It’s been a roller coaster 15% of the 2020–21 NBA season for the Knicks. After falling below .500 on Monday, we have learned more about the true nature of the young team.
Analytics folks believe 10 games is a decent enough sample size to make a judgment. That was the reason Daryl Morey gave for determining that Carmelo Anthony was not good enough to play basketball for the Houston Rockets, but I digress.
If 10 games is a good enough sample size for one of the sharpest minds in the game, it should be good enough to gauge where the Knicks are at, and for good measure, we will use an 11-game sample size.
The Knicks have played 11 basketball games, going 5-6, with a surprising amount of enjoyable peaks mixed in with a couple of valleys not worth remembering. All in all, Tom Thibodeau’s footprint has been seen on the team during the early part of the season. The team has competed every night with very few exceptions and has begun to resemble a basketball team that could play meaningful basketball beyond February, possibly as soon as this season.
Here are some lessons learned through 11 games.
1. Different Faces, Same Team
Leon Rose did a good job filling out the roster in a short amount of time. Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel immediately became crucial pieces of the rotation. Draft picks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley feel like productive players on the first impression. Quickley in particular has the potential to provide a playmaking dynamic to the point guard position that has been absent the better part of two decades. Despite the influx of positive additions, this team is largely what it was last season, only better organized and better coached.
Tom Thibodeau’s teachings thus far have been found in the categories you would have expected to change first: defense and effort. The Knicks have the eighth-best Defensive Rating (DRtg) in the league and second-worst offense in the league, ranking 29th in points per game. How the Knicks are generating those points is even more noteworthy to the lack of change happening so far: the team is 28th in Offensive Rating and 29th in pace, and leads the league in two-point attempts, taking 68.8% of their attempts inside the arc.
This was expected with a small window for Thibodeau to implement his schemes and minimal roster turnover. The Knicks still lack consistent outside shooting from prominent players. The starting lineup is more or less untouched, other than Mitchell Robinson rightfully starting at center, and the two best players—Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett—are more effective in scoring inside rather than out.
What does this all mean in the grand scheme? It could very well mean the Knicks will be a more watchable lottery team than they were last year. The team is still in dire need of a true three-level scoring option to elevate not just the offense but the team as a whole. One component of last season that felt under-discussed was offense being the main reason for the team’s woes.
Randle bore the brunt of the criticism with a stream of gaffes on both sides of the ball. Those gaffes have been absent this season, and overall the team is playing gritty and inspiring defense. The offense remains the weakest link. The Knicks are barely cracking 100 points a night still, and it is unlikely they would survive against good teams when the game shifts towards halfcourt execution.
Until those two things are rectified the Knicks will remain a bottom-10 team; just infinitely more competent, and on most nights infinitely more watchable.
2. The Julius Randle Conundrum
Julius Randle becoming everything Steve Mills and Scott Perry declared he was has been the best thing to watch early on. Randle was productive in his first season as a Knick but became the lightning rod of fan frustration—a title that has now shifted to Elfrid Payton and even Barrett on some nights. Randle on the other hand is rapidly becoming a beloved Knick, and for good reason.
Randle is on pace to have a career season with eye-popping averages of 23.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game. He is shooting 50.9% from the field, 36.8% from three, and 76.2% from the free throw line.
Every night he steps on the court right now he is a viable triple-double threat. Imagine thinking that after last season.
This playmaking awakening from Randle has put the Knicks in an odd position. They are now in possession of a 26-year-old All-Star hopeful who still does not fit with Barrett. On the other side is Barrett, who we will touch on shortly, but is not exactly a sure thing either when looking at him through the lens of a top scoring option.
What do the Knicks do? Cash in their chips on Randle and look to deal him to the highest bidder, continue to hope Barrett irons out the kinks in his shooting game, or look to reshape the roster around Randle, using Barrett as the centerpiece for a big trade.
It is a weird spot to be in, and not something the front office has to weigh yet. But if Randle continues to look like the All-Star playmaker tough discussions will have to be had.
3. Breaking the Curse
Mitchell Robinson’s season got off to a precarious start. Robinson resumed his backup role the first two preseason games, watching Nerlens Noel start in his place. That was thankfully rectified by preseason game number three (assisted by Noel’s injury) and Robinson has settled in as the starter.
Robinson’s impact on defense has made him the second-most important player on the team after Randle. When Robinson sat at the tail end of the Oklahoma City Thunder game, the Knick defense collapsed and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked like he had E-ZPass. For the season the Knicks have a DRtg of 105.6 with Robinson on the floor. Without him, that DRtg balloons to 113.8.
The keys to Robinson’s effectiveness are much of what he was already good at (blocking shots), mixed with a stark improvement in his discipline. Personal fouls have been Robinson’s nemesis in his young career, but that is starting to change. Robinson has not fouled out this season but has remained a disruptor down low, logging at least one block in every game this season except one.
When he isn’t blocking shots, he is very much on the mind of opponents contemplating shooting in his area.
13 seconds of Mitchell Robinson defending everything and everyone pic.twitter.com/4zbw3tVyfO
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 1, 2021
And he still does fun stuff like this.
MITCH PICK 6 pic.twitter.com/I0KJzUSgnR
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 27, 2020
His offensive game is still composed largely of rim runs and put-back dunks, but any worries of Robinson falling into the abyss like Frank Ntilikina or Kevin Knox should be put to rest. Robinson is poised to break the Charlie Ward curse; the only question is how much should the team be willing to play.
4. R.J. Barrett the Offensive Enigma
There is no rhyme or reason to Barrett’s jump shot. That is the no. 1 lesson 11 games in.
Against the Pacers, he was the second coming of Latrell Sprewell. Against everyone else, he is Mardy Collins.
Excluding his three 20-plus point games (two against the Pacers and one against the Hawks) Barrett is shooting 28.0% from the field. Even with the two Pacers games, he is shooting 20.0% from three. It has been that bad. The good news is the rest of Barrett’s game has been strong. Barrett has rebounded extremely well, averaging 7.4 per game, and has shown some progress on his free throw shooting.
The frustration with Barrett is not that he is shooting poorly, it’s that there is nothing to point at as the reason why. Sure, the starting lineup is still a spacing nightmare, but even on wide-open looks, he has misfired. There is not one shot you feel confident that can get him going.
This could just be a slump, it could be something more. Whatever it is, the Knicks need answers quickly. In case Thibodeau’s quick trigger on calling timeouts was not enough of an indicator, he wants to win games. To do that, Barrett has to figure something out.
Barrett has looked his most comfortable in the midrange, but when sharing the floor with Randle, Robinson, and Payton, those looks are not there. Perhaps an east fix is bumping him up to the three and playing him next to shooting threats like Alec Burks (once healthy), Austin Rivers, and Immanuel Quickley at all times.
A troubling trend the starting lineup has seen is opponents going into zone, showing zero fear for Barrett or anyone in the starting lineup’s outside jumper. Adding more shooters could prevent that and open up the midrange for him to operate.
No one has more drastic swings in performances than Barrett. He can look so good on certain nights, and downright unwatchable on others.
5. Kevin Knox, Salvageable Project
How many people would have bet on Kevin Knox being the project pick that finds a spot in the rotation before the season? Not many. Yet Knox has been unquestionably the best of the young players who had yet to carve out a defined role.
Ntilikina flirted with joining Knox but has not been seen since his fantastic performance in the team’s best win of the season over the Milwaukee Bucks. Dennis Smith Jr. is essentially done in New York. Smith has not been able to find any minutes during the regular season following a mediocre (at best) preseason.
Knox’s early success is due to a shift in shot attempts, relocating beyond the arc. Knox has taken 54.1% of his field goal attempts beyond the arc this season and is shooting 39.4% overall. On corner threes in particular Knox is shooting an impressive 53.8%.
Kevin Knox: Knicks savior, corner specialist pic.twitter.com/PeDFDhXy2w
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 12, 2021
Above the break threes continue to drag down his percentage—he is connecting on a subpar 30.0%—and highlight the progress he has ahead of him as a self-creator. For now, Knox is doing one thing well that Thibodeau wanted: corner threes. It is unreasonable to expect Knox to remain as accurate as he has been from the corners, but 40.0% from that area isn’t farfetched.
There is plenty of Knox’s game that can still be developed further, specifically his ability to rebound and play some stretch four minutes, but this shooting improvement (or relocation) is a good starting point. Obi Toppin’s early absence has highlighted how thin the Knicks are in the frontcourt. Should Knox continue on his current trajectory, a consistent 20-25 minutes tonight could very well be a reality.