Despite all the talk of overclocking, the Knicks’ greatest tempo problem came a season before the moments when the game had slowed. They can run out after thefts or blocks. But boy, have they been slow to set up a half-judicial offense.
The 2021-22 Knicks can kick off a live ball. Not always, but sometimes. Reserves can move and groove. Emmanuel Quikley and Obi Tobin were heading to the races after Quentin Grimes entered a passing lane. Derek Rose, when he played, could fly from one end to the other.
But once all 10 players reached half the field, viscosity ruled the whole – especially in the first unit.
Some of that was due to slow decision making within the Knicks half-court groups. Julius Randle will either go into isolation or someone else will slow the whole thing down. But the Knicks also started their possessions late.
The presence of Jalen Brunson – along with other tweaks, including Randle’s playing style – changed the dynamic in 2022-23.
The Knicks average offensive possession after allowing a basket made was 18.2 seconds last season, the fourth-slowest pace in the NBA during those situations, according to inpredictable.com. But this season has changed. They cut 1.7 seconds off their half-court time – playing at the fifth fastest pace after being allowed to manufacture.
It’s still early days, and the Knicks have avoided top-tier defenses in four of their six games, but that trend is worth pursuing as the season progresses.
Here are four numbers to watch from the Knicks’ 3-3 start:
1: Julius Randle’s long throws
The talk about training camp has been how different Randall’s playing now is from last season. Its processing speed is faster. He doesn’t catch the ball as much; He doesn’t dodge much. He runs the ground more aggressively – on both sides of the ball.
For the most part, these principles were implemented in the regular season. The most controversial part, in my view, is the way Randle grabs the defense’s rebounds and rushes to the ground to try to break pace or set up the attack early. Last season, he walked in attack a lot.
Randall was hardly perfect. It still has repercussions. But let’s focus on perhaps the biggest plus: the choice of shot. Over the past two seasons, Randle has tweaked his game to be heavy in the mid-range. In 2020-21, she succeeded. clearly. That was when he won the NBA Most Valuable Player award and moved to the All-NBA Second Team. But he also hit jumpers like never before that season, and his magical powers disappeared once 2021-22 started. The worst kind of jumping basketball, however, was two long shots.
Randall has only taken 2 long one in six games. When he shoots from midrange, he’s 12 feet long instead of 19 feet. Last season, 25 percent of his shots came on edge. This season, he’s jumped 39 percent above his career average. Part of the reason is that it flies from side to side in a transitional period. It’s easier to get exercise when you’re hitting people on the floor. Another part of it is a real effort to take better photos.
It wasn’t perfect. Randall doesn’t hit his 3s. He’s fallen into an iso ball in some fourth quarters, but his habits aren’t what they were a year ago. Efforts to change appear.
8: Alternating with Obi Tobin players
The Knicks play in a 10-player rotation. There’s a missing person next to Tobin.
Yes, you guessed it; He hasn’t played with Randall yet. The main striker is the only one who did not share the field with Tobin.
This should come as no surprise, though, as Toppin seemed like his normal, lively character, and even had 3s so far. The Knicks put themselves in this position. And moving away from Tobin Rundle’s frontal area is no longer just a trend for Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau prefers a rim guard there at all times, except for a few matching moments, which have yet to present themselves. Randall will play the starting minutes no matter what. But the front office went on to last season (when Thibodeau moved away from using Toppin and Randle together and when Toppin jumped in the spring), then compiled a roster of two poles, Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein, who would absorb every five minutes. The role that Toppin now plays represents how he is viewed by the organization as a whole, not just Thibodeau.
At some point, crafting Choice #8, making him show promise and then continuing to play it for only 15.5 minutes into the game, deserves a deeper dive. Thibodeau thinks that Toppin basically can’t play alongside Randle (because that means the Knicks were free of an rim guard in two big spots) means Toppin’s playing time is up. But I wrote about the Toppin issue twice over the summer (here and here). Not much has changed.
51.6: Real shot percentage out of the top three
The offense capped last season with subpar levels. It’s almost impossible for a team to beat two players who make up a lot of attacking, Randle and RJ Barrett, both of whom score with well below average efficiency. Well, it’s happening again – and with Bronson, too.
Brunson, Barrett, and Randle combined for a true 51.6 shot percentage. Bronson, at 55.0, is the best of the three. Randall followed at 52.2 and Barrett at 47.9. The league average is 56.9.
Bronson’s number will likely go up. He’s historically effective and his three-point and free-throw ratios are pretty low for his standards at the moment. However, Randall and Barrett’s numbers remain alarming. Randle plays differently, scoring goals more effectively than he did a season ago, but if so much of a group attack is coming from two people hindering efficiency, this attack can only do well.
The Knicks have supported scoring so far, thanks to assists on the limbs. Boom bench units. They don’t flip the ball when Bronson is on the ground. They were some of the best rebounding spellers in the league too, thanks to Robinson and Hartenstein. It is these extra possessions that make the difference. But is it enough to raise the attack of the first unit for an entire season?
16.6: Free Throw Average
As the old saying goes: you do the crime, you go to the line. or something like that.
If you hint to Thibodeau that last season’s attack subsided, he’ll hold back. One aspect he will mention is the free throws. The 2021-22 Knicks finished second in the NBA in the free-throw rate, which measures the number of times a team hits the bar on each field goal attempt.
But that does not carry over to the first part of this season.
Alec Burks was one of the Knicks’ top free throwers, and he’s gone, but it’s not as if their offensive success was only riding on the shoulders of a player they swapped for Detroit over the summer.
Three of the Knicks’ regular rotation players are about to never reach the line. Rose, Toppin, and Cam Reddish combined in just eight free throw attempts, in a combined 284 minutes.
The rose trend will continue. He’s reworked his game to avoid contact, even after he gets to paint. The 34-year-old has struggled with a lot of injuries at this point. The less he gets hit, the better, even if it means fewer freebies.
Reddish has always been respectful in getting into the line. So did Tobin. It hasn’t been shown through six matches, but these trends can change.
Randle is the standout player who has had a higher free-throw rate than last season. It hardly takes any 2s long and replace the ones that look in the paint.
The big pullback is from Barrett, who struggled to start a fall and didn’t shoot much now either. The focus was on his struggling volley, but the process wasn’t what it was last season, especially when he got hot in the second half of the schedule. The ball isn’t much in his hands now, and it affected the kinds of shots he gets. Barrett became a voracious free-thrower in the second half of last season.
He averaged 37.7 free throw attempts per 100 shots after December 31 last season. By six matches in 2022-23, that average has dropped to 24.
At some point, it’s worth delving into the mods that Barrett is now working on.
(Photo by Galen Bronson: Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)