The Dynamic Duo?
Until further notice, New York's hopes rest primarily on the combined talents of RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson, but do they make a good pairing?
Good morning! We start another week of questions from our readers with a good one about New York’s two most important players (for the moment, at least)…
The Dynamic Duo?
Today’s question comes from Matt, who asks:
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What do you think of the Brunson / Barrett combination? I don’t think there’s any obvious reason they won’t work together, but do you see anything that would lead you to believe they can amplify each other’s games? Please tell me this won’t be a Amar'e / Melo situation.
First off, Melo and Stat were probably doomed from the start, for a few reasons. Primarily, the game was already starting to change by the time Amar'e got to New York, and it was clear rather quickly that center was his ideal position - a reality Mike D’Antoni recognized, playing him in the middle for more than two thirds of his minutes in the 2010-11 season1. Perhaps Melo at the four and Stat at the five would have had enough offensive juice to succeed long term, but after the team acquired Tyson Chandler, that was off the table. With Stoudemire, Chandler and Anthony all preferring to occupy the same space on the court, there was really no way for them to work that didn’t involve significant staggering. Given that those three made about 85 percent of the total salary cap between them2, this was something of an issue (in addition to Amare’s physical deterioration, which was obviously a massive problem as well).
Brunson and Barrett don’t play the same position, but like Amar'e and Melo, they both prefer to do their work in the real estate closest to the hoop. If we combine shots at the rim and from the short midrange (inside of 14 feet), 64 percent of RJ’s shot diet was comprised of looks from this range, while Jalen’s total was 58 percent. Among 48 point guards, combo guards and wings who played at least 2000 minutes last season, those percentages ranked 2nd and 6th, respectively, according to Cleaning the Glass3.
Thankfully for New York’s Killer B’s, they’re not complete zeroes when they don’t have the ball inside the arc. Before we dive deeper into that good news, we have to acknowledge one more reality: Jalen Brunson is going to suffer being away from Luka Doncic. This has nothing to do with Brunson himself; any player would find life harder if he had to go from playing with Luka to without him.
Some of this is because Doncic casually sees and makes passes that few players in the NBA are capable of, due to his incredibly unique combination of skill, vision and size:
A lot of that Luka magic resulted in deep ball nirvana for his teammates, and none more so than Brunson, who shot a very solid 37.3 percent overall on threes but an insane 47.4 percent on 78 three-point attempts that came off passes from Doncic. A ton of those looks came from the corners, like in the play above, where Brunson is especially deadly from.
Here’s the thing about Brunson though: he’s not Reggie Bullock, waiting behind the arc for the ball, and if the defense gets there in time, the advantage is lost.
On the contrary; Rick’s kid knows exactly what to do when the defense crowds him off the line. Going back and watching all 59 of Luka’s assists to Brunson last season, I was struck by how much Jalen moved on those plays, both before the ball found his hands…
On this play, the initial advantage is because of Doncic, but the bucket has Brunson’s fingerprints all over it.
The Villanova product did a great job recognizing the attention Luka drew on a regular basis, and when teams brought an extra defender, he knew where to go and what to do when he got there.
This next play is a good example. After Luka passes out of the double, Denver essentially concedes the short midranger to Brunson, as Green hesitates on the rotation so Jokic doesn’t have to abandon his man in the corner:
There are very few players in the league who can make mid-range looks with enough regularity to justify taking them as a steady part of their diet. Brunson is one of them, hitting shots from the short midrange at a 51 percent clip in each of the last two seasons according to Cleaning the Glass.
When people say that he was an ideal partner for Luka Doncic, I think this is the sort of thing they’re referring to. Brunson has enough ability in his own right to both capitalize of Luka’s otherworldly gifts and create his own offense to give Doncic a breather at times. Jalen isn’t capable of making the magic that his Slovenian teammate can (because no one playing today is, outside of LeBron) but he didn’t need to be to be a perfect partner, both by setting Luka up and taking advantage of the attention he drew.
Their combined talents made a huge different for the Dallas offense. The Mavs ranked just 14th in overall offense last season with a 112.5 rating, while Brunson and Doncic each had identical 113.8 offensive ratings when they were on the court. In the 1316 minutes they played together, they sported a 115.1 rating that would have ranked third in the NBA over a full season.
Now, RJ Barrett will be playing the role of the man who already has three top-six MVP finishes on his resume at the ripe age of 23. There are, it should go without saying, massive differences between what Luka and RJ are capable of. Even putting aside the uncanny passing ability of Doncic, teams are petrified whenever he has the ball, whether he’s three from the hoop or 30. In the restricted area, Luka made an insane 73 percent of his looks. From the outside, he hit more pull-up triples than anyone besides Trae Young. That combination drew so much attention from defenses that when you factor in is uncanny passing ability, it makes him the most unguardable player in basketball.
Barrett, on the other hand, made just 55 percent of shots in the restricted area, and he barely dipped his toe in the pull up waters, hitting just 23 on a 25.3 percent hit rate. He also doesn’t possess anywhere close to Luka’s playmaking skill, although he made nice strides with the ball in his hand last season:
I went back and watched every RJ assist from last season, and after his top two moneymakers - finding the roller (usually Mitch) on the pick and roll and hitting teammates for both layups and threes in transition - his most frequent assist type was driving and hitting teammates in the corners.
Most of the time, those dimes dropped into the right corner, which makes sense given Barrett’s preferred driving hand. But he also hit a fair amount of shooters in the left corner as well:
RJ may still have a ways to go before he converts enough close ones to strike fear into the hearts of defenses, but he’s so big and gets downhill so effortlessly than it’s impossible for his drives not to draw a decent amount of attention. When the corner is open, he usually hits it.
That should be music to Jalen Brunson’s ears. The former Wildcat was the only player in the NBA last season to attempt at least 75 corner threes and hit them at a 50 percent clip, hitting exactly half of his 76 looks, with roughly equal proficiency from each corner.
On paper, Barrett-to-Brunson drive & kicks will probably be the best way that RJ can help amplify his new teammate. Barrett is a bull in a china shop, and with Jalen’s ability to move before and after he gets the ball, there’s no reason this can’t become a proficient combination.
The bigger question I have is where Jalen will be stationed on the majority of Barrett’s forays to the hoop. For as proficient as he was from the corners, it’s somewhat surprising that Brunson attempted nearly 100 more above-the-break threes (174 in total) than corner looks (76, about one per game). This is especially so because he only hit 32.2 percent on those above-the-break attempts.
Last season, the Knicks didn’t have a corner three “specialist” aside from late-season Taj and Obi Toppin, who attempted one more shot from the corner than he did from above the break, hitting left corner threes at a somewhat respectable 36.1 percent clip. Outside of him though, everyone took a good deal more shots above the break than from the corners.
That includes Barrett, who joined Julius Randle and Derrick Rose as the only Knicks more proficient above the break than from the corners. RJ hit just 31.4 percent from the corners last season, including 33.9 percent from his preferred spot in the right corner. This was a shocking development for Barrett, who just one year earlier was 7th in the NBA in made corner threes and 5th from the right corner, hitting those looks at a blistering 43.4 percent.
Not that I’d expect this to be the primary way Brunson’s presence will make life easier for RJ. When Jalen drives and collapses the defense, the most frequent pass he makes is back to a shooter above the break4. That doesn’t mean he can’t pass to the corners, but because of his smaller stature, it often requires herculean efforts of contortion and body control to pull it off:
Last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavs were 4th in the NBA in frequency of corner threes at 11.5 percent, but that number dipped to 9.9 percent with Brunson on the court and Luka off. The latter number would have still ranked 9th in the league, and would have been better than New York’s 15th ranked figure of 9.2 percent. Still, this isn’t really his forte.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t amplify RJ’s game. Simply drawing the attention of the defense will work wonders by itself. What I’m really interested to see, though, is whether Jalen can breath life into a part of RJ’s game I believe to be laying dormant, just waiting for someone to resurrect it: cutting.
Last year, the Knicks scored on cuts more infrequently than any team in basketball. The Mavs weren’t anything special either, ranking 24th in frequency, but Brunson was the standout exception. Of his 186 dimes that resulted in two-pointers, 35 were to cutters.
Compare that to New York’s leading assist man, Julius Randle, who hit cutters on just 10 of 134 two-point assists. Brunson may be small, but he’s savvy as hell, and finds ways to take advantages of defenses when seemingly none exist.
Ultimately, the best way for RJ and Jalen to help each other probably has nothing to do with them, and more to do with some creative lineup choices. Barrett became dynamic in the pick and roll with Mitchell Robinson last season, while Brunson found his greatest success in five-out configurations where he could cook unbothered in the paint. To that end, Isaiah Hartenstein and Obi Toppin (who moves far more than Randle off the ball, which is ideal for a Brunson big-man partner) profile as better fits on offense for New York’s new addition. Thibs doesn’t traditionally stagger much, but next season might be a good time to start.
So is this a long way of saying that Brunson and Barrett might not be ideal partners after all? Not at all. Everything Barrett aspires to be is in the mold of Luka. The closer he gets, the better things will be for the Knicks, and the more Jalen can feel like he did in Dallas. In the meantime, it will be a feeling out process, but the good news is that both guys are smart, unselfish players. Even if they prefer to occupy the same space on the court, there should be more than enough room for both to find success.
68 percent to be exact, according to Basketball Reference.
In the 2011-12 season.
Only Russ was higher than RJ, taking 66 percent of his shots in the restricted area or from the short midrange. After Barrett came Terrence Mann in 3rd, Tyrese Maxey in 4th, Mikal Bridges in 5th, and Jrue Holiday tied Brunson in 6th.
He assisted on 191 threes last season. I watched the first 100 and counted a dozen occurrences of Brunson drives into the paint followed by a kick to one of the corners.