Back in June of 2015, before New York Knicks fans were forced to come to terms with a harsh reality, hopes in New York were sky high. For the first time in a very long time, the Knicks were well under the salary cap, allowing them to be major players in the 2015 free agency bonanza.
Coming off their worst season in franchise history, New Yorkers were optimistically hoping that nearly $30 million in cap space would enable the Knicks to rapidly rebuild their crumbling franchise. With Phil Jackson doing the recruiting, and the allure of the bright lights of Broadway beckoning, surely New York would be extremely appealing to the the majority of top-tier free agents, right?
The Knicks’ most pressing need heading into last offseason was adding a quality big man to a dangerously depleted frontline. Fortunately for New York, there was a plethora of top-tier, unrestricted power forwards and centers up for grabs. Yet, the cream of the crop never seriously considered taking the Knicks’ money. The best center available, Marc Gasol, re-signed with the Memphis Grizzlies without even meeting with Jackson. LaMarcus Aldridge landed with the San Antonio Spurs. Kevin Love re-upped with the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeAndre Jordan (after a brief detour to Dallas) ended up back with the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Millsap decided to stay with the Atlanta Hawks. Greg Monroe, whom many had prognosticated was highly likely to sign with the Knicks, ended up choosing the Milwaukee Bucks instead.
The Knicks eventually rounded out their frontcourt by adding Robin Lopez (four-year, $54 million contract), Kyle O’Quinn (four-year, $16 million contract), Derrick Williams (two-year, $10 million contract) and Kevin Seraphin (one-year, $2.8 million contract). O’Quinn has been a bit of disappointment thus far. Williams has been a relatively pleasant surprise, exceeding expectations of many who thought New York overpaid. Seraphin has been buried on the bench. Lopez, to the surprise of nobody, has been impressively solid.
Still, Knicks fans were disheartened by the fact that Jackson was forced to “settle” for a solid veteran such as Lopez after the elite stars rejected the Knicks advances, seemingly without even giving the Knicks so much as a second thought.
It was a harsh way to learn a valuable lesson.
At one point in the not so distant past, having the good fortunate of being located in a city such as New York often tilted the playing field when it came to attracting superstars. Nowadays, simply playing in a major market is no longer enough to lure in the most sought after targets. Knicks and Lakers fans can attest to this proven fact. In this new, flattened world we live in, players know they don’t need to live in a major metropolitan hub in order to become internationally famous and land incredibly lucrative endorsement deals.
Desirable free agents in today’s NBA (Love, Aldridge, Monroe and David West being the latest examples) often end up choosing their new team in large part based on which organization has the most attractive foundation in place, thus giving them the greatest chance to win big.
The Knicks, coming off a season in which they were arguably the worst team in the entire league, were anything but alluring.
The good news for Knicks fans is that (due to the enormous pending spike in the salary cap) Jackson and company will once again have cap space to spend this summer. Depending on whether current Knicks Derrick Williams and Arron Afflalo decide to opt out of their current current contracts, New York will be looking at somewhere between approximately $20 million and $30 million to spend on free agents.
Still, based on the somber situation New York found itself in last July, Knicks fans should anticipate another discouraging and anticlimactic offseason, right?
Things have changed in NYC. The future of the Knicks has been altered dramatically, in large part because of one person.
The arrival and emergence of Kristaps Porzingis has resulted in a monumental directional shift in the present and future of the organization.
Knicks executives no longer have to rely on futilely attempting to sell players solely on the virtues of living in New York City and playing in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Future free agents will now be enticed to consider the Knicks because they would then be able to play alongside the world’s most famous and uniquely talented 7’3 forward/center.
We know about the consternation that consumed New York once the Knicks lost the draft lottery last May and dropped to fourth overall, which meant they would lose out on the opportunity to draft one of the only three “sure-fire” future stars available in the 2015 draft (Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor). We know all too well about the boos that greeted Porzingis after Commissioner Adam Silver called his name. Yet this pessimistic prologue only makes Porzingis’ rapid rise to fan-favorite status all the more remarkable.
To say that the rookie big man has simply exceeded expectations is obviously an understatement. Porzingis hasn’t just been good, or “good for a rookie.” Not only do his teammates sing his praises on a daily basis, but rival coaches, players and executives across the country rave about the kid at each stop the Knicks make on the road.
Porzingis currently ranks third among all rookies in points (13.9), second in rebounds (8.0), first in blocks (2.0), first in free-throw percentage (86 percent) and second in double-doubles (15).
His versatile skill set is remarkably unique, even in a league chock full of freakish athletes. Consider this: There is currently only one player in the league this season who has blocked more than 80 shots and knocked down more than 40 three-pointers. That player is Kristaps Porzingis.
There are plenty of other extraordinary stats that could be used to highlight his early-season success; however, it’s not simply the mind-boggling numbers that stand out when discussing Porzingis. It could be argued that the most amazing aspect of his first three months as an NBA player is the way he’s handled the sudden flood of fame and adulation. Considering he’s a 20-year-old kid from Latvia, it’s almost inconceivable how well he’s dealt with the crush from local and national media alike. Somehow, he carries himself with incredible confidence on the court, yet remains remarkably humble once he steps off the floor.
And he’s only getting better, and bigger. Both his game and his frame are still growing.
The scary reality is that if Porzingis was playing this well two years from now, when he was just 22 years old, he’d still be considered way ahead of schedule. The phrase “the sky’s the limit” is an overused cliche, but in this case it actually rings true. His upside is not simply All-Star level, it’s All-NBA level.
And, tangentially, because of Porzingis, the Knicks’ future is brighter than it’s been in a very, very long time.
Playing alongside one of the most intriguing young big men to come into the league in some time will surely change the way future free agents view the Knicks. He’s a big man who can stretch the floor and create space, finish alley-oops in traffic and erase defensive mistakes at the basket. That’s the kind of individual other great players want to run with.
Furthermore, Carmelo Anthony, who has embraced Porzingis as a “little brother,” is enjoying a renaissance and is currently playing some of the best, most unselfish, well-rounded basketball of his career. Joining the tag-team of Porzingis and Anthony will be an enticing proposition.
The Knicks’ biggest need heading into the 2016 offseason will be upgrading the point guard position. Jose Calderon, while providing valuable veteran leadership, is simply not a starting-caliber NBA point guard. Although Calderon is still relatively effective on the offensive end, he is an absolute sieve defensively. Rookie Jerian Grant has shown flashes here and there, but he’s no where near consistent enough to be relied on as the undisputed point guard of the present or future.
In today’s NBA, having a top-level point guard who can break down defenses by penetrating into the paint to score and creating opportunities for others – as well as being able to defend other quality point guards – is imperative.
If the Knicks are able to add an elite point guard to their current nucleus, they would have a legit chance to push into the postseason and make some noise in the Eastern Conference.
The best point guard on the market in 2016 will be Mike Conley. Currently 28 years old, Conley has spent his entire career with the Grizzlies. He doesn’t get much national attention, likely because he flies under the radar down in Memphis, but he’s widely considered one of the more underrated floor generals in the NBA. He posted his best statistical season in 2013-14, when he finished the year as one of just six players to average at least 17 points and six assists while shooting at least 45 percent from the floor (the other five players in that club were Steph Curry, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and James Harden). And despite a nagging foot injury, Conley has been remarkably durable throughout his career, playing in at least 85 percent of the Grizzlies’ games in each of the last six seasons. It is also important to note that Conley has been a winner. He’s captained a Memphis team that has won at least 50 games in three straight seasons.
When Conley officially becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, it’s safe to assume the Knicks will have interest. Conley will seek max or at least near-max money, and considering the shifting financial landscape of the NBA (so many teams with excessive cap space and many others needing to spend money to hit the rising salary floor), he’ll get it from someone. From a Knicks perspective, he seems to check all the boxes: a savvy point guard who is both efficient offensively and solid defensively. He has posted a PER north of 18 in four straight seasons. In contrast, the Knicks have had only one point guard with a PER greater than 18 in the last 25 years (Stephon Marbury).
However, here’s where things get interesting.
If the Knicks fork over $90+ million to Conley this summer, they are obviously making a long-term commitment. This is important not only because of the financial investment it entails, but also opportunity cost. It would mean the Knicks wouldn’t be able to shop for a point guard the following summer, when arguably the three best point guards in the NBA will likely all hit the free agent market at the same time.
Russell Westbrook’s contract expires following the 2016-17 season. Ditto for Steph Curry. Chris Paul has a player option in his contract that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017, as well.
Obviously, the odds of landing any of those three superstars are low. However, unlike last summer, the Knicks are now holding an ace of their own and will be able to ante up at the big boy table.
Would the uber-talented (yet temperamental) Westbrook contemplate re-locating to NYC? Considering he’s developed his own major clothing line, would he prefer to live and play so close to the 5th Avenue and the Fashion District in Manhattan?
It would certainly be surprising, if not shocking, to see Curry leave a great situation in Golden State to move across the country, but obviously a lot can change over the next 16 months.
Paul would seem to be the most realistic target. It’s common knowledge that he’s very good friends with Anthony. At Carmelo’s wedding in 2010, CP3 toasted to them eventually uniting as teammates.
However, would a 33-year-old Chris Paul be a major upgrade over a 30-year-old Mike Conley?
There is one other All-Star-caliber point guard likely to hit free agency in 2017. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry also has a player option to become a free agent as well. He would be another interesting option to consider at that point.
The summer of 2017 obviously seems like the distant future right now, but the decisions made this summer will have a direct impact on what New York can do going forward.
Furthermore, it’s unknown if Conley would be willing to even entertain signing with the Knicks. However, it’s obviously not just Conley or bust for New York in the summer of 2016. There are a handful of other point guard options (Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings and the restricted Jordan Clarkson to name just a few). And of course the Knicks are not obligated to use the lion’s share of their cap space on a playmaker, especially since Jose Calderon has another year at over $7 million left on his contract.
Still, at some point Jackson and Steve Mills will have to decide what direction they want to take the franchise. What will be their primary focus? Is the goal to maximize Anthony’s dwindling prime? That would mean adopting a win-now approach – zeroing in on players who complement ‘Melo’s game in an attempt to build a team that gives them the best chance of winning next season, even at the possible detriment of the long-term salary cap situation.
Or will Phil and company come to the conclusion that the best chance the Knicks have to eventually become a legitimate contender (as opposed to merely a playoff participant) several years in the future and focus on that? Will they build with several years down the road in mind, when Porzingis eventually inherits the responsibility of being the face of the franchise and the team’s best and most important player? If the Knicks embrace that philosophy, it may necessitate sacrificing in the short-term, in order to build the best possible foundation around Porzingis, which ideally would result in sustained, long-term success.
Or, will the Knicks attempt to somehow find a middle road and try to blend both approaches?
These are important questions Phil Jackson is going to have to answer sooner rather than later.
If Conley is interested, do they make a full-court press? Does New York use all of their cap space in 2016 to round out their roster with players who provide immediate bang for their buck? Or, do the Knicks get greedy and take a risk, holding out hope they can land a franchise-changing point guard the following summer?
Prior to the arrival and emergence of Porzingis, it would have been preposterous to say that New York had even an outside shot at signing a superstar such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul via free agency. But the Knicks no longer have to rely on the bright lights of Broadway and the Big City as their major selling point. Kristaps Porzingis is now the beacon that will hopefully attracts other stars into New York’s orbit.
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.