I look at the biggest area the Knicks need to improve and how they can improve it. Plus, a special KFS announcement.
Good morning! I hope the weekend treated you well. The news continues to be slow in Knicks land, but at least a couple of Knickerbockers suited up for their respective countries this weekend and represented themselves and the team admirably. More on that in a bit.
First, some big news: KFS is getting on the Patreon bandwagon! For the unfamiliar, Patreon is a platform that allows content creators (like yours truly) to share more of their content with anyone who wants it. Before you get worried, no, nothing you’re currently getting for free is going away. This newsletter will still come free to everyone once per week, as will three podcasts. It also won’t change anything for the paid subscribers of the newsletter who get it delivered five days per week. BTW, if you’re not in that club yet…
Back to the Patreon: There will be four tiers which I’ll describe at the end of the newsletter, but in short, it’ll be a way for you to get exclusive podcast content, additional access to me and the rest of the KFS crew, and some sweet, sweet KFS merch. No matter your price point, there will be an option for you.
Again, more on that at the end of the letter. But first, the news…
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Two Knicks suited up for their respective countries in exhibition play leading up to the Olympics on Saturday, and both put up some nice numbers and had a few noteworthy moments.
First, our French son who treats international play like a shark treats chum in the water: feed me.
France lost but their Prince scored 13 efficient points with a couple boards and dimes. In addition to the plays above, he displayed a nifty handle on several occasions, hit a step back three in the corner, had a nasty stuff over some Spanish dude in the first quarter, and hit a three to bring his team within one point with two and change left in the game.
I fully believe Frank Ntilikina is going to be on another team next year, and that he’s going to contribute to meaningful winning wherever he goes. I will cry, and you should too1. Here’s his full highlights from the game if you’re interested.
Turning now to a point guard who has a real chance of being in New York next year, …
Luca Vildoza also hit a buzzer beater from half court and had his fair share of fancy moves in Argentina’s loss to Spain, but he was only 3-of-9 from the field (3-of-8 from deep) and played less than half the game despite starting. All in all, a solid showing.
Oh, and Team USA lost to Nigeria by three just nine years after beating them by 83.
🏀 The Bucks are back in this thing, blowing out the Suns 120-100 last night in Milwaukee. Giannis once again dominated while Devin Booker shot 3-for-14. This series appears far from over.
🏀 The Orlando Magic are hiring Dallas assistant coach Jamahl Mosley as their new head man for the job. Mosley interviewed for the Knicks job before Thibs was hired and is noted to be a favorite of Luka Doncic.
🏀 It’s not news, but I’ll shamelessly plug my appearance with Ian Begley and Chris Williamson on last week’s edition of The Putback.
Feel free to give a watch if you missed it!
📈 Market Efficiency 📉
It’s around this time every year where I have the urge to embark on the quest that has driven many a man mad: the search for eternal life.
Or, in basketball terms, “What’s the secret to becoming a contender?”
We know the NBA is a star’s league and that the pursuit of stars (either by trading for or signing an established one, or drafting and developing one) is the name of the game.
And maybe it really is that simple. But I’m a sucker for wild goose chases, so over the weekend, I went hunting through the NBA.com’s various stats pages to see if I could find one common thread between the league’s best teams this season. Sure enough, I did, and it may be an even simpler concept than star hunting: It’s shooting, stupid.
These are the top six teams in effective field goal percentage (which factors in both 2-point & 3-point field goals, thus accounting for points per possession) for the 2020-21 season.
As you can see, our last two teams standing are ranked 2nd and 3rd. Brooklyn, who was probably a Kevin Durant toenail away from preparing for a parade down Flatbush Avenue2, was 1st. The Clippers (4th) were a semifinalist, the Jazz (5th) had the best record, and the Nuggets (6th) were a stealth title favorite before Jamal Murray went down. The Hawks, in case you’re wondering, finished 16th, but shot 55.2 percent from the day Nate McMillan took over, which would have ranked 7th.
This isn’t a new concept. It was the 11th consecutive season that both Finals teams finished in the top six in eFG%, and the 7th time in the last 11 years they both finished in the top three.
If you look a little closer, you can still find outliers at the beginning of the last decade, with conference finals appearances being made by Chicago (14th in eFG%) and OKC (13th) in 2011, Memphis (28th) and Indiana (22nd) in 2013, and Indiana (19th) again in 2014. But starting in 2015 - not coincidentally the first title year for Curry & Klay in Golden State, a culmination of an offensive revolution that started a decade earlier with the Nash Suns - the outliers started to dissipate from the final four as well. Of the 28 conference finals teams over the last seven years, only three finished outside the top-10 in eFG%, and all of those were still in the top half of the league. Most years, we had three conference finalists finish in the top five in the rankings.
This isn’t to say that defense no longer matters. It does, and having solid habits on that end of the floor are necessary for a sustained playoff run. But this will also be the 10th consecutive season we have a team in the Finals that didn’t finish in the top eight in defensive rating3. So while the 4th ranked defense that Tom Thibodeau nurtured and grew all season long certainly matters, it doesn’t matter quite as much as New York’s 23rd ranked eFG%.
Besides draft misses, shitty coaching and general organizational buffoonery, if there’s one thing that has plagued the Knicks over the last several years, it has been the inability to shoot. This marked the seventh consecutive season the Knicks finished 20th or lower in effective field goal percentage. That’s the second longest such streak in the league, only trailing Detroit’s eight straight.
Thanks to our friends at Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time and accounts for position when determining a player’s percentile finish in a category across the league, it’s not hard to see the area of concern:
We all fretted about the Knicks becoming a better 3-point shooting team this season. Sure enough, they finished the year in a virtual tie with the Nets for second in conversion rate from behind the arc.
Even so, they were in the bottom quarter of the league for overall shooting because their 2-point accuracy was abysmal. The Knicks were second to last in the league in 2-point accuracy this season, besting only the Orlando Magic. That’s a problem when you shoot a higher percentage of twos than all but two teams4.
Who’s at fault? Pretty much everyone who shot a lot. Accounting for position, five of the top six Knicks in field goal attempts per game - Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Alec Burks, Elfrid Payton and Immanuel Quickley - were in the bottom 27 percent of shooters at converting twos5, and every one besides Burks was in the bottom 36 percent for effective field goal percentage as well.
Digging even deeper, we see that the Knicks’ problems increase the closer they get to the basket.
This season, the Knicks were the second worst team in the NBA at converting looks at the rim, better only than the tanktastic Oklahoma City Thunder6. New York didn’t have a single player outside of their big men (Taj, Obi, Nerlens & Mitch) to finish above the bottom 40 percent around the basket. Thinking again about what really matters when it comes to playoff success, it’s important to note here that the Suns and Bucks finished third and fourth in the league in field goal percentage in the restricted area, respectively.
A couple things before we get to the main point:
I’ve vacillated between bringing back Reggie Bullock or Alec Burks, and ultimately decided on Bullock a few weeks ago, and this solidifies his case even more. His career track record vs Burks’ numbers shows that this season wasn’t an anomaly. Bullock may have been exposed for being unable to take advantage of Trae Young in the playoffs, but a more dynamic offense would have lessened the impact of those deficiencies. He can still be a valuable cog in the right role, and on a team as desperate for above average shooting as the Knicks, letting him walk might not be the best move.
It was only on 83 attempts, but still…pretty encouraging to see Obi Toppin be better than 2/3 of NBA forwards at the rim.
Barrett and Quickley should improve as they get older. We hope. And pray.
Julius Randle has gone from being one of the best high volume finishers at the rim to one of the worst in the span of just a couple seasons. He converted 67.4 percent of his 1146 restricted area attempts over the two seasons prior to his arrival in New York. In 2019-20, he made just 60 percent of 405 such looks in 2055 total minutes, and then last year converted just 59 percent of 264 restricted area attempts in 2650 minutes.
Not only is the accuracy going way down, but the volume as well. Obviously Julius took a leap this year due to his increased proficiency on both threes and long twos, but the scales may have shifted a tad too far in the other direction where his shot selection is concerned. The battering ram who existed before coming to New York is still in there. He just needs a little help.
Which brings us to the common denominator in all discussions about the Knicks poor offense: Elfrid Payton. As someone mentioned on this weekend’s Green Room convo, it’s less about finding the perfect starting point guard and more about finding literally anyone else.
Payton’s detrimental effect on New York’s poor shooting can be quantified a number of ways:
Among 116 players who played at least 20 games, saw at least 20 minutes of action, and had at least a 20 usage rate, Payton’s eFG% was second to last in the NBA, ahead of only rookie Cole Anthony.
New York’s effective field goal percentage dropped by 1.0 percent with Payton in the game, which was in the 40th percentile league wide.
Because they lacked a point guard who could make their lives even a little easier, several Knicks were near the top of the league in unassisted field goals. Accounting for position, Randle, Barrett and Burks were in the top 15 percent of unassisted makes, while Quickley was in the top 25 percent.
Offensive generation from those players is obviously vital to the success of New York’s offense, but perhaps not quite this much.
So what - or rather who - is the best solution, at least when it comes to these specific aspects of point guard play? To help figure that out, I went through all of the available free agent options at point guard, plus a few possible trade targets, and looked at not only their individual eFG%, but the impact on their teams’ eFG% as well. I also included percentile rank (accounting for position) of the player’s eFG%, the percentage of their shots that were assisted (because more self-generation generally leads to lower efficiency), the impact on their teams’ offensive rating, and finally the percentage of their teams’ assists they accounted for when they were on the court (because sharing is caring).
Here are the results, courtesy of Cleaning the Glass:
Obviously everything here should be taken in context. For example, Chris Paul technically has a negative impact on the Suns’ offense, but the fact that they scored 117.0 points per 100 possessions when he played is a tad more meaningful.
That being said, a couple thoughts before I get to the most interesting name on this list…
Come home, Jalen Brunson. Papa Leon misses you.
I continue to believe that TJ McConnell is the most undervalued point guard in this free agency class, and that despite his fatal flaw, he could work for the Knicks. He doesn’t make threes, and yet the Pacers have shot better from deep when he’s on the court during both of his seasons there. He also averages 16.7 drives per 36 minutes, which is among the league leaders, and his 14.8 assist percentage on such plays is second among all players who average at last 10 drives per game, trailing only Kyle Lowry.
Dinwiddie is fascinating. His positive impact on the Nets’ offense in the 2019-20 season was off the charts (a stat aided by the fact that Brooklyn didn’t really have a backup point guard last year, but still). While his own efficiency was booty, he created more for himself than anyone except Chris Paul while also accounting for a greater percentage of his team’s assist than anyone but Chris Paul. He’s better than most Knicks fans give him credit for.
If Thibs really is intent on continuing to run the offense through Randle and Barrett, they could do worse than kicking the tires on Kendrick Nunn.
Speaking of players who aren’t really point guards, at least not in the modern sense, Lonzo Ball was assisted on more than two out of every three shots he made. Still, he’d be a wonderful addition and it’s not an accident that the Pelicans’ offensive rating skyrocketed when he played. Yes, Eric Bledsoe and rookie Kira Lewis running the show when he sat helped pump up that figure, but the Pels’ numbers with Lonzo but without Zion show that Ball’s impact was legit.
I already wrote about Reggie Jackson here. Checks a lot of boxes.
Elfrid Payton sucks.
Finally, there’s only one player on this chart who had above a 56 effective field goal percentage, was assisted on fewer than half his shots, increased his team’s eFG% by at least one percent and their offensive rating by at least two points per 100 possessions, and accounted for at least a quarter of his team’s assists when he played.
That’s right: the resurgent, totally intriguing and completely unlikely Cam Payne, who will be the subject of our next free agent deep dive…tomorrow.
KFS has a Patreon!
I poured my heart out once already when I took this newsletter to a paid model, so I’ll keep this short. I love what I do, regardless of how this team performs. That I got to cover a team that was actually good this year? Holy shit do I feel like I died and went to heaven. I hope that charging for additional content doesn’t make it seem like I’m any less appreciative of the gift I’ve been given, but the fact is that I’m lucky enough to get to do what I love and help support my family7. So yeah, there’s some more paid stuff coming your way if you want it.
We’re going with four tiers:
STARBURY ($3) - You appreciate our work and want to show your support by helping us “keep the lights on8.”
MELO ($7) - You want to help us keep the lights on, PLUS you will receive one additional KFS podcast per week. Each bonus episode will feature my thoughts (plus those of the whole KFS gang) on the Knicks plus other teams and storylines around the NBA. The RSS Feed is solely provided through Patreon & is available on iTunes or Spotify.
MONROE ($15) - You get the bonus pod every week, PLUS you will receive one item from the KFS merch store ON US for up to the value of your monthly subscription. This promotion will occur every six months, and you’ll get your first item after being subscribed for three months. You will also receive an invite to our monthly KFS town hall! Once a month, Jeremy, Andrew, Kris & I will talk Knicks for an evening and you’re invited to participate.
EWING ($33) - The bonus pod, the free merch item, the town hall, AND:
An invitation to watch a KFS pod recorded LIVE once per month
FREE EXCLUSIVE MERCH available only to patrons in this tier, coming your way every six months. Yes, there will be hats.
An additional promotion for all items available in the merch store
Again, anything you choose to give will be appreciated more than I can express here in words. If you want to get on board, here’s the link to do so. Thanks everyone. You guys are awesome.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
As far as reverse jinxes go, this is the best I can do.
I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Milwaukee finished 9th, while Phoenix was 6th.
There’s a separate conversation to be had here about whether the Knicks should just have been taking a lot more threes. When Thibs was asked early on in his tenure about whether the team needed to shoot more threes, he said something to the effect of “a good shot is one that goes in.” In fairness, he was also very fond of saying that its not about taking more threes, but the right threes, and the Knicks high percentage from deep speaks to them doing exactly that. You also need to be good from 2-point range, and specifically from the midrange, to succeed in the playoffs, as the Suns are reminding us now. Even so, there’s probably a better balance to be achieved here as they continue to mold the roster.
Derrick Rose, in the 70th percentile at converting two’s, was the lone exception. Reggie Bullock took the 7th most shots per game and was in the 64th percentile as well.
The Bucks were 3rd in this metric and the Suns were 6th.
I.e., Barbies are not cheap.
Buy more Barbies.