The New York Knicks made solid moves this offseason and may not be done. Can Tom Thibodeau make the proper adjustments to manage it all?
Whether the New York Knicks acquire Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz or not, it’s easy to say they had a solid offseason. The additions of Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein, along with the return of Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims, were solid moves that allow them to get back on their previous trajectory prior to last season. If the goal is to make their 2021-22 season the anomaly, New York has taken a step in the right direction.
And the Mitchell trade sounds more like a trade of draft compensation, rather than one built on player talent. Outside of Quentin Grimes, talks and reports seem to have shifted to the salary to cover the deal, names like Derrick Rose and Evan Fournier, plus heavy draft pick compensation (somewhere between three and six first-round draft picks); meaning New York could acquire a top 20 player and still possibly have one or two of Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, and Obi Toppin on the roster.
And yet, all I can think about is the head coach. After coming into the franchise with an impressive 41-win season, Tom Thibodeau undid most of his goodwill with a disaster of a 2021-22 season. If it wasn’t his devoted commitment to starting the veterans, it was the team’s disastrous 3-17 streak mid-way through the season to knock them firmly into the lottery and the constant shirking of minutes for promising young players.
Leon Rose and the Knicks front office quelled any conversation of Thibodeau’s departure this current offseason, instead pushing the conversation to be about young players and then making their moves. Now, with another offseason under his belt and two new rotation players in place, Thibodeau has no excuses for another disaster season.
New York’s revamped center combination
When looking at the success of the 2020-21 season, the center position was critical for New York. Mitchell Robinson was valuable, but the addition of Nerlens Noel gave the Knicks a one-two combination that allowed New York to maintain a top ten defense and give Thibodeau comfort defensively throughout the game. Mix in Taj Gibson and his overall calmness as a vet and New York’s defense was key to their success.
The Knicks are hoping to duplicate that again, only with a trio.
Robinson is back after signing for $60 million over four years. Last season, Robinson came in around 280 pounds, hoping to maintain strength, but it didn’t work. A slimmer Robinson can get back to the active rim-running big man he was his first three seasons. Even though he talked about wanting to shoot threes, Robinson’s offensive game hasn’t evolved past five feet. Still, when you shoot nearly 72 percent at the rim and can get dunks, lobs, tip dunks, and offensive rebounds, you don’t have to be an elite, multi-move offensive threat.
Isaiah Hartenstein keeps surprising with how good he is for the Clippers this year.
The focus will be on his passing: 6 assists against 0 turnovers! Including this terrific dime to find the cutting Brandon Boston Jr.
He must be a target for the Knicks this offseason! pic.twitter.com/qmFCLrqBkD
— Ersin Demir (@EDemirNBA) April 11, 2022
However, the intriguing part of this center combination is Hartenstein and Sims. From the Clippers, Hartenstein was an excellent backup center, who showed his ability to defend the rim and keep opposing drivers at bay What makes him different is his ability to pass the ball. Last season, Hart averaged 2.4 assists and sported a 20.4% assist rate; that passing element will be huge for a Knicks team that ranked near the bottom of most passing statistics. Robinson should be the starting center, but the stark contrast between New York’s offensive flow with Hartenstein on the floor compared to Robinson will certainly earn him more minutes as the season goes on.
Sims will have to settle for being the best third-string center in the league, but with Thibodeau’s trust now, I wouldn’t be shocked if he saw more minutes than an average reserve. The defense is there, the athleticism is elite and if Las Vegas Summer League is an indication of anything, the former Texas Longhorn looks more comfortable with the ball in his hands, which could come in handy if one of Hartenstein or Robinson were to get injured.
Pick-and-roll maestro Brunson added to the mix
The Knicks have an ethos. Last season, the Knicks were fifth in the league in scoring frequency from the pick-and-roll ball-handler and third in 2020-21. New York’s offense has taken an evolution over the last two years with the infusion of different talents, but if there was one thing that Tom Thibodeau likes, it’s giving his lead ball-handler the flexibility to run a ton of pick and rolls.
Enter: Jalen Brunson. Regardless of how he was acquired, the former Villanova man was a perfect addition for a team that needed more at the point guard spot.
Of all the things Brunson adds, his ability to navigate and pounce in the lane is one of the most appealing. Among the 87 players who played at least 50 games and had averaged 2.0 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Brunson finished first in points per possession (PPP) at 1.06, the second-highest field goal percentage (52.9%) behind Chris Paul, and the third-highest scoring frequency at 51.1%. In short; Brunson to New York is adding a player who thrives at pick-and-rolls with a team who loves to run them.
Dallas hurt Denver in P&R at different times last night. Nuggets P&R scheme based on activity from bigs but also weakside D. Two clips here, first Brunson gets by Plumlee, Grant has to help and gives up a 3. Second one Grant has to help on roll, Finney-Smith rises for a 3. pic.twitter.com/0lqaITeK3H
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) October 30, 2019
The biggest benefit with Brunson is that he cleans up some of the noise. Last season, Kemba Walker started strong offensively, but the rest of the profile fell off a cliff and it impacted the rest of the team. Then, Alec Burks was thrust into a point guard/ball-handler role, which didn’t help anyone. Immanuel Quickley took a step forward in the second half and closed the season with two excellent triple-doubles, but overall, there was a lot left unsettled at the Knicks’ point guard position. Brunson, if up to the task, can entrench himself as a long-term starter.
In case anyone was wondering: Donovan Mitchell was fifth in PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. For all of the potential Brunson-Mitchell defensive warts, both players will be spamming pick-and-rolls and place opposing big men in precarious positions all game, something I’m sure R.J. Barrett, or, insert any name of any wing in the corner, could take advantage of.
Creativity is a must for Thibodeau’s roster. Can he do it?
The Knicks gave Tom Thibodeau an improved center group, improved the point guard position, and are rumored to be potentially be able to give him a top-25 player in the league.
At this point, the one concern involving Thibodeau is whether he has too many toys to play with. That goes for the rotation, as well as the lineup creativity. Last season, Thibs needed a COVID hit to play Quentin Grimes in the rotation and almost refused to play Julius Randle and Obi Toppin together. He needed Randle to sit out the last five games of the season to give Toppin more minutes and effectively yo-yo’ed Immanuel Quickley’s minutes, hampering his confidence.
All the while Evan Fournier, despite how bad the defense got, received his minutes, Alec Burk, despite how unnecessary his playing time was amidst a losing season, got his minutes, and Julius Randle, despite how poorly he played all season, got his minutes. Only Kemba Walker, who seemed more like a front office add than a Thibodeau choice, was shuffled in and out of the rotation if Thibodeau didn’t respect his performance.
New York might have enough talent that it doesn’t matter. Being able to operate with a roster of Jalen Brunson, Donovan Mitchell (assuming Rose and Fournier are in the deal), R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein, Jericho Sims, and some combination of Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, Obi Toppin, Cam Reddish, and Deuce McBride, should be able to handle itself. However, to squeeze those extra wins out, Thibodeau will have to be creative, something he has struggled with in the past.
The New York Knicks will enter the 2022-23 preseason as a better team and putting the finishing touches on a Donovan Mitchell trade will only place an exclamation mark on that effort. However, the one big question will be how Tom Thibodeau manages it all. Thibodeau is a good coach, but he has his fair share of struggles trying to adapt outside of his norms.
In a world where New York can maintain their young core in a Mitchell deal, can Thibodeau adjust to using a larger rotation and more impactful lineups with a hint of creativity? Little things, like a Toppin-Randle combination, three-guard lineups, and other small details can help the Knicks take a considerable step forward.
If he doesn’t, the Knicks might be in line for another disappointing season relative to their talent, and that will once again bring the question around of whether Thibodeau is the right coach to take this team to the next level.
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