Despite coming in preaching to share the ball, the Knicks’ continuity on offense has been stagnant. Let’s dive into the second-to-worst assisting team in the NBA.
The Knicks have started the season 3-8, but have been surprisingly, pleasantly, competitive in these 11 games, with lots of bright spots. One area that they’ve struggled in, however, is passing. They are 29th in the NBA in assists per game with only 20.1 dimes per contest so far. This implies the Knicks are one of the worst passing teams in the league, but how much of an indictment of David Fizdale’s offense is it?
There are stylistic reasons as to why the Knicks would naturally be near the bottom of the league in dishing. Firstly, per Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks take the seventh-highest proportion of their shots from the midrange in the league (35.9 percent). Mid-rangers are generally unassisted, isolation shots that come off the dribble rather than off the catch. Guys like Trey Burke and Allonzo Trier take a lot of these. Methodical Enes Kanter post-ups, similarly, are isolation possessions, and are generally unassisted.
Secondly, the Knicks are the fourth-best offensive rebounding team in the league, grabbing 30.1 percent of their own misses. Put-back points off of these offensive boards generally don’t help the team assist numbers. Noah Vonleh, Kanter, and recently Mitchell Robinson have all gorged on the offensive glass so far.
Thirdly, the increased pace of play this season—across the whole league—has negatively impacted assist totals generally. Passes are down, as Zach Lowe noted on his podcast, because pace has exploded, and these quick transition possessions warp the assist numbers across the board. The Knicks are 23rd in the NBA in pace, which isn’t particularly high in the context of the league, but doesn’t do the assist totals any favors.
Starting Lineup Change
These three offensive variables reverberate with the team’s second-to-last assists per game ranking, but don’t tell the whole story. After the blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets on the 29th of October, Fizdale talked about the team emphasizing improved ball movement in the offense in recent practices. The timing of this is interesting, as the Nets game was just the second contest since Fizdale overhauled the starting lineup.
For the first five games of the season, Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Lance Thomas, and Kanter were the starters; a mid-range and isolation-heavy offensive unit. For the last five games, Ntilikina, Hardaway, Damyean Dotson, Vonleh, and Robinson have started; a much less offensively creative unit, who would logically need to work harder—and move the ball more—to generate points in the halfcourt.
The numbers before and after the lineup change are interesting, pointing to a definite change in offensive style, one that emphasizes more of a halfcourt game, which requires better ball movement, and offensive execution—things this young Knicks team has predictably struggled with.
Kanter ➡️ Mario ➡️ Mudiay ➡️ Burke for the three! pic.twitter.com/DfXY7dmJ6c
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 4, 2018
The most notable statistical split from the first five games to the latest five game chunk is a significant drop in pace, from 103 down to 97. This is the difference between nearly top-10 in tempo to being on par with the slowest teams in the NBA. Statistical indicators of defensive aggression reinforce this change. Over the last five games, steals, points off turnovers, and fast-break points have all dipped.
The offensive results have been mixed. Fizdale is getting more ball movement in the last five games, with passes per game up from 285 to 296. More passes in fewer possessions means more halfcourt offense—and the offense has improved some, with the Knicks’ offensive efficiency up from 103.7 to 108.6 and their effective field-goal percentage up from 47.7 percent to 51.6 percent.
Despite the bump in offensive efficiency, the assists per game have stuck at 20 per night. The Knicks’ shot profile has mostly stayed the same, with three point attempts and three point percentage both marginally down on the first five games of the year. The big change in the shot chart has been trading short mid-rangers for shots at the rim. The proportion of New York’s shots at the rim has jumped from 31 percent to 36.2 percent, while short mid-rangers have dropped from 20 percent to 15.9 percent.
These increased shots at the rim make sense when looked at in conjunction with a big jump in team offensive rebounding percentage—from an already elite 27 percent in the first five games to an absurd 35.9 percent in the last five—a preposterous number that would lead the league by a country mile. The Knicks have monopolized the offensive boards in the last five games, and this fits in with the altered offensive style.
Knicks are on fire on the offensive rebound category and they finally get a second chance point pic.twitter.com/z78c5IhuIe
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 6, 2018
Fizdale has his Knicks playing slower, in the halfcourt, where they are more efficient than before not because of better half court execution—which would lead to assists—but because there are more offensive rebounding opportunities for an elite rebounding frontcourt trio of Vonleh, Kanter, and Robinson. This leads to high percentage shots at the rim that account for the almost incidental increase in offensive efficiency while the offensive execution is still lacking.
Disclaimer: five games is a fickle sample to draw from. One theory linking these statistical variables is that decreased pace leads to increased offensive rebounding, as the Knick bigs are in better and more consistent rebounding position in the half court. That ends up producing higher efficiency shots at the rim, which accounts for offensive improvement (offensive efficiency and eFG% improvements) that somewhat masks poor offensive execution.
Slowing Down the Pace
What is not theoretical, though, is that while the majority of the NBA is in an all-out sprint, playing at a record pace, Fizdale has pumped the breaks in these last five games. Since he’s gone all-in with youth, inserting Robinson, Vonleh, and Dotson into the starting lineup, the Knicks have played at nearly the slowest pace in the league.
In the short term at least, it’s somewhat counterintuitive to ask the youngest team in the NBA to lean on halfcourt execution as their offensive foundation. It’s the opposite of what the young Sacramento Kings are finding success with so far this season, where they are second in the NBA in pace, feasting in transition, and being rewarded with a respectable 12th-ranked offense.
It is possible, of course, to have an efficient offense with minimal assist totals. The Portland Trail Blazers are 28th in assists per game but have the fifth-best offense in the NBA, because they have Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, two of the best isolation scorers in the NBA. The Knicks don’t have those luxuries.
What’s the Long-Term Outlook?
Does it matter that the Knicks are 29th in assists per game? If they are going to play like this, in the halfcourt, with this roster, then yes. Ball movement that bends (and eventually breaks) defenses creates open, assisted shots, and will be a big barometer of—and prerequisite for—a successful Knicks offense.
This is a huge test for this infant Knicks roster. In the first five games, New York had a turnover percentage of 11.5 percent (which would rank second in the NBA for the season). This has flipped emphatically in the last five games, soaring to 17.5 percent (which would rank tied 29th in the NBA for the season).
There will be growing pains with Fizdale’s baptism by fire developmental approach. Like the last game of this latest five-game chunk, on the road against a reeling, frenzied and desperate Washington Wizards team. On the way to an ugly but plucky loss, the Knicks flailed and floundered their way to 11 first-half turnovers and looked their age when faced with ridiculously physical and aggressive Wizards defense. The Knicks were brimming with youthful exuberance, energy, and grit, but struggled with where to channel and effectively direct these increasingly refreshing hallmarks of a Fizdale-coached team.
More teams will do this to the Knicks. Smart teams will lean on and look to exploit this Knick inexperience. Hopefully the Fiz Kids will learn, gradually, to duck these persistent punches of defensive pressure, and leverage it against opponents.
Fizdale has been bobbing and weaving all season, who knows what the next five-game chunk will bring, strategically or otherwise. But if he persists with this lineup—or a variation of it with Kevin Knox inserted—the Knicks don’t have the offensive firepower to play snail-paced isolation basketball and win games. Offensively, ball movement, assists, and halfcourt execution will be the name of the next five games and beyond for these neophyte Knicks.
All stats via cleaningtheglass.com and NBA.com/Stats.