Phil Jackson, the current president of the New York Knicks and a proud owner of 13 NBA #ringz, set the Internet ablaze earlier this year with a series of tweets poking fun at the NBA’s 3-point revolution. This season, we here at the Hoops Inquirer are turning Jackson’s infamous question on his own team. In this multi-part series, we’ll ask how it’s really “goink” for the Knicks as they continue to run a version of Jackson’s famed and controversial triangle offense. We’ll take apart their offense to find out what’s working and what’s not, to see the ways in which the Knicks are adapting the triangle to fit in the pace-and-space NBA and the ways in which they’re bucking current trends.
The post-up is at a low-point in its popularity around the NBA. The field of analytics and some hack named Mike D’Antoni have outed it as an inefficient source of offense, and most of the league has moved away from it. Partly because of these analytical and tactical developments and partly (some would argue mostly) because of a dearth of skilled big men, the game has moved out towards the perimeter. It’s a shooter’s league now, or so the story goes. Back-to-the-basket types like Al Horford and rookie Jahlil Okafor are relics of an era long past and teams built around strong post play like the Memphis Grizzlies are condemned to never taste the highest levels of success.
That’s the popular narrative, at least. In reality, the post-up isn’t dead, and the Knicks are high on the list of teams that are still devoted to dumping the ball down onto the block. When asked about it during the preseason, coach Derek Fisher doubled down on his commitment to the post-up, asserting that not only would the Knicks work the post as part of their offense, but that the post-up would in fact be their primary form of penetration. Per Fred Katz of FOX Sports:
“Post-ups aren't as popular of a scoring opportunity, in terms of the efficiency of points per possession or whatever, but we still view it as penetration," Knicks head coach Derek Fisher said. "The ball is still closer to the basket than it is if you're standing out behind the line…We want to get our penetration by playing through the post, and we feel like we can do that throughout the season."
Thirteen games into the season, the Knicks have stayed true to Fisher’s dedication to post play. According to stats provided by NBA.com, they rank third in the league in using the post-up as a percentage of their offense, as they terminate a whopping 12.4% of their possessions with shots from the post. The only teams who use the post-up as a bigger percentage of their offense are the Spurs, who rank second and employ one of the greatest post players of all time in Tim Duncan, and the notoriously old-school Grizzlies, who rank first.
While the Knicks use the post-up as a big part of their offense, they’re not particularly effective at scoring when they throw the ball down low. According to NBA.com, they rank 22nd in the NBA in points per possession generated though post-ups, as they create only .79 points in each possession that terminates with a post look. They’re 22nd in field goal percentage on post-ups (37.6%) and rank 15th in turnover frequency when working the post. This is all to say that by almost every metric, the Knicks are bad at scoring when they rely on post-ups.
Aside from the fact that post-ups tend to be inefficient in and of themselves, most of the Knicks’ futility in the post can be attributed to the fact that the players who have taken the lion’s share of their post attempts have struggled to score from those spots early in the season. Take, for example, Carmelo Anthony, who has posted up fifty-nine times through the first thirteen games, almost twice as many times as the player with the second-most post-ups, Robin Lopez. While Melo is getting about a fifth of his offense from the post, he’s only connecting on 36.2% of the shots he takes there. Lopez and Kristaps Porzingis, who has logged the third-most post-ups, are also struggling to score in post situations as well, recording, respectively, 23.8% and 33.3% field goal percentages when they shoot after posting up.
The only Knick who’s been consistently successful from the post thus far has been backup Forward/Center Kyle O’Quinn. O’Quinn is shooting 58.3% from the post and producing 1.21 points per possession when he posts up. He’s produced these numbers over a small sample size, however, as he’s only posted up 14 times over the first twelve games of the season.
Of course, throwing the ball into the post isn’t always about trying to score. Post-ups can change the balance of the floor, and good post players can draw double teams that allow for easy drop-off passes or kick-outs to open perimeter players who can capitalize on the already stretched defenses. This is especially true in the Knicks’ triangle offense, which, in large part, calls on players to hold the ball in the post and look to pass out to open cutters and spot-up shooters. While statistical measures of the Knicks’ efficacy in stretching defenses or hitting open cutters from the post are hard to find, the eye test suggests that they’re getting pretty effective in those areas. Plays like this one from their Nov. 17 game against Charlotte, in which Melo holds the ball in the post as Porzingis cuts into open space in the paint for an easy basket, have become increasingly common:
For better or for worse, it looks like the post-up will continue to be a big part of the Knicks’ offense going forward. While they haven’t been successful scoring from the post so far this season, they have looked good facilitating their offense from the block, and there’s reason to believe that their post scoring and efficiency will improve as the season progresses. Anthony, a genuinely great post player, is still in the process of getting back into an offensive rhythm after coming back from knee surgery, but seems to be regaining his form on the block. Arron Afflalo, another of the league’s best post-up wings, is also working on getting his footing back after missing the first eight games of the season with a hamstring injury. Porzingis seems to be finding himself both as a back-to-the-basket and face-up threat, and O’Quinn, Kevin Seraphin, Lance Thomas, and Derrick Williams have all shown spurts of promise working the post in their limited playing time.
Of course, only time will tell if the Knicks can really succeed in the modern NBA using the post-up as their primary means of penetration—and make no mistake, the post-up is their most consistent tool for penetrating as they rank dead last in the league in drives per game and don't fare much better in pick-and-roll statistics. For now, all that's for certain is that by making the post-up a focal point of their offense, the Knicks are going against the grain of current analytics and popular outside-in playing styles. In doing so, they're staking their future success on the bet that the forces that declare the post-up to be a thing of the past are wrong. It's a gutsy bet to make, but they might be one of the few teams in the league with the right roster to do it.