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.
As you may have heard, the New York Knicks have an offense that they run for the vast majority of the duration of their games. It's called the triangle offense. The triangle is a pass-heavy system offense that’s pretty famous for helping to produce eleven NBA champions in the past 26 years. It’s good at some things and not so good at other things. This year’s Knicks have largely proven that it can successfully be employed by modern NBA teams who are interested in playing competitive basketball (this wasn’t so clear last season).
None of this, of course, is surprising. While not all NBA teams play system basketball, every team has bread-and-butter stuff that they run for the majority of their possessions. When games get tight, however, teams tend to “call plays” and break away from their regular actions, pulling out something special to manufacture points in a crunch. This whole play calling business is very important for winning games and is rather interesting to fans, so you would expect that Knicks’ coach Derek Fisher would have something to say about it. And he did! Earlier this week, Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News asked Fisher about whether Latvian unicorn Kristaps Porzingis was ready to have plays called for him when games are on the line. Fisher responded, in the sort of professional elegance that we’ve come to expect from him, “We don’t run plays.”
Oh. Interesting. That seemed like a weird thing for an NBA head coach to say, and so, of course, Fisher elaborated. “I don’t think its about getting the ball to a particular guy down the stretch,” he said, again according to Bondy. “I think the beauty of having multiple guys is you don’t have to do anything. You have to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are there based on what the defense gives you.”
That’s not so helpful. A lot of teams have multiple guys who can score, and pretty much all of those teams them run specific plays at various points to put those guys in scoring position. Still, Fisher’s assertion that the Knicks don’t run plays makes some sense in context. The triangle is a read-and-react offense that is designed to respond to all types of defensive pressure. Every pass sets off a different sequence of movements, and the fact that the triangle is constantly morphing means that, if you really run the triangle, you don’t need set plays. And, though they don’t always do it well, the Knicks really do run the triangle. Pick any given Knicks possession and you’ll probably see some variation on the following: work the triangle sets for the majority of the shot clock and, if that fails to produce a shot, pull the ball out and go into some high pick and roll action.
Still, it’s not entirely true that the Knicks don’t run plays. While they don’t run plays in normal possessions, they do occasionally run some non-triangle stuff in out of timeout possessions. They don’t run many out of timeout plays, and the ones that they do often don’t work (the Knicks are dead last in points per possession out of timeouts, according to stats acquired by twitter user @HermmanM and verified by the good people over at reddit.com/r/NBA), but they run them nonetheless.
The most easily recognizable set play the Knicks run is the inbound lob to Porzingis. It’s a fun play that works well when the Knicks need to put points on the board without killing any clock at the end of games. This play is fascinating because it can only work if defenses lose track of Porzingis, which sounds like a difficult thing to do given that he’s at least fourteen feet tall, and yet, somehow, it has worked beautifully at least twice this season. Here’s how it works: The two guards start the play at the top of the court behind the three point line, Porzingis stands just above the foul line, and Carmelo Anthony occupies the mid-post on the weak side. At the start of the play, the two guards cross cut to fill the corners on opposite sides of the court. Porzingis feigns a screen for the guard cutting to the strong side, dragging Porzingis’ defender away from the paint. While Porzingis’ defender is occupied with preventing him from receiving the inbounds pass, Anthony runs and sets a monster screen for Porzingis. Anthony’s defender follows him to the screen, as letting Anthony get the ball at the foul line is an awful idea. This leaves a wide lane open for Porzingis to cut to the basket and complete an easy lob dunk.
The other play the Knicks run with some frequency is what we’ll call the “shooter runs through a wall of screens for an open three.” It works well when all five defenders are back in the half court but haven’t totally gotten set yet. In this play, a guard brings the ball to the top of the arc. He passes it off to a forward who cuts up to the top of the arc to receive the pass. As soon as the forward receives the pass, the first guard immediately cuts to the baseline, dragging his defender away from the paint. Meanwhile, a second guard (we’ll call him “the shooter”) darts down the lane and cuts back up from under the basket to the three-point line. While the shooter is making this cut, the center and the other forward set a wall of screens to give the shooter a clear path to the three-point line. The shooter gets to the arc, receives the pass from the forward holding the ball at the top, and, as he’s now wide open, launches a good shot. This is a play that’s often run for Arron Afflalo, but it can be run for any shooter. In the following clip, it’s run for Sasha Vujacic.
These plays are fun and can sometimes be effective, but the Knicks don’t run them much. More often than not, the Knicks come out of timeouts and go straight into the triangle. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here, for example, the Knicks come out of the timeout and go immediately into a regular triangle two-man game with Jose Calderon and Anthony. Anthony misses the shot, but it’s not a bad look.
Running the triangle instead of set plays doesn’t always work that well, of course. But it can work, and that’s what’s important here. That the Knicks don’t run a lot of plays because they rely on their system is fine, but, to put it bluntly, it means that they need to get better at running their system if they want a chance to compete. That being the case, however, it will be interesting to see if Fisher expands the team’s repertoire of non-triangle plays going forward. There will be nights when teams just anticipate every triangle pass and cut and stifle the Knicks’ high pick-and-roll game. When that happens, the Knicks will need to find other ways to put up points. Calling a couple more set plays every now and then wouldn’t be a bad place to start.