The Knicks have really missed Jalen Brunson in the recent games he sat out with injury, showing his value and why he is deserving of the Most Improved Player Award.
Despite becoming the focal point of the New York Knicks upon arrival, it has been an uphill battle for Jalen Brunson to become a viable Most Improved Player of the Year candidate. Brunson seemed to be a victim of his own success. He is doing extraordinary things for the Knicks this season.
The problem is, Brunson did many of these things for the Dallas Mavericks during their playoff run last season. That is why names like Lauri Markkanen and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have sat comfortably above Brunson in consideration. Things might have changed, though.
A lackluster west-coast swing that has largely been without Brunson has reminded everyone what the Knicks looks like without their top guard. The team lives and dies with Julius Randle’s shooting by and large. Many of the same issues that prevented the team from being a playoff team last season have reappeared, including the overreliance on Randle to score, rebound, pass, draw up the plays…you get the point.
Whether it was a coincidence or not, Brunson’s absence has coincided with an arctic front hitting the Knicks. Over the last four games, three and a half of which Brunson was missing, the team ranks dead-last in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, points per game and assists per game.
If you are keeping score at home, every category Brunson helped the Knicks elevate their game in has come crashing down in his absence. The result has been a 1-3 record over the last four games, 1-2 on the west coast swing with one more game tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers, and a loss of sole possession of the fifth seed in the East.
To fully replace Brunson, the Knicks have taken the village approach.
Randle, the biggest beneficiary of Brunson joining the team, has suffered the most, despite shouldering a bulk of the scoring load. Without Brunson, Randle has clawed to reach 20 points, shooting 33.3% from the field and 23.3% from three over his last four games, averaging 22.8 points per game.
Randle’s fast starts have been impacted too. One signature to his bounce-back season has been starting games with a hot hand. For the season, Randle ranks fourth in the league in first-quarter scoring, is averaging 9.2 points on 48.2% shooting from the field and 40.2% beyond the arc. Over the last four games, those averages are down to 7.3 points on 32.1% shooting from the field and 25.0% from three, on just about the same attempts.
One area Brunson has helped the most is getting the team organized. He has taken over playmaking duties, freeing Randle up to think about scoring and rebounding. The result has been Brunson dishing a team-high 380 assists this season.
In Brunson’s absence, playmaking duties have been equally shared between Randle, Immanuel Quickley and Josh Hart. Quickley has filled in dutifully in the starting rotation, which has had a residual impact on the second unit.
Tom Thibodeau’s tight rotation has remained as is despite Brunson missing, with Deuce McBride being the only new face added to the mix. McBride has played well in 42 minutes, staying true to his defensive style, nabbing six steals and three blocks.
To close games, a role that Brunson has made his own in year one in New York, is where RJ Barrett has stepped up. Ironically enough, Barrett seems to be the opposite of Randle in that he plays better with the ball in his hands more.
Barrett has taken the majority of fourth-quarter shots over the past four games – Barrett has attempted 30 shots, with Randle being the next closest at 17 attempts. Barrett’s big fourth quarter against the Lakers, in which he scored 13 points in the final frame, helped secure the Knicks’ first win of the road trip. It also capped off a second half in which Barrett poured in 20 points, as he filled in as the closer,
Overall, Barrett is scoring above his season’s average during Brunson’s string of absences. If you throw away an 11-point stinker versus the Clippers, Barrett has scored in the 25 to 30-point range many expected him to live in entering the season.
While the success rate is not where you would like it to be, there is no one replacement for Jalen Brunson. He is too vital to everything the Knicks do this season. And while Most Improved Player is generally an individual accolade, the team’s struggles without Brunson should elevate his case above the field.
Out of the major contenders, Brunson’s team is doing the best and in firm grasp of a playoff appearance. It will be an uphill battle to usurp Markkanen and SGA, but Brunson has a compelling case, that can pick up even more steam should the Knicks leave Portland with a loss.
There will be a few lessons learned from the final west coast swing, and chief among them is this: the Knicks’ ceiling depends heavily on the availability and production of Jalen Brunson.
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