The Knicks’ frontcourt includes an All-Star, two vets, a kid with upside, and the oft-injured Mitchell Robinson. What happens next?
You ever heard that classic adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Probably once or twice, I imagine. Perhaps you’ve heard it about someone’s sleep schedule, or your body’s initial response to the keto diet.
As it relates to the New York Knicks, though, it’s not a belief commonly tossed around. More often than not in the last few decades, something was broke, and something direly needed fixing. Hearing that the Knicks don’t need to fix something, at least not really, is about as likely as me going on the keto diet. Slim to none, folks. Pass the brownies.
I suppose stranger things have happened, though, for the Knicks frontcourt is a humming machine. Well, when healthy that is; something is slightly broken after all, but even this hitch in the well-oiled apparatus isn’t unavoidable. The ideal world sees Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, Obi Toppin, and others existing in perfect, healthy harmony, and if they can, it’s as much of a recipe for success as that of my roommate’s mom’s brownies. They’re gluten-free and yet they taste like little cubes of heaven.
The Knicks’ bigs are… the same. Yeah. Roll with me. Let’s talk about ‘em.
Projected starting frontcourt: Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson
In his piece on this very website two weeks ago previewing the team’s backcourt this season, Sam DiGiovanni noted that, last season, 21 five-man lineups played at least 500 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass. Two Knicks’ lineups qualified: Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, RJ Barrett, and Randle with either Nerlens Noel or Robinson. Both were in the bottom five in both point differential and points per 100 possessions.
However, Scott and Jimmy, you know what is good? Something we know all too well: that the five-man lineup including Robinson ranked fifth among qualifying groups in points allowed per 100 possessions. Though they scored 7.3 fewer points per game than the league average, they gave up even fewer; 104.5 points per night was 8.4 less than last year’s league average. A lot of that is a testament to what the team is bringing back, a stalwart defense that Tom Thibodeau built from man one through 15. But what will elevate the team as a whole—and the bigs in particular—are the two newcomer guards manning the backcourt. Both Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier averaged 10-plus shots and 15-plus points last season on a Boston team with far more potent scoring options than the Knicks boasted. Their addition will take some of the playmaking pressure off Randle, and their abilities as playmakers will help to maximize Robinson’s tenacity at the rim. This offense has all the makings to be a sneaky-delectable batch of gluten-free brownies.
Though the most pressing question with this starting tandem is likely related to Robinson’s health—the five-man lineup without him present was significantly worse defensively, nearly 10 points worse, in fact; he played just 31 games last season due to a broken foot—there’s also the Randle element, and with it the daunting “F” word. Was last season a true testament to his abilities as a player? Is he suddenly a borderline triple-double player on average that can lead an offense from tip to final whistle? Is he the 24 point-per-game scoring All-Star that lugged this plucky crew to the playoffs on his broad, Texan shoulders?
It’s nice to know that he won’t have to and that his teammates are already thinking about how they can make his life easier. Ahead of Saturday’s preseason game against the Wizards, Fournier spoke about how best his game can complement Randle’s. “I think I’m gonna have to be really precise about the two-man game with Julius, because usually when you have a power forward that’s on the top of the key, he’s gonna take the ball and just swing it and go to the weak side pick-and-roll or dribble-handoff,” he said. “But he’s really good, so he can drive. He can pass. He can shoot. So, I’m gonna have to read him to not bring my defender in his space. Those are just details that take a little bit of time, but those are things that we work on in practice. So, I actually can’t wait to get on the court with those guys again to keep building habits.”
That the team as a whole, and especially its newest members, know that the offense will run through Randle as planned is a must, but that Fournier is outwardly speaking on it in such a technical, specific fashion is even more encouraging. Trust can tend to exist arbitrarily in sports—you never know when you might get shipped out of town; why bother building up faith in anything or anyone?—but it appears that the Knicks are still Randle’s team and are becoming it more and more so each day. Robinson’s continued development, because of Randle’s continued growth and the team’s blooming harmony, is simultaneously gravy and inevitable. This tandem has the potential to crack skulls across the league; it’s just a matter of their own bones and best-laid plans staying intact.
Projected backups: Obi Toppin and Nerlens Noel
This thing happens every Oscar season—every awards season, really, no matter the trophy’s name—where an actor experiences a surge in notoriety due to a performance or publicity tour that either absolutely no one or everyone can understand, but everyone most certainly buys into and loves. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Adam Sandler (2019 for Uncut Gems), who was brilliant in the movie and suddenly appeared everywhere for what felt like no reason, but obviously had a pointed motive to it. He was running for every award, and though he didn’t win any of the big ones, the ones your grandmother knows about because she recognizes the words you’re using from her scrolls of the TV guide, he deserved to, and he made his presence known along the way. You don’t just throw yourself at the New York Times for s–ts and gigs.
I am, of course, going to connect this analogy to Obi Toppin.
He’s not perfect. He can be a little clunky. There are times that he appears to be lugging his lanky frame around as though it’s some sort of luggage, not so much a non-detachable part of his body. There are moments during which I watch him play basketball and wonder aloud whether he’d be more comfortable in a gazelle enclosure at the local zoo, or perhaps at a track event where athletes race solely by taking abnormally long strides.
And then there are times that I watch Toppin play and see a raw, yet pure athletic force whose length is fitting to be lethal as he continues growing into his own as a consistent rotation player. I also see a forward whose ability to make a stop on defense while simultaneously starting the break is unlike 92% of players currently in the NBA, many of whom garner All-Star votes every season. Toppin might be a moose; then again, he might be a unicorn.
YEAR 2 OBI TOPPIN pic.twitter.com/MCkxoUkbSR
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 6, 2021
He’s Billy Madison just as he’s Punch-Drunk Love, Jack & Jill, and then Spanglish. Then he gives Netflix a murder mystery called… Murder Mystery, and turns in a performance to define a century in an A24 film about gambling and Ethiopian opals. Long story short: Toppin is poised for a breakout unlike many I think we’ve seen in recent Knicks history, and I think the roster is built to suit his needs perfectly, whether we know it yet or not. He wasn’t drafted eighth overall to play dorky second fiddle. He was a lottery pick to play like one. For whatever reason, I see everything pointing toward that being exactly what goes down. Let’s talk in February or so. I’ll be happy to tell you your fortune for a fair price.
As for Nerlens Noel, he’s the kind of big from which you know exactly what you’re going to get. And what you’re going to get, in the eyes of the Knicks, is worth $27.7 million over three years. Though it’s nothing overtly gang-busting, it’s serviceable and worth retaining, particularly when you can’t be sure how healthy Robinson can remain. Noel and Robinson fill a similar role to one another, protecting the rim with length and hacking away at rebounding responsibilities like few other tandems in the league. Noel’s 2.2 blocks per game last season ranked third-highest in the NBA; his scoring production may not be all that worth writing home about, but that’s not why you keep him around.
Also, apparently, he’s been working on his three-pointer this offseason? I dunno, I mean… I’m intrigued?
Other reserve bigs: Taj Gibson, Jericho Sims, Aamir Simms
Were I a better photoshopper—it’s a word—I would put Taj Gibson and Tom Thibodeau’s faces on the bodies in the poster for Step Brothers. Where there is a Taj, there is bound to be a Tom. It’s adorable. It makes too much sense to ever change.
Last year, the small-ball lineup of Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Toppin, and Gibson had the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA among groups that played at least 100 minutes together. Gibson, if nothing else, is an effective bellwether of a team’s defensive intensity; its intensity overall, really. He’s an invaluable presence if not an invaluable player, which makes it all the more fitting that we find him in this group alongside the Sim(m)s duo.
Starting with Jericho Sims, the Texas big man who Derrick Rose has described as an “introvert” he’s dying to help break out of his shell. “He’s a great big,’’ Rose said after the Knicks beat the Wizards. “He has lot of potential. He’s an introvert. I can tell so, I can relate to him. We have that relationship where I can see it.’
“He talks, but it’s something I can see in him,” Rose continued. “My job of being a vet is trying to get him to break out of his shell. As a big, you have to be able to talk and communicate. Thibs is not going to allow him to be quiet on the court. It’s my job to help.’’
Gibson can help, too. He’s vocal—like Carlos Boozer with a built-in vuvuzela—and a rookie of Sims’ demeanor could use a presence that, if nothing else, makes him uncomfortable to the point of breaking free from his internal constraints as a communicator. Rose is right: you can’t afford to be silent as a big manning the backline. So, for Sims to maintain an NBA career like plenty of Texas bigs of yore, he’ll need to heed the advice of his louder teammates. There are worse things than shouting every once and a while.
As for Aamir Simms, he’s the kind of player you expect to see getting minutes. And though he may not do exactly that directly out of the gate, he has all the bones to be the kind of G League-to-NBA surprise that gets fans excited late in games and turns in a stray 18-point performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals in two years.
“I’m definitely looking to make the roster at some point,” Simms said in September, shockingly. “I definitely think my game is loaded toward the NBA—the small-ball 5 position. The Knicks would love someone like that. Someone who doesn’t need a dozen shots a game, someone who will play hard, do smart things. It’s definitely my dream to make the roster.” Simms averaged 13.4 points on 40% shooting from three-point range, along with 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists at Clemson last season; if there’s something there, the Knicks can find it.
This legion of the lineup is the most important. Randle continuing what he started last year, a burgeoning legacy as a Knick for the books; Robinson remaining healthy, and Noel remaining available if he can’t. Gibson being a leader; Toppin unleashing his potential. This is the roster’s most fascinating and versatile position group, one that has every reason to succeed, and every variable to fail. What to expect, you say? It’s hard to lock something in, but between you, me, and the rim, I don’t see many teams that can match this crew’s potential and its execution—if all breaks right.