The breakout success of Jeremy Lin conspicuously coincided with Carmelo Anthony sitting on the bench. While Anthony was nursing a groin injury, Lin stepped in to run Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced pick-and-roll offense. Through all the Linsanity hyperbole, commentators wondered how Anthony — notorious for preferring isolation plays that slow down the ball and the game — would fit in. Since his return, the Knicks have tried a few offensive strategies centered on Anthony — some successful, some not. But if they are going to win with Lin at the point, they need to hone in on the effective ones.
What Hasn't Worked
Catch and Shoot: six possessions, three points (0.500 PPP) on 1-6 shooting
When Lin stepped up, Knicks fans were excited about the possibility of him creating catch-and-shoot opportunities for Anthony. He could spot up outside of a pick-and-roll, instead of always creating his own shot. But Carmelo simply hasn't shot the ball well this season. He is the rare shooter who is more effective after holding the basketball for a few seconds.
Before his injury, Anthony was shooting just 21.9 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot possessions, according to Synergy Sports. Since returning from injury last month, he has actually been worse, shooting 16.7 percent and dropping his season shooting percentage when wide open to 17.8 percent. Anthony simply doesn't look comfortable in these situations:
In the open catch-and-shoot, most shooters square up toward the basket before the ball even comes to them. They have their hands and feet ready, with their knees bent so they can catch the basketball and go straight into the shot. Anthony, however, stands straight up, without his feet set, as the ball arrives. Once he makes the catch, he rushes the shot, which is apparent in his footwork. Most successful shooters rise up and land in the same spot, but Anthony either keeps advancing or immediately backpedals.
Isolation: 21 total possessions, 12 points (0.571 PPP) on 4-15 shooting with one assist and three turnovers
Knicks fans were primarily concerned about Carmelo halting the offense with his frequent isolation plays. And they got just what they were expecting here. Anthony has struggled since his return, not only in finding situations in which he can isolate, but also converting on the plays when the opportunity does arise:
One of the problems for Anthony is that his isolations are almost anathema to the offense Lin is running. With Lin at the point, working off ball screens, the basketball zips around very quickly. Even when Lin isn't making an assist, he passes the ball to an open teammate, who in turn makes a quick pass to another open teammate, who then gets a good look. When Anthony makes the catch on the wing and holds it, everyone on the court knows what happens next: it's going to be an isolation. The defense loads up against him because they know Anthony will try to create all on his own. That's what the Miami Heat did against him, and that's what most good defenses will do.
What Has Worked
Using Ball Screens: six total possessions, four points (0.667 PPP) on no shots with two assists and zero turnovers
I had feared that the Knicks coaching staff wouldn't make any adjustments for Anthony. Though he still struggles to find his shots, the Knicks have made a few nice moves to help him. They've begun using Anthony as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. This works because they're still putting the basketball in Anthony's hands and allowing him to create off the dribble — similar to an isolation — yet the defense has to worry about more than just loading up against Anthony:
Now the defense has to worry about Anthony getting to the rim (even when he is struggling, he's still a respected scorer in this league) plus a screener rolling to the basket. Since the defense will double-team Carmelo, he can make an easy pass to an open teammate. The results have not been great so far, but Anthony is a strong passer who can exploit these situations. More importantly, these plays work well with D'Antoni's offense and ultimately create open shots for the other players.
Post-ups: 14 total possessions, 16 points (1.143 PPP) on 3-8 shooting with three assists and one turnover
Even though the isolation plays on the wing are generally unsuccessful, Anthony is still very talented at creating his own shot. The best replacement for the isolations is having Anthony post up his man by the basket. The two plays are very similar, but when Anthony posts up, he starts the play much closer to the rim, posing a bigger threat. The Knicks run plays to get the ball to Carmelo on the block, thus cohering with their offense, opposed to stalling it. The best thing about these plays is that Anthony is just so damn good at them. From that position, he can do a number of different things based on how skilled he is at using his body. He has very good footwork in the post, and, while he may hold the ball up in isolation, he's a deft passer in pick-and-roll situations, as well as in the post:
Lin is actually a great complement to Anthony when he posts up, because Anthony uses his body to create the passing lanes that Lin needs. And since Anthony is a threat with the ball in his hands, defenses sink in on him, which creates open shots for other players like Steve Novak, J.R. Smith, or even Jeremy Lin — all of whom can knock down open shots.
Finally, when Anthony faces up and essentially turns his post-up into an isolation, he begins 10-15 feet away from the basket, opposed to outside the 3-point line. He has the option to shoot after holding the basketball for a little while — which he is very good at — or if he chooses to drive, it's harder for the defense to close in on him.
The Knicks coaching staff didn't use Anthony in the post before the Jeremy Lin era, but they have quickly learned that this strategy would be essential to their success. In the last game against Cleveland, Anthony posted up seven times. That is a clear indication that we can expect to see more of it on Sunday when the Knicks face the Boston Celtics, and for the rest of the season.