Better coaching has dramatically improved the Knicks, but several quality free agency pick-ups have defined Leon Rose’s ‘Bockers through 10 games.
Last season, the New York Knicks failed the offseason, bringing in several players after falling short of acquiring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The “too many power forwards” narrative aside, the Knicks acquired several players who both didn’t fit together and didn’t properly assist in bringing their younger players forward. It resulted in another losing season, another head coach losing their job, and a complete overhaul of the front office.
So when the Knicks did it again, I was harsh to critique them for eschewing the addition of young talent for another free-agent class of veterans. Even though the group of players was more perimeter-based, the Knicks added a ton of experienced vets, which caused concern around the young players that also remained on the roster.
Ten games in, it’s safe to say that not only was my assessment incorrect, but the Knicks have found the correct veterans to work around the young players on the roster.
Through the team’s first 10 games of the season, the Knicks have received a boost from their veteran players, while playing the proper young guys around them.
Before crediting the newer veterans, some of the veterans signed from last season have played well. Julius Randle has improved this season as the team’s offensive fulcrum—averaging 23.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists per game. Elfrid Payton, who was released and then re-signed for $5 million, is averaging 14.5 points and 4.6 assists. After bad first seasons, both are offering value for the Knicks this season.
But the additions of Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel have been key additions to New York so far to start the season.
Rivers already shined with an incredible performance against Utah earlier in the week. In the six games since returning from a groin injury, the nine-year veteran has averaged 11.8 points and 2.8 assists per game off the bench, making his three-year, $10 million contract with two non-guaranteed seasons after the first year feel like a bargain.
🔥 THE AUSTIN RIVERS GAME 🔥 @AustinRivers25
23 points on 9-14 FG, 5-7 3PT
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 7, 2021
Alec Burks has missed the last six games of the season; however, his impact was massive in the first three games. Averaging 20.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists to start the year, Burks assumed the role of ball handler in the second unit, which saw the Knicks maintain balance with Randle on the bench. After signing a one-year, $6 million contract this offseason, most Knicks fans would like to retain the 29-year-old wing.
shoutout Alec Burks man pic.twitter.com/ZPmDaNsL1D
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 27, 2020
Both players have added a missing element to the Knicks from last season: shooting and ball handling. Between Burks, Rivers, and rookie Immanuel Quickley, the Knicks have three players who can put the ball on the ground and shoot, which makes for a better fit alongside the likes of Randle and R.J. Barrett.
For Noel, his impact has been largely on the defensive end. Despite coming off the bench and missing two games, Noel is averaging 4.7 stocks (1.9 steals, 2.8 blocks) per 36 minutes and had one of the lowest Defensive Ratings on the team at 104.2 (after last night’s blowout, it’s 108.8, per NBA Stats). For his lack of true center size, Noel makes up in defensive awareness and the ability to pester players on the perimeter.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau has successfully installed his system, which has allowed them to thrive and create a strength: defense. So far this season, the Knicks have played more active on defense, led by the two-headed center combination of Noel and Mitchell Robinson. With both players manning the position and defending the rim, the Knicks are currently eighth in the league in defensive efficiency, per NBA Stats.
In his first year in charge of the Knicks, President Leon Rose and his staff added quality players who fit the roster well, properly offering shooting, ball handling, and the ability to work off of high usage players—all while maintaining a solid defense on the other side of the ball. The attention to the modern game and valuing playoff team skill sets is a positive for this regime moving forward.
It feels sustainable. Burks and Noel are both on one-year deals, but everyone else is under contract to the Knicks for at least the 2021–22 season. Even as New York shuffles the roster with future draft picks and free-agent acquisitions, the Knicks are seeing, even in a small sample, what works in Thibodeau’s system.
It’s early, but the New York Knicks are playing well and currently sport a record of 5-5 after finishing with just 16 wins the previous year. The credit for the team’s early-season success has been thanks to Thibodeau and his ability to install a system right away, but also a fairly successful offseason that netted New York several veteran players who properly balance the roster on both sides of the ball.
Whether this is sustainable or not is another question, but the early returns on New York’s free agency class have been positive.