When Mike Woodson had the interim title removed from his name and was officially hired as the head coach of the New York Knicks, I was skeptical of his ability to design an offense that maximized the talent on hand. Woodson’s isolation-based offensive system – derisively nicknamed Iso Joe and/or Iso Melo by detractors – was slowed to a halt by the world champion Miami Heat in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and routinely suffered the same fate at the hands of the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls or some other team during his years as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks.
Given more time to consider my thoughts later in the summer (i.e. after the draft and free agency), I remained less than enthused by Woodson’s hiring, mostly due to his failings as an offensive tactician and the poor fit his offense represented with much of the Knicks personnel, especially the new point guards. Neither Raymond Felton or Jason Kidd is a particular good outside shooter at this stage of their career, and sticking them in an isolation-heavy offense and turning them into spot-up shooters seemed a waste of Felton’s pick-and-roll game and Kidd’s passing prowess.
Closer to the start of the season, I expressed extreme doubt that the offense the Knicks figured to be running – the offense Woodson had run for the entirety of his head coaching career – could succeed in the modern NBA, and even went so far as to call it an anachronism. Given the new defensive rules put in place over the last decade, they can effectively cut off isolation offenses at the knees, meaning that repetitive and predictable isolations are where playoff dreams go to die.
Through the first four games of this season, Woodson had made me look like a fool. He has designed an almost entirely new offensive system involving a heavy dose of off-ball screening, pick-and-rolls, post-ups, dribble hand-offs, and rapid, decisive, side-to-side ball movement around the perimeter.
What Woodson has done is tailor an offense to the personnel he has, rather than try to fit that personnel into preconceived roles based on the system he had run during his tenure in Atlanta and last season in New York. The result has been the league’s best offense through this early part of the season, one that has the Knicks sitting at 4-0 as the NBA’s lone remaining undefeated team.
At the center of it all is Carmelo Anthony, who is running fewer isolations and more post-ups than at any point in his career. Felton and Pablo Prigioni are getting copious amounts of pick-and-roll opportunities with Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace. JR Smith, Steve Novak and Kidd are coming off screens from every direction and seeing a plethora of open 3-point opportunities. Ronnie Brewer is lurking behind all the action for corner 3’s and cuts to the rim.
The primary goal of each possession is to get the ball the Anthony in the post, whether on the right block or the left elbow. All but two of Anthony’s post-up possessions so far this season have originated from one of those two spots.
Post-ups have accounted for a career-high 22.6% of Carmelo’s possessions this season, per mySynergySports. Last season, that number was just 13%. During his Knick stint in the 2010-11 season, it was only 11.4%. Much of this has to with the Anthony’s much-discussed move to power forward – where he has a quickness advantage over nearly every player that defends him, which aids his face-up game – but it also seems to be a concerted, designed effort to get him the ball in more optimal places to score.
Carmelo has always been a player whose game has tilted toward the right side of the floor. For example, he took 90 jumpers from the right elbow compared to just 28 from the left elbow last season, via NBA.com. However, he made only 34.4% of those right elbow jumpers, while knocking down 46.4% of his shots from the left elbow. So the Knicks have made an effort to move some of his post-ups from that right wing area he likes so much, over to the left elbow. He’s mostly attacked via the dribble drive when he’s posted there, but just due to being in a more dangerous position on the court, he’s at an advantage over last season. As a result, he is 10-for-18 from the field with 5 shooting fouls drawn – good for 1.25 points per possession (PPP) – and has scored on 62.5% of his post-up opportunities, per Synergy.
Many of Carmelo’s post-ups are of the traditional variety where he simply sprints down the floor and acquires position on his defender (this has been especially true in delayed transition), sticks his hand in the air and waits for a pass. However, the Knicks have also used more creative ways to get the ball to Anthony in the post – for instance, make him the screener in a pick-and-roll, and have him roll his way into the post.
This play also highlights what has without a doubt been the best and most important part of Anthony’s post game this season: his willingness to draw in a double team and kick the ball out to open shooters. His willingness to pass out of those doubles has permeated through the rest of the roster, as the Knicks routinely ping the ball around the perimeter until something opens up. Anthony has long been labeled an inefficient ball hog who just guns for his own shots and refuses to look for the open man. That label could not be more ill-fitting this season.
Anthony has been patient and reactive in the post (and everywhere else), constantly looking to keep the ball moving. If he gets doubled, he passes it out to Felton, Kidd, Smith, Novak, Brewer, anybody. If the defense just feigns a double, or if they leave him single-covered altogether, he attacks quickly and decisively with his turnaround jumper or a face-up dribble drive.
Coupled with his rise in post-up plays has been a decline in Anthony’s favorite play – isolations. Just 21.7% of his possessions so far this season have been of the Iso Melo variety, compared with 35.4% last season and 37% during his 2010-11 Knick stint. The drop in designed isolation plays has kept the Knicks’ ball movement crisp. The rise in other kinds of opportunities, along with Carmelo’s trust that they will come later in the possession if he kicks the ball out, has kept him from breaking the offense to isolate, as he so often did both in Denver with George Karl and under Mike D’Antoni in New York.
If the Knicks can’t get the ball to Melo in the post, the next option on the possession is a pick-and-roll between Felton and Tyson Chandler. As we well know, Chandler is one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the league. Over the past two seasons, he has ranked 18th and 2nd in PPP as a roll man, per Synergy. His small sample size 1.78 PPP as a roll man so far this season would dwarf his mark from each of the past two seasons, and though it is not nearly sustainable, it does indicate just how effective he is finishing around the rim in pick-and-roll situations.
Chandler’s presence has been a boon for Felton, who struggled with turnovers in pick-and-rolls last season. He’s cut those turnovers down by over 5% and raised his field goal percentage in pick-and-rolls nearly 2 points in the early part of this season.
Even more impressive for Felton has been his passing out of pick-and-rolls, as seen above. He’s made sweet rim music with Chandler on more than one occasion, tossing him alley-oops left and right (honestly, he’s hunting for them far too often). Though Felton has yet to carry over his strong first quarter starts through the rest of the game, his early play, and in particular his creative passing, has set the tone of the rest of the game.
One particular pick-and-roll play the Knicks have run that I have fallen in love with is this triple pick-and-roll, with screens set first by JR Smith, then by Steve Novak, and then by any of the Knicks’ cadre of bigs. Smith rolls to the corner, Novak to the wing, and the big through the middle of the lane.
Here, the Miami heat smother Pablo Prigioni coming around the screens. But they’re the Miami Heat for a reason. Their athleticism, size and the style of defense they play all work in concert to disrupt even the best pick-and-roll attacks.
Against the Dallas Mavericks, the play worked to perfection. Sheed’s roll down the middle of the lane draws just enough defensive attention so that Novak is open on the wing. As the defense closes out hard on the league’s best 3-point shooter, he simply skips it over to Smith, who is waiting wide open in the corner.
The creative and purposeful use of off-ball screens has been without a doubt the most surprising – and best, and my favorite, and any other superlative you can think of – thing about the new-look Knick offense. The use of screens has ranged from very simple, like the cross-screen Carmelo receives from Chandler to free him for an elbow jumper above, or the back screen Steve Novak gets to create an open 3-pointer below, to things that are much more complicated and creative.
One thing the Knicks have been doing a lot of is screen-for-screener plays, only not in the way you usually think of them. When most teams run screen-for-screener plays, they’ll have a guy set a screen, then receive one. It’s a good way to create backdoor lob opportunities, especially when you have explosive finishers who double as great screen-setters, like Tyson Chandler. But what the Knicks are doing is setting screens for the guy who is going to screen for somebody else, thus creating separation not only between the ball-handler and his man, but also between the screener and his man before the screen is even set.
Above, JR Smith sets a brush screen on Udonis Haslem, giving Chandler a little more space when he comes up to set the high pick for Felton. Haslem’s hedge is thrown off just a little bit, and Felton has enough space to find Chandler on the roll for an easy dunk (LeBron’s lackadaisical help defense didn’t hurt either).
There are some possessions where the Knicks are setting so many off-ball picks that it almost makes you dizzy.
Here again we see JR Smith set a screen on Chandler’s man before Chandler goes to set a screen of his own. Even before doing that, Novak runs his man off a brush screen from Smith on his way across the court. After receiving the screen from Smith, Chandler sets one for Melo, which seems designed to free him for one of those left elbow jumpers. It’s basically a modified version of the play above that they used to get Melo a basket on the first play of this same game. When Carmelo doesn’t come open, the Knicks go to option number two, a high pick-and-roll between Felton and Chandler. Because of all the screening and movement, Felton gets into the lane fairly easily. He blows the lay-up, but you can see the kind of confusion the Knicks are creating when you look at Elton Brand sliding over into Felton’s lane then scrambling back with his hands above his head and letting Felton walk straight to the basket.
This play is almost a mirror image of the one above. Lots of off-ball screening action – Chandler sets one for Felton as he comes through the lane, Melo sets another one for Felton as he turns the corner (and then Melo quickly ducks into post position before realizing the opportunity isn’t there, and promptly clears out of the space), Chandler sets another for Smith as he cuts through the lane – followed by a high pick-and-roll between Felton and Chandler. Again, Felton gets right into the teeth of the defense, only this time he finds Chandler for an alley-oop (I told you he was hunting them).
The most surprising participant in all this screening action is probably JR Smith. As seen multiple times above, he’s often the man setting a pick on Chandler’s man to free him up to go set a screen of his own. The Knicks have also used Smith to set screens to free Novak, Brewer or Kidd for open jumpers. There’s an added bonus to using Smith as the screener.
Here, Smith sets a baseline screen for Novak, who comes around the corner looking for a catch-and-shoot 3. When it’s not open, he quickly reverses the ball, and Smith pops open on the other side after receiving a (probably illegal) back screen from Kurt Thomas. Smith struggled shooting the ball in his stint with the Knicks last season, making just 25% of his shots off screens, per Synergy. He’s made 3-of-4 shots off screens so far this season, as well as 10 of his 16 spot-up shots, including 9-for-12 from 3-point territory. His shooting has again become a very dangerous weapon.
If the post-up for Carmelo isn’t there, and the high pick-and-roll isn’t there, this is often the next option on any given Knick possession. Felton will enter the ball to Chandler (or Thomas or Wallace, but mostly Chandler) in the high post, or Kidd on the wing, and then either set a screen for Brewer, Smith or Novak in the corner, who comes to receive a dribble hand-off from Chandler, or take a rub screen from Chandler on a cut to the hoop and pop out off a screen on the other side for another pick-and-roll opportunity.
Here, Felton enters to Chandler and sets a screen for Brewer, who gets that dribble hand-off. When he doesn’t have a lane to the basket, he runs a dribble hand-off of his own with Felton, who gets into the lane for a floater.
The latter option, where Felton hits Kidd on the wing, takes a rub screen from Chandler on his way through the lane and pops out on the other side of the court to run another pick-and-roll was already seen above, but here it is again.
Everything is designed and done with a purpose. Each option on these plays sets up something else. Even this one has a backup option.
Felton enters to Kidd in the high post this time, and he still gets that rub screen from Chandler, only he keeps on going right to the rim rather than popping out on the other side for another pick-and-roll, and he gets an easy layup out of it.
It is nothing short of shocking to me that Mike Woodson designed this offense. It looks almost nothing like Iso Joe, Iso Melo, or whatever you want to call the offense that he ran in Atlanta and last season in New York. There are a few elements here and there, but the creativity he has shown with the use of screens both on and off the ball, the lack of isolations and the fact that he has tailored an offense to his personnel rather than trying to fit square pegs in the round holes of his preferred system are all pleasant surprises. In the early part of this season, Mike Woodson’s New York Knicks have an offense that is one of the most innovative and fun to watch in the entire league, and that is certainly something I never thought I’d be saying.