Modernizing the Knicks offense starts with Carmelo Anthony in the post
Arron Afflalo turns his rear into his defender and backs him down. One dribble, two, and the pass comes out to Carmelo Anthony, who swishes a 20-footer.
It’s the opening possession of an inconsequential preseason game for the Knicks and Celtics, but Afflalo’s first play of the preseason after missing New York’s initial three exhibitions has more significance than just another assist to a long two-pointer for one of the league’s worst offenses in 2014-15.
The made shot doesn’t matter. But the way it came about — with Afflalo posting up his smaller defender — might hint at how the Knicks plan to squeeze a few extra baskets out of their attack this season.
"Post-ups aren’t as popular of a scoring opportunity, in terms of the efficiency of points per possession or whatever, but we still view it as penetration," Knicks head coach Derek Fisher said. "The ball is still closer to the basket than it is if you’re standing out behind the line."
And if you read between different lines, you can tell what Fisher really means when he makes statements like that:
The Knicks don’t have anyone who can blow by a defender in their starting lineup. Actually, they have few who even try. So they have to find other ways to infiltrate opposing defenses.
"Arron’s good enough, Carmelo’s good enough, Derrick [Williams] can develop a post game," Fisher said. "We want to get our penetration by playing through the post, and we feel like we can do that throughout the season."
Langston Galloway led all current Knicks in drives per game last season with a measly 2.8, according to NBA.com’s SportVU data. And though the roster transformed in the offseason, last season’s Knicks finished last in the NBA in total drives.
In those rare cases when the Knicks did penetrate, they were largely unsuccessful. Last season, the Knicks finished 26th in points per drive, according to SportVU data compiled and provided to FOX Sports by Nylon Calculus editor Seth Partnow.
Jose Calderon, in his prime a serviceable pass-first point guard, has lost a step, to say the least. Afflalo has never been one to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. The Knicks’ spark and athleticism comes from their reserve unit, one that includes Galloway and rookie guard Jerian Grant. But if Calderon and Afflalo get the majority of the guard minutes (Grant does have a chance to overtake Calderon’s starting spot in time), the team has to find more creative ways of enabling its first unit to pierce the perimeter of opposing defenses.
Cue Anthony and Afflalo, two of the league’s best post-up wings, who have found themselves coexisting in the same starting lineup.
"[Anthony] is spending a lot of time around the post, around the pinch post, and I think he’s a perfect player for that kind of offense," new Knick and triangle offense veteran Sasha Vujacic said.
And that speaks to more than just Anthony’s propensity to score from the post.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe addressed the supposedly dying post-up last year, bringing to light that back-to-the-basket play isn’t actually dead; only back-to-the-basket scoring is suffocated in today’s game. Distribution, however, is as prevalent as ever.
Remember this tweet?
NBA analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs…seriously, how's it goink?
— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) May 10, 2015
Critics reasonably questioned Phil Jackson’s outdated philosophies, but the Knicks president threw some dirt on it when he clarified later.
Why am getting cranky stuff? Seriously, bball, it's about penetration. Those cranky the Heat/Spurs got it..Heat via s/roll, Spurs all ways.
— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) May 10, 2015
Jackson lends credence to the same ideals that many analytics-driven minds do. He’s just approaching it in a more roundabout way.
Any reasonable basketball enthusiast would tell you penetration is essential. Why? Because when a capable ball-handler accelerates into the lane, he increases the chances of creating two of the game’s most efficient shots: an around-the-rim finish or an open catch-and-shoot 3-point opportunity. But the Knicks don’t have that guy who’s going to bounce into the paint and bring the opposition in there with him. So they’re taking less-traveled avenues to find a way to develop those shots.
We still view it as penetration.
-- Derek Fisher
It’s an uneven replacement for drives, and though this isn’t exactly new (the Knicks finished eighth in post-up plays per game a season ago, per Synergy Sports), the Knicks have a unique objective. Even though there’s the occasional post entry to center Robin Lopez for him to flick one of his funky but effective hook shots, the Knicks have used post-ups — especially ones with Afflalo and Anthony — as a catalyst for facilitation. And for Melo, it’s a way for him to reacclimate after undergoing season-ending knee surgery in February.
"I’m just trying to get that part of the game back and get some bumps and bruises here and there," Anthony said. "Mentally, [I’m] just trying to get back out there and be a part of that physical game."
The convenient narrative in New York has become this: Can Melo be this triangle’s lynchpin like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan before him? It’s a storyline born from convenience, one that only exists because the triangle is often misunderstood and, like Bryant and Jordan, Anthony is a star wing. After all, the Knicks aren’t even consistently running the triangle, instead tossing in a smattering of pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops and other sets. But when the team does embrace its geometric groundwork, what if Anthony’s spot isn’t just restricted to creating from the 3-point line?
Instead, the Knicks’ most potent offensive threat could find himself playing inside-out basketball. Same goes for Afflalo. And if the Knicks are able to create threes in more imaginative ways than drives-and-dishes or swing passes, New York’s offense becomes far more effective than it was last season.
Follow Fred Katz on Twitter: @FredKatz.