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NBA AM: Good Problems? Deciphering Utah’s Depth

The Jazz’s depth is posing big lineup questions even as they rack up wins, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett



Midway through the third season of the best television show in history, one of the best television villains in history is contemplating a brighter future for himself.

Drug dealer Marlo Stanfield is winning his turf war with rival Avon Barksdale, and preparing for a reality where he might hold more territory and wear the proverbial “crown” of Baltimore hustlers. When an advisor points out that this also means he’ll be faced with more responsibility and pressure, plus rivals gunning for him, Stanfield’s response is among the more iconic lines in the show (warning: video NSFW).

“Sounds like one of them good problems.”

A “good problem” seems a bit like an oxymoron, but Marlo’s point was clear: A brighter future might present a few extra challenges, but they’re well worth the trouble.

And as watchers of The Wire will know, Stanfield did, in fact, hold it down once he took the crown, in some manner of speaking. He wore it longer than anyone else on the show, and was one of the only major characters in his line of work still living when the final credits rolled (plus, as we’re led to assume, he had a pretty nice chunk of change in his pocket for his efforts). A good problem, indeed.

Take away the drugs, the gangster rep, the cold-hearted murders and maybe a few other silly details: Marlo Stanfield and his good problems feel something akin to this season’s Utah Jazz.

Bear with me here.

From the moment the 2016-17 season began, Jazz fans everywhere had at least one eye toward a quickly approaching brighter future. Maybe they weren’t in line for a crown, per se, but only a few nagging injuries stood between them and the realization of a contender several years in the making.

And then a few more nagging injuries pushed the timetable back a little. And then a few more. The Jazz were winning games and staking themselves to a likely playoff spot the entire time, but it was hard to escape the feeling that their real rise lay ahead. With the full clip in tow, so to speak.

Fast forward a month, and it seems like the Jazz may have a few good problems on their hands – but potential problems nonetheless.

They’re still dealing with that same array of now-standard issues, with starters Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood both once again sidelined this week. But with those injuries hopefully minor and the rest of the team finally on the floor together, an interesting question is on the table in Utah: Is there such thing as too much depth?

When everyone is healthy, there’s an argument the Jazz employ 14 NBA rotation-quality players. Some of these are borderline, but look at the track records: Shelvin Mack started 27 games last season (the Jazz went basically .500 in those against a tough Western schedule); Raul Neto started 53 of his own in the same season, at an above-.500 clip; Jeff Withey played nearly 700 minutes, including 10 starts while Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors suffered overlapping injuries in early 2016; Dante Exum started his entire rookie season for one of the biggest surprise young teams in the league.

With some offseason additions and actual health, though, these guys are often relegated to DNP status. George Hill has stepped into the spot Mack and Exum may have otherwise battled for, and Alec Burks’ return to the lineup after missing nearly all of last season has given coach Quin Snyder the option to play neither of them (or Neto) behind Hill – an option he’s taken the last few weeks. Favors has mostly taken Withey’s backup center role when healthy as Snyder staggers his minutes with Gobert’s and works in guys like Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles.

“You just look at numerically – I think there’s only one lineup that’s played more than 100 minutes together all year,” Snyder said.

He’s right. Only the team’s ostensible starting lineup, a Hill-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert length-fest that’s still somehow been a significant net minus on the year, has crossed the three-figure barrier. There are 75 such lineups in a 30-team league, and the Jazz barely even have one of them.

The NBA isn’t a video game, and player chemistry matters a lot; at the same time, having better players to fill the roles needed on the court is a decided positive. Suddenly, continuity – especially vital in a Snyder system that prioritizes cohesive movement and attention to detail – is beginning to emerge as a real challenge for the Jazz, even with more talent on the floor. Good problems, anyone?

“You’re not going to have some of the instinctive stuff that players have when they’ve played together a lot,” Snyder said. “You have that with individual guys, with combinations. But as you work new people in, that has to develop. It’s not a question of chemistry as much as it is repetition. It’s a good thing that we’re going through this.”

In the long term, there’s no doubt he’s right. The resilience through injury made them stronger, and the ability to keep winning while working major guys back in will do the same. In the present, though, it’s created two interesting rotational quandaries to consider.

Backup Point Guard

As if this one wasn’t already complicated enough with three guys behind Hill on the depth chart, each of whom started games for this team in the last 18 months, Hill’s own various injuries thrust both Mack and Exum into the starting lineup for periods at a time. Both have been relatively all over the place this season, and Snyder has appeared reluctant to use Neto as more than a change of pace.

More recently, with Burks back on the court and returned to a more impressive form than many might have assumed right away, none of the traditional backup guys are getting any run. Burks replaces Hill late in the first and third quarters, and functions as the de facto point guard with bench units.

“When we have that lineup, particularly if it’s Joe Ingles and Alec too, they’re sharing the ball-handling a little bit on some level,” Snyder said. The real emphasis is on the other end, where the Jazz’s backups have badly struggled containing quicker guards this year. “I think [Alec’s] athleticism allows him to be impactful [defending] the ball. His size. It allows us to switch certain matchups.”

It’s a smaller sample, but the Jazz are clearly succeeding in these minutes so far. It seems tough to question that Burks is the best available option currently.

Hanging over all this, though, is Exum’s future. The young Aussie’s absent campaign last year due to an ACL injury is looking more and more damning every day. Instead of entering his second NBA season holding the keys at the point for a franchise still in development mode, he’s in a logjam for backup minutes for a team that wants to win right now.

He’s clearly doing it on a different grading scale than other Jazz youth, too. When a guy like Lyles or Hood makes a glaring schematic mistake (they happen all the time, probably about as often as Exum in Lyles’ case), they may get a talking-to or even a yelling-at. When Exum makes the same mistake, he sits on the bench – often for the rest of the game, and sometimes for games at a time. His confidence is visibly shaken, to the point where it’s become common practice in Jazz media circles to watch for Exum looking back over his shoulder for the incoming sub every time he does something noticeably wrong.

Look, it’s no one but Snyder’s place to address his handling of Exum, something local media has already run him through his paces on. His developmental track record at multiple levels of basketball is beyond even a hint of reproach, and the very real possibility that Exum simply isn’t as good as his draft slot suggests, and might never be, looms over all of this. Snyder’s mandate is different this year, and as sad as it is, Exum’s devastating injury last season isn’t Quin’s fault.

Still, it’s likely the most interesting future subplot in a series of rotational complexities that mostly affect the present. Exum becomes eligible for a rookie extension following this season, and a completely justifiable emphasis on winning games right now is making it more and more likely the Jazz still have very little clue if he’s worth a future investment by the time July rolls around. It’s one of Utah’s current good problems that could turn iffy in a hurry.

Power Forward

Favors hasn’t been completely right all season, and his struggles with nagging injuries and form over the last year and change are at least a little concerning. What’s resulted is a bit of a revolving door at the four spot, with Favors typically starting each half alongside Gobert and then mostly functioning as the backup center after the first set of subs.

Diaw and Lyles both get their turns alongside Gobert each game. While it’s surely due at least in part to Favors’ nagging issues and some noise, both these combos have been better on a per-possession basis than Utah’s presumed starting frontcourt, by over double in Diaw’s case. There have been chunks of time where the Favors-Gobert combo looks too cramped to get buckets against focused defenses, and though their season-long figures are hovering near respectable together, Snyder has been totally unwilling to play them down the stretch in most close games.

Thing is, his best choice between these three options might be…none of them.

The Jazz have played 253 minutes of small ball with Gobert on the floor and no other traditional big men, per They’ve scored at a rate just a hair short of the Warriors during these stretches. In the 212 of those minutes where Joe Johnson has been the small four, both Utah’s offense and defense have been better than the league leaders in both categories on the year (again, the Warriors in both cases).

The numbers feel tough to match with the eye test for each of Snyder’s three traditional alignments. Each unit has strong and weak stretches, skewing toward the former, and each seems to have its vulnerabilities. With these small lineups, though, there’s no visible confusion alongside gaudy numbers: Utah is really potent, and there’s a good chance they aren’t sacrificing much defensively against a lot of teams.

There are fewer and fewer true brutes at the four in the NBA these days, and the few who play big minutes are usually giving up more on the other end to guys like Hayward and Johnson. If tweeners want to post those guys up, the Jazz will gladly take most of those looks. Meanwhile, Utah can switch all over the court around Gobert, now spreading his near-literal wings as the league’s most fearsome interior defender.

And if their defensive integrity continues to hold in these small groups, there’s little doubt these are the Jazz’s best looks. This is Gobert’s purest form offensively, a hyperactive screen-setter using his rim runs to vacuum up space for the four above-average three-point shooters dotting the perimeter.

All four can usually run some pick-and-roll, too, and the Jazz can pick on weak defenders regardless of where the opponent hides them – something Snyder can look to more often in a matchup-driven playoff series.

Snyder has noticed how good they are small, and there are times where it feels like he’s resisting the urge to lean on these lineups more at the expense of his three traditional power forwards. And can you blame him? Those guys are each legitimately good!

It’s evident he sees the writing, though: Over half these small minutes come in the fourth quarter, and many have been in high-leverage crunch time moments. As the games get bigger, you wonder how much more he’ll be willing to expand their role. If they’re healthy come playoff time and the roster stays intact, the Jazz have at least five guys they can cycle through the four perimeter spots – six or seven if Snyder can trust Exum or Mack for minutes here or there.

Once again, there are some future ramifications here for these good problems.

Favors is at the center; he hasn’t had the same success minus Gobert, with those lineups mostly treading water even against a lot of bench-heavy units. Untangling his diminished play from his health issues is priority one for the Jazz, but if the answer isn’t encouraging, the clock is ticking.

Lyles is still inconsistent, but he looms as a more mobile, rangy option who provides a cleaner theoretical offensive fit alongside Gobert. Next year will be Favors’ last at his bargain contract before he gets very expensive; his value in a hypothetical trade gets lower every day until then, and even as it feels painfully early to say it, these are the kinds of things Dennis Lindsey and Utah’s front office have to consider.

Maybe this is an overreaction to what are still cloudy data samples, even if the eye test seems to back them up. Lyles is still a long way away in several areas; he’ll cover up a lot of them if he ever hits enough open threes to change the way defenses play him, but he’s taken a big step back there this year. Diaw has stretches where he’s fantastic, and fewer others where he looks his age. It’s possible that balance changes as the year wears on and legs get heavier.

If Favors’ negative indicators are all health-related and turn around soon, there are plenty of ways this works moving forward. Diaw is on a non-guaranteed deal next year, and Snyder’s willingness to use Favors as a center against benches opens up more minutes for more spaced out options around him and Gobert.

The Jazz sit fourth in the West as of this writing; it’s a bit strange to see a team with that much success despite still ironing out so many kinks in the details.

“We’re still finding out about our team,” Snyder said. “It’s a little more discovery. We know our guys – and then you have to continue to see how they play and fit together.”

These have been good problems so far, but even some good problems might need solutions. The next few months will be telling for one of the league’s deepest and most complicated teams.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.


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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.

Quinn Davis



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 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.

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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?

Basketball Insiders



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.

-Ariel Pacheo

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

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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?

Ariel Pacheco



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.

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