While the Knicks ostensibly improved perimeter shooting via offseason acquisitions, spacing and the three-point connection have been the bane of the team’s existence through 11 games.
After a promising three-game winning streak wherein the New York Knicks took down two legit contenders in the Milwaukee Bucks and the Utah Jazz, the team has screeched to a halt with a three-game skid against inferior competition. Teams have been hugging the paint against the Knicks, using zones, and forcing the ‘Bockers to try to beat them from the perimeter over the three-game losing streak, and they haven’t been able to make those teams pay.
With complete non-shooters seemingly entrenched in the starting lineup (Elfrid Payton, R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and sort of Julius Randle, who has cooled off from deep after his absurdly hot start), the most important skill for the wing playing next to Barrett is to shoot the ball well from deep.
The Knicks spacing is SO painful pic.twitter.com/vcENfpT8dn
— gnarly heff (@gnarlyheffner) January 12, 2021
Reggie Bullock, who had been head coach Tom Thibodeau’s go-to wing until he aggravated his hip and missed the Charlotte game, is shooting 33.3% from deep on the season, per Basketball-Reference. For a position from which the Knicks need real spacing for their more ball-dominant guys to operate, below league average is not going to cut it. He shot a similar percentage from deep last year, too, and this is someone who was brought in specifically because he was supposed to add a spacing threat. His quick trigger helps a little bit; volume is often just as important as percentage is in terms of spacing, since nobody wants their guy to be the one hitting shots. But defenses will still cheat heavily off a guy shooting 33% from beyond—and if that’s the best shooter in your lineup, you’ll never get a clean look in the paint.
Kevin Knox thus far has been the team’s best shooter from deep, which feels weird to type. He’s shooting exactly 40%, but the 45 three-point shot attempts should ring a huge sample size alarm. But credit where credit is due, when he’s been hitting like he did to the tune of 5-of-12 from deep against Charlotte, he’s forcing teams to stay up on him. The big question with Knox on the floor is whether he’s tenable on defense or not. He’s looked a bit better on that end this season, with some active hands and hustle plays, but he gets lost in team coverage and overall leaves a lot to be desired on defense.
Secondary angle of that defense & save from Knox + that WILD finish by RJ pic.twitter.com/wiVImEwjIv
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 9, 2021
Given the team’s offensive and spacing struggles, the spacing Knox provides is probably more important than the minimally better defense that Bullock gives the Knicks. But the fact that he still cannot take advantage of closeouts in year three is troubling.
Now if Barrett could hit one of even four threes (he’s currently shooting 18% from deep), then maybe the shooting wouldn’t be as vital from the other wing spot, but since he can’t seem to throw a pebble in the ocean, the other wing needs to be a knockdown specialist.
going through RJ’s game logs pic.twitter.com/9E12JwEcRM
— Mike Cortez 🇵🇷 (@CortezEra) January 12, 2021
With Bullock out for the Hornets game, Thibs inserted Austin Rivers into the starting lineup. In theory, this would alleviate some of the spacing concerns, but Rivers was reluctant to shoot the ball from deep and was still not respected by the defense. Not to mention he was constantly bullied by Gordon Hayward. Teams are going to force the Knicks to beat them from deep, and when guys like Rivers and Quickley don’t take their open catch and shoot looks, then going back to the volume thing, the spacing isn’t improved just by throwing someone who can shoot in the lineup.
Thibs really needs to tinker with his lineups and substitution patterns to make sure there are always at least one-to-two shooters on the floor at any given time (most good teams have at least three-to-four). Though Quickley is slumping his last few games to the tune of 1-of-12 from deep after a hot two-game stretch, he should be given more opportunity—even the threat of his shot will keep things open more than with Payton, whose shooting disgusted MSG Network broadcaster Clyde Frazier the other night, and who seemingly lost all ability to hit that little push floater he loves so much. In addition to cycling in Quick more often, Alec Burks should re-claim the starting wing spot when he’s back; he would ideally play as one of multiple shooters in the starting lineup.
Clyde has no chill tonight:
“Look at Elfrid Payton, he came in a dubious shooter. Seven years later, he’s still a dubious shooter.”
— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) January 12, 2021
The key to this squad having any success is that the ball-dominant guys need to be unlocked. Randle has been awesome thus far, but he can only do so much playing with negative spacing and is beginning to fall back into some of his poor habits. And the same can be said of Barrett’s bully-ball tendency in the paint. The most ideal lineup combo would be a starting unit of Quickley-Burks-Barrett-Randle-Robinson, and a second unit with Payton-Rivers-Bullock-Knox-Nerlens. That second unit could help Payton thrive with (in theory) three shooters around him. When Obi Toppin comes back (he’s 3-for-7 from deep on the season), he could take Bullock’s spot in the second unit and shift Knox down to the small forward slot.
We know Thibs loves playing his workhorses approximately 500 minutes a game—Barrett and Randle rank first and second, respectively, in minutes played per game this season—but if he wants those two to have more room to operate, he’ll need to be more flexible with his lineup combos going forward.