The emergences of Julius Randle and Immanuel Quickley; the safety valve of Mitchell Robinson; the ceiling of RJ Barrett. The Knicks have something in the works finally.
On the second anniversary of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, the New York Knicks have something to show for it. Moral victories indeed have no place in professional sports. Still, it was hard to walk away from the Knicks’ 129-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, January 31st without a feeling of hope and assurance that better days lay ahead.
The Knicks went toe-to-toe with the NBA’s elite and forced them to bring their A-game. The effort did not go unnoticed, leaving an impression on Clipper stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who took note of the up-and-coming talent. In a remarkable turn of events, given how deflating last season felt at times, the Knicks have stumbled upon a core four of Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Immanuel Quickley.
The biggest problem that plagued the Knicks in the immediate aftermath of the Porzingis trade was a lack of identity. The roster David Fizdale was handed was league-worst, consisting of a collective of players that did not fit well together or do any one thing well. It didn’t help that Fizdale never crafted a clear identity.
That dynamic shifted instantly once Tom Thibodeau took over. Under Thibodeau, the Knicks transformed a roster largely unchanged from last season into one of the league’s best defenses.
What Leonard and George saw was more than a tough defensive team. Kawhi left the past Sunday afternoon impressed by Barrett’s aggression. “He took on a challenge. That’s how you get better, trying to guard the best players on the floor and also trying to attack them,” via The Athletic’s Mike Vorkunov. “I liked his mindset tonight. The sky is the limit. Depending on how hard he works and where his mental is. I like that he took the challenge tonight.”
Quickley was once again given props by his elder statesmen. Lou Williams dapped him up mid-game and George called the Kentucky rookie “fearless.” “I think what I love the most and it’s a hard quality to find: I thought he was fearless,” George said. “He took some big shots. He stepped up to take big shots. Offensively, he was just aggressive.”
Player development was the cornerstone of Thibodeau’s plan, and aggression is the ethos of Thibodeau teams. That aggression has spilled over to offense where players like Barrett, Quickley, and, most prominently, Julius Randle, undergo the tough task of carrying the scoring load night in and night out.
The early returns of the Thibodeau era have been the development of the new core of Randle, Barrett, Robinson, and Quickley. As a four-man unit, they have shown promise, with a 111.1 Offensive Rating and 99.1 Defensive Rating in 50 minutes, per NBA.com.
Beyond the numbers, the spacing feels like modern-day spacing, not the congested mess of seasons past. This puts the team in a good position and the front office in a great position as they further their imprint on the roster. Don’t forget, this abbreviated offseason meant minimal changes. This upcoming offseason will give Rose a chance to sink his teeth into crafting the roster to fit the new regime’s vision.
The good news is the needs are clear and the timing is not as urgent. Thibodeau’s star ask remains an open request as does the need for more shooters. Knowing which players should be off-limits frees the front office to handle in-house business first, and then focus on building around guys they know will be here.
Take Care of the Big Guys
Julius Randle has experienced a whirlwind of public opinion. The writing appeared to be on the wall once Obi Toppin was taken eighth overall. Things have changed drastically since then, with the conversation now shifting to ensuring Randle remains a piece of the team this season and beyond.
When Randle was at Kentucky I used to call him “Baby Z-Bo.” There is some irony to that nickname now that Randle is spearheading a Grindhouse-like revival under Thibodeau.
Randle’s renaissance to an All-Star-caliber player has been a sigh of relief for Knick fans and now positions the front office to make moves with him in mind.
Another important development is Randle’s chemistry with Barrett and Robinson. He and Barrett have forged a bond that has been reflected on the floor as both share the burden of carrying the offense. Randle and Robinson do not have the same chemistry, but they unquestionably fit much better than they used to.
The fit with Robinson was something that felt like wishful thinking last season. Under Fizdale, Randle and Robinson fit together like oil and water, thanks in large part to Randle being used as a rim-runner or isolation scorer. Thibodeau has gone away from the Fizdale c’est la vie methodology, built upon what Mike Miller was getting out of Randle, and added structure to it. Today, Randle can generate his shot just about anywhere, evolving into a legitimate playmaker instead of an isolation disaster. He and Robinson have begun to click as a result.
RANDLE TO MITCH ALLEY OOP. AND ONE pic.twitter.com/ftEd3a3Ndl
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 22, 2021
Randle is reducing his spins to a minimum, is learning to pass out of double teams, and is creating his offense even on nights his shot is not falling. He has also stepped it up considerably on defense, sliding into his role as a defensive glass cleaner where he is hauling in a career-best 9.7 rebounds a contest.
The window shopping allows him and Robinson to coexist much easier, with Robinson allowed to focus on his elite rim protection. On the offensive end Randle and Robinson swap roles with Robinson attacking the glass. The minor adjustments have produced promising results as we now live in a world where both can thrive.
Robinson does not enjoy the fanfare he probably should, yet he is the most crucial cog on the roster; when he exits the game you immediately feel the lack of interior presence. Do not let the dip in blocks per game fool you, Robinson is still the rim protector he has always been, he is just much smarter. His blocks per game were not the only average to go down, so did his fouls per game, which are at a career-best 2.8 per game.
It is borderline criminal how cheap Robinson is under his current deal. He is making $1.6 million this season and has a team option for $1.8 million next season. There are two ways the team can attack this. One, they could forget the $1.8 million and extend Robinson to a more respectable salary—something the front office already discussed during the offseason, per SNY’s Ian Begley—that does not cripple the team from pursuing a max-level player.
The other option is holding off until the end of next season after the team has swung on a big trade or big signing. The team will own Robinson’s Bird rights so there is no real haste to get a deal done unless the front office senses it can sign him at a discount.
Hammering out a Randle extension is much more straightforward. The team could choose to pick up his $19.8 million team option for next season and make a final decision in 2022. There is some risk in allowing Randle to hit the open market, mainly driving up his price or leaving for nothing.
The prudent approach is working on an extension this summer, re-upping Randle on another three-year deal in the same neighborhood as his current deal. Such a deal secures the foundation while not disrupting any future spending.
A good sign that your team is headed in the right direction is your youngest player being one of your best. Barrett being good makes life much easier for the team to ramp efforts to build a contender.
Since awaking from what had the makings of a quintessential sophomore slump, Barrett has stormed back with a vengeance. Over his last 14 games, Barrett is second on the team in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game on 50.0% shooting from the floor, 42.5% from three, and 80.4% from the free throw line.
The key difference for Barrett has been fewer three-point attempts. The mystery as to why Barrett’s outside shot will not fall remains unsolved. In the meantime, Barrett has adjusted and relied more on his strength and finesse to get to the rim and set up more in the midrange. By reducing his three-point attempts (he is averaging 2.9 long-range shots per game over those 12 games compared to 4.5 previously) and attacking Barrett has looked like the guy we saw at Duke.
Randle becoming a three-level scorer has given Barrett the slightest bit of spacing he has needed. Sharing the floor with a flamethrower like Immanuel Quickley takes it up another level.
Some next-day RJ Barrett highlights even though Immanuel Quickley (rightfully) stole the show in the Cavs win.
🎥 (@TheKnicksWall): pic.twitter.com/jxCLbBD3S3
— Reid Goldsmith (@reidgoldsmith) January 30, 2021
Barrett needed someone like Quickley. The two neophytes complement each other’s game while carrying the same demeanor on the court. They do not care who you are, they will go at you and will not dwell over a bad shot or bad possession.
One pet peeve watching Payton is an unwillingness to run. Often when Barrett or Randle rip and start to run Payton and Reggie Bullock trot along. Swapping in a spark plug like Quickley adds more transition offense opportunities, an underutilized area of Barrett’s game.
Quickley has not suffered any prolonged slumps, and while his season numbers on its face are not remarkable—12.0 points, 2.7 assists, 2.3 rebounds per game, and shooting 41.0% from the floor, 36.3% from three, and 93.2% from the free throw line—your eyes tell you that Quickley is everything the Knicks have needed at point guard for quite some time. He is also the exact type of player Barrett, Randle and Robinson need.
Simply swapping in Quickley for the shooting-impaired Elfrid Payton gives the team such a facelift they are barely recognizable. The mere threat of Quickley pulling up from anywhere past the logo forces defenses to play up, rather than sit back and play box-and-one defense. Quickley’s presence reduces the chance of Randle seeing a double team, opens up the lane for Barrett to drive or Robinson to roll for a lob.
Quickley’s ability to explode at any given moment brings a dynamic that has been dormant since the days of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Quickley has already flashed this ability, most notably against Anthony and Damian Lillard in Portland.
The performance left an impression on Lillard—a close friend of Knicks associate head coach Johhnie Bryant—who texted Quickley following the performance. Lillard and George see what our eyes are already telling us, Quickley is not a fluke.
Finding the Missing Piece
The crescendo of this everlasting rebuild is adding that star player—in case the hiring of Rose, Wesley, and the not-so-subtle courting of Kevin Durant last year did not make that blatantly obvious. Securing that star remains a tall task, but as mentioned earlier, Rose will not need to do as much heavy lifting as anticipated. The cap space is there, the core is now there, which allows Rose to be picky.
As nice as it would be a strong defense but an anemic offense. Even with the eventual insertion of Quickley into the starting lineup, the Knicks need more scoring threats. Payton is a lame duck offensively, Reggie Bullock has not been much better and the only player with true promise is Obi Toppin.
The best possible resolution would be the Dallas Mavericks continuing to slump and end up in the lottery. If the Mavs pick is high enough Rose can present an enticing trade package to move up for Jalen Suggs or Cade Cunningham, the two draft prospects that project to be everything the Knicks are currently missing. Suggs and Cunningham are wizards with the basketball. Adding either guy could level up the Knicks as soon as their rookie year.
A more rational (and realistic) option is making a run at Victor Oladipo in the offseason or waiting for Zach LaVine to hit free agency the season after. Oladipo and LaVine offer different strengths. Oladipo has more of a two-way game with experience being the top guy on a playoff team.
LaVine is the more offensively gifted player who would enjoy a wealth of shot attempts in New York. With the defensive foundation in place in New York, LaVine would have to be passable on defense to stay on Thibodeau’s good side, but he certainly would not be taxed with guarding the opposing team’s top player.
Finding that star player may require some patience. As fun as it is to imagine a Devin Booker or Donovan Mitchell blockbuster, the likelihood of such a deal materializing feels wishful at best. It would also compromise the core; any package would have to include some combination of Randle, Barrett, Quickley, or Robinson.
The Derrick Rose trade was a poor example of the type of moves the teams could make to marginally move the needle until a greater opportunity presents itself. More examples would be for acquiring sharpshooters like Gary Trent Jr., Kevin Huerter, or J.J. Redick. Redick, in particular, would be a fun trade that could expand to include Lonzo Ball, whose situation is up in the air like his draft mate Frank Ntilikina. Redick’s veteran presence and sharpshooting, in addition to Ball’s untapped potential, would put a big grin on Thibodeau’s face and bump the Knicks up enough to seriously consider making a run at that eighth seed.
The important thing is to remember is there is no rush. For the first time in a long time, the team has a handful of homegrown talent beginning to blossom. The fanbase is content—as content as a New York fanbase can be—lessening the haste to make seismic changes. It also gives seasoned salesmen Leon Rose and William Wesley a tangible pitch to players around the league: the Knicks are building something.
It is unfamiliar territory for New York, and a territory fans have waited on for far too long.
»READ: Early returns suggest the Knicks are heading in the right direction
»READ: Among Knicks point guards, Immanuel Quickley has set himself apart