Why the 2023 Knicks Will Thrive or Falter Based on Three-Point Shooting


   When you think of the Tom Thibodeau Knicks, a few basketball elements might come to mind. Historically, it's been about their staunch, unyielding defense, their commitment to crashing the boards as a team, or perhaps the demanding minutes load and work ethic expected from players.

However, in a surprising turn, "three-point shooting" has become a notable aspect under Thibodeau's leadership in his four seasons with the team. This is quite a revelation considering Thibodeau's reputation for being ultra-traditional in his coaching approach.

In Thibodeau's first season, the Knicks ranked 22nd offensively, with only 34.8 percent of their shot attempts coming from beyond the arc, placing them 24th in the league. Moving into the second year, there was a noticeable shift as three-point shooting became a focal point. The team took 42.9 percent of their field goal attempts from three, elevating them to 7th in the NBA.

However, despite the increased emphasis on three-pointers, the Knicks faced challenges. Julius Randle and RJ Barrett experienced regressions in their jump shots, and the absence of a preferred floor general added to the struggles.

Even in the following year, the Knicks encountered difficulties in knocking down threes, although they maintained a higher volume of attempts. This season, there seems to be a breakthrough as they've found a balance, ranking 11th in the percentage of field goals coming from three and an impressive 7th in three-point accuracy. This has translated into a near-top-ten offense for the team.

What’s changed for the Knicks?

The catalyst for the Knicks' three-point success this season begins with Jalen Brunson. The team's point guard has transformed into a more potent three-point shooter, currently hitting an impressive 47.4 percent of his attempts – a notable leap from his 41.6 percent last year and a career 39.6 percent average. While maintaining this rate might be challenging, even staying above 40 percent would be invaluable for the team due to the diverse looks Brunson has added to his game.

Brunson has become more aggressive with his pull-up shooting, punishing defenders who play too far back in isolations and drop coverage in the pick-and-roll. He's now comfortable taking threes from a few steps behind the arc, including deep top-of-key pull-ups in one-on-one situations, often against bigger opponents. His catch-and-shoot three-point percentage is an impressive 51.9 percent, catching the attention of teammates like Randle, who actively looks for Brunson when he draws attention down low.

In 2023, a quarter of Brunson's field goal attempts came from three, a number that has increased to 37 percent this year. This dedicated effort to increase his three-point attempts has paid off, thanks to Brunson's deadly touch.

Although Randle faced challenges with his deep ball at the beginning of the season, he's committed to taking more threes over long twos, shooting at a 31 percent clip in his last 13 games. Barrett, despite a recent slump following migraines, maintains a solid 38.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc this season.

Immanuel Quickley brought a dynamic approach from three, attempting tougher pull-ups off the pick-and-roll and other actions. While he's shooting 36.8 percent overall this year, he's above 40 percent off the dribble, indicating potential improvement in spot-up shooting.

Newcomer Donte DiVincenzo has lived up to his shooter reputation, hitting an impressive 43.4 percent on 5.2 attempts per night. His confidence from anywhere around the arc has been crucial to the Knicks' deep attack.

While these individual developments contribute to the Knicks' winning identity, there's a concern about their reliance on three-point shooting, which makes them vulnerable to slumps. Three-pointers are the most variable shot in the game, leading to both good nights and rough stretches.

This variability is reflected in the numbers, where the Knicks are 12-3 when shooting above 35 percent from deep but 0-4 otherwise. Similarly, they hold an 8-4 record when attempting over 35 threes and 4-3 when below that mark.

To address this dependence, the Knicks need to find ways to win games when their three-pointers aren't falling. Active playmakers are present, but they are not considered among the NBA's elite. Finding open looks, especially off the offensive glass or in semi-transition, can help improve their overall shooting numbers. In moments when threes aren't connecting, a strategic focus on easy buckets at the free-throw line or rim can be beneficial.