This article was an annual tradition hosted by Basketball Insiders penned by veteran Joel Brigham. Then our own Drew Maresca took the reins. This year, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Matt John. Fasten your seatbelts.
Now before I begin, I have two things to get off my chest. First, props to both Joel and Drew for writing these up because this is pretty darn difficult to do. When you’re trying to find the right balance between making a truly unique prediction and just spewing out nonsense to get the masses’ attention, it requires a lot of deep thought. Even if you’re trying to come off like Zach Lowe, you may come off like you’re doing your best impression of Skip Bayless.
Second, oh my goodness, this league is so freaking loaded! Most teams are so stockpiled with talent that even with Stephen Curry back and fully healthy, there is a solid chance Golden State doesn’t make the playoffs again. Think about that. Of course, Klay Thompson’s awful Achilles’ tear has something to do with that, but the Warriors still have a solid team around him and it might not matter.
And yes, that’s just the Western Conference being the Western Conference, but the East has a large pool of fantastic teams as well. So much so that Brooklyn could have a good enough offense to put them above the rest of the conference while also having a defense potentially so flawed that they could fall all the way down to the fifth seed at worst. Not because they would be that bad – but because their competition will be very unforgiving.
Anyway, enough dribble – no pun intended – let’s start this baby off! And what better way to start this off than with the award predictions?
1. I’m going to pick the bold-but-not-really choice with Luka Doncic as MVP. Admittingly, picking Luka to win is not really much of a hot take these days. He’s clearly one of the future faces of the league, while the NBA voting committee always loves MVP newcomers. With Dallas way ahead of schedule and Doncic leading the way, I fully anticipate this is going to be the first of multiple MVP winning campaigns for the boy wonder.
2. Jayson Tatum will lead the league in scoring. Over the course of the 2019-20 season, Tatum established himself as arguably the league’s best young scorer. Now, with Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker’s knee being a major question mark, there should be even more scoring opportunities for Tatum. Expect Boston’s offense to take a noticeable step back this season, but Tatum’s scoring numbers should definitely make up for what they lost.
3. As crushed as Giannis Antetokounmpo will be to not three-peat as MVP, he will reign again as Defensive Player of the Year. Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Bam Adebayo will fight tooth and nail to get the honor, but Giannis’ build and IQ still make him the NBA’s golden goose on the defensive side.
4. The now financially-prosperous OG Anunoby rewards Toronto’s faith in him by winning the Most Improved Player award. His continued growth as a scorer and vaunted defense plays a huge role in keeping Raptors in the thick of the playoff race. The real shocker though is that the runner-up will be Marvin Bagley III now that he’s fully healthy again.
5. This is going to be the most intense race ever for Comeback Player of the Year with guys like Curry, Kevin Durant and John Wall, among others, gunning for it. Although others will have better performances than him, Wall gets the award. His season will go down as the most impressive seeing how he’s coming off of two consecutive serious injuries and hasn’t played in two years.
6. James Harden won’t make First-Team all-NBA. It sounds ridiculous, but star players do see their All-NBA chances drop when they get traded during the season. Look up Jimmy Butler, 2019. By the way, Harden’s competition is going to be as fierce as ever. Doncic, Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will all out-shine Harden no matter where he goes.
7. Joining Harden on the All-NBA second team will be Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic. The third team will consist of Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
As a bonus, let’s go with Devin Booker, Trae Young, Bam Adebayo, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell among the biggest snubs. Kyrie Irving would be too but I just don’t trust his ability to stay on the floor. Is it too much to ask for a fourth All-NBA team?
8. Caris LeVert wins Sixth Man of the Year. It’s hard to envision LeVert putting up the same numbers he did in the bubble with Irving and Durant in the picture – but if he’s running the second unit’s offense, then he should kill it in that role. I would have put Danilo Gallinari on here, but I just don’t think he’s going to be Atlanta’s sixth man for that long.
9. Gordon Hayward makes it back to the All-Star game. As overpaid as he is, Hayward was the biggest name in free agency to change sides. Hayward’s diminished role in Boston made him underrated as an overqualified fourth option wasn’t good for his production. In Charlotte, he will see the ball a lot more – which should lead to a closer resemblance to Utah Hayward. That is, as long as his continued streak of freak injuries finally stops.
10. For maneuvering Philadelphia back on track, Daryl Morey will win Executive of the Year.
11. Morey’s case will be based on the improved cohesion with the team as a whole. That will be sparked by Ben Simmons, who will lead the league in assists.
Rookie of the Year Predictions
12. This will be the first Rookie of the Year race to not really have a clear frontrunner since 2016. This draft was supposedly filled with less overall superstar talent but more talents that can be vital rotation players on playoff teams.
13. I’m going to go with the surprise lottery pick this year, Patrick Williams. LaMelo Ball will make more highlight reels and has the highest upside, but Williams looks very NBA-ready on a team that will need him right away.
14. Tyrese Haliburton will get the nod over Anthony Edwards for NBA All-Rookie First-Team. That’s not a knock on Edwards. He’s got a good future ahead of him. Haliburton just looks like he has a better feel for the game right now.
15. The James Harden saga is going to drag on and on through this season. Houston has all the leverage in this situation because of what remains of his contract and the Antetokounmpo situation shockingly resolved. He will be traded mid-season but only after we all get a feel of the NBA landscape in 2021.
16. Who wins the Harden sweepstakes? Golden State. They have the assets. They have the contracts. They know Curry isn’t going to play forever. They know the Western Conference will be a free-for-all. They give up the farm for Harden – and they don’t think twice.
17. Oklahoma City will trade Al Horford without sacrificing any assets. Horford will look more like the player in OKC that he was originally paid to be in Philly as the full-time center. They won’t redeem his value as they did with Chris Paul, but they will get rid of him the first chance they get.
18. Boston will use their massive trade exception before the trade deadline. Hayward’s departure and Walker’s balky knee kills their playmaking in spite of bigger strides from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. At the deadline, they’ll trade for a player in the hopes of specifically aiding that department.
19. Atlanta will trade John Collins, a move which they both will come to realize is best for all parties.
20. Cleveland will not trade Kevin Love, even though they also know it would be best for all parties if they did.
21. Rumors about the Bulls will be splitting up that Lauri Markkanen/Wendell Carter frontcourt pairing – but the encouraging progress from both of them along with the chances of another high lottery pick will convince them to give the pair one more chance.
22. Boston, Miami, Denver and the L.A. Lakers will all start the year sluggishly. Not because of anything they did wrong this offseason, but for the mere fact that their previous seasons all ended just two months ago! I expect them not to burst right out the gate though I also expect them to still be among their conference’s elite.
23. For that same reason, teams like Philadelphia, Dallas, Portland and Utah will be off to the best starts because they had an appropriately-sized time off between the end of their last season and the beginning of this one.
24. The Detroit Pistons and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the worst teams record-wise in their respective conferences.
25. Minnesota and Charlotte will be the teams that most fans will think of when they hear not-good-but-fun.
26. Dallas will get the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference – and for more reasons than just Luka Doncic. Josh Richardson was exactly what the doctor ordered, ideally, Kristaps Porzingis will have a healthier season. With them in play, Dallas will be right at the top.
27. Milwaukee will get the No. 1 seed for the third consecutive year because it’s their postseason efforts in question – not their past regular season results.
28. Brooklyn’s going to struggle at first because while their offense will be top-3 in the league, their defense will be bottom-10 to start. But with the solid assets they have, they’ll trade them for defensive personnel as the season goes on, pushing them to the No. 2 seed.
29. Joining Milwaukee and Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference will be Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana in that order.
30. Joining Dallas and the Lakers in the Western Conference will be the Clippers, Denver, Portland, Utah and Golden State in that order.
31. Note that in both conferences, the previous two predictions total out to only seven teams each. I did that because we are in for some very fascinating play-in tournaments. In the East, we’ll get Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington duking it out for No. 8.
In the West, we’ll get Phoenix, New Orleans and Sacramento doing the same. Washington will snag that last spot in the East, while Phoenix gets the last spot in the West.
32. Even though things are going to look so much better than they did last year, both Philadelphia and Utah suffer yet another first-round exit. Although, no matter who they face, both of them will be the one team everyone in their conference will want to avoid in the playoffs for there will be a grueling seven-game series.
33. We are going to get the much-discussed Lakers-Warriors playoff matchup in the first round and it’s going to be one for the ages. Harden and Curry push the defending champs to the brink, but the Lakers prevail in Game 7.
34. Plus, the much-hyped Lakers-Clippers series not only happens in the second round, but the Lakers take it in five.
35. As hot as the Mavericks will look, the Nuggets will overtake them in an intense second round matchup, which will only serve as further proof that this is just another stepping stone for Dallas.
36. The Bucks will do much better than that abomination they put up in the bubble, but that’ll be because the playoff matchups will favor them more by avoiding Miami.
37. And they won’t have to play Miami when they make it back to the conference finals, as Brooklyn will be their opponent. However, the Nets will barely pull away in a tight seven-game series against the Bucks.
38. When L.A. faces off against Brooklyn, the Nets will do better than when those two faced off back in 2002, but the Lakers will repeat as champs as they take the series in five games.
39. Jamal Murray will prove his bubble dominance was not a fluke as he continues to shock audiences with his electrifying 25+ point performances that will spark not an all-star appearance, but all-NBA.
40. T.J. Warren sadly won’t do the same, but he will continue to prove that he’s one of the best bargain contracts in the NBA.
41. Joel Embiid will be only one of two players in the NBA to average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds. The other will not be Anthony Davis, but it will be a Nikola – Vucevic, that is.
42. Blake Griffin will barely play half the season in Detroit in spite of the numbers he’ll put up while he’s on the floor.
43. Even though Utah will look better than last year, the hot seat buzz will start kicking for Quin Snyder. He’s done a great job with the Jazz, but if Utah fails to get past the first round for the third straight year, it’s hard to see how Snyder avoids the lion’s share of the blame.
44. Drew predicted this the last two years, so I guess it’s going to be a tradition until further notice: Scott Brooks will lose his job. Not at any point during the regular season but after the Wizards get swept by the Bucks in the playoffs. He’s had the excuse of John Wall’s persistent injuries. Not anymore.
45. It’s for that same reason above that Steve Clifford avoids the boot. It’s true that Orlando will miss the playoffs but they’ll attribute that toward Jonathan Isaac blowing out his knee more than anything else. Management will give Clifford the benefit of the doubt. The question is for how long?
46. Atlanta will lead the league in starting lineup changes. Their roster is one big puzzle made up entirely of blue sky that will need the whole season to be put together. The only two players I expect to be mainstays in the starting lineup are Trae Young and Clint Capela, if healthy. That’s it.
47. We’re going to see teams ease up on the three-point shooting. They’ll still come at a high volume, but we saw the Lakers in the bottom-10 in both attempts and percentage from three-point land, and look where they are now. Milwaukee’s lived and died by the three for the last two years and they’ve only achieved regular-season success.
48. We won’t have any new All-Stars this year, barring injury.
49. COVID-19 is definitely going to leave its mark on this season and beyond. Both on the personnel and revenue. It’s happened to the other sports, but there’s no way anyone wanted another bubble.
50. Finally, for the first time possibly ever, San Antonio will intentionally tank their season based on inferior talent versus losing their star player to injury as they did in 1997. You’d have to go back to the days of President Reagan to think of the last time the Spurs were intentionally bad, but that’s the state they are in. If there was an NBA equivalent to 2020, it would be the Spurs waving the white flag after all these years.
And basketball is back! Let me know how I did or what you’re rooting for on Twitter, we’d be happy to hear how wrong these will all be.
NBA Daily: Are the 76ers a Legit Contender?
Do the Philadelphia 76ers have the roster necessary to compete for a title? Basketball Insiders’ Quinn Davis goes in-depth on one of the league’s most polarizing teams.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are no strangers to a spirited discussion at their expense. In each of the last three seasons, fans and pundits alike have wrangled over their potential as a championship-winning duo. Different sects have formed, sometimes resembling political parties in their rigid viewpoints.
The arguments branch off into granular takes on things like the viability of an offensive engine that can’t run a pick-and-roll, but they center around a simple question — can Embiid and Simmons be the two best players on a championship team?
Since their partnership came to be, the Philadelphia 76ers have been a playoff lock, but they have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their 2018-19 iteration was one Kawhi Leonard shot away from the third round (and potentially more), but that team featured Jimmy Butler who handled much of the team’s offensive burden.
Their fourth season together may bring the most clarity on that all-important question. General Manager Daryl Morey used the short offseason to reconfigure the roster, finding shooters and drafting a ball-handler to maximize the duo’s strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. And the early returns have been promising; the team is off to a solid 9-5 start, with two of those losses coming with half of the roster out due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. In fact, the team is undefeated when all five of the usual starters are active, albeit against a weak schedule.
Still, many question whether the current roster can compete when defenses tighten in the postseason. The obvious comparison is the 2017-18 version of the 76ers when Simmons and Embiid were surrounded solely by shooters like JJ Redick, Marco Bellinelli and Robert Covington. That team went on a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season but faltered in the second round of playoffs, as the lack of ball-handling outside of Simmons led to the team’s demise.
A few of those doubters might even exist within Philadelphia’s front office. The team was reportedly very close to sending Simmons and other assets to the Houston Rockets for James Harden. The aggressiveness pursuing the star guard would seem to confirm the reservations about the team’s current duo.
But, with Harden now playing for a fellow Eastern Conference contender, those reservations no longer matter. And the road to a title is now just a bit harder.
All of this leads to the important question: is Philadelphia, as currently constructed, a true title contender? With the evidence we have available — or lack thereof — the answer would have to be no. There is just too much uncertainty to place the 76ers into the inner circle alongside the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers.
That said, this team can join that group. And some early-season trends foster hope for a leap to true contention.
The success of the starting lineup has come largely on the back of Embiid’s dominance this season. The big man’s efficiency is way up — so far, he’s shot at a career-high mark from every area of the court. His 39 percent three-point shooting in particular has been a major addition to his all-around game.
Outside of the hot shooting, Embiid looks fit and motivated as well. He’s taken on a huge role offensively while still managing to anchor one of the NBA’s top defenses. Philadelphia has crushed teams when he’s on the court — and nearly collapses whenever he rests.
Embiid has also significantly improved his passing. While his assist numbers are mostly stagnant, it is clear on tape that Embiid has lost little sweat over a constant stream of double teams. Meanwhile, the shooting around him has given Embiid space inside and the confidence that a pass out will not only reach it’s intended target, but could lead to the best possible outcome for the team.
It’s still early, so whether he can keep it up remains to be seen. That said, if the 76ers are now led by an MVP candidate rather than another run-of-the-mill All-Star, it would bode well for this group to advance further than ever before.
Similarly encouraging has been the play of Shake Milton. Milton has provided a huge boost off the bench, scoring 17 points per game on 62 percent true shooting.
If Milton is truly a sixth man of the year candidate — and, right now, he is — it could solve one of Phialdelphia’s biggest question marks; the lack of a secondary creator around Embiid. The team is currently posting a robust 1.17 points per possession when Milton handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, per NBA.com. That number falls in the 90th percentile league-wide.
While many had hoped that Simmons would evolve into a player who could create offense in crunch-time situations, his game has yet to allow for that dimension. That isn’t to say that the 76ers would be better off trading Simmons for the first decent guard they can find, though; Simmons is still extremely valuable and someone who can drive winning basketball even if it’s in unconventional ways.
The best role for Simmons is that of a supercharged Draymond Green. In the half-court he would mostly be tasked with setting screens and cutting rather than serving as on offensive initiator, ceding that duty to Milton or perhaps the hot-shot rookie, Tyrese Maxey. It would avoid Simmons’ biggest weaknesses, but it would still allow him to leave his mark on the game by dominating on the defensive end, rampaging down the court in transition and zipping passes to open shooters.
In fact, having Simmons initiate less of the offense has already paid dividends. When Milton has played with the starters in the place of Danny Green, Philadelphia has outscored opponents by 60 points per 100 possessions, posting on an offensive rating of 143.1, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are clearly unsustainable — that lineup has played just 65 possessions together — but it’s a sign that having a pick-and-roll creator alongside Simmons and Embiid may work wonders for an offense that could struggle against a set defense, particularly in the playoffs.
If the team doesn’t want to bank on the internal improvement of Embiid and Milton, then it may still look to improve the roster via trade.
Of course, Harden would have been their best bet, but a name to watch here might be the newest Rocket: Victor Oladipo. A solid defender with some serious pick-and-roll prowess, Oladipo could be a perfect fit alongside the nominal starters. It’s unclear whether Houston would be open to moving Oladipo, who is 29-years-old and on an expiring contract with no promise of staying with the team long-term. If he isn’t a part of the Rockets’ plan for the future, Philadelphia could certainly offer an interesting package to try and bring him in.
Bigger names could also become available. Bradley Beal’s name will continue to be mentioned as long as the Washington Wizards continue to struggle. Kyle Lowry could be another option if the Toronto Raptors can’t right the ship and decide their run is over. Both of those are highly unlikely but, in a league where circumstances change by the hour, anything is possible.
The 76ers have flaws to figure out. The play of Simmons has been somewhat concerning thus far. But, when everyone has been available, the team has looked elite.
And, while that small-sample size isn’t enough to lump them in with the best of the best, Philadelphia’s potential paths to get to the top of the NBA are more plentiful and plausible than they were six months ago.
Point-Counter Point: Biggest Surprise In The NBA So Far?
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
From time to time there are things that surface in the NBA landscape that requires a little debate, we call that Point – Counter Point. We have asked two our of writers to dive into the biggest surprises in the NBA so far this season.
While there have been a number of surprising developments in the NBA, like say James Harden landing in Brooklyn, but the way Julius Randle has emerged in New York has been impressive, the question is will it last?
Ariel Pacheo and Chad Smith look at both sides of the equation.
No one could have predicted Julius Randle’s hot start after coming off a rough 2019-20 season. However, now that it’s here, there’s reason to believe it’s built to last. He’s averaging a career-highs across the board and almost none of it is unsustainable.
While his production is up, the way he is playing is what is more significant than the numbers.
Randle has always had the ability to set teammates up, but he is now making a concerted effort to get teammates involved. He’s finding shooters in the corner and setting up his frontcourt counterparts for dunks. His usage percentage is currently at 27.2, just 0.1 higher than last season, but his assist percentage is at 38.2%, which is 17.3% higher than last season. This shows that Randle has the ball in his hands the same amount as last season, but is creating for others at a much higher rate.
His playmaking has been his best skill and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue. Randle’s decision-making is much-improved. It seems as if he has a better understanding of how defenses want to play against him and he’s using it to his advantage to pick apart defenses.
Randle’s scoring may take a small hit, as his mid-range shooting numbers are unsustainable. He’s shooting 57.4% from mid-range, so that should drop some. However, if the Knicks were to play Randle in more lineups with shooting in them, he could turn those mid-range jumpers into drives to the basket. He is attempting the most free-throws per game of his career at 6.8 a game. He’s also converting them at a career-high 78.1%. There’s reason to believe he can sustain this, as he has been aggressive driving to the rim and drawing fouls all season.
Randle is having the best rebounding year of his career, as he’s been attacking the defensive glass. The added benefit of Randle’s defensive rebounding is he’s able to bring the ball up and immediately attack. He’s also been a lot more active on the defensive end this season. He’s had good one-on-one moments on the defensive end against guys like Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Durant.
Another reason to expect Randle’s play to continue is that the Knicks need him to be this good to have a chance to win games. They will continue to look to Randle to be the focus of their offense every single night. Randle is not only the team’s best playmaker, he’s one of the only few reliable ones on the roster. The ball will continue to be in his hands and he has consistently made good decisions up until this point.
Randle’s always had the talent to be a nightly triple-double threat, but it’s starting to come together for him. He’s giving full effort on both ends, all while being third in the league in minutes. Other than his rookie year when he broke his leg, Randle has proven to be durable. Even if his production drops off some, his effort and newfound style of play are what’s making Randle have this hot start. He’s playing at an All-Star level, and that should continue.
There is a new sheriff in town, and his name is Tom Thibodeau. After a long stint in Chicago where he earned Coach of the Year honors and guiding the lifeless Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, Thibodeau has made his way to the Big Apple. Skeptics were not sold on the hire when it happened, but perhaps he is making believers out of them with the help of Julius Randle.
It is no secret that Thibodeau’s calling card has always been defense. He has the Knicks playing aggressive on that end of the floor. Another skill that he possesses is the ability to put his players in a position that will maximize their talents. To that end, Thibodeau has made a world of difference. However, another common theme in his coaching style is eventually wearing his players out. While that is not his intention, he has done it with his best players at every stop along the way.
This is where some of these improved numbers come into play for Randle. Entering this season Julius was averaging 29.4 minutes per game. So far this season, he is playing 38 minutes per game. That is the 2nd highest in the entire league – trailing only his teammate RJ Barrett.
All of that being said, the individual numbers are very impressive. Averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists is nothing to sneeze at, even in this small sample size. The assist numbers, in particular, are quite astounding when you consider he has never had a season in which he averaged more than 3.6 per game. Part of the reason for this is that he is passing out of double teams, instead of trying to force up a shot.
Randle was the only bright spot in the Battle in the Big Apple on Wednesday night. Still, it felt like an empty calories game for the big man as he repeatedly fired away mid-range jumpers. It was New York’s fourth consecutive loss as they fell to the undermanned Nets, who were without several bodies due to the James Harden trade just hours before tipoff.
Unfortunately for Knicks fans, this same story has been played out before with Thibodeau and Joakim Noah in Chicago. His two All-Star seasons were filled with career-high numbers, but it didn’t necessarily translate to success in the playoffs. Right now Randle leads his team in points, rebounds, and assists. The only other players that are currently doing that are Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic.
Finding open shooters on the perimeter has worked early on, but New York’s shooting has come back down to earth in the past week. They now rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of three-point shooting, and Randle himself figures to follow suit. After shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc last year, Randle was shooting at a 38 percent clip to open the season. A ten percent jump just doesn’t happen overnight. The seven-year pro is a career 29 percent shooter from distance. He is taking the same amount of shots as last season and averaging nearly four more points per game.
Even if the shooting numbers come down a bit, it doesn’t put New York back in the basement. The ball movement and effort on defense are the catalysts for the Knicks, not their scoring – in which they rank 29th at the time of this writing. Looking at Randle specifically, he is actually averaging more passes per minute than Steph Curry.
Randle is the main reason why this team has displayed a pulse for the first time in two decades. He was the 7th overall pick for good reason but the Knicks don’t necessarily need the talented lefty to be the star of the show. They need him to share the stage and allow the spotlight to showcase others.
Should he stay the course, Randle will undoubtedly be in line for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. If he regresses like I believe he will, he can still play a vital role in changing the culture and the perception of one of the league’s most popular franchises. The 26-year old has been a pleasant surprise this season, in what will surely be another roller coaster ride for Knicks fans.
– Chad Smith
NBA Daily: Are The Knicks For Real?
Ariel Pacheco breaks down the New York Knicks and their start to the season. Might they be able to push for a spot in the postseason?
The New York Knicks are on a four-game losing streak after their hot 5-3 start to the season. Yes, their play has been inconsistent, but their effort has yet to wane. And, while they are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, the team has some solid wins under their belt and has seen, arguably, their best start in years.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints are all over this team. Combined with the positive start, it begs the question: do the Knicks have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East?
The Knicks have been competitive mainly due to Julius Randle; he’s played like an All-Star to start the season to the tune of 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Randle’s drastic improvement from a season ago has been a major boon to New York, as he’s kept them in close games and, at times, been their lone source of offense. His stat line would put him in elite company, as one of only four to average at least 20, 10 and 5 this season.
The other three? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis.
Behind him, Mitchell Robinson has been the Knicks’ second-best player so far. He’s third in the NBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in blocks. Beyond that, it’s hard to overstate how impactful he’s been on the defensive end — when he’s off the court, the Knicks’ defense completely craters. And, while his offensive game is limited to mostly dunks and layups, Robinson provides the team a vertical threat in the paint with his elite lob-catching skills.
Kevin Knox II has also shown signs of becoming a rotation-level NBA player. He’s shot 41.7% from three and, while he still needs work on defense, he hasn’t been nearly as detrimental the team’s efforts on that end as as he has in years past.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. First and foremost, they lack the shooting to consistently put teams away and win games. And, of course, teams have taken advantage of that, as the Knicks have faced a zone defense — an effective defense, but one that can easily be shut down by a consistent presence beyond the three-point line — in every single game they’ve played this season. Of every Knick that has shot over 20 threes this season, Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox II are the only two that have shot above 35%, while no starter has shot above league average from deep on the season. During their latest four-game losing streak, they’ve shot just 31% from deep as a team.
RJ Barrett, who has really struggled to shoot the ball from all over the floor to start the year, is arguably New York’s biggest culprit here. Currently, Barrett has shot a bad 37.2% from the field, an even worse 18.5% from three and a better but still below average 70.2% from the free throw line. He’s also struggled to finish near the basket. Of course, more spacing in lineups that feature Barrett, as opposed to the clogged lanes he stares down alongside guys like Randle and Robinson, could go a long way in improving those numbers.
But, unfortunately, the Knicks just don’t have the personnel, or depth, for that matter, that they can afford to take those guys off the floor for extended minutes and expect to succeed. There’s hope that Alec Burks’ return could provide some much-needed range and scoring punch from the bench, but Burks alone might not be enough to turn things around here.
The Knicks have also been lucky when it comes to their opponent’s shooting. Opponents have shot just 32.8% from three against the Knicks, well below league average. On three-point attempts that are wide-open, which the NBA defines as a shot in which no defender is within six feet of the shooter, opponents have shot just 33.9%. If that number sees some positive regression — and it likely will as the season goes on — New York may struggle to stay in games.
There are a litany of other issues as well. The point guard position is certainly an area of concern; Elfrid Payton’s range barely extends beyond the free throw line, while Dennis Smith Jr. just hasn’t looked like the same, explosive player we saw with the Dallas Mavericks and Frank Ntilikina has struggled with injuries to start the year. Immanuel Quickley has looked solid with limited minutes, but Thibodeau has been reluctant to start him or even expand his role. And, as there is with every Thibodeau team, there could be legitimate concern over the workload of his top players: Barrett is first in the NBA in minutes played, Randle is third.
Right now, there would seem to be a lot more questions than answers for the Knicks. As currently constructed, they certainly can’t be penciled in as a playoff team. There’s too much evidence that suggests they won’t be able to consistently win games.
That said, New York should be somewhat satisfied with their start to the season. And, if they continue to compete hard, tighten up the defense and if their younger players can take a step forward (especially from beyond the arc), they might just be able to squeeze into the play-in game in the softer Eastern Conference.