We compared the spatial distribution of tibiofemoral cartilage change between individuals who will develop accelerated knee osteoarthritis (KOA) versus typical onset of KOA prior to the development of radiographic KOA. We conducted a longitudinal case–control analysis of 129 individuals from the Osteoarthritis Initiative. We assessed the percent change in tibiofemoral cartilage on magnetic resonance images at 36 informative locations from 2 to 1 year prior to the development of accelerated (n = 44) versus typical KOA (n = 40). We defined cartilage change in the accelerated and typical KOA groups at 36 informative locations based on thresholds of cartilage percent change in a no KOA group (n = 45). We described the spatial patterns of cartilage change in the accelerated KOA and typical KOA groups and performed a logistic regression to determine if diffuse cartilage change (predictor; at least half of the tibiofemoral regions demonstrating change in multiple informative locations) was associated with KOA group (outcome). There was a non‐significant trend that individuals with diffuse tibiofemoral cartilage change were 2.2 times more likely to develop accelerated knee OA when compared with individuals who develop typical knee OA (OR [95% CI] = 2.2 [0.90–5.14]. Adults with accelerated or typical KOA demonstrate heterogeneity in spatial distribution of cartilage thinning and thickening. These results provide preliminary evidence of a different spatial pattern of cartilage change between individuals who will develop accelerated versus typical KOA. These data suggest there may be different mechanisms driving the early structural disease progression between accelerated versus typical KOA. Clin. Anat. 32:369–378, 2019. © 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.