A Small Favor at the Knicks Halfway Mark

A little over four years ago, the fine folks at Paramount were hurting for cash, so they decided to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Ostensibly, the target audience fell into three groups:

  • small children who find amusement in talking animals,
  • people who wanted to see Guardians of the Galaxy, but it was sold out, and
  • wistful adults in their early to mid-30’s who grew up watching the TMNT cartoons on Saturday morning and subsequently dragged their parents to the local Toys “R” Us on the regular to spend $4.99 on action figures, and when the one we wanted wasn’t on display – “Scumbug,” perhaps – our mom would slip the store clerk a few bucks to bring out a box from the stock room and see if it was in there instead. Hypothetically.

My wife and I fit neatly into category three. Regardless of how bad the reviews were, we were going to see this monstrosity in the theater. The hope was that nostalgia would take hold to the point that even Megan Fox’s acting couldn’t ruin the movie.

We were wrong1. After it was over, my wife was not only bummed we’d wasted two hours of our lives, but that a small part of her childhood had died over that span of time. This was a movie that felt like it deserved to be seen as a bootleg. It was that bad.

A year later, I dragged my wife to see a nod to my own childhood, Terminator Genisys. Like Turtles, I knew it was going to be bad, but again, I didn’t care. They could have had Arnold in an afro painting happy little trees for two hours, and if he was playing the T-1000, I would have been there with him.

Spoiler alert: it also sucked.

That said, when I walked out of the theater, I had a distinctly different feeling than the one I did after leaving TMNT. It’s not that Genisys was a much better film2. It was, however, vastly more satisfying. At the end of the day, I got to see Arnold be Arnold, Emilia Clarke be hot3, lots of robots and explosions, and of course, that theme music. There were layers of comfort in the awfulness. The Turtles, on the other hand, were awful in a way that removed any comfort that once existed.

As we reach the midway point of a Knicks season we knew full well was going to be dreadful before it ever started, we’re at something of a crossroads. We know there will be no playoffs at the end of the road. The only question now is whether this season will leave us feeling like we just walked out of Turtles or Terminator on April 10.

Midway through the season, at least according to a totally, 100% reliable Twitter poll I posted earlier this week, it’s far closer to Ah-nold’s biceps than Raph’s tired shtick4.

With over 2000 responses logged, most people seem pretty pleased5.

Still, if there aren’t some leaps and bounds made between now and their last game, those numbers are bound to go down a bit. There are several nitpicks Knicks fans are well within their right to have, but there’s one big issue that takes precedent over all:

We need to see more meaningful passing

This is one that everyone, including the head coach himself, can agree with:

This quote comes on the heels of David Fizdale’s statement earlier this season that being last in the league in assists “makes him want to yack.” Heading into the season’s second half, the Knicks still rank at the bottom of the league in both assists and assist percentage. It’s a problem.

The issue isn’t that the team doesn’t move the ball – they’re currently 18th in the league in passes per game. It’s also not that they aren’t getting any good shots – the Knicks have a greater frequency of open looks than all but six teams in the league 6and are fifth in open threes per game. They’re also 14th in the league in frequency of both shots at the rim and non-corner threes7.

These numbers are a bit deceiving though. As you probably guessed, part of the problem is that the Knicks are a little light on quality shooters. Currently, New York has only three players shooting above the league average of 35.3% from long range8. They do, however, have five more players within a percentage point of that number, including their three most high volume shooters9. The shooting is part of the reason for the low assist numbers, but far from the only cause.

The bigger issue is that they aren’t getting nearly enough of the best shots and are taking way too many bad ones to boot.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are dead last in frequency of corner threes. They’re also bottom of the barrel in field goal percentage at the rim, and while it’s possible that they’re just full of terrible finishers, this is more likely an implication that they aren’t getting nearly enough easy looks at the basket.

Unsurprisingly, the Knicks lead the league in frequency of shots taken after making between three and six dribbles and are second in frequency of shots taken after two dribbles. On the flip side, they’re second to last in shots taken after no dribbles. Looking at the teams that take the most shots after zero dribbles – the Sixers, Warriors and Jazz – and the others in the bottom three – the Cavs and Bulls – it’s easy to see that more sophisticated teams find a way to get shooters in spots where they can simply fire away, as opposed to doing heavy lifting before their attempt.

Add it all up, and it’s clear that the Knicks’ offense leaves a lot to be desired. The more complicated question is whether there’s anything they can do about it.

Entering the season with the youngest team in the league, David Fizdale clearly wasn’t at liberty to install anything terribly complicated – not when there’s an organizational mandate to work five first or second year players into the regular rotation, including three who aren’t yet old enough to drink.

He also doesn’t have anyone on the roster single-handedly capable of breaking down a defense and opening up the offense by themselves. The four players who most closely fit that bill – Emmanuel Mudiay, Tim Hardaway Jr., Allonzo Trier and Trey Burke – have all gotten plenty of burn, but with the exception of Mudiay, their dribbling exploits have more often led to iso possessions than open looks for others.

So what’s the answer? There may not be a great one, at least not one that makes the team better in the short run. We also can’t continue with the status quo. Sure, this year is about improving the culture by getting this team used to being in competitive games, and it’s worked for the most part10. But they also shouldn’t go into 2019 training camp without any experience running an actual NBA offense as a cohesive unit.

Two modest proposals:

  • start instituting more sophisticated offensive sets, and if the kids mess up, they mess up. It won’t be pretty, but for a team that has lost 15 of its last 17 games, how detrimental could a little more experimentation really be?
  • Stop playing iso-heavy players together, or bench some entirely.

On the latter suggestion, Shwinny Pooh at Posting & Toasting just dropped a piece similar to this one in which he goes into some lineup suggestions in some more detail, and I second his thoughts wholeheartedly.

Other than more movement and easier looks on offense, there’s a couple other areas that need addressing:

Pick a defensive identity

…and “shitty” doesn’t count.

Fiz employed a healthy dose of switching early on before experimenting with a zone defense for a hot minute, and now recently he’s been employing more of a trapping scheme. We saw this style have some success, but we also saw the Warriors carve it up.

It’s obviously unfair to judge anything based off a game against the greatest offensive juggernaut in league history, but if that game – and this season – has made anything clear, it’s that New York doesn’t have the defensive personnel to employ any scheme with much effectiveness.

Many fans have clamored for a return to a defense-first starting lineup that includes Frank, Dot & Mitch along with Noah Vonleh, but any way you cut it, bad defenders are going to get time for this team, at least this season. So if you can’t play actual good defenders for most of the game, at least pick a scheme and roll with it so the guys who will be here long term can get used to it.

Figure out Frank

I’ve written far too many words about Ntilikina for two lifetimes, so I won’t belabor this point, but in short, if we’re going into next season with the same questions about Frank that we had going into this one, it’s a problem. He probably needs one more semi-extended stint as the starting point guard to give us real answers, but that’s what March and April for a bottom-five team are for. Even some run with Emmanuel Mudiay (as Shwinny proposed) is a worthy experiment.

That’s all I got. We harp on the bad a lot, because we’re New Yorkers and that’s what we do. It’s fine. Recognizing things that need improving is an important part of growth, and we do need to see some of that growth over the next 41 games.

Let’s just keep our expectations in check during that time. The real prize is still a ways away. We’ve been patient this long…what’s another three months?

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