New York Knicks Desperately Need a Spark from Their Backcourt

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistDecember 27, 2015

Dec 23, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; New York Knicks guard Jose Calderon (3) reacts in the second quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It is at least somewhat strange that, in a league that guard play has increasingly dominated over the last few years, the New York Knicks have built a roster that places its talent mostly in the frontcourt. 

Their best player, Carmelo Anthony, is a forward. Four of their offseason acquisitions—Robin Lopez, Kyle O'Quinn, Derrick Williams and Kevin Seraphin—are forwards or centers. Their lottery pick and designated future of the franchise, Kristaps Porzingis, is a hybrid forward/center. Even their top bench player, Lance Thomas, is a forward. 

So it should come as no surprise that the Knicks have not gotten inspired guard play through the first third-plus of the 2015-16 season.

Starting point guard Jose Calderon struggled badly with his shot to start the year, and while he has shot better as of late, he is still getting barbecued on defense on a near-nightly basis. Sasha Vujacic began the season next to Calderon in the backcourt, and at this point the less that is said about his on-court performance this season, the better. 

Phil Jackson has built a roster light on backcourt talent.
Phil Jackson has built a roster light on backcourt talent.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Second-year shooting guard Langston Galloway started off hot (55.3 percent from three in the first 14 games), but he has since gone ice-cold (26.6 percent over the last 17 games). Rookie point guard Jerian Grant has been wildly inconsistent, subject to the whims of teams that no longer respect his jumper in any way and feel comfortable sagging far enough to cut off any semblance of a driving lane. 

Arron Afflalo, upon his return from early-season injury issues, has been scorching-hot from the post (he's first in points per play on post-ups among players who have finished at least 45 plays from the post, per Synergy Sports, via NBA.com), yet he's strangely unable to connect from outside (32.1 percent from three). 

But if those developments are not surprising, given these players' past struggles in the aforementioned areas, they are a bit concerning as the Knicks gear up for a potential run at a low-end playoff spot in the suddenly deep Eastern Conference. 

Knicks guards almost never drive to the basket

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

According to the SportVU player-tracking data on NBA.com, the Knicks average just 14.6 drives per game—the league's lowest total. This is the second straight season they have been last in drives, and they actually drove to the basket more often on a per-game basis last season despite playing at a slower pace. 

This lack of driving ability showed up in full force during the 117-98 loss to the Hawks on Saturday night in Atlanta. In the second half, Atlanta began pressuring New York's guards out beyond the three-point line, and they couldn't manage to get into the paint. The strategy completely short-circuited New York's offense, and the Knicks slumped to 35 points in the second half after scoring 63 in the first.

The triangle offense famously does not feature much in the way of pick-and-rolls—the primary avenue through which most teams penetrate in today's NBA. Because of that, Knicks guards rarely come blaring around a screen moving downhill and into the paint. 

Instead, New York prefers to get its penetration through post-ups. No NBA team has finished more possessions, or a greater percentage of its total possessions, out of the post, per Synergy Sports.

"If somebody is open for a post-up and you throw him the ball, you're kind of creating penetration there," Calderon said. "It's different than if you drive it to kick, but if we get Melo the ball in the post and somebody has to help, it's almost the same thing. It's just a little bit different."

Post-ups bend the defense, sure, but not in quite the same way a drive does. Even Calderon, who drives less often than almost any NBA point guard, recognizes the value of penetration from the perimeter and into the paint: "You have to drive and make them help to create a better situation for the team."

Unlike a pick-and-roll, a post-up by its very nature involves only one offensive and one defensive player directly in the action. A pick-and-roll features two offensive players and two defensive players directly, which creates larger creases elsewhere on the floor and leaves fewer players available for help defense (three as opposed to four).

Not only that, but post-ups also take a long time to develop. It often takes three to four seconds to enter the ball to the post, which shaves valuable time off the clock that could be used to scramble the defense and create an opening.

Additionally, because New York's primary post-up options—Anthony and Afflalo, along with Lopez and Porzingis—tend to be deliberate on the block, throwing the ball into the post does not force the defense to scramble quite as quickly as it would with a guard coming around a screen and into the paint at full speed. 

Thus, the Knicks rarely have free lanes through which to get to the rim. No team takes a lower percentage of its shots in the restricted area, per NBA.com, and the Knicks finish there at the fourth-worst rate in the league. They are last in the NBA in points in the paint per game, the most efficient area on the floor, per NBA.com, and that's again something that has carried over from last season

The Knicks don't get out in transition to create easy baskets

David Goldman/Associated Press

The Knicks are playing at a faster pace this year, yes, but they had just five fast-break points against the Hawks on Saturday.

They're once again last in the NBA in points per game via the fast break, per NBA.com, which is the predictable result of a team built around slow, deliberate players, playing in a slow, deliberate system. Only 16.7 percent of New York's shots have come within the first six seconds of the shot clock this season, per data analyzed by NBASavant.com—the fifth-lowest percentage in the NBA.

Head coach Derek Fisher, though, attributes the lack of those types of attempts not to their deliberate style of offense but to the other side of the floor (which we'll discuss in more detail in a bit). 

"A lot of that happens by your defense," Fisher said. "At times our inability to rebound and giving teams additional offensive possessions impacted our pace and our ability to get out and run. That also means you're not getting a chance to attack early before the defense is set, which is the highest-percentage [possession]."

For his part, rookie backup point guard Grant agrees. "I think [we need to get] stops. Once we can rebound, we have a chance to get out."

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

While that's true, there are plenty of teams with poor defenses that still manage to get in the open court and create easy baskets. The Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets, for example, all currently rank in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency, yet they still comfortably fall inside the top 10 in fast-break points scored. 

Grant and Galloway both know Fisher wants them, specifically, to push the pace when they're on the floor, regardless of whether the Knicks get stops. But they haven't been doing so enough lately.

"We've got to take the opportunities early," Galloway said. "We have to make our minds up and say, 'Hey, we have to get out in transition.'"

Early on in the season, Grant, in particular, was able to do it a lot. But it's not been the case in more recent games, especially as he's been unable to get off the bench quite as much due to his inability to shoot. 

Knicks guards rarely draw extra defensive attention

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Without a peek behind the curtain of non-public SportVU data, it's tough to say just how often a Knicks guard draws a second defender. But anecdotally, it just does not happen very often, for all the reasons mentioned above and more. 

On the rare occasions when they do run off-ball screens, Calderon isn't enough of a driving threat to merit the big man staying in his way for too long, while Grant isn't enough of a shooting threat for his man to go over the top of the screen. They can both easily be defended by one player (or in Grant's case, none, until he reaches the paint) on the exact type of play that most often needs to be defended by two or more. 

"I feel like when they're sagging; I can still create ways for myself to get to the basket," Grant said. "But eventually, you do have to knock down some jump shots."

Early in the year when Galloway was shooting in excess of 50 percent from beyond the arc, he might have drawn a little extra focus from the defense. These days, the opposition is comfortable with him firing away from outside and cutting off the paint for Carmelo, Porzingis and others. 

"I think the biggest thing is just knocking down shots," says Galloway. "The more outside shots we knock down, the more we can penetrate."

Knicks guards don't play good enough defense

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Calderon has long been one of the league's worst defenders at the point guard spot, thanks to his lack of lateral mobility and foot speed. His defensive real plus-minus (RPM), per ESPN.com, ranks 39th among point guards.

Grant somehow ranks even lower—at 42nd. He should improve as he gets more time in the league, but like most rookies, he's unlikely to be a consistently positive defender at any point this season. 

Afflalo's defensive acumen has exceeded his reputation for a few years now, and that's never been more true than this season. His RPM rank as the 74th-best defensive 2-guard reflects that.

He struggles to chase opposing scorers around screens (none of the players among the 44 who have guarded at least 30 such plays this season have yielded more points per play to their opponents, per Synergy Sports), and he rarely succeeds at keeping players in front of him off the dribble anymore. 

Galloway is likely the strongest defender of New York's backcourt foursome, but even he has a negative defensive RPM. 

Individually and as a unit, Knicks guards struggle to stay in front of ball-handlers, particularly in—you guessed it—pick-and-rolls. The Knicks have allowed 27.9 drives per 100 possessions this season, per an analysis of SportVU player tracking data provided by Nylon Calculus editor Seth Partnow. That's the third-most in the NBA. 

That poor perimeter defense is a large part of the reason why the Knicks allow their opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots within six feet of the rim than any team, except the lowly 76ers, per NBA.com

Not only do the Knicks' guards not offer much resistance along the perimeter, they do not make up for that in any other way. Only Galloway ranks in the top 30 among the 130 qualifying guards in defensive rebound percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com, and he's 30th. The highest any of them rank in steal percentage is Galloway at 44th. And the highest any rank in block percentage is again Galloway—at 93rd. 

Where do the Knicks go from here?

Derek Fisher
Derek FisherMatt Slocum/Associated Press

The Knicks already incorporate more pick-and-roll (and pick-and-pop for Porzingis) into their offense than the truest version of the triangle, and they're extremely unlikely to scrap the system and move to a more free-flowing, four-out, spread pick-and-roll offense that has become popular around the league.

Even if New York did, there are probably only three or four players on the team well-suited to run it, and that doesn't include either of its starting guards (Calderon and Afflalo). 

At this point, the Knicks would do well to push the pace a bit more, even when it's not designed to get a shot in transition itself, but rather to exploit half-court mismatches and/or give themselves more time to run through their read-and-react-heavy system. 

Fisher, when explaining why the offense doesn't generate a ton of drives to the rim, succinctly explained the precise issue that plagues them in the half court—the root cause of so much of their short-circuiting: "Our offense is based on the what-ifs," Fisher said. "What if it's not there? When you can't throw it to Carmelo, what are you going to do? And I think we're still working our way through that."

The issues are even less likely to alleviate themselves on the other end of the floor, where any change would mostly be dependent on Afflalo suddenly reverting to the type of player he hasn't been for at least a few years. 

In reality, this is likely not a problem that can be solved this season, barring a major trade.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics via NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

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