For two years, the Knicks’ bench, led by Immanuel Quickley and others, was their ace in the hole. That’s not the case this season.
The thing about being reliable is that there is an inherent level of implied consistency to earning the label. If you are an option that a coach or other players can turn to for help when plays are starting to fall apart, it most likely means you have shown a reason to be that go-to relief.
Last season, that was the reliability with which the New York Knicks’ bench played. They were ranked highly amongst bench lineups across the NBA and were often the closers for games when the Knicks’ starters simply could not find their footing on either side of the floor.
This season, the roles have seemed to reverse with dire consequences. While New York’s starters, bolstered by the addition of Jalen Brunson and the resurgence of Julius Randle back to his All-Star form, have been able to score consistently, their bench has been a different story. They’ve been stagnant with no real scoring option present outside of Immanuel Quickley, and they have been limited to just dozens of minutes per game even when performing well in their short spurts on the floor.
This issue is not only holding back some of the younger role players on this team like Quickley and Obi Toppin, but it is holding the team back from being able to gain any momentum in the Eastern Conference standings as they struggle to close out games, maintain leads or supplant injured starters with reliable bench players. But what are the differences between last year’s bench success and this year’s sputter?
The Knicks added a few pieces to their bench that, on paper, seemed to be important upgrades. This included the signing of center Isaiah Hartenstein who was an efficient passer with the Los Angeles Clippers in years past and what looked to be the increased usage of Cam Reddish who was acquired last year from the Atlanta Hawks. Additionally, Quickley and Toppin were entering their third season with the team.
New York also lost a few pieces to their bench. Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Kemba Walker were traded to the Detroit Pistons, which wasn’t necessarily a downgrade with all three being fairly low contributors to the bench unit’s success. Last year, though, Derrick Rose and Quickley proved to be much more of an active tandem on the floor, whereas this year Rose has been sat while Knicks brass seeks to move on from the veteran guard.
A look at the numbers could help to show the difference we actually saw between last year’s and this year’s bench so far. Last season, they averaged 33.2 points per game and had a +/- on the floor of 1.5, which ranked fifth overall in the league. They also averaged 17.1 minutes per game. It’s unclear how many games they helped the Knicks actually win considering the team finished 11th in the Eastern Conference and just shy of a play-in spot, but they were often brought in to help maneuver tough matchups when the starters were unable to do so. Quickley and Rose unlocked Toppin in transition and with him as the team’s primary source of cutting and off-ball movement, and Quentin Grimes made his debut as a top defender on the team as well as a sharpshooter.
This year, albeit with a smaller sample size, numbers are not as positive for the bench. This could be because of both the aforementioned demotion of Rose as well as Quickley getting a solid number of starts this year in place of injured starters. That all being said, they are so far averaging 29.4 points per game, the fourth-worst mark in the league. They have a +/- of 3.9, but that could be related to Quickley’s jump on offense and defense this season. The bench is also only shooting 33.5% percent from three-point range, though last season’s clip of 34.3% percent from deep was not necessarily great, either. In their playoff year, the Knicks bench was shooting 38.3% percent from deep, which provided a huge boost for them on offense and took some weight off what felt like the overloaded shoulders of Julius Randle.
On defense, they’ve also taken a step back. With Grimes stepping into the starting lineup permanently and head coach Tom Thibodeau opting for what seems like a seven- to nine-man rotation, bench players are stretched thin. Hartenstein, Evan Fournier, Deuce McBride, and Jericho Sims have not provided a stopgap on defense when starters are sat, but this is especially true of when Fournier and Hartenstein enter the game. McBride is a defensively-minded guard who has yet to find a shot, but Fournier and Harteinstein have neither made their mark on offense nor have they been able to defend much at all against opposing teams’ centers and guards.
The bench also does not have one person to rely on to make a big play or to run off a string of meaningful plays. Last season and even the year prior during their playoff season, the Knicks had players like Quickley, Rose, Noel, and Burks who could often come in ready to dominate opposing teams in high-pressure situations. Now, all they have is Quickley, and there is not much he can do without more minutes for his favorite target in Toppin and without being able to get his jump shot consistent again sans the steadying point guard play from Rose.
This bench unit is in desperate need of an overhaul, which is likely to come at the expense of Cam Reddish. Reddish could be an ideal addition to the bench rotation. He showed flashes of being a solid finisher at the rim, and never really had time to develop a consistent shooter. He also has the length that the bench is sorely missing on defense in the wake of disappointing play from Hartenstein. He and Toppin could have been utilized as an athletic duo of rim runners and wing defenders. Both, however, have instead either seen their minutes cut drastically or completely.
Reddish has been at the center of several trade rumors as a result of his many DNPs from Thibodeau. Toppin could, justifiably, ask for a trade soon or by the end of the season given his underutilization as a solid wing on the Knicks bench – the third-year forward is averaging a measly 15.7 minutes per game, despite showing growth in nearly every area last year. That would leave Quickley to deal with an undermanned squad as even he sees limited playing time from Thibodeau. New York has to make a move to strengthen their depth, but the second year in a row that finds this front office seeking a momentum-shifting trade leaves those on the outside looking in wondering how much faith there is to be had in this team’s trajectory, regardless of a quality trade.