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January 18, 2012
Prospectus Diagnosis
Knicks' Offense

by Bradford Doolittle

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Welcome to the first Prospectus Diagnosis, where we pinpoint a team or player's statistical shortcoming, suggest why it may be occurring, predict what will happen if the malady goes untreated and, finally, prescribe a method of treatment. Because, really, who doesn't love medical schtick? Don't worry -- we promise not to carry it too far. There will be absolutely no Dr. Doolittle references.

You have to feel for fans of the Knicks, our first subject. For 4 1/2 years, they watched Isiah Thomas build one of the most bizarre and expensive rosters in NBA history, leaving the team in what appeared to be an impossible quagmire. Donnie Walsh rode into town and cleaned house, miraculously shedding nearly all of Thomas' mistakes, but at the cost of two punted season. Through all of it, New York fans turned out at Madison Square Garden, buoyed by the promise of better days ahead.

Those better days were supposed to come in the form of a new championship core. With maximum money to spread around, what star free agent wouldn't want to play for one of the league's flagship franchises. Well, to name three: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

After clearing away the last vestiges of the Thomas debacle, Walsh started the process of reconstructing the team's core by throwing max money at Amar'e Stoudemire. He was expected to anchor the fine, young group Walsh had assembled, players like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Landry Fields, Ray Felton and Timofey Mozgov. Knicks fans got to see that group for a little over half a season before Walsh traded the bulk of his young talent core for a starry-eyed Carmelo Anthony. Walsh stepped down before the lockout, then interim general manager Glen Grunwald completed the makeover from the Isiah years by signing center Tyson Chandler.

The result? The Knicks have created a new big three consisting of three frontcourt players that haven't fit together particularly well. They have built a roster for head coach Mike D'Antoni that doesn't include a true point guard, even though D'Antoni's system has always been built around playmaking lead guards. Including the playoffs, the Knicks are just 20-25 since acquiring Anthony. This what Knicks fans were waiting for?

Symptom

The Knicks' offense is ailing, ranking 22rd in offensive efficiency. D'Antoni is running the same basic offense he used in Phoenix when Steve Nash was winning MVP awards, an attack that led the league in efficiency four straight years. There has been a lot of attention paid to the Knicks' pick-and-roll game, a staple of the D'Antoni attack. According to mySynergySports.com, New York ranks in the league's top 10 in both pick-and-rolls finished by the ballhander and those finished by the roll man. Not bad, but there are issues beyond those numbers.

The glaring item on the Knicks' stat line this season has been three-point shooting. New York ranks third in frequency of attempts behind the arc, but just 24th in percentage made. New York hasn't been great inside the arc, either, but much of that has to do with Stoudemire's early struggles. There are a number of reasons to think the Stoudemire issue will be self-correcting: he's not injured, he's not out of shape, he's not too old and he put up huge numbers playing alongside Anthony last season. But the three-point shooting is a killer for an offensive system that relies upon accurate long-range shooting.

The ball movement hasn't been great, which was expected when D'Antoni declared that Anthony would be inititiating the offense in most sets. However, New York has assisted on 87 percent of its successful three-pointers, which suggests they are kicking the ball to open shooters. In fact, the Knicks' overall percentage of made field goals that have come off assists (about 54 percent) is only slightly less than is typical for a D'Antoni squad. The overall dearth of assists stems from the fact that the team just hasn't made enough shots.

Diagnosis

The struggles of Stoudemire and the three-point shooters are intertwined. To see how, look at the Suns, who use the same offense as they did under D'Antoni, with Nash is still orchestrating the attack. The stylistic differences between New York and Phoenix are telling. When the Suns are at their best, Nash still works off the pick-and-roll even though he doesn’t have a roll man as effective as Stoudemire and his squad hasn't shot the ball that well this season. It's not just the initial action on the ball screen that gets you. Nash remains a deadly outside shooter, so you have to go over on the screen and force him to put the ball on the floor. The defense collapses to help on the roll man, leaving Nash to decide whether to thread the needle to his screener, kick out to a weakside shooter or take a shot himself. He always makes the right decision and the fact that he is so accurate with his shot, inside or out, makes him impossible to defend.

When you watch the Knicks on video, you don't see that kind of action. Anthony, per mySynergySports, is the top pick-and-roll finisher in the league this season with an average of 1.2 points per possession as the ballhandler, but we've always known he can get his own shot. He's not as adept with when it comes to working with a roll man. I could find just one instance this season of Stoudemire setting a pick for Anthony, then taking a feed off the roll and finishing.

Overall, Stoudemire has finished on the pick-and-roll on just 3.2 percent of his possessions this season. During his last year in Phoenix, that percentage was 18.1. When the Knicks have run pick-and-roll with Anthony, it has typically been Chandler setting the ball screen. Chandler is good at diving to the hoop, but you got him for other reasons and it leaves you wondering just what is Stoudemire's role in all this.

Anthony is effective at driving and kicking to open shooters at the three-point line, and that's when the Knicks get their best looks at the arc. However, because teams don't have to collapse to a roll man, it limits Anthony's options, so those looks don't come around often enough. New York doesn't get as many wide open looks as it should -- a tour of the video shows a lot of contested, badly-missed threes.

Prognosis

As much as D'Antoni loves Anthony's ability to leverage his scoring ability to create via the pass, his shooters aren't going to get enough open looks as long as Stoudemire is just hanging around the elbow. With a true point guard, the Knicks would have a distributor that could run the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop with either Stoudemire or Anthony. Either could be used more effectively on isolations because the floor spacing would be more natural. The Knicks would better be able to exploit matchups and get the most out of their two stars.

Alas, that point guard is not on the roster. Iman Shumpert is talented but raw, really only able to get his own shot at this point. Mike Bibby is a statuesque spot-up shooter. Toney Douglas is a solid three-and-D bench player, but not a floor general. And if you're banking on an aging, out-of-shape, gimpy-backed Baron Davis to solve the problem, then we wish you good luck. This is not a problem that will go away.

Treatment

The Knicks have cast their lot with a big three of Stoudemire, Anthony and Chandler. Their collective salaries and the NBA's salary cap structure dictate that. Nash will be a free agent after this season and the Knicks might be able to entice him to the Big Apple with the promise of reunions with Stoudemire and D'Antoni, with an elite scorer in Anthony added to the mix. They wouldn't be able to offer Nash market value, but that's probably secondary to him at this point in his life.

But that's not until after the season. To maximize the Knicks' ceiling in the short term, D'Antoni needs to get his offense humming and his shooters hitting, and he needs to do this without harming the Chandler-led improved defense. There may not be a cure for this group, but there is some pain-soothing medicine: the Stoudemire-Anthony pick-and-roll. It may not be Anthony's strong suit, but if you run it often enough, he's talented enough to figure it out and Stoudemire -- unlike Chandler -- has the versatility to pop out and take a jumper off those screens. Until you start hammering teams with that play, Stoudemire will remain a bystander and the shooters will still have hands in their faces.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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