Spacing is precious to an NBA offense, especially one as bad as the Knicks. That’s why smart fans might have cringed when they saw this on New York’s first possession Wednesday against the Kings:
You see Jeremy Lin passing the ball to Landry Fields on the left side, but if you look at the right edge of the paint, Lin’s most common pick-and-roll partner, Tyson Chandler, is rolling right into Amar’e Stoudemire’s space. One play like that, right after the opening tip, and you find yourself asking some of the same questions we asked about the pre-”Linsanity” Knicks: Can the pieces fit? Why is Stoudemire, one of the greatest pick-and-roll finishers ever, so neglected on New York’s pet play?
The Knicks quickly found a solution, but even that solution is a reminder — perhaps an encouraging one — of how much work is left to be done with an offense that still ranks 24th in points per possession and has sputtered badly in three of the last four games. The Knicks, for all the Lin mania, are winning with defense; they rank fifth in points allowed per possession, their best ranking of the season and one that does not fit the common perception that Mike D’Antoni cannot coach defense.
Indeed, perhaps the best Lin-related news is that a very good New York defense has been even better with Lin on the court. The team’s best work has come against shaky competition, including games against three of the league’s four worst offenses, and it’s possible the absence of Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire helped New York’s defense reach another level. But we have no evidence that Lin is hurting New York’s stingy defense. That’s a good start.
New York’s offense has also been better during its seven-game winning streak. But considering the competition, it has not been so much better as to answer the key questions that will decide whether the Knicks are an interesting bottom playoff team or something more. If everyone stays healthy, the answer will come down to whether the Knicks can score efficiently, and much of that will depend on how quickly D’Antoni, Lin and New York’s two scoring stars can find ways to work well together. That is a challenge, even with Lin’s brilliance, but it’s a nice challenge to have.
When the Knicks have their best personnel on the floor, they are essentially running the Lin/Chandler pick-and-roll to death. They ran 30 such plays by my count Wednesday, compared to “only” 11 Lin/Stoudemire pick-and-rolls. When it’s Chandler as Lin’s partner, the Knicks are spreading the floor by stationing two shooters beyond the three-point line and putting Stoudemire as close to the three-point line as possible — far enough away to keep the floor spaced, but (ideally) still involved enough to be a threat:
A couple of things to note there:
• Bill Walker, starting in Anthony’s place, is standing in the corner farthest from Lin. That is Walker’s job now — to get as far as he can from the primary play and hit open threes if his defender crashes the lane. Anthony can do this, but neither he nor the team will be satisfied with such a role.
• The Knicks have realized that opponents are going to dare Lin to go left. To counter, they are doing something smart: sliding many of the Chandler/Lin pick-and-rolls to the right side of the floor, so that if Lin has to go left, he’s at least going toward the middle of the floor and not the left sideline — the classic extra defender. The Knicks aren’t doing it every time, because teams must mix things up. They even had Chandler occasionally change the angle of a screen to direct Lin to his weaker left hand, as if to say, “If you’re forcing him there, I’m going to make it hard for you.” Behold:
Again, note Stoudemire standing behind the three-point line, where he is far less dangerous. For the Knicks to score well against good defenses — and they have faced only one above-average defense in this seven-game stretch — they must find ways for Stoudemire, Anthony, Chandler and Lin to all exist simultaneously as scoring threats. The rotation will take care of some of this; Stoudemire and Anthony will both get segments as the only non-Lin scoring star on the floor.
But the offense will need to diversify, and this goes far beyond the cliché question of whether Anthony will share the ball. This will take time and tweaking, but the Knicks should be up for it. When Lin is in the game, plenty of possessions will start with a quick-hitting pick-and-roll within the first seven seconds of the shot clock, often with the screener jogging behind Lin in delayed transition. That is classic D’Antoni, and Lin has proved he can turn that action into gold.
And that action brings other reasons for hope:
• Stoudemire can be a threat even when he’s not the pick-and-roll guy. He has slumped from the perimeter this season, but he’s historically very good from about 18 feet out, and he can drift from the three-point line down into the open space above the foul line as Chandler rolls to the rim and defenses sag down. Stoudemire is already doing this; Lin missed him there at least twice on Wednesday.
• If that initial play turns up nothing, Lin will pass out to a perimeter player with around 12 seconds left on the shot clock. Right now, that perimeter player is Walker or Iman Shumpert or Fields. If that perimeter player is Anthony getting the ball with the defense on the move, the Knicks should be able to spring right into dangerous secondary actions — an Anthony/Stoudemire pick-and-roll, an Anthony drive past a defender rushing to close out (something Chandler mentioned on Wednesday) or something else. Even last season, as they were just learning each other, Anthony and Stoudemire found some chemistry on plays where one would stand in the corner away from the ball and suddenly burst toward the foul line, take a screen from the other and catch the ball in the center of the court. If they time that kind of stuff to happen as Chandler is rolling to the hoop, Lin will have even more options.
• In attempting to force Lin left, opponents are sometimes having his defender jump in front of any screen Chandler sets to Lin’s right side:
As you can see here, this strategy gives Lin the chance to cross back over to his left and find a natural gap — a pocket, in NBA speak — through which to slide a bounce pass to the guy setting the pick. If that is Stoudemire instead of Chandler, the Kings are in trouble.
• Lin is not very useful as a spot-up shooter, and running endless pick-and-rolls is exhausting work. When the initial pick-and-roll stalls out, Lin either has to scurry back up to run another one with the shot clock ticking down or retreat to the sideline while another perimeter player runs things.
Having Anthony back as a kick-out option on such possessions eases Lin’s burden and might help him as a spot-up option by drawing more attention than Fields or Shumpert can. Easing the burden on Lin is important. His turnover rate is too high, even if young point guards tend to have very high turnover rates. Lin is coughing up the ball on 20.4 percent of possessions he finishes with a shot, drawn foul or turnover, and that number actually understates how turnover-prone he has been.
Plenty of guards, including Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd in recent seasons, have cracked the 20 percent mark in turnover rate, but few have shot the ball as often as Lin has. Turnover rate is a bit biased against pass-first point guards like those players because it factors in shot attempts but not assists. Only three players in league history have attempted at least 15 shots per 36 minutes (Lin is at 16.2 now) and finished with a turnover rate above 20 percent. That number has to come down. Having Anthony back as a secondary creator should help.
The word “secondary” anywhere near Anthony’s name is a loaded term, one that brings up images of wrecked chemistry. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A team gets 90 or so possessions in a game, and the trick is to maximize efficiency by keeping things balanced, milking what works and moving the ball from side to side. The Knicks aren’t an especially deep team, even at full strength, and everybody should more or less be able to get theirs.
Put simply: The Knicks were a miserable, isolation-style offense before Lin’s emergence as a real NBA talent. They have been better with Lin, and it would be almost impossible for them to be worse with Lin and Anthony. The question is how good they can get. Track their points per possession starting when Anthony returns, and if you see a number that ranks, say, 12th or so overall, the Knicks will be a very dangerous team. That is a reasonable goal.