What lessons can Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau learn from the Nuggets offense?

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau and Knicks forward Julius Randle Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau and Knicks forward Julius Randle Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports /

Let’s not get it twisted: Julius Randle is not Nikola Jokic. Tom Thibodeau knows that. The entire league knows that.

However, with that giant Serbian caveat, it should be noted that since Randle joined the New York Knicks ahead of the 2019-2020 season, only five bigs have had seasons where they averaged 20+ points, 9+ rebounds, and 4+ assists while also making at least one three per game. Four of those are Giannis Antetokounmpo (three times), Joel Embiid (three times), Jokic (twice), and Karl-Anthony Towns (twice).

Randle is the fifth. He’s done it three times. More than Joker. More than KAT. The same number of times as The Greek Freak and The Process.

This is where Thibodeau comes in. Having a big with Randle’s skillset is a demonstrable rarity. Thibs must maximize it, and if he can’t or won’t, another coach will.

What new wrinkles can Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau add to the offense to maximize Julius Randle?

So while Julius Randle’s offensive weapons may not be on par with Jokic, he’s at least on the same golf course. How can Thibodeau build a Dr. Pepper offense out of Mr. Pibb?

The answer, of course, is building an offensive schematic that at least borrows some of what the Denver Nuggets employ in the Jokic and Jamal Murray two-man game. While the Nuggets’ offensive Butch and Sundance cannot be directly compared to Jalen Brunson and Randle, some similarities can be exploited.

Before diving into what the Knicks should do to make Brunson/Randle more like Murray/Jokic, some important data points demonstrate how each team uses the duos that are necessary to color the rest of the conversation. All the following information comes from the NBA’s playtype statistics.

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Let’s start by exploring differences in how Jokic and Randle get their offense. In this year’s playoffs, Jokic has gotten about 11% of his offense as the roll man, while Randle got just under two percent by rolling after setting a screen. Jokic has spotted up for almost 12% of his offense during the playoffs, while Randle got 30% of his shots that way.

Put simply: Jokic’s offense is dynamic. Randle’s is stationary. Thibodeau has to find ways to put Randle, someone who can be an absolute juggernaut when going downhill, into more motion. Two percent of his offense coming as a roll man won’t cut it, though.

This doesn’t just impact Randle. The Knicks are far more isolation-heavy than the Nuggets’ more fluid offense. Brunson and Randle combined to get 36.7% of their offense from isolation sets during the 2023 playoff run. Jokic and Murray? Just 16.1%.

How can Tom Thibodeau design a Brunson/Randle two-man game?

One wrinkle Thibodeau could add to the Knicks’ offense would be more empty corner pick-and-rolls. Load everyone but Brunson and Randle up on the weak side and set a screen in the slot or the wing, giving either of them plenty of room to attack the rim.

Another piece the Knicks could borrow from the Nuggets would be more dribble handoffs between Brunson and Randle at the top of the key. Brunson can be deadly pulling up from mid-range, but he gets far fewer opportunities than Murray. More DHOs with Randle from the top instead would help.

However it happens, Thibodeau can always afford to borrow more offensive creativity from other coaches to complement what he brings to the table as a defensive guru.