Pass The Ball More: A deep dive into passes per game

It’s hard to deny the Knicks look like a different team offensively in the beginning stages of the Mike Miller era. The offense runs more north-to-south than east-to-west. Picks are set with a purpose and players finally operate with a level of space. After time out (ATO) plays are actually converted.

Sure, Elfrid Payton is healthy. Yes, there is often a team effort bump after teams fire their head coach. Yes, the team faced off against bottom feeder teams in the Golden State Warriors (sans Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), Sacramento Kings (sans DeAaron Fox), and a defense optional squad in the Atlanta Hawks, but there is more cohesion on offense. In 4 of 6 games in the Miller era, the Knicks had at least 24 assists total, with 30 against the lowly Hawks squad. This is not a bad total knowing that the Knicks scored 103 points in 2 of the 4 games and 124 against the Warriors.

With that said, this is a golden opportunity for the Knicks to work on one key goal: passes/game. Last season, and also early in November, David Fizdale had a goal of 300 passes/game. Let’s just say that goal was barely met during most games. Through this date, the Knicks currently average 290.1 passes/game. This mark ranks right in the middle of the pack (14th) amongst all teams, but less than the “lofty” goal Fizdale had in mind. The league leader, coincidentally, is the 5-23 Golden State Warriors with an average of 332.6 passes/game.

During the past 6 games, the Knicks broke 300 passes only once against the Warriors (324). However, their totals against the Pacers (265), Kings (267), and Hawks (236) were significantly lower than their team average.

It’s worth noting that passes/game isn’t the be-all and end-all barometer of team success. The many teams below the Knicks in passes/game include playoff teams such as the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks, amongst other teams. However, without a franchise player, there is low margin of error for the team to run an offense that encompasses isolation tendencies. It’s not only important to pass the ball, but also to pass the ball on time and frequent enough to keep the defense on ice skates. Sure, roster composition plays a significant factor in accomplishing the goal, but it’s worth a shot.

To further dive in to this point, I decided to analyze the Knicks/Hawks matchup from this past Tuesday using advanced analytics.1 Before tracking the game, I decided to exclude all inbound passes to truly focus on passes occurring during a particular possession. I will refer to it in this piece as “net passes.” I anticipated the total number of inbound passes to be somewhere around 60.

Based on my calculation2, I calculated approximately 176 net passes in 108 possessions. Of the 176, Payton led the team with 37 net passes. Frank Ntilikina & Dennis Smith Jr combined for 43 net passes. Payton led the team with 9 assists and DSJ came in second with 5 assists. It’s interesting that about 22-24% of their passes were assists.

As for the bigs, Bobby Portis led the frontcourt with 16 net passes while Julius Randle had 15. The one surprising wart was that both Marcus Morris & RJ Barrett had only 9 net passes each. It might be something both players should be cognizant about going forward.

What stood out for me the most was the number of passes/possession. Of the 108 possessions, 64 of them featured either 0 or 1 net passes (23 possessions with 0 passes, 41 with only 1). 23 possessions consisted of 2 net passes and 11 had only 3 net passes. The most number of passes in one possession was 6, which was done twice in the game.

It’s worth noting that the Hawks had a porous defense – at best – and a middling offense that led to many fastbreak opportunities. But this is a gentle reminder that the team will need to continue to move the ball around to get easier buckets against more competitive teams. The goal should be somewhere around 220-240 net passes/game. At the same time, the passes have to be of purpose and on time. A player like Frank Ntilikina must avoid telegraphing passes. Likewise, Julius Randle and even Dennis Smith Jr. must understand the importance of passing the ball on time to reduce the number of passes and also increase the probability of made baskets for their teammates. Marcus Morris and RJ Barrett must also avoid tunnel vision and continue to move the ball around to create energy and find open shooters.

Over the remainder of the season, I aim to develop a sustainable model that better evaluates passes/game beyond the prototypical advanced stats. I also aim to incorporate timely passes into the model to correlate pass quality to made field goals. This analysis is crucial to truly determine the overall health of a team offense.




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