The Knicks start a brutal five-game road trip with the Utah Jazz, leaving speculation on the team’s future at the end of the stretch. 

The New York Knicks (6-7) travel today to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Jazz (10-5). This is the first matchup between both teams this season and the start of a five-game west coast swing for the Knicks. Last season, the Jazz took both of the two matchups against the Knicks.

After a closer-than-normal game against the Detroit Pistons and a matinee blowout at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, questions are starting to arise around the Knicks, and specifically, head coach Tom Thibodeau. Despite the team’s 6-7 record and middling metrics, the questions about this team’s present and future are coming into the question, leading to the thought that Thibodeau, who led the team to a miracle fourth-seed playoff appearance in 2021, could be on the way out.

And if Thibodeau does find himself on the hot seat, this next 12-game stretch won’t help matters. Along with the Jazz, New York sees the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Oklahoma City Thunder on this road trip alone. Once they get back home, the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Atlanta Hawks are on the schedule. Only a small, brief trip to Detroit looms as a saving grace.

So over the next 12 games, the Knicks feel like underdogs in 10-11 of them. This feels like a potential death march for Thibodeau –  either he gets axed after a 2-10 finish or has the troops rally around him, squeak out a 6-6 finish over the 12 games and holds on to his job for the rest of the season. Regardless, if you want any change in the Knicks world, this is the most important 12-game stretch of the season.

Show Me My Opponent

When the Utah Jazz traded Rudy Gobert to Minnesota and Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland, the prevailing thought was they were careening towards a season in the lottery, allowing ping-pong balls to land them the next franchise player. Never did Danny Ainge and crew envision a 10-5 start and a team that looks like it could sustain for the remainder of the season.

The Jazz is better than the sum of their parts, largely thanks to first-year head coach Will Hardy and his ability to craft and churn out multiple effective lineups out of their talented roster. Currently, Utah sits fifth in the league in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency, an impressive combination for a team lacking a star player.

It starts with Lauri Markkanen (21.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.2 assists), a long shooter who has been able to play like a power forward on defense, but more of a small forward on offense – roaming and patrolling the outside and serving as the team’s lead stretch option. Last season in Cleveland, where he played alongside both Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, seemed to have revealed his fate as a player.

The player that has impressed me the most is Jarred Vanderbilt (8.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists); an effective swiss army knife of a power forward. While being criticized for his inability to stretch the floor, the former Kentucky Wildcat has seemingly mastered other aspects of the game. An elite defender who can work as an effective passer, Vanderbilt’s ancillary skills have allowed Utah to play several different big men around him without worrying about the defensive metrics.

From there, it’s Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson as veteran starters, with Collin Sexton as an aggressive bench scorer and Malik Beasley spacing the floor. Talen Horton-Tucker has offered solid minutes since moving from Los Angeles, while Kelly Olynyk’s backup minutes have been valuable for a solid frontcourt rotation. All in all, this is a team that could go eight deep with respectable players, while shuffling younger prospects, like Walker Kessler and Ochai Agbaji in without over-relying on them.

Can the Utah Jazz win 50 games and make the playoffs? We shall see. What we do know is that they’ve shown the ability to be successful right away and if they want to let this run, they have the draft pick capital to let it ride and be successful come draft day.

What to Watch

  • New York’s offense maintaining balance: The Knicks had an excellent offensive night against Oklahoma City on Sunday and they must maintain that against Utah. The ball has to move, the passing has to be crisp and the likes of Cam Reddish and Obi Toppin have to be ready to launch threes. Any stops in offensive fluidity could result in Utah pushing towards a double-digit lead swiftly.
  • Evan Fournier, but in a bad way: I’m completely against blaming one player for a team’s failure. However, one of the more jarring moments from the Thunder game was Tom Thibodeau swapping out Immanuel Quickley for Evan Fournier in the second quarter and watching the lead evaporate almost instantly. Fournier is not a bad player, but he’s a target on defense. If I’m the Knicks, I shy away from him in this game, as the Jazz have several players who can target and thrive with Fournier on the floor.
  • New York’s “Big Three” carrying the Knicks: Each one of New York’s big three – Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, and Julius Randle – is in a rough matchup. Someone, maybe two of them, will have to fight through that to get the win for New York. Randle getting stuck in a battle with Vanderbilt could stifle New York’s offense, while Horton-Tucker feels like the ideal option to defend Barrett. Brunson should have an effective game, but with Conley, Clarkson, and Sexton, Utah offers several options to attack Brunson on defense. All big concerns, but New York will have to find a way.

Big “Knicks down 15 points with four minutes left in the second quarter” vibes on this one. Can the Knicks fight back against the Jazz? Sure. I’m worried about Utah being able to successfully churn the roster and maintain effective lineups for a full 48 minutes – one bad lineup from New York could sink them.

One request? I want to see Jalen Brunson, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, and Isaiah Hartenstein out there for just five minutes. Does this lineup win you the game? No, but Quickley, Grimes, and Barrett are effective defenders with size, Brunson can run the show with a relatively open floor, and Hartenstein is a passer and creator offensively and a drop defender in the backline; I think it could sway some minutes for the Knicks positively.

Tip-off is set for 9 p.m.

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