New York Knicks Must Rediscover True Identity to Thrive Again

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New York Knicks Must Rediscover True Identity to Thrive Again
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The New York Knicks are shooters. 

That's how they win. They shoot the ball and they shoot it a lot.

Last year's team, which led the NBA in three-point attempts, lived and died from long range. And it worked. The Knicks' offense clicked, the team started winning games at a pace it hadn't seen since the mid-1990s, and all was right with New York basketball again.

That's what happens when you put together a roster that harbors Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland, Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert, and Pablo Prigioni. You're going to see a heavy dosage of three-point shooting.

New York lost a few of those guys over the offseason (Novak, Copeland, Kidd), but still made moves so that they could at least attempt to replicate their production and style from last season.

They promoted Prigs. They brought in Tim Hardaway Jr., Beno Udrih, Metta World Peace (who is a better corner-three shooter than people give him credit for), and Andrea Bargnani (who isn't a better shooter than people give him credit for). 

The Knicks' offense was probably going to regress some this season. That wasn't necessarily because of the aforementioned personnel losses as much as it was because of which players were running the offense last year.

Last year's Knicks' offense relied so much on Anthony and Smith, who both saw spikes in their efficiency along with their usage rates in 2012-13. That's not something that happens all too often. Those two stats don't increase hand-in-hand and often when they do, we see them come back to Earth a season later.

Melo shouldn't be expected to copy and paste last year's production to this season's page. Neither should Smith. Likely, it's not going to happen.

So the Knicks have to find other ways to maintain elite offensive production. Mainly, they need to have someone who can play the same role Jason Kidd played last season.

As much as Kidd struggled down the stretch and in the playoffs last year, so much of the Knicks’ success came with him on the court—and plenty of that had to do with shot selection and turnovers.

It’s so forgotten now after his 10 straight scoreless games in the playoffs, but Kidd was highly effective for the Knicks in the first half of last year. Actually, more than that: he was one of the main people to credit for the Knicks’ 23-10 start.

Kidd shot 43.5 percent from long range over the Knicks’ first 33 games. He turned the ball over only 1.1 times per game in that stretch.

He made quick decisions. He helped keep the ball moving on the perimeter. And when last year’s Knicks were going, that’s how they won: with perimeter ball movement.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

They were chuckers, but not in the bad sense of the word.

Last year's Knicks were fully reliant on the three. 35.4 percent of their field goal attempts came from long range, the largest percentage of any team in the NBA. Pair that with a league-leading turnover rate and you’re probably going to have a highly efficient offense.

That’s how the Knicks finished third in the league in offensive efficiency: by slowing down the game's pace, working within a quality half-court offense, limiting turnovers and throwing up a smorgasbord of threes. 

Kidd wasn't technically a point guard last year. He played off the ball, but really, the Knicks employed a two-point guard lineup and the offense was so much more effective when that two-point guard lineup was on the floor.

This year, though, the Knicks' struggling offense hasn't been using two point guards together nearly as much and that has been its biggest problem.

The Knicks had three combinations they could use in the two-point guard lineup last season, mixing and matching Kidd, Prigioni, and Ray Felton together. Over the course of last season, Mike Woodson used some combination of those three guys for 44.3 percent of the Knicks' minutes. But this year, he's changed.

The Knicks just aren't going to the two-point guard lineup anymore and they're missing having two generals run the offense.

Mike Woodson has only gone to the two-point guard lineup for 30.5 percent of his team's minutes in the Knicks' first three games of the year. He began the season on the right foot, starting Prigioni, but changed up the lineup after the season's first game.

In two games since inserting Bargnani into the starting lineup for Prigioni, Woodson has used a Felton-Prigs lineup for just 10 total minutes. He hasn't used Beno Udrih with another point guard since playing him with Felton for only three minutes in the first game of the year.

We know Mike Woodson is the Tinker Bell of the NBA. No one tinkers with lineups more than him. Just ask James White about that.

White found himself as a Knicks' starting forward last year only to play five minutes at the beginnings of games just so he could get benched for the final 43 minutes each night. When he didn't start, he barely ever saw the floor. The inconsistency was perfectly microcosmic of the Knicks' greater issues.

Woodson's lineup preferences last year were strange, sometimes unexplainably so. Through three games this year, we haven't seen much change in the Knicks' coach.

Ultimately, Woodson is an adjuster. He tends to worry about matchup problems that opposing lineups cause without considering the matchup issues his lineups can cause for other teams. 

That's possibly why we didn't see a two-point guard lineup against the Bulls in game two of the Knicks' season. Jimmy Butler could post up Udrih or Prigioni or Felton so Woodson likely squashed the whole idea. But it shouldn't have ended there, purely because of what the perimeter ball movement with a two-point guard lineup can do for the Knicks' shooters.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

With J.R. Smith out to start the season, the Knicks should actually be using that two-point guard set more than they did last year. At least until their sixth man comes back, this is an opportunity for someone like Udrih to get comfortable playing off the ball. But the Knicks are instead letting that opportunity squander and are using Hardaway or Bargnani as cheap coverup for an offense that looks out of sync.

Two-man lineup data can be misleading and at best, it's flawed, but at the same time, it's probably not a coincidence that the Knicks' offensive efficiency improved with each two-point guard lineup they used last season.

All that said, starting to eliminate the two-point guard sets isn't reactionary on Woodson's part. It's not a case of the Knicks performing poorly early in the season with two point guards.

The Knicks have a 60.9 percent true shooting percentage when Prigioni and Felton are on the floor together this year. Yet, it took one game for Woodson to yank Prigioni from the starting lineup and replace him with Andrea Bargnani.

Lineup data from three games into the season should always come with a *small sample size alert*, but at the same time, some of these numbers are too symbolic to overlook. 

The starting lineup the Knicks used on opening night (Felton, Prigioni, Shumpert, Melo, Chandler) is outscoring opponents by 27.8 points per 100 possessions. It's been absolutely dominant in limited time.

Make one change to that lineup, taking out Prigs and replacing him with Bargnani, and it is getting outscored by 34.3 points per 100 possessions

Yep, you read that right. That's a 62.1-point swing per 100 possessions.

You might say, but that's a totally illegitimate sample size! Those numbers are obviously going to change!

First of all, stop yelling at me. And second of all, you're right. They're going to change. There's no way those figures stay so hilariously lopsided for 82 games. 

Still, the numbers are suggestive of something bigger. That lineup with Bargnani isn't going to work. Lineups with him rarely do. Just because we happen to be seeing those symptoms swell up to twice their normal size so early in the season doesn't mean the symptoms alone are inherently illegitimate.

It's been only three games, but the Knicks now sit No. 21 in the NBA in turnover rate. They've attempted threes on only 28.0 percent of their field goals. As the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring pointed out, the Knicks' 11 three-point attempts on opening night would have been a season low for them last year. Their 21 opening-night turnovers would have been a season high.

Sure, playing Chicago and a highly underrated Minnesota Timberwolves team affects performance, but those numbers—at least the three-point rate numbers—are more philosophical than situational. There's been a change in strategy without a clear reason as to why.

Monday morning, just one day after the Wolves outscored the Knicks 40-19 in the first quarter of a 109-100 Knicks loss, Woodson said he's sticking with his big lineup. At least at the moment, the two-point guard lineup is no more and the Knicks can continue to be a team without any sort of self awareness. 

Any contender needs an identity. For now, the Knicks have no idea what theirs should be.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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