Staring down the barrel of 30 games left in the season and at .500, the Knicks have to answer these questions when it comes to their players and coach.

The New York Knicks, dangling on the precipice of playoff contention, are about to embark on a 30-game schedule that will see them matched half the time against playoff teams and half the time against feisty teams looking to build momentum for future seasons.

There are many questions to be answered in the coming days, such as: what do they do at the trade deadline? Do they scratch and claw their way into the playoffs, or do they fall back into (hopefully) one final year of lottery dwelling?

With so much uncertainty, let’s take a look at one burning question for each member of the upstart, over-performing Knickerbockers as they enter the critical part of the season.

Julius Randle: Can he be your hero, baby?

Randle has had one of the most miraculous single-season turnarounds in recent memory. In less than a year, he went from fans wanting to dump him into cap space, to being a first-time All-Star and one of the most well-rounded forwards in the game.

The biggest potential regression point is his outside shooting which, after five seasons of being generally awful, has suddenly jumped to borderline elite on the most attempts per game of his career. It seems unlikely he’ll end the season at 41%, so the question is: does the heavy workload eventually catch up to him, and if so, how much does his All-NBA level play suffer for it?

R.J. Barrett: Does the shooting hold up, and can he find the Clutch Factor?

Barrett’s shooting has been one of the most pleasant surprises in a season full of pleasant surprises. Much of this has come from excising deep pull-up jumpers from his shot diet (as discussed by The Ringer’s Dan Devine this week) and replacing them almost exclusively with catch and shoot attempts. In fact, following an ice-cold four-game stretch to start the season, Barrett is shooting over 40% on catch-and-shoot threes over his last 36 games. His free throw percentage, similarly, has shot up from a putrid 61% his rookie year to 73.3% this season—which, for a player as physical as Barrett, is massively important.

Already known for being a maniacally hard worker, it doesn’t seem like this is a fluke. But just how real is the shooting? And after multiple games missing crucial free throws, as well as a heartbreaking miss at the end of the recent battle with the Sixers, when will Clutch Barrett show up? There’s no reason to think he won’t, but hopefully, Maple Mamba will soon earn the moniker, this time for keeps.

Mitchell Robinson: How much does the team value the defensive maestro?

As touched upon in this week’s pod, it’s getting hard to ignore the fact that the Knicks are consistently linked to centers on the trade market. The question is, is this simple due diligence based on the fact that their semi-proven young starter is about to hit restricted free agency, or are they actually looking to switch things up?

It’s possible they decide to pursue a sign and trade in the offseason, but who they decide to pursue at the trade deadline will give us some insight into how much they value the centerpiece to one of the league’s best defenses moving forward.

Immanuel Quickley: Can he hold onto the starting spot?

After months of waiting, Tom Thibodeau finally gave the people what they wanted, inserting Quickley into the starting lineup. Granted, that was mostly due to the team being bereft of any other options, with Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose, and Austin Rivers all on the shelf—but hey, progress!

At some point, those other guards will return to duty, and Tom Thibodeau, outside of a few first week tweaks, has shown little proclivity for making major rotation changes. Quickley is currently hovering at around 20 minutes per game on the season, and all of us in the fan sections would be a lot more comfortable if that number inched up closer to 25-27.

The way the offense hums with Quickley on the floor is obvious to everyone watching from home, but will it eventually become clear to Thibs?

Reggie Bullock: Trade, bench, or continue starting?

Reggie Bullock, a few hot shooting nights of late aside, is one of the worst starting shooting guards in the league. The jumper comes and goes, the defense is nothing special, and he offers next to nothing as a dribbler or passer.

That being said, he could genuinely help a playoff team that only needs him to be a spot-up specialist—of which there are a few out there. This makes him one of the Knicks’ most interesting trade chips, but with the playoffs in sight and a maniacal coach at the helm, is Leon Rose going to be selling players at the deadline? It’s possible he could be used in a package to upgrade the off-guard spot, but the most likely outcome may be that he’s moved to the bench (where he probably belongs) as either Quickley or an outside trade pushes him out of the starting lineup.

Alec Burks: See above

Burks falls into a category similar to Bullock, minus the starting—although it’s possible he should be the one starting over Bullock since he’s a bit more consistent of a shooter (though not by much) and can actually create a shot for himself on nights when nothing is falling. With said shot creation ability, he’s the other member of the roster who’s most likely to be traded, hopefully for someone a bit younger and under a bit more team control.

Elfrid Payton: Just, like, why?

Elfrid Payton has had a stranglehold on the starting lineup for two straight years despite making life infinitely more difficult for the smash-mouth tandem of Randle and Barrett. Quickley missing the Orlando game with an ankle injury is tragic because it makes it more difficult for him to establish a claim to the starting spot.

Maybe the biggest question remaining this season is whether or not Thibs will move away from his tried and truly mediocre point guard of choice in favor of something different. It’s doubtful, but we’ll see.

Derrick Rose: What’s going on with the health situation?

The most important question with Rose will have to wait until the offseason: namely, what are the long-term plans for the 32-year-old guard?

For now, the main question revolves around the fact that Rose has now missed the last seven games and counting due to the league’s health and safety protocols. The situation is playing out as it did with Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, who recently talked about how he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and his battle with the illness. Hopefully Rose is okay, but the questions remain about what his recovery timeline will look like (if, in fact, he has COVID, which is still unclear) and what physical condition he’ll be in when he does make his return.

Obi Toppin: Can the rook ever find a groove?

The good news with Obi Toppin’s performance this season is that he hasn’t been a disaster defensively, especially when guarding in space, which was supposed to be his biggest weakness coming into the league. That’s genuinely encouraging and deserves to be talked about.

The bad news, though, is that Toppin has looked utterly lost on the offensive side of the floor every time he’s stepped foot there. That’s scary, especially for a guy billed as the most ready-made offensive prospect in the lottery last year. The scariest part is that he has completely stopped looking at the basket when he gets the ball on the wing, often choosing instead to pivot into a hunched-shouldered hand-off with whoever’s closest to him, even if that person is all the way in the corner.

Part of this is how Thibs is using him, or not using him, but part of it is his own lack of confidence. Given how much difficulty the second unit has scoring with Rose out and Quickley in the starting lineup, getting Obi into a groove is massively important, both for the neophyte’s development and for the success of bench lineups moving forward.

Nerlens Noel: Will he prove the doubters wrong and ever catch a lob?

I kid, I kid! Nerlens has been about as serviceable a replacement for Robinson as one could hope for, and as a backup center, he’s been excellent. Yes, he has stone hands on offense, but there’s a reason he was available for $5 million this offseason. I’d be very happy if the Knicks choose to bring him back as Robinson’s backup next season, so the real question is, can he be happy playing a bench role in the Garden? Hopefully yes!

Frank Ntilikina: Can he recapture any of his offensive momentum?

For a second, it looked like Ntilikina was going to become an offensive threat, the way he flashed near the end of last season.

Unfortunately, that appears to have been but a mirage in a desert of offensive struggles. Ntilikina had not scored in four games prior to Thursday’s win over Orlando, and while he has recorded at least one steal in each of those games, being a good defender simply isn’t enough if he literally can’t hit a shot.

And then there’s the question of his impending restricted free agency. Do they bring him back knowing it’s unlikely another team offers him any remotely big contract? Or do they try to ship him out to avoid having to pay him this summer?

Kevin Knox: Can he work his way back into the rotation?

After how painful year two of the Kevin Knox experience turned out to be, his play in preseason and the beginning of the year was something of a shock.

Unfortunately, all of that was disrupted when Alec Burks and Austin Rivers recovered from their injuries and turned him into a “situational” player. But Knox has something to offer this team! He’s 12th in the league in corner three percentage (minimum 20 attempts) and has shown an increase in both defensive and passing awareness in his limited time. Even from an asset perspective, given how bottom-of-the-barrel Ntilikina’s trade value is, it would behoove both the on-court product and the front office to have Knox show some real promise and positive momentum in year three.

Austin Rivers: Will a playoff team talk themselves into the absentee guard?

Rivers’ time in New York, outside of two very good games against the Jazz, has basically been “out of sight, out of mind.” He lost his spot in the rotation rather quickly, but that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t talk themselves into him for a second-round pick or some nominal asset. After all, the combo guard is only 28 and on an extremely team-friendly deal, with the second and third years of his contract non-guaranteed. If a team in need of some perimeter creation comes nibbling, the Knicks would be wise to sell immediately.

Taj Gibson: Does he eat Toppin’s minutes when Robinson comes back?

There isn’t a lot to ask about Taj’s on-court performance. What you see is what you get: an older veteran who does what’s asked of him, plays solid, if mostly ground-bound defense, and helps as a locker room vet. The addition of a corner three is a nice little wrinkle, but the only real question around him is whether he drops back to third-string center upon Robinson’s return or if he eats into Toppin’s already spare minutes—especially if Toppin continues to look like the moment is bigger than he is.

Theo Pinson: Does he add any new dance moves to the repertoire?

There are few if any basketball questions around Pinson, who, given the team’s playoff ambitions, is likely to stay mostly bench-bound. The fan-favorite has a lot of fun out there, whether he sees the floor or not. Hopefully, if the Knicks make it to the playoffs, we can see a couple of new moves busted out.

Jared Harper: Does he get any burn during this current point guard drought?

Harper is the only member of the three-man cast of bench guys with an actual shot to play real minutes, given how every point guard on the roster is currently injured. Harper can shoot from deep and is a decent playmaker, but the size will never not be a question. While it’s unlikely he’s much of a game-changer, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Knicks to see if he can contribute at the NBA level even at his small size.

Ignas Brazdeikis: Just keep on keeping on?

Like Pinson before him, it’s unlikely we’ll see Brazdeikis in the coming games, beyond the occasional blowout. While it would be interesting to see what he could contribute (especially since Steve Mills said they considered him a first-round talent when they drafted him), it seems unlikely that will happen this year. His job is to stay ready in case called upon, and otherwise be a pump-up guy in the locker room. Maybe next year he can get his shot.


That’s it for the players, but they’re still a few lingering questions for the guys making the decisions.

Tom Thibodeau: Can he get a little more creative with the rotations?

Between staggering lineups, switching up the point guard rotations, getting Toppin to the right spots, and finding a way to get Knox involved, there are plenty of ways for Thibodeau to get creative in the second half of the season to get the most from this already overperforming roster.

The trouble is, he isn’t the most creative guy, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. If he can tap into a little higher vision, there could be big-time dividends up and down the roster.

Leon Rose: Is he a buyer, a seller, or a cautious opportunist?

As discussed before, trading Burks, Bullock, or Rivers to a playoff team could net an asset or two. But is that enough to appease a coach and front office that are enjoying being the first successful Knicks team in years? Does Rose look to upgrade the roster aggressively, or play it safe—the Brock Aller way—in hopes that he can swing if an opportunity presents itself while otherwise standing pat? We still have yet to see Leon Rose’s true colors as a president of basketball operations. This deadline will be an interesting insight into his mentality.

 

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