When Leon Rose hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach of the Knicks, there were concerns lingering from his days in Minnesota and the subsequent gap in his resume. Thibs’ heyday was in the early 2010s, and with the NBA rapidly shifting in pace and shot profile since that era, a big question was whether he could adapt his style to the modern game.
Despite last season’s successes, a hurdle appeared that eventually tripped the Knicks out of their first round series in five games. New York ranked last in pace, 24th in three-point attempt rate and 22nd in offensive efficiency during the regular season before struggling to create offense in the postseason. When asked about the deep ball, Thibodeau emphasized shot quality over volume.
Entering training camp this year, the script was flipped.
Plastered on the walls of the Knicks practice facility are signs with “offensive musts” that include “pace/sprint” and “3s” among others. Members of the roster revealed a new emphasis on early offense and the deep ball.
The personnel additions over the offseason reflected this new approach, with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, two multi-faceted scorers but weaker defenders, joining the starting five.
Just two games into preseason, the changes are apparent.
The Knicks attempted 37 and 52 threes in their exhibitions against the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards, respectively. The former would crack their 10 highest three-point outputs from last year, and the latter would break the franchise record for attempts in a game.
Their offense is quicker, too, with a pace of 104.75 possessions this preseason compared to 96.32 last year. That’s eight more potential buckets a game, which shows up in their point totals thus far.
New York put up 125 and 117 against their tune-up foes, which they only managed 12 times in 2020-21 games that ended in regulation. Their offensive efficiency is third-best in the league this preseason.
It’s obviously far too early and unreliable to project this offensive performance out over the regular season, but the fundamental changes in concept and personnel can’t be ignored.
Last season, you’d rarely see an early clock pull-up three from the Knicks. They would run through their sets and let Julius Randle take his time reading the defense. Quick hit-aheads and drives, assisted by picks or not, are now much more frequent.
Even once the offense slows, the new additions bring a major dose of playmaking and offensive IQ, leaving little room for stagnation.
Last season, Elfrid Payton manned the point guard position and was the weak link opposing defenses often exploited. Teams didn’t collapse on his drives due to his inefficient scoring, leaving passing lanes clogged and his assist rate at a career low. He also didn’t provide any spacing.
Reggie Bullock was key as a shooter and defender, but Trae Young was able to hide on him all series. And once he was forced to take a dribble on offense, things got hairy. While both he and Payton were serviceable, their replacements bring a whole lot more.
Both Walker and Fournier are weapons out of the triple threat, with years of NBA experience as high-level offensive creators, including against playoff defenses. Both have quick triggers from deep and above league-average clips, along with the ability and willingness to move the ball.
The individual upgrades are nice, but it’s what they accomplish in the team context that gives the Knicks a chance at an above-average offense to pair with their already-stout defense.
New York now boasts a non-center rotation that from top to bottom can shoot, dribble and pass. The increased spacing opens easier lanes for the whole cast. This combination of dynamic offensive options has already led to some beautiful results.
Plays like these, coupled with how well the Knicks performed offensively early this preseason, are exciting markers given the team still needs to build chemistry with its full unit. When they finally do, New York could look like Spurs East, reminiscent of the 2013-14 San Antonio teams that moved the ball seamlessly.
The Knicks are led by one of the best passing bigs in today’s game in Randle, who looked almost puzzled in his lone preseason outing at some of the easy looks he naturally got out of the offense.
He’s entering his third year playing alongside RJ Barrett, who made a giant leap in his shooting last season and is showing improvement there and in his passing this preseason, as opposed to the regression many ignorantly expected.
The rest of the supporting cast is also carried over from last year, but with reduced roles given the improvements around them. New York force-fed Alec Burks high pick-and-rolls on many occasions last year, but he’s been able to pick and choose his spots through two games.
The developments from Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin — especially in the realms of dribble penetration and playmaking — are no small part of that.
After last postseason’s rough finish, it was clear change was needed. Rose and Thibodeau fully grasped this coming into 2021-22, and the early results are enticing.
We’ll have to wait and see just how much better the Knicks fare offensively, but it’s already clear they’ve taken a big step from last season.