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.
In case you haven’t heard, the 3-point shot is kind of the thing these days around the NBA, largely thanks to a stats geek out in Houston, the ghost of the mid-2000s Phoenix Suns, and some skinny point guard who plays in California. We can argue about why NBA teams are jacking up more threes than ever before—maybe you think it’s because teams suddenly realized that three is more than two, or maybe you’d argue that it’s because today’s shooters are just that good—but it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that that the 3-point revolution is real, and as long as Steph Curry is making shots like this look easy, it’s probably here to stay. Heck, even Lakers coach Byron Scott, who just last year was roundly ridiculed for his 3-point skepticism, appears to have come around to freeing Kobe Bryant to shoot brick after brick after brick from beyond the arc.
Contrary to what a certain Phil Jackson tweet (hint: it’s the one this series takes its name from) might suggest, the New York Knicks take threes, too. They didn’t take many relative to the rest of the league last season, as they ranked 21st in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game, and they connected on those attempts at about a league-average rate (34.2%). For all the talk over the offseason about pushing the pace and taking more threes, they’re producing about as much from behind the arc this year as they did last. Through their first nineteen games, the Knicks are taking an average of 21.8 threes per game (good for 23rd in the league) and connecting on only 33% of those attempts (19th in the league).
The amount of threes a team attempts per game isn’t necessarily reflective of the quality of the team. The 15-4 San Antonio Spurs, for example, rank 27th in the league in 3-point attempts per game and take only 19.3 a night. In other words, the Knicks being in the lower half of the league in 3-point attempts isn’t in and of itself too concerning. While their shooting percentage on threes isn’t great, it is at least consistent with the talent on their roster. Of the nine players who are averaging over ten minutes a game with the Knicks, only four have made threes at above-average rates for their careers (and one of those is Sasha Vujačić). The Knicks’ best player, Carmelo Anthony (no, it’s not Kristaps Porzingis—not yet, at least), is himself a slightly below average 3-point shooter for his career.
Even though their 3-point shooting statistics aren’t great, the Knicks are actually producing good looks from beyond the arc—so far, they’re just not connecting on those shots. According to data provided by NBA.com/stats, 16.9 of the 21.8 threes the Knicks take every game come as catch-and-shoot attempts, the sorts of stand-still shots that NBA players generally make at better rates than they do shots they take off-the-dribble. Furthermore, they’re taking open threes at about a league average rate, as a fifth of their 3-point attempts are open looks (meaning the closest defender is over 4 feet away from the shooter). A look at how they’re producing their 3-point shots shows some good things and suggests that their relative mediocrity from beyond the arc will likely improve as the season progresses.
As much as commentators like to argue that the triangle offense doesn’t produce many 3-point opportunities, the floor balance and spacing that it provides can create some pretty open looks if ball-holders keep their heads up and make the right passes. This is especially true when Carmelo Anthony, a player who still commands the full attention of a defense whenever he holds the ball, is on the floor. In this play from the Knicks Nov. 17th victory over Charlotte, Melo holds the ball just long enough to draw a double team and force the defense to shift in his direction before whipping a cross-court pass to a wide-open Arron Afflalo.
The triangle is also helping the Knicks get some easy open threes from hand-off actions up at the perimeter. These sorts of plays turn the roster’s surplus of big bodies that can’t shoot threes into a strength, as Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn, and Kevin Seraphin are all competent screeners who are able to hold their positions and block for shooters after handing off the ball. Here, Kristaps Porzingis dribbles to the wing and hands off to Jose Calderon, who gets an open look as Porzingis blocks Serge Ibaka from contesting the shot.
Although the Knicks are getting some looks from beyond the arc playing within the triangle, one of their most consistent means of creating open threes has been to employ some of the more of-the-moment plays they’ve been running this season, in which shooters spot up around high pick-and-rolls.
The Knicks are getting a lot of good shots from those high pick-and-roll plays, and it might not be a bad idea for them to run them more often. This is especially true for the (ever-changing) second unit, where triangle sets have a tendency to break down and devolve into ugly Sasha Vujačić bailout threes.
Looking at the sorts of open looks the Knicks are getting from beyond the arc, it’s hard not to think that, sooner or later, a lot of those shots will start to fall. If they don’t, however, the Knicks may really struggle to win games as the season wears on. So far, they haven’t proven themselves to be a strong enough defensive team to win games against strong competition when their shots aren’t connecting. Given their lack of penetration and reliance on midrange jumpers (a topic for another day), the 3-point shot may be a big determinant in whether they win or lose from night to night.