The Knicks have swapped an ISO-heavy offense for a more egalitarian approach. So far the trade-off has paid off big time.
Much has changed about the New York Knicks’ offense to begin this season. Currently sitting somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks have found some stability in their new point guard, Jalen Brunson, as well as in the versatility of New York’s bench with Obi Toppin, Cam Reddish, Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, and Isaiah Hartenstein leading the way.
One aspect of their offense that’s been notably boosted is their ball movement and, as a result, their speed. It was an area of improvement that was plastered on the wall at their training camp this offseason, and one that would be welcomed after seeing isolation from Julius Randle significantly hampering his game and others on the court with him.
How marked has this difference been, though? Aside from the eye test, we can look at their pacing compared to last season as well as how long key engines like Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle have been holding onto the ball so far this season.
*Caveat – this is based on an extremely small sample size from this season so far.
Pacing is key
Last season, it was clear that New York was not just one step behind many teams they were facing off against, but several. Right now, the Knicks rank 17th in pacing to start this season compared to last year, when they ranked second-to-dead last. Pacing isn’t everything in the NBA, of course – the Knicks fancy themselves a defensively-minded squad, one that should be able to slow things down. But even last year, New York sank back in defensive rankings compared to their successful four-seed year from 2020-21.
So, while the Knicks are still trying to get back into a defensive groove, it’s nice to see them moving their offense up the court at a much quicker pace. It has already benefited Brunson, who seeks to exploit smaller guards than him who are just trying to get back in transition, and recipients of his passing game like Mitchell Robinson, Evan Fournier, and Randle. This will eventually benefit RJ Barrett as well, once his shot starts to fall.
Turnovers have also not gone up so far this season compared to last season, which is a good sign that their passing game has been sound with Brunson at the helm. As of now, they rank in the top 12 in terms of turnovers with 13.2 per game. Last season, they were even better, in eighth place with 12.4 per game.
ISO no more
Part of New York’s struggles last season on offense was attributed to the amount of isolation plays their primary ballhandlers like Randle, Barrett, or Fournier would commit to, which often led to turnovers, stagnation, or poor shot selection.
Randle especially became known for his penchant to spin into the paint while isolating his man, which sometimes worked, but more often, unfortunately, led to a foolish shot at the rim or poor ball handling amidst a sea of bigs in the paint. This season, he has barely shown that side of himself – until recently.
In the Knicks’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Randle reverted back to this behavior almost immediately after tip-off. Whether this was because he anticipated how clamped Brunson and Barrett would be, or he just felt the pressure of playing against a behemoth like the Giannis Antentokoumpo-led Bucks, remains to be seen. But it was one game out of the seven played so far, and otherwise, he has looked solid as he tries to return back to his Most Improved Player form.
That all being said, the numbers seem to agree that Randle is doing a better job at getting rid of the ball in transition and as New York is setting up a play – he’s been holding onto the ball for an average of 2.81 seconds per touch. He’s also been dribbling much less compared to last season. This year so far, he’s only averaged 1.78 dribbles per touch whereas last year he averaged 2.20 dribbles.
He’s benefited from this in his scoring, now finishing more often in the post as a result of being able to be a target of another facilitator as opposed to being a facilitator himself. Plugging up the paint, though, is now a concern as Randle and Robinson look for passes from Brunson. But, this is a good problem to have compared to having Randle eat up the clock while looking for a subpar midrange shot.
The Knicks need to keep their pacing up. Their bench last year ran circles around the starters, and it led to many games being on the shoulders of their young core led by Rose. This season, it appears much more symmetrical between the two units, and that can only contribute to more winning and more efficient basketball.
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