. Predictably, Bargs struggled to fit within the framework of the offense and his teammates struggled to adjust to him. He wasn’t effectively spacing the floor and teams were sagging off of him to help defend other players, mostly ‘Melo. New York’s offense had no identity, no floor spacing, and no results. The Knicks were not generating good three-point attempts, opting instead for a dearth of long-twos, post-ups, isolations and turnovers. If numbers are your thing, New York scored just 90.2 points-per-100 possessions with the Anthony-Bargnani-Chandler trio on the floor.
In order to demonstrate just how effective last year’s offensive strategy was for New York, I compiled the top ten teams in both three point shot attempts and mid-range shot attempts during the 2012-13 season. Not surprisingly, those teams with better offenses tended to shoot a lot of threes. In a nutshell, good offenses shoot a lot of threes and bad offenses shoot a lot of mid-range jumpers:
That’s not to say that the mid-range game is useless in today’s NBA. It’s not. Running action through the elbow is a common and effective way to run an offense, and sometimes it results in a long-two being an open look that shouldn’t be passed up. Players like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant have made careers out of being deathly efficient mid-range shooters, but their lethal approach puts them in the vast minority. (If the current trends continue, in time, defenses may actually force teams to become more proficient at mid-range shooting, but that is conversation for another day.)
Since Tyson Chandler went down with a broken leg in game four of the season, New York’s offense has been much, much better. Coach Woodson has been forced to play smaller lineups with Anthony at the four and Bargnani starting at the five. Both have been more productive offensively, and their production has positively impacted the rest of the team. Why? It’s the floor spacing and shot selection, Stupid! With Bargnani’s ability to shoot from the outside, the Knicks have been able to play a 5-out offense, similar to what we saw last season when Chris Copeland filled in for Chandler at center. The spacing has transformed from this:
Though New York’s three-point attempts have only increased slightly over the last four games, they have hit those shots at a much higher percentage (37.6%, up from 29.9% with Tyson in the lineup). Freed from the shackles of poor early season spacing, Anthony and Bargnani, in particular, have thrived. For ‘Melo, it’s simple. He is a power-forward who’s at his best when he has room to get into the post or to drive to the rim. He’s also a lethal spot-up shooter, but prior to the Woodon going back to small ball, Anthony wasn’t getting good looks with the Knicks unable to space the floor and create lanes. Without space around him, Anthony settles for far too many outside shots and isn’t nearly as effective as a scorer. This, and we have nearly two season’s worth of incontrovertible data that proves Carmelo to be a dominant offensive force when he is playing power-forward. With many teams league downsizing to smaller lineups, Anthony is perfect in the role, too.
For his part — and I know, small sample size, but — Bargnani has been reborn playing center for the Knicks. He is playing like a man possessed. Now shooting over 50% on the season and 44.4% from three, New York’s improved spacing has done wonders for his game. Schematically, Woodson’s Knicks prefer to deploy the center as the primary screener in the offense, so naturally Bargs has been much more involved. His ability to pick-and-pop puts defenses in awkward spots, and with smaller Knick lineups forcing opponents to match-up, has often found himself facing smaller defenders who cannot deal with his jumper. He also has the unique ability for a man of his size to put the ball on the floor and create for himself, something that should continue to come in very handy with more space for him to operate. Without clutter in the lane and mid-range area, Bargnani can also unleash his excellent pump-fakes.
With the offense seemingly headed in the right direction, it will be critical for the Knicks to maintain the recent improvement in spacing and shooting after Chandler returns. The obvious way to do that is move Bargnani to the bench and to start Anthony at power forward alongside Chandler, though it remains to be seen if the coach will see the light. Splitting up Bargnani and Anthony can actually be a good thing. We all know that the duo cannot survive together defensively over the long haul, anyway. When Chandler is on the floor, he is always going to be the primary screener and Bargnani isn’t great playing off the ball. Woodson’s offense is at its most effective when it forces defenses to choose between collapsing on Chandler or staying put on outside shooters. Unfortunately, Bargnani doesn’t fit well in that structure because he doesn’t have a natural feel for spacing, often drifting into the paint where he is comfortable.
Sure, it was only four games, but early on we saw defenses leaving completely Bargnani open in favor of collapsing on Chandler or double-teaming Anthony in the post. The Knicks would be best served by getting Bargs the ball at the elbows or as a screener, and as a high usage bench-big, he would have more opportunity to be in those situations without mucking up the spacing. On the defensive end, Bargs has shown himself to be a passable post-up defender, but the rest of his D is positively atrocious. In Chandler’s absence, New York has had virtually no pick-and-roll defense, and it’s been a practical layup line for the opposition when Bargs is on the floor. That said, with Bargs coming off the bench, Woodson can deploy Kenyon Martin at power forward/defensive anchor or, in the alternative, Metta World Peace, who can provide a boost for the offense.
Going forward, fans will have to hope that Woodson doesn’t continue to go against what works in favor of experimenting with lineups that do not. If he chooses to roll the dice on the Anthony-Bargnani-Chandler trio, the Knicks will likely struggle. But if he does what works best – playing small lineups and using Bargnani as more than a spot-up threat – this offense can be really good again. New York — despite last night’s loss against Houston — is finally starting to show some signs of life and there is no reason why the offense cannot be as dangerous as it was last season. The formula for success is there, Woodson just has to be smart enough to use it.