Live by the three, and die by the three.
This might be an outdated cliché in the NBA after what we've seen the last couple seasons. Having 3-point threats on the floor surrounding your superstar to create space for them to operate is the new NBA. We saw it in 2011, when Dirk Nowitzki was surrounded with aerial support, giving him plenty of room to operate. Last season, we saw LeBron James and Dwyane Wade flanked by Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers stretching the defensive rotations of their playoff opponents.
So, why shouldn't this be the design the New York Knicks try to utilize?
They can spread the floor with the best of them. They shoot the most 3-pointers in the league, they've made the most 3-pointers in history for any team in a single season, and they make the fifth-best percentage in the league at 37.6 percent. And whether the guys are good shooters by percentage or good shooters by outdated scouting reports, the Knicks have Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert spreading the floor for Carmelo Anthony.
When you give Melo room and he uses it properly, he's one of the most dangerous and versatile scorers this league has ever seen. But getting him to use it properly and getting his right-hand scorer (Smith) to use it properly can be quite the problem.
The design of the Knicks' offense seems to be to create the space for guys to showcase their skills, and that space is created with great ball movement around the perimeter. But rarely does it directly lead to a bucket. The Knicks have the worst percentage of assisted 2-point baskets at 39.7 percent. The next closest team is the Brooklyn Nets, at 48.2 percent.
This idea of ball movement to create room for unassisted attempts also translates to the 3-point line for the Knicks. They're 21st in assisted 3-pointers. A big part of this is due to the fact that Anthony and Smith take the most 3-pointers on the team and they have low rates of making assisted shots from downtown (81.3 percent of Smith's 3-pointers and 76.4 of Anthony's 3-pointers).
The Knicks make this "selfish ball movement" work for two reasons:
1.) They have an incredibly efficient offense (108.6 points per 100 possessions, third best).
2.) They rarely turn the ball over (13.1 percent of possessions, best in the league).
Selfish ball movement helps if you make shots and take care of the ball. It's not that the Knicks just live and die by the 3-point shot. It's a matter of them making shots and taking care of the ball. When things fall apart for the Knicks and they lose, everything goes wrong for them. They don't shoot poorly but make up for it with inside shots and taking care of the ball. The turnover rate rises, the field-goal percentage plummets and so does the 3-point shooting.
Everything within the Knicks' offense is a symbiotic relationship. One component seemingly can't survive without the other two. When they lose, they typically lose by double digits. The system falls apart. The swings with the Knicks are vast. Win big or lose big, but every result is big.
And the space that they create to operate must be big, too. It's how they got to this point and it's how they'll move on to legitimize their season and reemergence into the upper levels of the NBA. Since they've acquired Melo, the Knicks have been desperate for legitimacy. It was supposed to be their rebirth into the upper echelon.
To continue this upward trend, the Knicks are going to have to get out of the first round, and they probably have to get out of the second round, as well. It would still be a successful step forward to win four games in the playoffs and find themselves moving along the postseason bracket. But to truly feel like they've arrived and know where they stand in the NBA, they've got to test themselves against the Miami Heat.
To get to that point, they've got to dispatch a wounded Boston Celtics team in the first round, which presents plenty of problems for the Knicks to overcome. Boston has had a lot of success over the years (since its own reemergence) by taking away space on defense and tricking you into taking shots you think you can make. Often, you can't. Without Rajon Rondo and with the health of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in question, the task of sending the Celtics fishing early in the playoffs is much easier.
But it's one thing to say you are going to beat them in the playoffs, and another thing entirely to finish the job. If the Knicks are able to take care of business as the 2-seed in the East, they'll have to face an Indiana Pacers team in the second round. And that's where the concept of space really becomes the most important mission for the Knicks to complete.
The Pacers are the best defensive team in the NBA, and it's not by accident. They beat you up. They shove you. They grab and hold you. They slap at your wrists and leave welts. They want to break your concentration and make you give up. They want to bully you into submission. They want you to spend more time complaining to the officials than working to create the space that your offense needs to thrive. And with the Pacers' incredible wingspans throughout their rotation, they know how to take away space.
Do the Knicks know how to take the space back? Will they be able to make shots against a Pacers team that leads the league in lowest effective field-goal percentage (42.6 percent) against their defense? And, if they do, do the Knicks have enough firepower and focus to take on the Heat and bring them down with outside shooting and taking care of the ball like the Dallas Mavericks did in 2011?
Everything needs to click for the Knicks in order for them to get to the Finals. But even an Eastern Conference finals berth could do a lot for the momentum of this franchise. The focus of the Knicks' attack will certainly be their 3-point prowess, and it certainly matters.
But the Knicks finding the space that they need and using it properly will matter the most this postseason.