The New York Knicks are terrible and on their way to missing the playoffs despite having the NBA’s second-highest team salary. They’re also one of the slowest teams in basketball. Are these two facts related?
Bad teams are bad for a variety of reasons, so condemning one specific element to explain all their unholy atrocities would be unfounded. The same goes for good teams.
(There are dozens, if not hundreds, of reasons why the San Antonio Spurs bludgeon teams to death on a nightly basis. Saying it’s all Tony Parker or Tim Duncan or Gregg Popovich or the hot Texas sun isn’t close to telling the whole story.)
The Knicks have battled injuries to key players (and not-so-key players), struggled to find their two-way identity by showcasing strange lineups at odd times and experienced a collective shut down of their nervous system when it's time for defense.
The goal here is to discern whether pace is a factor in any of their fundamental struggle. Speed is important for some team but far from the determining factor in figuring out whether an offense is good. The Miami Heat are snails (27th in pace), and the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers are cheetahs (first and second place, respectively), but the two-time defending champions still score the ball whenever they want, while those other two are unbearable to watch.
New York averages 92.53 possessions per 48 minutes, sandwiching them between the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls (two defensive juggernauts who muck games up as a means of survival) for 29th place.
They are slow but have an above-average offense. They’re 11th in offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage. Last season, they only looked up to Miami and the Oklahoma City Thunder in offensive rating, but they were the fifth slowest team in the league, indicating that speed may not be the problem.
Even if that's the case, it’s still worth asking why they play so slow and whether going faster could make one of their strengths even stronger.
According to 82games.com, nearly half of New York’s shots occur with between 13 and four seconds on the shot clock. Their effective field-goal percentage in this time is below 50 percent.
Compare that with them shooting in the first 10 seconds of a possession (35 percent of all their attempts), and their effective field-goal percentage jumps up to 52.9 percent. It’s a slight increase in efficiency but one the Knicks could have explored a bit more this season.
New York is one of the 10 least efficient teams in transition, and they’re dead last in fast break points (8.8 per 48 minutes). Despite shooting a solid 38.7 percent on transition three-pointers, they “only” average 1.09 points per possession on such plays, according to mySynergySports.
The word "only" is in quotes because while that number is low compared to everyone else, it’s still a much higher mark than what New York’s offense squeezes out of isolations (0.84 PPP) and pick-and-roll attacks from the ball-handler (0.76 PPP).
Roughly 11 percent of New York’s offense comes in transition, but 27 percent is off isolations and ball-handlers shooting off a pick-and-roll. A lot of these possessions begin with pick-and-rolls before evolving into isolation sets, and countless seconds are ultimately wasted with needless dribbling. It’s not the most ideal strategy considering New York’s love and success with the three-point line.
They launched and made more than any team in NBA history last season. Now, they’re fifth in attempts and seventh in accuracy (37.2 percent). Pushing the ball in transition creates open looks, and playing at a faster pace allows more attempts.
Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert would all benefit. But the rest of New York’s personnel might not. Carmelo Anthony is making over 40 percent of his threes this season, and posting the second-highest three-point rate of his career. But New York’s offense, like every one that’s successful, needs balance.
Anthony can clearly shoot, but he’s perhaps more dangerous attacking the rim and putting opposing bigs in foul trouble. He has more offensive responsibilities than anyone else on the team, and a free flowing system that jacks up as many threes as possible would take the ball out of his hands more than Mike Woodson wants. This makes sense.
Also, the rest of New York's personnel may not be up for participating in a fast-paced offense. Amare' Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Prigioni aren't exactly young, and the grind of an 82-game season takes its toll.
But another reason they don’t run more is because they can’t. There’s basically no easier way to score than off an opponent’s missed shot. Once the defensive rebound is handled, a team can push the ball up the court and create a chaotic situation that’s tough for any backpedaling defense to handle.
The Knicks have the seventh-worst defense in basketball this season, and a huge reason for that is their penchant for fouling. Putting an opponent at the free-throw line isn’t a long-term plan for success, especially in relation to how it prevents a team’s offense from moving as quickly as it wants.
New York allows .318 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, which is third worst in the entire league. Teams that get to the line are then able to make a seamless retreat back to protect their own basket. This means New York is forced to battle half-court defenses more often than every team except the Sixers and New Orleans Pelicans. Offense and defense are connected in a very real way.
The Knicks have many problems, and playing faster wouldn’t solve them all. But this season has been so awful in so many areas, that their inability to make one of the few things they're good at even better shouldn’t be ignored as one of the problems.
New York has a good offense, but it might be even more dangerous if they pushed the pace and had more possessions to fire away from the three-point line, or merely find holes in the defense that’s beginning to set itself up. It wouldn't make them championship contenders, but at least a spot in the playoffs could be had.