It’s common for players and coaches to tell reporters how simple basketball is at its core: you move the ball around, and you try to throw it in the basket. They’re oversimplifying things, of course, since any game with 10 men moving in patterns around the floor can be pretty complex to sort out. Sometimes even fundamental decisions are difficult, including: Where should the five guys on a team be when it starts a given offensive possession? Who belongs on which slice of the court?
The Knicks’ wild 2011-12 season provides a window into this question. Charles Oakley can talk all he wants about how Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire need to play better defense – he’s right — but the basic fact that defined New York’s crazy season, and the one that will define its future, is this: New York scored only 98.5 points per 100 possessions with Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler on the court together. That’s a mark that would have tied Toronto for 25th in points per possession, per NBA.com’s stats tool. The Knicks spent most of the season as one of the league’s 10 worst offensive teams and one of its 10 stingiest defensive teams. If the offense doesn’t improve, especially when all the high-priced stars play together, the Knicks have a limited ceiling.
Last season, New York became one of 10 teams to purchase a multi-camera system from STATS, LLC that tracks every movement in an NBA game — of the players, the ball, the referees, etc. As I’ve written before, you can use it to measure player speed, the height of the ball on a particular rebound, how well a player shoots from a precise position on the floor, how well he shoots after one or two dribbles and lots of other things. Plucking out the useful data and making on-court adjustments based on it will be a giant challenge for the growing number of teams subscribing to a system that provides more information than any one person can handle.
But there is useful data in there, including info that does more than simply confirm what we already know (i.e., Tony Parker is fast, or Kevin Durant shoots better immediately after the catch than he does after a few dribbles). One thing that seems handy to know: How do particular players function when they stand in a certain area, or catch the ball there? And how do their teams function in those situations?
The folks at STATS gave SI.com exclusive access last week to two reports, produced for subscribing teams, that touch on this issue. The first is a report on dribble drives, tracking every time a player took the ball from an area more than 20 feet away from the basket and dribbled it to within 10 feet of the hoop. The second focuses on elbow touches — on which players receive the ball most often there, and what they do with it once they get it.
Two Knicks-related findings leap out:
• Of all players who drove the ball at least 40 times in camera-recorded games last season, Anthony proved to be the most efficient of anyone in the league. The Knicks scored 1.66 points per possession on trips that included an Anthony drive (from 20 feet out to 10 feet in) at any point in the possession. Anthony shot the ball on 55 percent of those drives (53 total, in 17 recorded games), a pretty normal figure for a top player at any position. He drew fouls on 25 percent of his drives, one of the half-dozen highest numbers in the sample of 91 players that STATS sent along. (Among players who piled up more than a token number of drives, only James Harden drew fouls more often.) Anthony shot a hair better than 60 percent from the floor on driving attempts.
But here’s the thing: Despite all those touches and more isolation plays than any player in the entire league (as a share of his total possessions, per Synergy Sports), Anthony only pulled off only 3.1 drives per game in the sample size. That mark was equivalent to the numbers for Chandler Parsons and Luol Deng, a bit below those for Kevin Durant (3.6) and Paul Pierce (3.7) and about half to one-third of the number that most point guards recorded.
• Anthony shot the ball nearly half the time that he touched it at the elbow, and he ranked No. 1, again, in points per possession recorded on all of his elbow touches. (Side note: This is an imperfect stat, since it considers the points a player produces after every elbow touch, even ones in which he passes the ball as the first ingredient in a long possession. Power forwards touch the ball at the elbow more than anyone, with Marc Gasol, Kevin Love, Pau Gasol, Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the league in touches per game, but they pass the ball about 75 percent of the time, per STATS. Their points per possession numbers by this measure are thus artificially low; Marc Gasol, for instance, shot 57 percent from the elbow but has a very low points per possession number). Anthony shot a whopping 62 percent on shots taken after an elbow touch, one of the highest numbers in the league.
Taken together, these stats tell us that Anthony is an enormously powerful force when he attacks the basket from far outside. Watch video of all his shot attempts within five feet of the rim, as I did via NBA.com’s fantastic stats database, and it’s easy to see why. Melo loves to drive from the deep wing area, especially from the left side, where he is dynamite at faking right and squeezing along the left baseline for a right-handed lay-up. (His dependence on right-handed finishes can get him in trouble on the left side if a shot-blocker is around). He’s deadly driving from the elbow areas, with a tendency to go left and a first step too good for almost every defender — especially the power forwards who defended him late in the season, a subject we’ll pick up again later.
And even more interesting: Anthony is quite a polished pick-and-roll scorer when he starts from above the three-point line and has space to get going. He flies around that pick, and when a big man help defender meets him at the foul line, Anthony has a go-to move that few can stop. He sort of fakes a right-to-left crossover before pulling the ball back to his right and powering to the hoop.
On one hand, this confirms some obvious stuff: Isolation 20-footers are bad; attacking the rim is good. But it also raises very thorny questions about how the Knicks’ offense should look, especially after the Olympics, when Anthony thrived as a spot-up shooter behind the shorter FIBA three-point line.
Where should Anthony be in New York’s pet sets? How should he arrive at those places? How do the Knicks encourage him to take the right kinds of shots?
A related item: Stoudemire touched the ball at the elbow much more frequently than Anthony did, nearly seven times per game compared to 3.75 for Anthony, one of the 10 highest numbers in the league. He also shot the ball on 42 percent of those possessions, a very high number. There was just one problem: He was ineffective. Stoudemire shot a middling 46 percent on those elbow possessions and turned the ball over at a pretty high rate. Stoudemire is actually a decent passer when he catches above the foul line and has time to survey the floor, but he’s not near the Gasols’ level and can’t regularly punish defenses — or invigorate offenses — with his high-post passing.
And though Stoudemire has a useful mid-range jumper, it fell off last season, and he had trouble shooting from the elbow when he had to catch the ball on the move. (An aside: That 46 percent mark isn’t terrible; Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent after catching at the elbow, and he shot much more often than either Knick did — on a whopping 57 percent of the possessions of which he caught the ball there. But Bryant almost never turned the ball over, and he’s obviously a very skilled passer.)
The Knicks had no time to build a complex NBA offense last season, and injuries to both Anthony and Stoudemire at different times made the task even more difficult. They relied on plenty of basic sets: high pick-and-rolls with Chandler as the most common screener, and sets in which players would be stationed at each elbow and in each corner, with Stoudemire and Anthony functioning from either spot. A lot of those wayward Stoudemire jumpers came after he cut from the corner, took a screen and caught the ball at the elbow for a catch-and-shoot jumper on the move.
The offense didn’t work, for lots of reasons. This data might indicate that one reason was a collective failure to place every player in the “correct” spot on the floor at the right times and in the right proportions. The Knicks know about all of this data, and I suspect it played some role in Stoudemire’s training (with the team’s permission/encouragement) with Hakeem Olajuwon on low-post moves earlier this month. New York subscribed to the system midway through the season, so a disproportionate number of Anthony’s drives — plays successful enough to rank him No.1 in multiple categories here — took place during that late-season stretch during which Stoudemire was injured and Anthony shifted to power forward.
Having one less big man on the floor opened up those driving lanes and ensured the Knicks had an extra long-range shooter when the defense collapsed. Again: This is the data asking — not answering, but asking — fundamental questions about how the Knicks’ offense should work. I can’t wait to see how New York answers them.