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NBA Stats Notebook: Why the Knicks' low-passing offense works so well

NBA Stats Notebook: Why the Knicks' low-passing offense works so well

The NBA schedule naturally lends itself to several checkpoints throughout the season that serve as frames of reference to check a team's pulse. The trade deadline and All-Star break are typically viewed as the midseason opportunities to evaluate performance.

However, for some teams, there's a specific date when their season drastically changed. For this year's New York Knicks, that date is December 4, 2022.

That night, in a 92-81 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tom Thibodeau trimmed New York's rotation to nine players. Since making the tweak, the Knicks are 27-14 and one of three squads with top-10 offensive and defensive ratings, per Cleaning the Glass. 

New York has bounced up to the fifth seed in a strong Eastern Conference and only gotten better since acquiring Josh Hart prior to the trade deadline. His addition, marking another important season benchmark, has coincided with a seven-game winning streak that has given this young squad a glow in the national spotlight.

The Knicks are fun because they don't have one cure-all player responsible for the surge. Sure, Jalen Brunson's off-dribble juice has changed the game, and Hart has been a seamless fit so far, but this squad really jells because of collective improvement and synergy across the rotation.

New York owns the second-best offensive rating in non-garbage-time minutes since Dec. 4, and they are No. 1 since the win streak began. But interestingly, their scoring distribution looks nothing like the pass-heavy green flags we associate with "good" offense. Look at some of these ball-movement numbers from the league's stats database since Dec. 4:

Stat Value (since Dec. 4) NBA Rank
Offensive Rating 116.2 5th
Passes per game 265.5 25th
Assists per game 21.6 30th
Potential assists per game 38.9 30th
Assist-to-pass ratio 9.6% 29th
% of makes that were assisted 52.3% 30th

So the Knicks are running an elite offense, yet their buckets aren't resulting from quality passes that make the box score. And without throwing another table at you, I'll add that these numbers rank similarly even when paring things down to the last seven games.

However, less passing does not necessarily indicate bad, or even unsustainable, offensive process. The Knicks might be iso-heavy, but they choose to be with purpose. 

New York aggressively hunts mismatches so they can overpower defenses with drives. They're second in the NBA with 56.2 drives per game since Dec. 4 because they know they have several players — led by Brunson, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley — who can score and pass out of attacks. Notably, despite logging low assist numbers in general as shown above, New York's 6.0 assists per game via drives actually rank second in the NBA, and the team's 5.5% turnover rate is tied for second-lowest.

There is so much chess that occurs on these perceived isolation plays that involve opening up other opportunities, even if it's not directly from a pass at first. Ben Ritholz encapsulated this in the below video thread that strings together some Knicks possessions against the Miami Heat:

Barrett is the focal point of the video, but similar approaches apply for Randle and Quickley. Brunson, meanwhile, is in his own stratosphere as the self-creating engine for the franchise. The marquee summer signing ranks third in the league with 21.1 drives per game since Dec. 4, and second in the league with 8.6 passes per game out of drives.

Brunson has been one of the league's premier driving threats over the course of his career; I wrote a whole Stats Notebook about his attacks with the Dallas Mavericks last spring. He doesn't need to get all the way to the rim to bend defenses because he has the strength and shake to control the mid-range areas. As SDPN's Esfandiar Baraheni notes in this well-timed breakdown, Brunson has also spiked his drawn-shooting-foul rate, up to 13.0% from 7.9% a year ago.

With Brunson as the head of the snake, Barrett, Randle and Quickley (who is converting 56% of his driving field goal attempts!) each bring a different layer of difficulty off the dribble. And though he's only averaging 4.4 drives so far, Hart has done the same early on with the Knicks.

The 27-year-old is putting up 12.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in his seven appearances so far. Hart's immediate impact is helped by a ludicrous 60.0% three-point clip that will surely cool off. But he'll be a force off the bench for the Knicks either way with his straight-line drives and unique production on the boards.

Hart has made 14 of his 19 shots at the rim in this tiny sample size and nine of those buckets were unassisted. The success tracks. Take a look at what he's done on "self-created" shots (attempts taken after at least two seconds with the ball) over his career, via PBP Stats:

Season FGM FGM FG% Freq. (% of total shots within 10 ft.)
2017-18 47 70 67.1% 19.8%
2018-19 39 77 50.7% 16.6%
2019-20 74 113 65.5% 21.6%
2020-21 46 84 54.8% 24.5%
2021-22 139 215 64.7% 38.5%
2022-23 101 167 60.5% 40.2%

Hart has consistently been a high-level interior creator even as he takes on more volume. But so far, he's different from other Knicks players in his unabashed confidence to score in transition.

Nothing schematic to break down here — Hart just takes the ball the length of the floor, puts his shoulder into one of the league's strongest players and finishes through Jonas Valanciunas for the and-one layup. He's already had several coast-to-coast scores with New York, and that's new for a team ranking 25th in transition frequency on the season. 

Hart also fortifies one of the best rebounding units in the league. His 6.0% offensive rebounding rate and 18.8% rebounding rate with Portland this season are both top-2-percentile numbers among wings, per Cleaning the Glass. New York already has Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims as a trio with top-15-percentile splits among bigs, and Randle is top-20-percentile in these categories as a forward. 

New York's offense operates with the vibes of a heavyweight boxer. The mismatch-hunting and on-court positioning are all setting up for the big punches, or drives orchestrated by the Knicks' leading scorers. Controlling the glass, plus a top-10 defense worthy of a separate article, help build out the chiseled frame of the team.

The numbers might not make the offense seem impressive at first, but when you piece them together and pair them with tape, the Knicks look a lot more imposing as a playoff contender.

THE OUTLIERS (a.k.a. other random interesting numbers I found in the void):

  • Antoine Davis is the man! The second note here blew my mind:
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