It has been a long time.
The last time the New York Knicks had a league-average offense or better was in 2013-14, when Raymond Felton was their starting point guard. He hasn’t really been close since, scoring 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 — to rank in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency in each of the last four years.
A year ago, the Knicks tried to upgrade their offense by adding two guards – Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker – in free agency. It didn’t work, and the team took a step back offensively while seeing a bigger decline defensively. After finishing fourth in the East in 2020-21, the Knicks finished six games out of the Play-In Tournament.
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 Fournier is still around, but Walker has been replaced by 26-year-old Jalen Brunson, one of the most efficient pick-and-roll scorers in the league.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 past two seasons, Brunson has averaged 1.07 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler. That mark ranks third among 113 players with at least 250 ball-handling possessions over the past two seasons, according to Synergy game-type tracking.
Most Points Per Possession, Pick and Roll Possession by Ball Handler, Last 2 Seasons
Minimum 250 possessions (113 players)
through Synergy monitoring
The other players in this top five are top superstars. Branson is right up there with them, and there’s actually room for improvement.
Note that Brunson’s field goal percentage on pick-and-roll possessions is higher (by a pretty healthy margin) than the other four players in the top five. He is also the highest of the 113 players with at least 250 ballhandler possessions over the past two years. While the other four players in that five had higher free-throw and 3-point percentages, Brunson’s success off the dribble came mostly on 2-point shooting.
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 total pulls. His 48.5% on 2-point pull-ups 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 little pull-up. In each of the last three seasons, he was the only player to shoot 52 percent or better on at least 400 2-point field goal attempts. And Brunson can sometimes look like a lefty CP3, wandering a bar to get to a space where he can get his shot…
But (at this point in their careers) Branson is better at driving to the basket than Paul is…
And it has moves if it stops before it gets there…
If Brunson can draw more fouls and convert some of those 2s into 3s, he can be even more effective. 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 3 pull-ups, 20th among 29 players with at least 20 attempts.
He doesn’t seem uncomfortable shooting pull-up 3s…
But the results are not there yet.
Even with some improvement from beyond the arc, Brunson will have to prove he can remain just as effective off the dribble at a higher volume. Playing with Luka Doncic, he averaged just 4.4 possessions per game over the past two seasons. His possession of 5.0 ball handlers per game last season ranked just 42nd among players who played at least 35 games.
With Doncic out, Brunson averaged 32 points through the first three games of the Mavs’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz. And in doing so, he scored 41 points on 30 pick-and-roll possessions (1.37 per), according to Synergy.
We’ll see if it gets as much use in New York. Overall, Brunson was less efficient when he was on the floor without Doncic (56.4% true shooting percentage, counting the regular season and playoffs) than when he was on the floor together (59.2%).
If Brunson takes away some ball-handling possessions from RJ Barrett, that would probably be good for the Knicks overall. Barrett will need to improve, but his 0.77 points per ballhandler possession over the past two seasons ranks 105th among those 113 players with at least 250 possessions (just below former Knick Elfrid Payton). And he actually averages more ball-handler possessions per game (5.5) than Brunson (4.4).
2. A safe distributor
Over the past three seasons, Brunson has averaged 5.5 assists per 36 minutes, which ranks 59th among 337 players who have played at least 2,000 minutes over those three years. He doesn’t thread a lot of needles or do a lot of highlight reels with his passes. And his lack of size (he’s 6-foot-1) can be detrimental when it comes to getting the ball to an open teammate on the other side of the floor.
However, he does not make many dangerous passes. With that, Brunson had the fifth-highest assist-to-turnover ratio (3.04) among the 109 players with a usage rate of 20% or higher last season.
Most of his assists come from simple passes, but his ability to turn the corner can create advantages and he is quick to recognize the open player…
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 moving if a teammate has more space to shoot than him…
Brunson ranked 18th in the league with 13.6 steals per game, more than anyone on the Knicks (Barrett led the team with 12.8). He passed on 41.7% of his drives, a percentage above the league average (39.2%).
Only the Jazz (60%) made a lower percentage of their 3-point attempts than the Knicks (63%) last season. So, his new team can definitely use Brunson’s ability to generate some extra big plays. Among 98 players with at least 75 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts and 75 3-point pull-up attempts, Barrett had the 11th largest difference between catch-and-shoot accuracy (36.8%) and pull-up accuracy -up (25.3%). That last mark was the third-worst among 105 total players with at least 75 3-point attempts.
3. Off the ball
As mentioned above, Brunson was better, but still below league average in three-pointers, connecting on just 31.3% of his own. But he shot 69-for-172 (40.1%) on catch-and-shoot 3s. And he was the only player to shoot 50 percent or better (he was 38-for-76) in at least 75 corner 3-point attempts last season.
Julius Randle may have to cede control of the offense with the addition of Brunson. But Randle’s presence allows Brunson to play slightly off the ball, a situation he should be comfortable in, 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 3-point assists over the last two seasons than him (474).
If Brunson and Randle can make each other better, and if Barrett (still only 22) shows improvement in terms of efficiency and consistency, the Knicks might have something in the realm of an average offense in this league. the 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 too 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 like the short man on the weak side…
But he doesn’t make too many mistakes and generally doesn’t give up plays when he’s featured. He also grades OK as an isolation defender, with opponents scoring just 0.90 points per chance when isolating against him over the past two years. That mark ranks 42nd among 176 players with at least 200 shutouts over those two seasons, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
When engaged, Branson can move his legs, stay in front of his man and land powerful shots…
Brunson will be joining a starting lineup that hasn’t been very good defensively anyway. The Knicks’ two most-used lineups — Fournier, Barrett, Randle and Mitchell Robinson with 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 teams that played at least 200 minutes.
Brunson should bolster this starting group overall. But his new teammates (especially Randle) must also recover from a disappointing 2021-22 season. With the Knicks’ other offseason target now in Cleveland instead of New York, improvement from within is even more critical.
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John Schuhmann is a senior statistician for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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