Despite Trey Burke’s fiery start to his Knicks tenure, the sixth-year diminutive guard will need to adjust his shot selection to benefit the team with more three-pointers.
Anyone who’s paid attention to the NBA over the last half decade (which, if you’re reading this, probably includes you) knows that there has been a drastic change in how the game is played, best exemplified by the 2014 Spurs and 2015–16 Warriors, but ushered in in earnest by LeBron’s Heat teams that put Bosh at center and went five out. Three-point shooting is now a prerequisite for almost all NBA players unless they happen to be elite in multiple other areas. Even then, very few guys are valuable enough to make up for a lack of a jump shot.
Yet if you look at Knicks teams during the last ten years, they seem locked in a Benjamin Button-ish cycle of devolution. From 2008–09 to 2012–13, the Knicks were a top-two team in the league in three-point attempts each year, and they were fifth in the 2013–14 season. In that six-year span, the Knicks went 270-246, bolstered in large part by their 54-win season, a year in which the Knicks were the league’s top-shooting team from deep.
But after the 2013–14 season, Mike Woodson was fired, Derek Fisher came in, and the bottom fell out. In the four years that followed, the Knicks were a bottom-ten team in three-point attempts, culminating last season, when they attempted the second-lowest mark in the league at 23.3 threes per game. The Knicks record was 109-219 in that span.
Part of the problem is that for much of this time, the Knicks have been in the worst place possible for an NBA team—bad AND old. One of the easiest ways for a bad team to buy some wins and display a modicum of competence (looking at you, Nets) is to push the pace and let threes rain like Genghis Khan launching plague-infected bodies over the castle walls at Caffa, which is harder to do when you’ve got Carmelo’s creaky knees and non-shooting guards like Rose, Jarrett Jack and Brandon Jennings orchestrating the offense. But a bigger problem has been coaches (at times under orders from a certain GM/POBO) not putting shooters in position to take and make threes. This is the first time in years the Knicks have had the personnel to get out and run, and it’s crucial Fizdale does a better job than Hornacek did getting his scorers in the right spots.
There’s no one this applies to more than Trey Burke.
In his two collegiate years as a Wolverine, Burke averaged almost five threes a game on 36.7 percent shooting. During the pre-draft process, he was often compared to Kemba Walker, another diminutive, score-first guard with natural leadership ability who improved his playmaking instincts each year in college.
But when Burke got to Utah, things went bad fast. He couldn’t find the balance between scoring and orchestrating, and halfway through his second year, he lost his starting spot. By year three he was less and less a part of the rotation at all, and by the end of his fourth year, the team that drafted him had given up on him. Burke was fighting and clawing just to hold onto a spot in the league.
It seems impossible that this dramatic fall from grace, from practicing with the USA Basketball Select team to a G League contract in three short years, wouldn’t have a mental effect. And to Burke’s credit, his 36 games as a Knick last season showed marked improvement in many of his trouble areas. On the second-highest usage of his career, his assist rate skyrocketed to a career-best 36.4 percent while his turnover rate dropped to a career-low 9.5 percent. Though he can’t do much about his size, it’s hard to ignore how hard he tries on the defensive end, at least in one-on-one situations.
This wouldn’t have been fun if Burke had missed the jumper but alas he did not. It was fun. pic.twitter.com/XDSxUImvzr
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 2, 2018
These are all encouraging signs in his journey to regaining NBA relevance, but they seem to have come with a trade-off.
Last season, 27.3 percent of Burke’s field goal attempts were threes. Among guards who played at least 20 games, that ranked 212th, behind Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio, and even Frank Ntilikina. In Washington the previous year, the number was barely higher at 27.5 percent. In a way it’s worked for him. The last two years have been his most successful from a percentage standpoint, as he shot a career-high 44.3 percent from three in Washington and 36.2 percent with the Knicks last season while also posting the two highest effective field goal percentages of his career. Some semblance of selectivity has helped him figure out how to be a volume scorer while maintaining efficiency.
Now, you’re probably wondering why I would spend all this time writing and researching an article just to wring my hands over a 25 year old point guard figuring out how to become a more balanced player. After years of watching the J.R. Smiths, the Carmelo Anthonys, hell, even the Iman Shumperts of the world, isn’t it a relief rooting for a player willing to change his shot profile to become a more effective scorer?
In a way, it is. And if Burke were the only Knick guard valuing quality over quantity, this would be some supreme nit-picking, but the other point guards on the roster aren’t exactly letting the long-ball fly. Frankie, somehow, is the most prolific of the group—31.4 percent of his field goal attempts were threes, good for 199th in the league, while Mudiay’s mark is barely better than Burke: 28.1 percent, two spots ahead of Trey. The best shooter in the Knicks backcourt, other than maybe Damyeon Dotson (and Iso Zo, but let’s wait ’til he plays a regular season game to anoint him), is also the most reluctant to shoot. That puts the Knicks in a less-than-ideal position, and if the preseason is any indication, it’s not going to change anytime soon.
Coming into the final preseason game against Washington, Trey Burke had been shooting 0.5 threes per contest, the same rate as Noah Vonleh and Isaiah Hicks and fewer than Enes Kanter and Ron Baker. In 47 minutes of playing time, he had attempted just four threes, hitting one. 18.2 percent of his field goal attempts had been threes—only 14 guards who played over 20 games last season had a rate that low. This extreme reluctance from a demonstrably good shooter, and not even one who forgot how to shoot over the summer, is a mystery on par with the Phoenix Lights, DB Cooper and the Voynich Manuscript.
Over the first three games of the preseason, the Knicks shot the sixth-fewest threes of any team, and hit only a third of the threes they took. If the team’s three primary ball handlers aren’t shooting, it puts an incredible amount of pressure on wings like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kevin Knox, who are both prone to inefficiency and will already have a bigger offensive workload than is ideal, to get even more shots up than they would otherwise.
Fizdale has talked at length about getting the big men shooting, but Vonleh, Kanter, and Mitchell Robinson are not the guys you want your outside shots coming from.
Let’s revisit those pre-draft Kemba comparisons for a second here. Now, Kemba is better than Trey Burke in just about any regard, but it’s important to note that as good as he’s always been, the Charlotte guard didn’t make an All-Star game until his fifth season, when he more than doubled the amount of threes he took from his rookie year (7.6 per game in 2016–17) while shooting a career-best 39.9 percent. As good a mid-range shooter as he’s always been, Kemba (or Steve Clifford, or both) realized that if he wanted to be more than a league-average starting guard, he needed to unlock the final piece of the offensive puzzle.
Trey Iverson? pic.twitter.com/uido5LtuGg
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 4, 2018
In the final game against Washington, Burke finally loosened up his strict mid-range only code, attempting four threes (which, I’ll remind you, is as many as he shot the entire rest of preseason combined) and hitting one. While the Knicks played by far their worst game of October and were handily defeated, it was at least encouraging that Burke remembered that the shot exists, and hopefully he saw how much the floor opened up for everyone else when the other team had to regard him as a threat from 25 feet.
The Knicks are going to be bad this year. The most recent over/unders predicted the Knicks to be the second-worst team in the league, which may end up being for the best, but that doesn’t mean the season will be a waste. The roster is littered with young guys hungry to make a name for themselves, from unproven rookies to former lotto picks peering into the dark, ominous crevasse of being labeled a bust.
If the front office and coaching staff are as committed to development as they claim to be (and there’s no reason to think they aren’t), they need to find a way to tap into Mike Woodson’s semi-accidental glory days, to return to the past in order to bring their offense back to the future. And whether he’s starting or flame-throwing from the bench, Trey Burke needs to be the one leading the charge.