It’s been three games since Carmelo Anthony returned to the New York Knicks lineup in the midst of Linsanity, and things haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for the All-Star small forward. He’s struggled to find his rhythm, struggled to get the shots he likes, where he likes and struggled to maintain an attacking style while trying to find his touches within the offense. He’s yet to register more points than shots since his return, and it’s plain as day to see that he’s not yet comfortable with the way the offense is being run because he’s not getting the ball where he likes to get it. It’s clear that Mike D’Antoni, the rest of the coaching staff and approximately 110% of New Yorkers would like to see Jeremy Lin handling the ball in the pick-and-roll as the primary set in New York’s offense rather than Carmelo isolating on the wing or posting up on the block, so the Knicks have to come up with more creative ways to get Anthony – still the team’s best scorer – the basketball in spots that he likes.
This is just as much up to D’Antoni and Lin as it is up to Anthony. Using Carmelo as a cutter or spot-up outlet man off a Lin-Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll is a dangerous weapon, but it often makes Carmelo into a second or even third option. The Knicks didn’t give up half their rotation last year for that type of role player. If Lin pick-and-rolls are going to be the main action the Knicks run – and that has absolutely been the case since he became the starter – you have to find a way to get Carmelo more involved in that. One way to do so is to use him as the screener in the pick-and-roll. There are a few drawbacks to this, some of which I’ll get to as we go along, but the first one is that it’s an unfamiliar role for Anthony. Prior to Lin’s emergence, Melo had just one possession used as the roll man in a pick-and-roll all season. In 31 games with the Knicks last season, he had only 16 such possessions and in the 50 games he spent with Denver he used just 21 possessions and the roll man.
However, said unfamiliarity did not stop him from being extremely successful on these plays. In his 50 games with Denver last season, Melo posted 1.29 Points Per Possession (PPP) and shot 60% from the field as the roll man in P&R’s according to mySynergySports. In New York that number dropped to 1.06 PPP, but he still shot 50% from the floor. In total, he was 18-for-32 from the field and produced 44 points on 37 possessions, good for 1.19 PPP as the roll man last season. By way of reference, Amar’e Stoudemire’s 1.13 PPP as the roll man last season ranked 35th in the NBA, placing him in the top 10% of all players.
Using Melo as the roll man was pretty much out of the question early on this year because the Knicks didn’t have a point guard and he was counted on to be the primary ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll most of the time. Now that Lin has emerged as a starter-quality point guard, it seems like a good time to revisit this. The Knicks have run a Lin-Anthony P&R three times since the latter returned from injury, and all three times it’s resulted in an easy basket.
Because of the way teams are choosing to defend Lin on pick-and-rolls – either with a hard trap or a hard show by the screener’s man – it leaves a lot of open room for pick-and-pop jumpers. Getting Carmelo a wide open mid-range jumper is about as good of a possession as you can ask for if you’re the Knicks, and that’s exactly what’s happened on two of the three Lin-Melo P&R possessions since Melo came back from injury.
Let’s start with a play against the Miami Heat on Thursday night. As you can see, this comes right after the opening tip, so it’s obviously something the Knicks knew they were going to run on their first possession. The action starts with Lin dribbling left above the three point line while Carmelo gets a cross screen from Tyson Chandler and Landry Fields runs from the strong side corner to what appears to be the weak side wing.
However, after Melo gets that cross-screen from Chandler, which would usually be used to free him up for an isolation or post-up on the opposite side, Melo actually goes and sets a screen for Lin, who has reversed his dribble back to the right. Fields has occupied a space on what is now the strong side elbow extended and Amar’e Stoudemire is in the strong side corner to keep the defense honest. Lin has a few options: he can try to split the defenders executing the trap (here Mario Chalmers and LeBron James, which makes trying to split an unwise decision), he can hit Fields on the wing for a side P&R with Chandler or Stoudemire, or he can keep his dribble and appear to be going directly into the trap, only to throw what is actually a simple pass back across his body to Carmelo, who is rolling into the wide open space created by the Heat deciding to trap Lin on the pick-and-roll. Lin chooses option C.Â (Here’s another possible problem: Lin is at times careless with the ball, and asking him to throw a pass across his body could result in a turnover. It’s a pretty clear lane, but he’s been known to be loose with his ball control. Not this time, however.)
This action enables Carmelo to catch the ball in one of his favorite spots on the floor – the deep wing. It’s a little further out than most players like to get it, but that’s Melo’s sweetspot. Look at all that room he has to work with, too. As it is he gets a wide open 18-footer because the defense can’t recover in time to contest it, but he has driving lanes both toward the baseline and the middle of the floor if he wants them too. Also, look at what you see on that side of the floor: Melo is the only one there. If the shot isn’t open right away, he basically has an isolation against an on-the-move defender, usually a death sentence for the defense. There are still 13 seconds left on the shot clock when he catches the ball with which he can go to work if he wants to.
Therein lies another danger of using Melo this way. Everyone’s heard the criticisms of him, loud and clear. He’s nothing more than a selfish, ball-hogging, ball-stopping, gunner who only looks for his own offense if you believe everything you read in the New York tabloids. The success of this particular play is predicated on Melo making a quick decision to shoot, drive or pass the ball. If he reverts to his, “catch, wait, plan, then attack” mode of offense, it simply will not work. Teams will rotate and recover and the advantage created by Lin being able to beat the trap with a quick pass dissipates.
Melo has to commit to a quick decision, whatever it is. If it’s a shot, great. As I said earlier, a wide open mid-range jumper for Carmelo is an excellent possession for the Knicks. If it’s a drive, that’s good too, because Melo is one of the best scorers in the league when he’s attacking the basket. He’s even shown more of a willingness to hit the open man on a drive-and-kick this year, and you can already see who those open men will be in the picture above. If Melo gets into the paint, you can see Dwyane Wade ready to collapse on him and leave Landry Fields wide open. And since LeBron is still recovering from trapping Lin, Joel Anthony has to leave Tyson Chandler to rotate and cover Melo’s driving lane, which means Chris Bosh has to leave Amar’e Stoudemire wide open in the corner to pick up Chandler. There are options all over the place. Here’s the full play:
The Knicks ran a similar action against the Nets in Carmelo’s first game back and got the same result, an open jumper for Carmelo. This time, Fields started off on the strong side wing and Chandler began the play on the weak side block.
Here, the Nets go with a “strong show” strategy of defending the Lin pick-and-roll. Carmelo’s defender, DeShawn Stevenson, jumps Lin as soon as he comes off the screen, while Deron Williams chases. Lin recognizes that defense and immediately swings the ball across his body to Melo for another open jumper.
Because Deron Williams was chasing after Lin, he doesn’t have enough time to recover and contest Carmelo’s jumper. He catches just off the elbow and unleashes a 15-footer for an easy basket. Again, as before, the entire left side of the court is clear for Carmelo. He can catch-and-shoot, he can put it on the deck and take it to the hoop or he can try to get into the middle of the lane and hope the defense collapses and then dump it off to a waiting Stoudemire for that same wide open corner jumper. And again, as before, the key to making the play work is a quick decision from Carmelo. He has to either shoot, drive or pass the ball right away or the advantage gained is gone.
Here’s the full play:
Now let’s look at the last play, where the defense actually does recover in time to contest Melo’s jumper. Here, the Knicks run a staggered double screen for Lin in transition, where Tyson Chandler and Carmelo are the screeners. Chandler sets the first screen and rolls to the hoop, bringing Shelden Williams with him and leaving a space on that deep wing for Melo to occupy when he pops out off the screen.
All 4 defenders here are watching Lin; Shelden Williams plays back because he knows Chandler will roll to the hoop, but his eyes are on the ball-handler. DeShawn Stevenson, guarding Carmelo, is watching Lin to make sure he doesn’t quickly turn the corner and get into the lane. He’s the guy who will show to cut off that driving lane and give Williams time to recover, just as he did on the play above. Kris Humphries is back early in transition and doesn’t even have his eyes on Amar’e Stoudemire yet since he’s not a threat to score; he’s simply watching Lin and ready to trap if he comes out too far around the screen.
Now, Williams rotates to get ready to cover Chandler’s roll. Humphries backs off because Stoudemire is getting into scoring position, so it’s up to Stevenson to show on the pick-and-roll to cut off Lin’s driving lane. He does, which leaves Melo wide open in that deep wing where he likes to catch the ball so much. The only reason Stevenson is able to recover in time and Melo doesn’t get an open catch-and-shoot jumper is because Lin bows his route out past the three point line rather than turning the corner hard and forcing Stevenson to stay longer on his show. As it is, Melo catches the ball in one of his sweet spots against an on-the-move defender and is able to easily take advantage of that to get into the middle of the lane.
Right here, Stevenson is beat, and he hasn’t even gotten to Melo yet. He’s rotating hard to try to contest that elbow extended jumper which Melo already hit on the same play earlier, and one he’s routinely hit throughout his career. Melo instead catches, plants his foot and takes off in the opposite direction toward the middle of the lane, causing the other 4 defenders to all collapse on him.
All 5 defenders have at least 1 foot in the paint. Look at all those options for Melo. Amar’e is wide open for an elbow jumper. Fields is wide open for a corner three. Chandler is wide open for a dump-off. And Melo is on his way to the hoop at full speed with defenders trying to rotate from an out-of-the-way location to stop his drive. He dish or he can try to go up for a lay-up, which will likely result in either a basket or a foul.
Again, as before, the success of this action is predicated on Carmelo making a quick decision, which he does. It’s been hard for Carmelo to stay in attack mode since his return from injury because there was so much hand-wringing over the number of shots he’d take when compared to Jeremy Lin.
I’d argue that the sheer number of shots Carmelo attempts isn’t really what matters; it’s the quality of those looks that’s important. At the beginning of the season and prior to Lin’s emergence, Anthony often had to take bad shots because he was the only one capable of creating them. Baseline fade-aways, pull-up three pointers in the pick-and-roll and forced layups and floaters on the drive are things we saw from him on a nightly basis.
With the attention that Lin is getting, he doesn’t have to force bad looks anymore. He can get plenty of the shots he likes within the offense if he’d let Lin, Landry Fields, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis or J.R. Smith creates those looks for him rather than thinking he always has to go it alone. This is just one way for that to happen. However, there is one final drawback of using Melo as the screener in P&Rs: any Lin-Melo pick-and-roll is, by extension, NOT a Lin-Chandler pick-and-roll, a play which has quickly become the Knicks’ best. Chandler has been one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the league this season (his 1.26 PPP as the roll man ranks 8th in the NBA), and taking opportunities away from him may not be the wisest decision. Luckily, this isn’t the only way for the Knicks to get Melo and the ball in a spot on the court that he’s comfortable operating from.
Baseline cuts, entry passes into the post off of drive-and-kicks, side pick-and-rolls off kickouts when he acts as the outlet man on Lin-Chandler pick-and-rolls; all of these actions can be used to get Melo in situations that are much more advantageous to those that he was encountering prior to Lin’s emergence as a threat. He should have more room to operate and get to the spots on the floor that he likes with the defense paying so much attention to Lin as the ball-handler. Think about how many post-up and isolation opportunities Kobe Bryant got in the triangle offense, another system predicated on both ball movement and player movement. Melo can get the same types of looks by playing within the offense but still staying aggressive. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, but if Carmelo can just let the game come to him and still be aggressive in picking his spots, he’ll be able to take advantage of the Knicks’ new reality.