Pull Up the Fun

Jack Huntley is back to reveal why the Knicks offense is about to reach a whole 'nother level.

Good morning and Happy Friday! We have another guest columnist today, and as has been the case all summer on these Fridays, you’re in for a gem. The Strickland’s Jack Huntley returns to give his take on why New York’s offense is about to take a massive step forward (and be a lot more entertaining) for a very specific reason. But first, a bit of news…

🗣 News & Notes ✍️

🏀 SNY’s Ian Begley got a chance to talk to Julius Randle, who revealed that he’s been scrimmaging with several Knicks this week, including Mitchell Robinson. The entire conversation is worth checking out, but here are a few highlights:

  • On RJ Barrett: “You can tell the guys who really love the game and really dedicate themselves to their craft and he’s one of them. He’s going to keep improving. I think he’s going to have another big year and make a jump.”

  • On the tenor of recent scrimmages: “It’s competitive, man, competitive. That’s our thing. We want to compete at the highest level. It’s guys just going after each other, competing. Obviously, you see they got me in the eye (Randle points to a butterfly bandage over his left eye). It was just competitive.”

  • On Mitch: “Mitch looks good, man. Mitch is brolic; he’s big. You can tell that he took the weight room seriously.”

  • On expectations: “We established the culture that we wanted and established who we were as a team. We have to continue to get better as individuals and that will translate to us as a team. The expectation, I can't really tell you yet. We haven’t even had our first practice, so I can’t really tell you. But I can tell you who we are as a team, and what we stand for, and what’s expected of each individual. That’s to work your ass off every day and to play defense.”

The season can’t get here soon enough.


Pull Up the Fun

By Jack Huntley

Last season, no single play was more symbolic, more spasm inducing, more provocative to witness as a fan of the New York Knicks than an Immanuel Quickley pull-up three pointer. For many reasons — the novelty of having a point guard who can take those shots, the audacity of the distance on some of his attempts, the sense of witnessing a shot that all but didn’t exist in the NBA a decade ago — these looks generated uniquely authentic fan reactions. 

Limbs flailed volcanically up and out. Eyeballs strained desperately to flee faces. Sounds never before made escaped mouths that didn’t mean to make them.

These Quickley bombs were ten pounds of fun in a five pound bag, so fun that they regularly led to malfunctions in both body and brain, as the surprise prime attraction in a surprise state-of-the-art offensive theme park of a season for a fanbase used to more understated offensive amusements: the occasional sword-sized stick; a vaguely round rock; the artist formerly known as Dennis Smith Jr.

Despite playing less than 20 minutes per game, Quickley led the Knicks in pull-up attempts at 2.8 per contest. The only other Knicks on the roster to regularly take off the dribble triples were Alec Burks (2 per game) and Julius Randle (1.5 per game), meaning the Knicks took just 7.3 pull-up threes a game as a team, the 24th most in the league. Last season's starting backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock took a combined 0.6 pull-ups a game.

Next season's starters, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, took 5.5 and 3.1 pull-ups per game respectively last season. That’s 8.6 total, and more than the whole 2020-21 Knicks roster. Given this upgraded back-court firepower, and using last years averages as a guide, this sizzling quintet — Walker, Fournier, Quickley, Burks, and Randle — stand to average 14.9 pull-ups a contest next season. A number that would have ranked 3rd in the league last year, behind only the Portland Trail Blazers (18.8) and Utah Jazz (16.6). 

This projection of 15 team pull-ups a game isn’t only conservative — in not counting the occasional attempts by the likes of Derrick Rose, RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Deuce McBride or Obi Toppin — but is also historic: only six seasons in NBA history have breached the 15-per pull-up watershed. The Blazers and Jazz last season, the Boston Celtics in 2019-20, and the Houston Rockets for three years from 2017 to 2020. The league wide utilisation of this shot, and the increase in the number of players working to add it to their bag, is a very recent phenomenon.

The offensive efficiency ranks for these six seasons, for what it’s worth: 2nd, 4th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, and 6th.

Of course, players like Damian Lillard and James Harden, and their superhero scoring prowess generally, are the prime reasons for those teams offensive potency, rather than the volume pull-up shooting specifically. But even so, this shot — because it has no good defensive answer beyond panic and prayer — really is an offensive cheat code, an infinity stone, a bucket sized syringe of scoring adrenaline. 

At least, it is for teams lucky enough to have players capable of taking them.

Players like, say, Kemba Walker, who in recent years has more than cemented himself as a long-range pull-up specialist. He’s one of four players in the league — along with Harden, Lillard, and Luka Doncic — to average at least five pull-up triple attempts per game in each of the last three seasons. 

The four-time All-Star is very comfortable taking this shot, evidenced by the fact that over the last five seasons, no player in the NBA has nailed more tightly contested threes — 51 of them defense distorting thangs — than Kemba. Since the 2016-17 season, according to the NBA’s tracking data, he’s finished 1st, 1st, 1st, 4th, and 2nd in total very tightly (0-2 feet) contested triples made.

This shot has been Kemba’s calling card for a while, and it looks like it will be the Knicks weapon of offensive choice now, too.

Headlined by an abundance of pull-up shooting potential, the on court contours of next season’s Knicks roster could be unlike any in recent memory, and irrespective of how this strategic sea change translates to win totals in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference, the actual bum-on-couch and eyes-on-TV experience of watching (touch wood) 82-plus regular season episodes of Knickerbocker basketball should be utterly transformed come tip-off in October.

A quick and probably-overly-abstract point on this transformation that is so obvious that it’s barely discussed and rarely dwelt on: playing basketball and watching basketball have different ends. One is about winning and one about entertainment, and while they are intimately intertwined and related, they aren’t the same. The actual night-by-night and play-by-play ingredients of basketball fandom, the in-the-moment experience of watching, are often overshadowed by “What It All Means” for individual players careers or “The All Consuming Quest For Jewelry” of 30 jousting franchises. 

Don’t get me wrong, that stuff matters, but not as much as the amount of time we spend talking about it suggests, and not as much as being entertained by the entertaining stuff (touch wood) 82-plus times a year matters. 

The point about this overly-abstract-point being: always remember that the best thing about watching the Knicks wielding their newfound offensive superpower is that we’re not watching Dennis Smith Jr. and Elfrid Payton play with sword-sized sticks and vaguely round rocks. 

Always remember this. Because when we strip it all back, what matters most about a season and a game and a play, is simply how it feels to watch. Flailing limbs, popping eyeballs, and inaudible gargles of joy are the real currency of an NBA season. 

Which is why I’ll never forget witnessing Immanuel Quickley doing Immanuel Quickley things for the first time last season, tap dancing into that liquid-precise long-ball like it’s nothing; why watching Knick players dribble into and drain the hardest shot in the sport -- the three-point era’s intersectional poster-child of elite NBA athleticism and elite NBA skill -- will always tickle my brains tickly bits; and why Kemba Walker leading the Knicks into unchartered shooting waters might straight up make my brain wet itself with glee.

Last season’s outlier moments of audacious pull-up shooting should now be the norm and offensive foundation of the entire New York Knick roster. For opposing defenders, the problem is something like attempting to simultaneously hold open two doors that are 24 feet apart, in contesting the three-point line and protecting the rim: hence the distortion and the panic and the prayer. 

And, for Knick fans, the fun.

So. Much. Fun.

As a wise and learned man regularly recommends: giddy up.

🏀

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