It’s been a long time.
The last time the New York Knicks had a league-average-or-better offense was 2013-14, when their starting point guard was Raymond Felton. They haven’t really been close since then, having scored at least 1.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average in each of the last eight seasons. And the Knicks are one of two teams — the Orlando Magic (10 straight years) are the other — that have ranked in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency in each of the last four years.
A year ago, the Knicks attempted to upgrade their offense by adding two guards — Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker — in free agency. It didn’t work, and the team actually took a step backward offensively while seeing a bigger drop-off on defense. After finishing fourth in the East in 2020-21, the Knicks finished six games out of the Play-In Tournament chase.
This year, the Knicks are trying again. Fournier is still around, but Walker has been replaced by 26-year-old Jalen Brunson, one of the most efficient pick-and-roll scorers in the league.
Here are some notes, numbers and film on what Brunson brings to the Big Apple …
1. Efficiency inside the arc
Over the last two seasons, Brunson has scored 1.07 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. That mark ranks third among 113 players with at least 250 ball-handler possessions over the last two seasons, according to Synergy play-type tracking.
Most points per possession, pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions, last 2 seasons
Minimum 250 possessions (113 players)
via Synergy tracking
The other players in that top five are top-tier superstars. Brunson is right there among them and there’s actually room for improvement.
Note that Brunson’s field goal percentage on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions is higher (by a pretty healthy margin) than the other four players in the top five. It is also the highest of all 113 players with at least 250 ball-handler possessions over the last two years. While the other four players in that top five each had higher free throw rates and 3-point rates, Brunson’s off-the-dribble success mostly came with 2-point shots.
Of his 412 pull-up jumpers last season, 332 (81%) were 2-point attempts. That was the 25th highest rate among 171 players who attempted at least 100 pull-ups total. His 48.5% on pull-up 2-pointers was well above the league average (41.2%) and ranked 14th among 114 with at least 100 attempts.
Chris Paul is the king of the short pull-up. In each of the last three seasons, he’s been the only player to shoot 52% or better on at least 400 pull-up 2-point attempts. And Brunson can sometimes look like a lefty CP3, snaking around a pick to get to a space where he can get his shot …
But (at this point in their careers) Brunson is better at getting all the way to the basket than Paul …
And he’s got moves if he’s stopped before he gets all the way there …
If Brunson can draw some more fouls and turn some of those 2s into 3-pointers, he can be even more efficient. But Brunson’s 31.3% on pull-up 3s was below the league average (32.8%) and ranked just 71st among 105 players with at least 75 attempts. In the playoffs, he was just 9-for-32 (28%) on pull-up 3s, 20th among 29 players with at least 20 attempts.
He doesn’t look uncomfortable shooting pull-up 3s …
But the results aren’t there yet.
Even with some improvement beyond the arc, Brunson will have to prove that he can remain as efficient off the dribble at a higher volume. Playing with Luka Doncic, he averaged just 4.4 ball-handler possessions per game over the last two seasons. His 5.0 ball-handler possessions per game last season ranked just 42nd among players who played at least 35 games.
With Doncic out, Brunson did average 32 points over the first three games of the Mavs’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz. And in doing that, he scored 41 points on 30 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions (1.37 per), according to Synergy.
We’ll see if he gets that much usage in New York. Overall, Brunson was less efficient when he was on the floor without Doncic (true shooting percentage of 56.4%, counting regular season and playoffs) than he was when they were on the floor together (59.2%).
If Brunson takes some ball-handler possessions away from RJ Barrett, that would probably be good for the Knicks overall. Barrett should improve, but his 0.77 points per ball-handler possession over the last two seasons ranks 105th among those 113 players with at least 250 possessions (just below former Knick Elfrid Payton). And he’s actually averaged more ball-handler possessions per game (5.5) than Brunson (4.4).
2. A safe distributor
Over the last three seasons, Brunson has averaged 5.5 assists per 36 minutes, a rate which ranks 59th among 337 players who’ve played at least 2,000 minutes over those three years. He’s not threading many needles or making many highlight reels with his passes. And his lack of size (he’s 6-foot-1) can be a detriment in regard to getting the ball to an open teammate on the other side of the floor.
But he doesn’t make many dangerous passes, either. With that, Brunson had the fifth highest assist/turnover ratio (3.04) among the 109 players with a usage rate of 20% or higher last season.
Most of his assists come via simple passes, but his ability to turn the corner can create advantages, and he’s quick to recognize the open man …
While Brunson averaged 4.78 seconds per touch (32nd among 341 players with at least 1,000 touches), he’s not a ball-stopper, willing to keep it moving if a teammate has more space to shoot than he does …
Brunson ranked 18th in the league with 13.6 drives per game, more than anybody on the Knicks (Barrett led the team with 12.8). He passed on 41.7% of his drives, a rate above the league average (39.2%).
Only the Jazz (60%) took a lower percentage of their 3-point attempts off the catch than the Knicks (63%) did last season. So his new team can certainly use Brunson’s ability to create some additional off-the-catch looks. Among 98 players with at least 75 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts and 75 pull-up 3-point attempts, Barrett had the 11th biggest differential between his catch-and-shoot accuracy (36.8%) and his pull-up accuracy (25.3%). That latter mark was the third worst among 105 total players with at least 75 pull-up 3-point attempts.
3. Off the ball
As noted above, Brunson was better, but still below the league average on pull-up 3-pointers, connecting on just 31.3% of his. But he shot 69-for-172 (40.1%) on catch-and-shoot 3s. And he was the only player who shot 50% or better (he was 38-for-76) on at least 75 corner 3-point attempts last season.
Julius Randle may need to cede some control of the offense with the addition of Brunson. But the presence of Randle allows Brunson to play some off the ball, a situation in which he should be comfortable, having played 54% of his minutes alongside Doncic last season. While Randle is a ball-stopper, he sees the floor well and only Doncic (486) has more assists on 3-pointers over the last two seasons than he does (474).
If Brunson and Randle can make each other better, and if Barrett (still just 22 years old) shows improvement in regard to efficiency and consistency, the Knicks can have something in the range of a league-average offense this season. That’s not going to make them one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but it would be a step forward.
Brunson probably isn’t going to help the Knicks defensively. He’s not very disruptive, with his 1.2 deflections per 36 minutes ranking 242nd among 272 players who played at least 1,000 minutes last season. He’s also not going to protect the rim very well as the low man on the weak side …
But he doesn’t commit many mistakes and he generally doesn’t give up on plays when he gets screened. He also grades out OK as an isolation defender, with opponents having scored just 0.90 points per chance when they’ve isolated against him over the last two years. That mark ranks 42nd among 176 players who’ve defended at least 200 isolations over those two seasons, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
When he’s engaged, Brunson can move his feet, stay in front of his man, and force tough(er) shots …
Brunson will be stepping into a starting lineup that wasn’t very good defensively anyway. The Knicks’ two most-used lineups — Fournier, Barrett, Randle and Mitchell Robinson with either Walker or Alec Burks at point guard — allowed 116.6 and 113.7 points per 100 possessions last season. Those marks ranked 31st and 28th among the 34 lineups that played at least 200 minutes.
Brunson should strengthen that starting group overall. But his new teammates (Randle especially) also need to recover from a disappointing 2021-22. With the Knicks’ other offseason target now in Cleveland instead of New York, improvement from within is even more critical.
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