Spending most of the 2017–18 season stuck in the stone age of the NBA, what can the Knicks take from the most successful teams to reach new heights?
For a team that hasn’t done a whole lot of winning over the last decade and a half, the New York Knicks sure are good at one thing: the press conference.
If Scott Perry and Steve Mills could have taken their words from last week’s largely impressive 45-minute Q&A, put sneakers on them and given them jerseys, maybe the Knicks would still be playing right now instead of looking for their 12th head coach in the new millennium.
Alas, words are all we have to hang onto at the moment. The ones that were used echoed an ongoing theme that both men have preached since Perry took over as the team’s GM last July: fielding a team fit for the modern game that prided itself on defense. The term “position-less basketball” was uttered, and I may or may not have shed tears of happiness when they were.
There was one other term used that Knicks fans have heard as rarely as Wally Szczerbiak not mentioning he played basketball: analytics. When discussing what he’d be looking for in the next head coach, Perry specifically mentioned someone who either could work with advanced stats themselves or was comfortable getting help from someone well versed in the subject.
The line was great to hear, as was the general tone they used when speaking about the next person in charge. It does beg the question though: what exactly does work in the modern game? Analysts and fans alike seem to think sometimes that winning in 2018 and beyond is as simple as shooting a bunch of threes and preventing the other team from doing the same, but is is actually that simple?
Like any topic having to do with the NBA, the answer is complicated. What better place to start than with the area the Knicks struggled with perhaps more than any other team in the league on both ends of the court, and which many people think fixing will be the magic elixir to all that ails them: the three-pointer.
The Deep Ball
To say that the three-point shot has become a slightly bigger part of the game over the last few years is like saying Joakim Noah is slightly overpaid.
This season, the Knicks attempted 23.3 threes a game, good for 29th in the league, per NBA Stats. A decade ago, that would have ranked third, behind only the Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic and, well, the New York Knicks.
That this year’s Knicks team shot four and a half fewer deep balls per game than their 2008–09 incarnation is staggering in terms of how far behind the curve they currently are (the league leading Rockets averaged 42.3 per contest). It’s also instructive. During that year, the first in New York for current now-Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, all those threes couldn’t help the Knicks avoid a yet another 50-loss season.
So no, shooting threes wasn’t the be all, end all then, and it isn’t now. This season, the Nets, Mavs, Bulls, and Hawks all finished in the top seven in threes attempted per game, and all finished with worse records than Jeff Hornacek’s squad that shot it like it was 1999. Making most of the threes you take isn’t a cure-all either, as the Kings, Pistons and Hornets were top eight in that category and failed to win 40 games, too.
You would think that being near the bottom of the league in both threes attempted and percentage made is a death knell, but that’s not true either. This season, the Knicks were one of two teams to finish in the bottom five in both, but the other team, the Spurs, is still playing. It makes the third straight year that a team has made the playoffs after finishing in the bottom six in both categories.
This is evidence that you can be a pretty good team without taking or making a bunch of treys—but it’s rare, and you’re definitely not going to be great. To be a top-flight team these days, you need to be elite at one or the other. This is the third straight season that the top two seeds in both conferences finished among the top three in the league in threes attempted while finishing among the top three in percentage of threes made.
Moreover, almost all playoff teams are at least decent at one or the other. Of the 48 playoff teams over the last three seasons, 38 were were in the top 10 in threes attempted or three-point percentage. Of the 11 over that span that finished in the top 10 in both, only this year’s 46-win Nuggets weren’t dancing come April.
So yeah, chicks have every right to dig the long ball. Whoever the next coach of the Knicks is needs to embrace the goal of becoming elite at either the volume or the accuracy of their threes. It isn’t, however, the most important thing they’ll need to do where long-range shots are concerned.
Closing the Floodgates
Close your eyes for a moment and picture it with me: a typical Knicks defensive possession. The pick-and-roll comes, a guard penetrates the lane, the ball kicks out to the corner, and someone from the paint comes flying out towards the shooter, only it’s a half second too late. You drop your head before the ball is halfway to the rim because you’ve seen the result a thousand times if you’ve seen it once.
The Knicks’ defense of the three-point line, seemingly forever, has been like a horror movie franchise where the girl keeps running up the damn stairs instead of out the front door. We repeatedly die watching, except without the benefit of a gratuitous sex scene first. No, Clyde’s suits don’t cut it (although they come close).
This season, a greater percentage of New York opponents’ offensive possessions resulted in a corner three than all but one other team in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. They were also eighth from the bottom in both opponents’ accuracy on those shots and on threes overall. This, unsurprisingly, was not characteristic of the best teams in the league.
Looking first at three-point percentage allowed, nine of the top eleven teams made the playoffs, including the five best teams in the league. This was the same the last two years, when 11 of the top 14 three-point percentage defenses made the postseason. In 2016–17, the teams with the four best records each finished in the top five, while in 2015–16 the top two teams also happened to finish with the two best records.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, none of the bottom five in this category made the playoffs this year, only one of the bottom 10 made it last year, and only two of the bottom eight made it the year before that.
The same is true for the amount of threes a team allows. This season, six of the seven best were in the playoffs, while four of the bottom five were out. How’s it goink, indeed.
This flies in the face of traditional thinking, which has always been to limit opponent opportunities in the restricted area first and foremost. We may need to modernize our perceptions. In 2017–18, six of the 10 best teams at limiting their opposition’s shots at the rim are staying home for the playoffs. Defending the close-range shots when they do come is a better indicator for success (seven of the top nine in that category are still playing), but it’s not as imperative as three-point defense, as there are four playoff teams among the bottom seven in rim percentage allowed.
The lesson, as always: three is more than two.
Hustle and flow
We know it’s true that to a certain extent, winning comes from being a great three-point shooting team and stopping others from doing exactly that. It still only tells us so much about what type of players the Knicks should go after, what type of coach they should hire, and what style of play they should embrace.
One thing we almost always hear coaches talk about is playing faster. NBA Stats tracks how how fast teams play with their “pace” statistic, which measures how many possessions a team averages per 48 minutes. Teams with a pace over 100 are generally considered to play fast and, unsurprisingly, that number increases every season. What is surprising, however, is how those teams perform.
This season, eight of the 12 teams with a pace over 100 didn’t make the playoffs. Last season, that was true of six of the nine that reached that average, and for four of seven teams the season before that. It’s especially interesting to note that the two top seeds this year, Houston and Toronto, finished right around league-average in pace.
Playing fast, by itself, gets you nowhere. Playing fast and being able to shoot, though, is key. The four fast teams that did make the playoffs this season also happen to be in the top eight in the league in true shooting percentage. The previous two seasons, this was true of two of the three 100-plus pace teams that made it.
This speaks to a larger trend: teams that shoot well tend to win (duh). Having a 55 true shooting percentage is generally considered to be league average, and if you’re better than average, you’re golden. Over the last three seasons combined, 33 of 40 teams that met that mark made the postseason. Over that span, the top four teams in true shooting each year finished with an average of 59 wins, and none won fewer than 50 games.
Once again: if you are a good shooting team in the modern game, you will win, and if you’re a great shooting team, you will likely win a lot. That doesn’t mean defense doesn’t matter. This year, the 44-win Milwaukee Bucks were the sixth-best shooting team in the league, while the playoff outsiders Denver Nuggets were seventh. Those two squads finished 17th and 26th in defensive efficiency, respectively. The top ten overall defenses this year, on the other hand, all made the playoffs, and half of them won 50 games.
We already went through the importance of three-point defense, but simply being an active presence on that end is also important. There’s no statistic for the type of pain-in-the-ass, up-in-your-grill defense that the 90’s Knicks were known for (although if there were, I’d hope we could name it after Anthony Mason). There is, however, a statistic for deflections per game, which is an indication not only of defensive activity but also being in the right spots at the right time. It’s telling that the top 11 finishers here are all still playing, including three of the top four seeds.
What about rebounds?
You may have heard the famous Pat Riley adage, “No rebounds, no rings.” Many front office executives and head coaches still abide by his words, which is why Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Riley-signee Hassan Whiteside, and Enes Kanter made a combined $111 million in 2017-18.
It’s also not a coincidence that four of those guys are home watching the playoffs, and Whiteside is quite literally getting run off the floor in the Sixers series, having played 27 minutes total over the first two games.
It used to be that keeping opponents off the offensive glass equated to wins, right? Not so much anymore. In three of the last four seasons, the best two teams in that category failed to even make the postseason.
It gets better. This season, of the seven teams with the worst defensive rebounding percentage (meaning they gave up the most offensive boards), four, including the Warriors, made the playoffs, and a fifth, the Clippers, finished over .500. Last season, seven of the ten worst defensive rebounding teams made the playoffs, including three of four conference finalists. The year before that, four of the six lowest went dancing.
Keeping your opponents off the offensive glass just isn’t the prerequisite to wins that it used to be. While that may seem jarring to some, the real kicker is that it’s by design.
The reason is simple, transition buckets—more than threes and layups—are still the easiest points in the game. When teams make an effort to grab their own misses (something that is always unlikely, no matter who a team has on the floor), they’re opening themselves up to be exploited in transition. More and more, teams are inviting opponents to stay back and hunt for offensive rebounds because they know that in the long run, it will work out in their favor.
It’s not hard to see why four of the best eight offensive rebounding teams in the NBA this year didn’t make the playoffs, while three of the five worst did. The East-leading Raptors finished 11th, while the Cavs, Warriors, and Rockets were all in the bottom 10. Only once in the last three years has a top-ten offensive rebounding team gotten a top-two seed, and that was when the 2015–16 Cavs finished ninth. Hunting for second chances just isn’t smart basketball anymore.
Getting out and getting back
Taking the point about rebounding to its logical conclusion, if you guessed that the best teams would excel in both making and preventing transition buckets, you’d be right.
This season, of the six teams that finished with 50 or more wins, five were in the top 11 in transition buckets per 100 possessions off of live rebounds (the type teams get when opponents hang back on the offensive glass). The Warriors and Rockets finished first and third, respectively. Conversely, seven of the eight worst on that list failed to make the playoffs, including the four worst teams in the league. Last year, the top five finishers in transition buckets also won at least 50 games, and in 2015–16, 10 of the top 11 made the playoffs, including three of the four top seeds.
Easy buckets, easy wins.
On defense, the five best teams at limiting transition baskets also happened to rank in the top seven in overall defense, and all made the postseason. Last year, the top five in overall defense were in the top nine in transition buckets allowed. On the flip side, six of this year’s eight worst transition defenses missed the playoffs. That includes the Knicks, who were second to last.
Other than hustling back and forgoing offensive rebound opportunities, being a good transition defense means having players that can match up with multiple guys on the other end. It’s not surprising that Boston, Toronto, and Utah were ranked first, second, and third here, respectively. Those teams often put lineups on the floor where three, four, and sometimes five players can cover anyone else on the opposing team for stretches of a possession or even a game.
“Position-less basketball” isn’t just a buzzword; it’s life in the NBA in 2018.
Putting it all together
So now that we know the best teams in the league shoot the lights out of the ball, guard the three-point arc, get out in transition (while not necessarily playing fast), switch freely on defense, and don’t hang back on the offensive glass, we ask the obvious question: how far away are the Knicks from becoming such a team?
If you watched them this year, you might be inclined to say “really freaking far,” and the numbers wouldn’t disagree. The Knicks were 23rd in defensive efficiency and 24th in true shooting percentage, our two big ticket items.
As we noted before, not only did they shoot fewer threes than almost anyone, but they were less accurate than all but three teams. They were also 20th and 22nd in opponents three-point percentage and threes attempted per game, respectively. On defense, only four teams had fewer deflections, which was a large reason they were just 25th in transition frequency according to Cleaning the Glass.
Naturally, the Knicks excelled in the one stat category we deemed the least important. They were 12th in overall rebounding rate and fifth in offensive rebounding percentage. However, all that extra glass chewing led to them being fourth from the bottom in points given up off of live rebounds. Not great, Bob.
Some of this was definitely due to coaching, and that should improve. You may have noticed that Hornacek and friends never made the three a priority. Courtney Lee shot 40 percent from deep this year, and yet of the 17 players who hit that mark and played at least 30 minutes a night, only three took fewer long-range attempts per game than he did. Two of those were centers. The staff also failed to make an effort to consistently spring Doug McDermott, whose three-point percentage went up substantially after he left the team.
In some ways, Enes Kanter playing the third-most minutes of anyone on the team was more emblematic of the Knicks being stuck in the past than anything. He isn’t a floor-spacer, can’t guard the perimeter, and doesn’t protect the rim. The thing he did best—grab offensive boards—also hurt the team’s ability to get back on defense. Teams got 1.6 percent more transition looks when he was in the game, in the 13th percentile of players league-wide.
Thankfully, the Knicks aren’t completely bereft of talent that does fit the modern game. More importantly, the talent they have could lend itself to a quick turnaround in a number of these categories.
For starters, in Kristaps Porzingis, they have someone who can single-handedly open up the floor on offense if deployed properly (read: surrounded by four shooters, which is far easier to do with a three-point shooting rim protector). Mediocre shooters become a lot better when given space, which will also be helped by the presence of a penetrating guard like Trey Burke. With Burke on the court, the Knicks were 6.9 percent more accurate on threes, which was in the 96th percentile of the NBA.
On the opposite end, Frank Ntilikina’s ability to defend multiple positions and (eventually) hold his own against the league’s premier penetrating guards will be perhaps an even bigger trump card than KP. Men he guarded shot 3.1 percent worse on average, which ranked fifth out of 23 qualified rookies who played at least 60 games. They also have two young guys in Ron Baker and Troy Williams who ranked third and fifth among 392 players in deflections per 36 minutes (min. 300 minutes played).
If you squint hard enough, you can see the makings of a modern basketball team here. There will be plenty of prospects available in the draft who possess most or all of the attributes the Knicks should be looking for, and a few more bargain-basement free agency hits like Burke and Williams that will only add to this puzzle.
Now comes the hard part. It’s time for Scott Perry and Steve Mills to get the rest of the pieces and hire a coach smart enough to put them all together. A huge part of that second prerogative will be recognizing the importance of a head man (or woman) who views these numbers as more than just a peripheral aid, but as the backbone to their plan for building a sustainable and efficient style of play.
Take that for data, indeed.