Knicks Numbers, Part 1

Every 10 games throughout the season, we’ll be checking in on some statistical pluses, minuses and quirks surrounding the young Knicks. The first one focuses on an apparent lack of ball movement that might not be as bad as it looks but is a cause for concern nonetheless.

Wouldn’t you know it, despite most prognosticators pegging the Knicks as a bottom-five team (and some even lower than that), reports of their death appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Ten games isn’t much, but it’s enough to begin making some assessments, and overall, fans should be pleased. Through Sunday’s Wizards game, the team had a minus 3.5 net rating, good enough for 21st in the NBA1. With an equal number of road and home tilts (including an MSG date with the defending champs), they appear to be what their record says they are: a run of the mill, below average team.

Normally that wound’t be cause for celebration, but when you factor in that the Knicks are not only the youngest team in the league, but that over half of their minutes have been played by guys 24 or younger, it’s more than a bit refreshing.

Still, this is New York. If we didn’t find something to complain about, we’d lose our residency and be charged extra for our morning sugary milk with a splash of coffee.

As such, a downer: through Sunday night, the Knicks were second to last in the league in assists, averaging 20.1 dimes per game. Of course, assists are an imperfect statistic that doesn’t factor in pace of play, which is why assist percentage is so helpful … and the Knicks are third to last there as well. Looking, finally, at assist points created – probably the best stat to rate how efficiently passes are leading to points because it measures how many total points a team creates through assists – they’re dead last.

It begs the obvious question: should fans be concerned?

It’s not that assists or any of their statistical offshoots are the be all, end all, but when you look at the teams that excel in these areas, it’s telling. Through Sunday night, there were four one-loss teams in the league, and they all ranked in the top 13 in assist percentage. Even more to the point, the Warriors, Raptors and Bucks – arguably the three best teams in the NBA – ranked first, second and third in assists per game. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Thus, this would seem to be something Fiz & Co. should target under the “needs work” column. The question is whether that improvement will happen organically as the young players grow, get more experience in a new system, and the talent level continues to increase, or whether these are deeper issues that require looking at the schemes the new coaching staff has instituted thus far.

More on that in a minute. First, let’s take a look at what’s working.

For one thing, it’s not like they don’t have a plan. If you’ve watched even five minutes of game action this year, you know that ball screens and dribble handoffs are a huge part of their offense. Sure enough, they’re tied for 13th in screen assists per game2. That’s a plus.

They’re also not an isolation heavy team, a welcome change from years past. The 6.9 percent of possessions they’ve used on iso’s is 16th the league, and they don’t have a single player in the top 50 in isolation plays per game3.

Now here’s the really interesting part: New York is moving the ball around more than you’d think for a team with so few dimes. Through Sunday, the Knicks were making an average of 290.8 passes per game, good enough for 17th in the league. That average is nearly in line with the Celtics (294.2 passes per game) Warriors (295.4) and Jazz (299.3), three very different offenses who are nonetheless seen as among the most sophisticated in the NBA.

So, no, the problem isn’t ball movement … it’s that all the movement isn’t leading to anything good. After 10 games, the Knicks had a lower frequency of wide open shots4 than all but four teams. Adding insult to injury, New York has a 50.9 effective field goal percentage on those shots – third worst in basketball5. The struggling Rockets are the only other team in the bottom ten in both categories.

Their frequency of open looks6 is better, currently sitting at 28.7 percent – good enough for 11th in the league – but again, the Knicks aren’t hitting these shots, converting only 38.7 percent of such opportunities, third worst in the NBA.

Meanwhile, New York has a higher frequency of tight shots7 than all but six teams8.

So what’s the deal – are we watching an offense lacking in creativity, or are the players just not very good?

Based on early returns at least, it would seem to be the latter. The fact that David Fizdale’s offense has generated as many open looks for the team as it has is a minor miracle considering how woefully short the Knicks are on guys that demand a defense’s attention. Fans always scream for a Houston Rocket-esq shot profile, but those looks are a lot easier to come by when you have James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon available to penetrate and probe9.

Put it all together, and it seems like New York’s lack of assists is more a function of them being a young team short on shooting and talent than anything else, a fact that was driven home loud and clear following Monday’s home tilt with the Bulls that at times set the sport back to its peach basket days.

While Fiz isn’t getting compared to Brad Stevens anytime soon, the absence of wide open looks is more likely a function of not having that one guy who can completely collapse a defense on his own – the type of thing that usually generates those lovely wide-open corner threes we’ve seen the Knicks give up ad nauseam for years.

It makes sense when you think about it. For as wonderful of a season as Timmy has had, he might be the worst “best” player on any team in the league, at least in terms of gaining separation and creating good looks for his teammates10. Without him on Monday, things got even more stuck in the mud.

It goes without saying that once Kristaps Porzingis is back and in full force, he should command enough attention that defensive breakdowns from opponents will start to occur. That, of course, will require him to improve upon the only glaring negative on his resume: a ghastly 1.3 career assists per game number. To put that in perspective, of the 48 players who appeared in at least five games last season and had a usage rate over 25, KP’s assist percentage of 6.3 % ranked dead last by a mile.

So yeah, get well soon, our lanky Latvian son. Another unicorn-y seven-footer who may or may not be one of the five most devastating offensive forces to ever grace the hardwood also wouldn’t hurt efforts to open up the floor.

All in due time. For now, the team will keep plugging away, learning how to generate chicken salad out of Noah Vonleh ball screens and Allonzo Trier Allen Iverson impersonations.

It’ll get better. Just don’t blame the coach. Or expect it to improve any time soon.


Leave a Reply