The end of the NBA regular season can often look like a game of musical chairs. Teams destined for the lottery (and even some playoff ones) often spend the final few months bringing in a host of new faces or exiled vets to kick the tires and see if they’re worth a roster spot. Most times, a these players complete their 10-contract cycles and head back to the G League or the end of another NBA roster. But sometimes, they turn into Trey Burke.
For the New York Knicks, finding Burke at the end of a season in which they're missing the playoffs has been a slightly uplifting consolation prize. In 34 games with the Knicks, Burke is set to smash career marks in nearly every advanced stat from True Shooting Percentage (Hi KD!) to VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Though it’s hardly the type of thing to turnaround a moribund Knicks franchise, it’s been fun for fans to see a once-promising former lottery pick revive his flagging career.
Yet amid all the sentiment, a deeper, less fun but equally important question emerges when players like Burke, Brandon Jennings or MarShon Brooks all resurface showcasing a drastic change in their abilities: Is this end-of-the-season cameo a harbinger of true improvement or a mirage obscuring the same flawed athlete that couldn’t keep a place in the league?
While Jennings has already seen a dip in performance and Brooks is clearly riding an insane hot streak, Burke’s change in fortune seems a bit harder to diagnose. As Zach Lowe recently pointed out, some of Burke’s shooting numbers are unsustainable and it’s unlikely that pick-and-rolls between him and Michael Beasley will continue being one of the most productive plays in the NBA. Yet despite that, there’s one reason for optimism when it comes to Burke’s renaissance: his passing.
When it comes to passing in basketball, it’s easy to think of it as a binary skill; either players don’t pass or they are assist machines like Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio or (insert player name here). But passing is a little more nuanced than that. Being a wizard with the ball is great, but sometimes just being willing to pass -- even without being particularly spectacular at it -- is just as valuable, something Burke is showing us this season.
If you scroll through Burke’s assist reel, you hardly walk away thinking the former volume scorer has transformed himself into John Stockton. Most of Burke’s passes are simple plays. The majority of the vaunted Burke-Beasley pick-and-rolls involve Beasley screening, popping into space, catching an early pass out from Burke and either shooting or making a quick, one-dribble drive to the basket. It’s like a quarterback dropping back, reading the coverage and hitting the open running back in the flat. It’s safe and wholly unimpressive, but it’s effective in keeping an offense flowing.
In fact, Burke’s point per possession numbers (PPP) on pass outs this year are barely better than they were last season while in Washington or his final campaign two years ago in Utah, per Synergy data. So for all intents and purposes, Burke hasn’t taken a tremendous leap when it comes to creating more frequent, more open looks for his teammates. He is, however, simply moving the ball more often.
According to that same Synergy data, Burke has attempted 230 passes out of pick-and-rolls this season (ones that at least have led to a shot, turnover of foul) with the Knicks. Last year with the Wizards, he attempted just 135 in six less minutes (703 in DC to 709 in NYC). Two seasons ago with the Jazz, that total was 270 but it took Burke nearly double the minutes (1,366 to be exact) in order to reach that amount.
Although the idea of a mediocre ball-mover passing more out of his most frequent action doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, the trickle down effect is quite clear. For Burke specifically, his downfall early in his career was a lack of balance in his game. Burke struggled with mid-paint finishes and became heavily reliant on long jumpers when handling in pick-and-rolls. This year in New York, and this is somewhat of an oversimplification, he’s essentially swapped those for simple passes out for teammates. It’s what’s partially behind his impressive field goal percentage improvement this season.
All those simple, unselfish passes have also improved Burke's ability to impact the offense as a whole when on the floor. Two years ago with the Jazz, their offensive rating dropped from 104.3 to 100.9 when Burke was on the floor. In Washington last season, it was a more extreme disparity (110.3 to 99.4). With the Knicks, it’s been the complete opposite as the team has posted a 110.0 offensive rating with Burke and just a 99.6 mark without him. And for the first time in his career, Burke is actually posting a positive plus/minus rating overall.
Now for Burke specifically, he’s perhaps stumbled onto a style of playing that will extend his career. Well, at least if he keeps doing it. But there are greater lessons to be learned here -- both for players in Burke’s position (his career path not actual position) and how teams around the league view them as a whole.
Though it’s gotten better in recent years, NBA teams are still hyper-obsessed with scoring. But the reality is, very few players can sell out as scorers with detriment to their careers or helping the teams that employ them win games. The reformation Burke has gone through to save his career as a former lottery pick is a perfect example of that.
The impact of a better score-pass balance in a player’s game has broader implications as well. Too often the value of passing, as mentioned above, falls on a very black/white scale. For the most part, only if a player is an extraordinary passer is it considered a valuable skill. But the truth is, if a player is just a mediocre passer but also a very willing one, it may have more value than we currently believe.
So although players like Jennings and Brooks have created second-chances without much change to their approach, Burke has shown that it doesn’t take drastic measures to turn a career around and positively impact a team. While the narrative behind Burke’s on and off the court change certainly appeals to our emotions, it’s essentially been a simple choice to be more pass-first that has saved his career. And while Burke is re-writing the next chapter of his career, NBA team’s should be reading it and taking notes.