By JARED DUBIN
A lot can be learned about the New York Knicks offense just by looking at the set they run on the first play of nearly every game. In 14 of the 20 games the Knicks have played so far, they have run the exact same set to open the game.
Depending on whether Carmelo is playing small forward (three times) or power forward (11 times), he will set up either at the right wing (when playing SF) or the right elbow (when playing PF). He then comes off a screen from Kurt Thomas and Tyson Chandler (when playing SF) or just Chandler (when playing PF) to get a wing jumper on the left-hand side of the court.
Again, this has been the play the Knicks have run on the first possession of the game in 14 of the 20 games they have played so far. In two of the six games where they haven’t run that play, Carmelo was out with a sliced finger. In three of the other four games, they ran a set that was nearly identical, with Melo in the right corner coming across a screen on the baseline to the same exact spot where he took that wing jumper.
So they’ve essentially run the same set on their first possession of the game in 17 of the 18 games Carmelo has played.
This gives you a window into what the Knicks want to do on offense. Though they’ve not exactly been the Iso Melo team of last year, the first option is still to get him the ball, either in the high post near the left elbow, or down low on the right block.
If Carmelo is double-teamed on that first touch, he’s been much more willing to swing the ball around the perimeter to kick-start the Knicks’ now-excellent ball movement.
Though his numbers don’t necessarily reflect it (mostly because of plays like this where he winds up with a “hockey assist”), Carmelo’s passing has been terrific this season. He’s willingly sucking in double-teams and making the pass either right in front of him or across the court. The rest of the perimeter players (Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer, JR Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Steve Novak) have been more than willing to then ping the ball around the perimeter until they find an open shooter, a driving lane, or a pick-and-roll opportunity with Chandler.
If Carmelo is covered on that initial screen, the Knicks move to option two: a high screen and roll between Felton and Chandler.
Chandler is one of the best pick-and-roll dive men in the league. He currently sits first in the league in points per play (PPP) as a roll man in pick-and-rolls with 1.46 (per mySynergySports) and is shooting a preposterous 70.9% on those plays. Felton has massively improved his pick-and-roll play over last year, mostly because he’s drastically cut down on his turnovers. He’s turned the ball over on just 12.1% of his pick-and-rolls so far this season after doing so on 21.6% of his chances last year in Portland.
Felton’s decision-making out of pick-and-rolls has mostly been good this season, but he’s gotten into a little bit of trouble when the defense goes under the screen and dares him to take a long two. The Nets executed this style of defense to perfection in the teams’ last meeting. Felton, especially in games where he feels he’s going against a point guard with whom he has a bit of a public rivalry (this tendency has been most notable in the Brooklyn and Houston games) can sometimes get baited into taking the shots the defense wants him to take.
However, in most other games, he’s been attacking the space the defense presents him when going under the screen, and using it to get an easier path to the rim. When he does so, Chandler comes open a whole lot. Early in the year, Felton was hunting alley-oop opportunities and not converting them at a very high rate. That’s change over the last seven or eight games, as he and Chandler now seem to have the timing down pretty perfectly. It resulted in two thunderous alley-oops in the first quarter of the game against the Nuggets on Sunday night.
In the two games Carmelo didn’t play, the Knicks ran the same set to open the game. In most games Carmelo has played, this has been what they’ve run on the second possession of the game. Felton brings the ball up the court and enters it to Kidd in the high post. He then cuts directly through the middle of the lane to the rim. If he’s open, Kidd can drop it off to him on his way through the lane. If not, Felton then wheels around and runs his man off a staggered double screen from Thomas (or Melo, when he’s in) and Chandler before popping out on the other side for a jumper or a side pick-and-roll.
The Knicks have also been very creative with their side out-of-bounds plays (and especially after timeouts). Sunday against the Nuggets, they ran one of the coolest plays I’ve ever seen – a double hand-off pick-and-roll that turned into a lob dunk for Tyson. Earlier in the year, they ran this beauty for Felton, though he missed the jumper. I’d like to see them run this set for Novak.
Other things to look out for:
- the triple pick-and-roll, which becomes especially dangerous when Novak is one of the three screeners. If Carmelo or JR can be one of the other two, even better. Additionally, the Knicks like to screen for the next screener pretty often. Most often on screen-for-screener plays, a guy will set a screen, then get one of his own to set up a backdoor play. The Knicks like to set screens for their pick-and-roll dive man before he sets that screen to give him separation from his defender before the action even starts.
- Everything in the Knicks’ arsenal is used to set up their potent three-point attack. They lead the NBA in three-point makes and attempts by a healthy margin despite playing at the fifth slowest pace in the league. They are taking and making more three-pointers than any other team in NBA history. The Knicks themselves set the league record for three-point attempts per game in the 2007-08 season, at 27.9 per game. This year’s Knicks are taking 29.4 per game so far. The league record for three-point makes per game was set by the 2009-10 Magic, at 10.3 per game. This year’s Knicks are making 11.9 per game so far. They are quite literally shattering three-point records.
Only the Bulls and Grizzlies have really been able to run the Knicks off the three-point line so far, and they each turned it into a victory. That may just be the key to stopping what has been the league’s second most efficient offense so far.