A Tale of Two Offenses: The Surprising Knicks and the Slumping Thunder

It’s too early to draw meaningful conclusions about teams or players, but after just a week, we can say this: One of the league’s glamour teams looks surprisingly comfortable in its own skin, while a would-be contender fresh off a massive long-term roster change is showing worrisome early signs.

The team making me smile: The New York Knicks, whose existence over the last 12 months (and beyond, really) is a glaring reminder against reading anything into a mini-streak of any kind. And let’s not go crazy, even though the Knicks are in the top three in both points scored and allowed per possession after games against two solid opponents; both Miami and Philadelphia in their current states allow New York to play small ball without consequences, and Carmelo Anthony, despite the glittering start, has hurt his shooting percentage (43.5 percent) with three or four irresponsibly nutty attempts in each game. (J.R. Smith remains New York’s reigning King of Irresponsibly Nutty Attempts.)

Still: New York looks so in tune with Anthony at power forward, working from the post and the elbows, places from which he was viciously effective last season. I tweeted it immediately upon the news of Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee injury: Stoudemire’s loss represented an opportunity for the Knicks to establish Melo as the team’s starting power forward, and if the results continue like this — mirroring last season’s results — when Stoudemire returns, Mike Woodson will have to choose between bringing his $20 million power forward off the bench or looking foolish.

It’s not that Melo’s tendency to stop the ball has disappeared; the character of his ball-stopping has changed. Melo has shown a really nice, unselfish understanding of the spacing his post-ups create — of how he sucks in the defense, and how to use that sucking effect to create productive looks for the shooters and non-shooters (i.e., Ronnie Brewer) stationed around the perimeter. And all of the perimeter guys, perhaps inspired by the brilliant Jason Kidd, are whipping the ball around so quickly it barely appears to touch their hands before it has gone to the next guy.

Anthony’s second quarter on Sunday was borderline masterful. With about 7:20 to go, he caught the ball on the left block, with Thaddeus Young on his back, and noticed Jrue Holiday sneaking toward the foul line off of J.R. Smith on the right side of the floor as Philly prepared its help scheme. Instead of holding the ball or making an easier pass to a player on his side of the court, Melo immediately fired a skip pass to Smith, who touched the ball to Steve Novak in the right corner for a 3. About 90 seconds later, Melo caught the ball in the same place, noted Holiday helping off of Raymond Felton stationed just above Melo on the left side, and took a really smart extra dribble step toward the baseline. That tiny slide sucked Holiday in an extra couple of feet, and Melo promptly kicked the ball to Felton for a wide-open 3 that missed.

It went on like this. He blew by Young on a drive from the elbow for a layup. He backed Young down to the baseline again just before halftime, drawing in the near-side perimeter defender for a more compromising double team than Philly wanted, and kicked the ball out to initiate another series of swing passes that could lead to a Melo hockey assist.

The Knicks used him often as a screener in pick-and-roll plays, something that confused Philly (one blown switch led to a layup from a cutting Brewer) and created space as defenders darted to the paint to help on Melo’s rolls to the basket.

And the Knicks will find productive ways to use that space as long as Kidd is on the floor in his new role of NBA quarterback who barely gets below the foul line — a non–point guard role he mastered in Dallas. I’m not sure anyone is better at reading a defense from up high, understanding what rotation is coming next, and totally wrong-footing that defense with a next-level pass they don’t see coming. Late in the third quarter, Kidd was handling on the right perimeter as Melo posted up a mismatched Holiday on the right block. The gorgeously mulleted Spencer Hawes sneaked off Kurt Thomas on the opposite block to help behind Holiday, and Kidd, rather than feeding the ball to Melo and forcing him to find Thomas on a tricky pass, simply skipped the middleman and found Thomas himself for an and-one.

Kidd is a genius on the perimeter, but it’s early, and the season will wear on his legs. One of the Knicks’ biggest issues, though far less serious than what to do when Stoudemire returns, is that none of their guard/wing types combine defense and shooting in a consistent package. Such players are crucial for any team wishing to play this version of inside-out ball. Kidd comes the closest, but it’s unclear how much he can contribute night to night. Brewer’s active cutting makes up for his lack of shooting, but that’s not an ideal fix.

The Knicks will play bigger teams, and there are defensive trade-offs that come with playing Melo at power forward. Teams will go at him in the post with occasional easy success, though the Knicks are still winning this battle in the big picture; they help in smart ways, and Melo is strong enough to force a lot of power forwards into tricky hook shots that just haven’t gone in enough — this season or last. And though he’s prone to reaching for steals on the block, teams haven’t been able to get Melo into foul trouble.

There will be nights when things just don’t work. But the more often they work, the more likely the Knicks will have tough questions to answer.

Already facing some tough questions: the Oklahoma City Thunder, fresh off a dispiriting home loss to the Hawks on Sunday night — a loss that raised just about every serious question keeping the Thunder out of the surefire -contender circle in the wake of the James Harden trade.

The concerns fall into two broad categories and one sub-category:

Defense

The Thunder weren’t quite good enough defensively last season, and the learning curve is still in its early stages. They were just a hair above average defensively last season, and they have been just about average through three games this season. Ibaka’s growth as a defender might be the single most important high-ceiling variable in the NBA, and last night’s loss was like a highlight reel of why his no. 2 finish in the Defensive Player of the Year voting was so egregious. Ivan Johnson and Al Horford each back-cut an inattentive Ibaka for dunks. Zaza Pachulia muscled him out of the way for an offensive rebound and put the ball back in after baiting Ibaka with a pump fake — one of several that Ibaka bit on, a chronic issue. His pick-and-roll footwork was spotty, as the Hawks often caught him running too fast out toward the perimeter to contain that play, his oncoming speed sabotaging his balance and making him prone to blow-bys. There were bits of overhelping here and there.

Ibaka is not a bad defender — not even close — and he’s not alone here. Russell Westbrook remains jumpy, and his hyperactive bounciness can be death against a wily change-of-direction cutter like Lou Williams. Westbrook also committed three silly non-shooting fouls on the perimeter last night, allowing the Hawks early entry into the bonus; Ibaka compounded this by conceding two bonus free throws in the second quarter when he simply ran over Kyle Korver on a cross-screen.

Again: These guys aren’t abjectly bad defenders. Ibaka is a shot-blocking menace who can cover startlingly large swaths of space in a pinch, altering shots. Westbrook can be a pest denying the ball and has tremendous closing speed against shooters curling off screens.

But Ibaka needs to develop into a super-plus defender, and the Thunder just need more solidity on defense. It should come with time.

Lineups

Oklahoma City’s starting lineup just doesn’t work well. That group scored 100.5 points per 100 possessions last season, equivalent to about the 24th-ranked offense in the league, per NBA.com’s stats database. It is remarkable Oklahoma City finished so high — no. 2! — in that category while playing this five so many minutes. After 49 minutes together this season, they’re down to a horrific 90.5 points per 100 possessions.

That number will obviously come up, but the Thunder just cannot generate spacing with this group. Teams ignore Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha to clog the paint, and they semi-ignore Ibaka, happy to surrender contested mid-range jumpers to him all night. The Hawks broke out a hybrid zone for much of Sunday’s game, and it will be interesting to see if more teams do this against Oklahoma City; a lack of shooting has always been this team’s secret problem, and the Thunder lost both James Harden and the very useful Daequan Cook in the Houston trade. Kevin Martin is a very good shooter, but he’s a dismal defender, and, like Harden, he comes off the bench.

Scott Brooks starts this lineup for its defense, and he’s right about that; they surrendered just 92.9 points per 100 possessions last season, a mark that would have been the stingiest in the league by a long shot. That kind of D is a valuable thing for a shaky defensive team.

But the trade-off on offense is too dramatic once the Thunder come against elite two-way teams, as we saw in the Finals last season, when the Thunder were essentially starting from behind.

And in a related note, through three games Brooks has been weirdly reluctant to go small, with Kevin Durant at power forward, despite facing three teams (San Antonio, Portland, and the Josh Smith–less Hawks) that would seem to allow for extensive use of this lineup type. Only one such group has logged more than three minutes through three games, and that one lineup has been on the floor a grand total of seven minutes, per NBA.com.

It’s early. This will probably change as Brooks gets a better handle on the new guys and one of the youngsters (Perry Jones III? Jeremy Lamb?) proves worthy of more time. Ditto for the Westbrook-Durant minutes-staggering Brooks will probably have to do with Harden gone as the second-unit quarterback.

The sub-category concerns Westbrook. I’ve long been a defender of his, and even last night, in a horrid 5-of-18 shooting performance, he dished a couple of assists, including one beautiful wait-out-the-defense pick-and-roll pass to Ibaka. At the beginning of last season, he simply wasn’t capable of that. Some of his ugliest misses are linked to the scoring dysfunction of that first unit and the fact that there are still a half-dozen possessions each game in which Durant does nothing but stand in the corner. Westbrook is too often asked to create something from thin air.

Still, he has to be better if the Thunder have any hope of making up for Harden’s loss. In Westbrook’s case, “better” means nailing the subtleties more than any major change to his game; he’s a massively talented player, one of the league’s 10-12 best, and for all his alleged warts, the Thunder have been a top-five offense for two years running. But when the defenses get good, Westbrook has to improve his decision-making. He’s become a very good mid-range shooter, but only on a specific type of mid-range shot — open off-the-bounce pull-ups from the foul line area, with decent balance under him. The on-the-run chucks with 20 on the shot clock in semi-transition need to stop. And flipping maybe just two or three “pass or shoot?” decisions from “shoot” to “pass” in each game would help, especially when he has a split-second window to hit Durant posting up or coming off a screen. Westbrook misses those windows too often, perhaps out of caution or a lack of faith in his entry pass skills.

It’s also unclear whether Westbrook should be posting up as often, even against smaller guards, as he has so far this season. He shot just 35 percent out of the post last season, and those inside-out diagonal passes any post-up guy has to make — if he draws attention, at least — just aren’t a part of his arsenal yet. His post-up plays have been sloppy to start this season. This may be a case of Brooks living with short-term pain for the sake of building a long-term weapon that might be ready in June.

The Thunder are still determined to be playing in June, and this season will be about making the nitty-gritty improvements needed to get there.

Filed Under: Atlanta Hawks, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, NBA, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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