“Happy learned how to putt. Uh-oh…”
The New York Knicks surprised many last season with an unexpected playoff berth. A lot of their wins came from their stingy defense, as is the case with most Tom Thibodeau-led teams. But when their offense stalled or became stagnant and predictable, Julius Randle was asked to do too much. And while he did come through numerous times with big plays and big games, when he was having an off night the team’s offense became almost unbearable to watch. So it was refreshing to see the front office address this need by bringing in huge offensive upgrades in the backcourt.
In the first two preseason games, the-new look offense was so fluid and balanced that it sent fans into a frenzy for what’s to come. Now obviously, we have to take things with a grain of salt since it is still only preseason, but there is definitely reason to believe in this iteration of the Knicks’ offense. So first, let’s take a look at Bronx native Kemba Walker.
Walker brings an isolation game and scoring threat to the starting point guard position that the Knicks have not had in years. Walker has regressed over the last few years, mainly due to injury, but when healthy he is capable of scoring 20 points consistently and going off for 30+ on any given night. But what exactly does Kemba bring to the table? First, the ability to finish around the rim. Walker is small and not the greatest finisher around the rim, but can still get there when he needs to and can also get to the line (Exhibit A: his free throw rate of .220 compared to Payton’s .172).
Last season, Payton had an effective field goal percentage of 57.4% at the rim. Meanwhile, Walker, despite dealing with some injuries early on in the season, finished the season with an effective field goal percentage of 71.1% at the rim. Plays like the one above often ended up in an off-balance floater by Payton.
Payton didn’t shoot many jump shots, but when he did he wasn’t accurate or efficient. Payton had an effective field goal percentage of 28.3% from 10-16 feet and 28.6% from 3 whereas Walker posted effective field goal percentages of 48.5% and 53.1%, respectively. A closer look at the numbers shows that Payton was assisted on over 90% of his 3-point shots, while Walker was only assisted on 55% of his (28th-lowest in the league). This proves just how much more deadly Walker is with the ball. Unlike Payton, Walker demands attention from defenses due to his ability to create space and get his own shot, something he’s done for many years.
While this is a midrange shot, the comfort and confidence and ease with which he gets this to go is a thing of beauty. A move and make like this would have been pretty unbelievable from Payton, but now the Knicks have options other than Randle when it comes to end-of shot-clock or late-game situations. In fact, the former UConn point guard was 21st in the league last season in 2-point field goal percentage with 0-4 seconds left on the shot clock (min 1 attempt per game). He was also ninth in the league in points per possession as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls among all players with at least eight PnRs per game. This ranks higher than some of the big names in the game, like James Harden, Ja Morant and even the Knicks’ very own Derrick Rose. It is clear that Walker will provide Randle with much needed help creating shots, which should benefit not only Randle but the offense as a whole.
So how about Walker’s backcourt mate? Fournier brings some new skillsets of his own. The first one, the obvious one, is shooting. While Bullock was a good shooter, Fournier is even better. Bullock posted a 3-point percentage of 40.5%, which is pretty good, but Fournier managed to shoot an ever higher percentage of 41.4%. What’s even more impressive is that Fournier took and made a lot more unassisted 3s. 97.7% of Bullock’s long-range makes were assisted, versus only 78.8% of Fournier’s makes. The differences in their fourth quarter 3-point percentage was alarming. Bullock, despite having some huge late game heroics throughout the season, struggled then behind the arc, making just 30.6% from deep. Fournier, on the other hand, shot 42.9%.
During Fournier’s time in Boston, he was also second in the league in spot-up effective field goal percentage among all players with at least three spot-ups per game. But unlike some of the other players on the list with a frequency over 35% or 40%, Fournier’s is just 28.4%, which goes to show that he isn’t a spot-up specialist. Fournier was also 18th in the league in effective field goal percentage off of one dribble (min. two attempts per game), proving he can attack strong closeouts with a side dribble or a pull up.
In the video below, you can see some of the things Fournier did in Tuesday’s game. He made a spot-up 3, something he will continue to be asked to do. He also had a really nice and-1 layup off of a tough closeout. Oftentimes when defender ran up to contest Bullock, he would either pass it up or take a tough pull-up midrange jumper. Fournier isn’t necessarily the quickest or most athletic player, but his average athleticism, combined with his craftiness and deadly jump shot, can get him to the rim, where he is a decent enough finisher. This also explains why his free throw rate (.253%) is a lot higher than Bullock’s (.098).
When Fournier was in Orlando last season, he was fourth in the league in effective field goal percentage on hand-offs among all players with at least one per game. He also posted pretty high points per possession numbers, as well as high free throw rates compared to his peers. Fournier is by no means an All-Star or someone that will lead the team by himself, but being a deadly shooter, being able to create off the dribble and being more of a playmaker for himself and others with the ball in his hands will complement Randle and Walker very well.
We can’t forget the positive signs we saw of the returning players. RJ Barrett seemed confident and aggressive, which is a great sign for Knicks fans. The team looked for him often when he spotted up and it looked like his shooting improvements from last year were no fluke. And this season, instead of playing off Randle, Barrett can now use his ability to play off-ball and off cuts to supplement the attention that Walker and Fournier will garner. It was reported that Barrett grew a bit and also gained a decent amount of muscle in the offseason and Thibodeau looked to get him in a lot of pistol action to get him going downhill to use his strength. Barrett was able to finish around the paint with some strong finishes, including a a one-legged running floater, and even showcased some of his playmaking skills, which now gives the Knicks four players who are average to above-average passers.
Obi Toppin continued to build on his play from Summer League, looking more aggressive and confident than he did at any point during last season. Whether in transition or the halfcourt, Toppin was dribbling a bit more. If he can be crisp with his handle, his rare combination of speed, leaping ability and size will allow him to get to the basket and finish or get to the line. We also saw some of the chemistry between him and Immanuel Quickley as they worked a quick two-man game that led to a nice midrange pick-and-pop play.
The three words fans are tossing around the most are “versatility,” “speed” and “fluidity” when it comes to this new-look offense. It was just one game and there is surely a lot of work to do, but the offense overall was a lot more free-flowing and you could tell that the team has way more options. The team even seemed to be playing at a faster pace which, given Thibodeau’s history of having great defenses, should allow the Knicks to run more off of defensive stops. Hopefully, gone are the days of giving Randle the ball and waiting for him to do something. The Knicks now have Walker, a proven shot creator who can finish at the rim and shoot from distance at a way higher proficiency than Payton ever could, and Fournier, a better and more versatile version of Bullock. That, along with the return of Derrick Rose, and the continued improvement of Barrett, Quickley and Toppin, should give this year’s Knicks a way more balanced and scary offensive attack.