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.
Quick: What’s the worst shot in basketball? If you’re a stat-savvy NBA fan, you probably answered “the midrange jump shot” or “the long two,” and for good reason. The popularization of basketball analytics has solidified as fact something coaches, players, and fans have long understood—that a shot taken in the area between the paint and the 3-point line is less efficient than a shot taken at the rim or from behind the arc. Long gone are the days when some of the most successful offenses were designed around creating open midrange looks. Indeed, midrange shots have gotten such a bad rap in recent years that some players have talked about cutting them from their shooting repertoire and innovative Rockets GM Daryl Morey has constructed the rosters of both his NBA and D-League franchises around the concept of eliminating long twos entirely.
This general disdain for the midrange shot has yet to reach Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks continue to run the triangle offense, a system that is often derided as out-dated because it emphasizes the creation of midrange shots above all others. And while the Knicks have proven this season that their version of the triangle does create opportunities for penetration and 3-point shots, the fact of the matter is that the Knicks are taking a lot of long jump shots. Thirty-four games into the season, the Knicks ranked 2nd in the NBA in midrange field goal attempts per game. The midrange shots appear to make up the largest portion of the Knicks offense by a wide margin, as they have taken a total of 954 shots from midrange, far more than the 787 they have taken from the restricted area, the zone in which they attempt the second-most shots.
Long twos are inefficient, and the Knicks take a lot of them. Their current record of 16-19 suggests that whatever they’re doing on offense isn’t working, and it’s tempting to point to their overreliance on midrange jumpers as a main reason for their mediocre record. However, in and of itself, taking a lot of midrange shots isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While analytics have revealed that long twos are bad shots for the average NBA player, common sense tells us that midrange jump shots are actually fine shots for players who are good jump shooters. The Knicks employ a handful of consistently great jump shooters in Arron Afflalo, Jose Calderon, and Carmelo Anthony and a number of players who have shown streaks of great aptitude from the midrange like Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle O’Quinn, and Lance Thomas, and their 5th-in-the-NBA midrange field goal percentage reflects the general quality of the shooters on the roster.
Also working in the Knicks favor is the fact that, largely thanks to the pass-heavy nature of their offense, 48.9% of their midrange makes are assisted. NBA players make assisted shots at dramatically higher rates than they do unassisted shots, and so the types of looks the Knicks are generally creating in the midrange appear to be the right kind.
This isn’t to say that the Knicks’ reliance on long twos isn’t problematic for them, or that it isn’t at least partly responsible for their recent struggles to close out games. Even if they have the personnel to hit long jumpers at a high rate and a system that produces a lot of potentially assisted looks, they still live and die by the midrange. And while they mostly live for the first three quarters of their games, as they rank 11th in the NBA in midrange field goal percentage in first quarters, 2nd in second quarters, and 2nd in third quarters according to NBA.com/stats, they die miserably in fourth quarters, where they drop to 26th in midrange field goal percentage and shoot a horrendous 33.8% on a league-leading 6.2 midrange attempts.
Even with their struggles, the make-up of the Knicks’ roster and the way in which they are producing a lot of assisted midrange looks suggests that their reliance on the midrange could work out for them in the long term after all. Players who project as solid jump shooters like Porzingis and Langston Galloway have been working through slumps recently, and eventually the sorts of assisted looks they’re getting in the midrange will start to fall. They’ve proven that, if they work their system, they can create good shots in the midrange, and a lot of their fourth quarter struggles are the result of their getting away from their offense and relying on Melo and Afflalo jacking up contested shots in isolation to bail them out of deficits. Furthermore, within the context of the triangle offense, the creation of open midrange looks should ideally act as a spacing mechanism to stretch defenses just enough to allow cutters to get open for back-door opportunities. As famed Phil Jackson confidant Charley Rosen recently noted to Marc Berman of the New York Post, the Knicks have yet to pin down the intricacies of the triangle actions. If they do get better at running the triangle, their ability to create open looks in the midrange will help them get more high-percentage shots at the rim.
Of course, it's debatable as to whether or not the Knicks should be taking the volume of midrange shots that they’re taking at this point in the season. There’s an argument to be made that their offense would be improved if they would put the ball on the floor when they get open opportunities in the midrange area and try to create shots at the basket or draw fouls in that way. There’s a lot to be said for that argument, but, as the Knicks’ roster seriously lacks players who can penetrate off the dribble, it’s unlikely that that sort of alteration would have much effect with this group.
For the time being, it looks like the midrange shot will be one of the defining factors of the Knicks’ offense. Should the team continue to run the triangle past this season, it will be interesting to see whether they maintain their devotion to midrange shots or alter their sets to produce a more of-the-moment shot selection. Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight once suggested that a lot of the reason why the threes-and-layups shot selection appears superior to a more midrange-centric approach is that 3-pointers have historically been sub-optimally defended. As defensive schemes continue to adapt to counter Moreyball-style offenses, midrange shots will be the exact shots that defenses will be most willing to give up. Whether the Knicks’ current reliance on the midrange is a reflection of a strategy to ultimately counter modern defensive schemes is impossible to tell, but if it is, they appear to be building the right roster and running the right offense to potentially do just that at some point in the future.