Since Mike Miller took over as interim head coach for the New York Knicks, the team has responded by going 7-12. Those numbers don’t set the world on fire, but they are a massive improvement from the 4-19 start under David Fizdale. Specifically, Miller has sparked their offensive performance: Over the last two weeks, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are 20th across the league in points per 100 possessions.
Again, that sounds pretty bad until you remember where they were prior.
The question surrounding any coaching change would be, “what did he add to improve the team?” For Miller, a more appropriate question might be, “what has he subtracted?”
Watch the Knicks play and one thing is evident: Their playbook is much, much thinner with Miller. Instead of running a lot of different actions, he is taking a patient, teaching-based approach with this young roster. The Knicks will only run a few things, but they will be good at them. They won’t change much based on an opponent unless it’s within the structure of what they already do.
Miller’s aim seems to be finding something simple, universal and meaningful to what an NBA team would need to be successful in the future.
For those likely reasons, Miller has relied heavily on the Pistol offense to spark the Knicks’ attack. Nearly every NBA team runs some form of the offense, so it’s highly transferrable to NBA success while placing New York’s veterans in a familiar spot. Those vets, like Taj Gibson or Marcus Morris, can teach young players from their past experiences and help the offense catch sooner. Pistol is run best with multiple handlers, (which the Knicks have when RJ Barrett is on the floor), has exquisite spacing on the weak-side and can maximize the impact of a rolling big like Mitchell Robinson.
Essentially, Pistol offense starts with a ball-handler pushing tempo, a wing stopped ahead of him about top-of-the-key extended, and the big man (traditionally known as center) running to the top of the key. Some form of a give-and-go, fake handoff or exchanging of spots happens between the guard and the wing, with the big setting a ball screen for whoever ends up with the ball. The most traditional action is the give-and-go, also known as a Pitch Action:
Another option on the wing hit-ahead is to fake the give-and-go. That’s known as “Keep” and can lead to open shots when defenders are wary of the pitch.
Because the pitch (or fake-pitch) takes place with the offensive player’s back to the basket, some players on defense can lose track of the ball. It’s a quick action:
As a counter, the Knicks can turn this dribble exchange into a double ball screen. On the pitch and fake-pitch, the guard who initiated the play hits ahead and cuts on the outside of the play looking for the give-and-go. He can also cut underneath the ball, serving as a screen.
Combine that with the big and it turns into a double ball screen, an especially difficult action to navigate at speed:
The third major action for the strong-side is known as “Dribble”. That’s when the two guards will dribble-exchange on the wing and reach the same spots on the floor. This is what Miller’s Knicks get the most mileage out of.
When the guards exchange, it acts as a strange action but also can serve as a flare screen while the big cuts to set the ball screen. It’s a unique cut-to-cut-away movement that acts like a pulley around the basketball.
As a way of initiating offense, just the variation is a doozy to prepare for.
The Knicks can score in various ways out of Pistol: The ball screen for the guard, the flare for the other wing, or hitting the big off the roll. The roll is an especially important part of Mitchell Robinson’s offensive repertoire, especially considering the spacing that Pistol provides. The rim is always open for a rim attack or a roll. When the defense starts to sag and close off the lane, kickouts for 3-pointers are available:
Basketball is a five-man game, and this is only 3-on-3 with the strong-side of the Pistol.
The other two players’ roles are dependent on their skills. If both are more guard-oriented and strong 3-point shooters, both will stand on the weak-side and prepare for a catch-and-shoot. If one is a bigger forward who requires being close to the rim, he can set a down screen to occupy the backside of the defense.
When those players are simple in their roles and are ready to catch and shoot, they can be deadly. They’re also live as cutters when the entire defense focuses its energy on the strong-side. The Knicks have already gotten both options plenty of times:
NBA coaches are not dumb. If everyone guards the Pistol, there are plenty of ways to disrupt the set and jam the strong-side. But that’s easy to spot, as it sucks the defense out of the middle and towards the sideline.
When that happens, or when the guards simply don’t want to (or cannot) hit ahead, the action turns into a simple spread ball screen:
The Knicks need some simple in their lives. Ownership, the market around them and a constantly unreasonable expectation for performance can strip a young team of joy and create unnecessary pressures.
Young squads certainly must acclimate to the NBA and learn how to win, but part of what makes them young should also be embraced. Watch how the Memphis Grizzlies play and you’ll see a young, spirited group with clearly delineated roles and a simple, unified task. In some ways, the Pistol-oriented Knicks are meant to mimic Memphis.
Pistol is versatile, it’s proven successful and it generates easy ball screen reads. That’s the ‘what’ they’re running. We also should be more concerned with the ‘why’, and that much is clear: Under Miller, the Knicks aren’t ready to go onto the 200 level of the major. So until they are, they’ll continue to hammer home what they do at the 100-level until they graduate.
These Knicks can improve one step at a time. Just like their offense.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of January 12, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.