Hornacek’s team has trouble running with younger squads and chasing athletes that impose their will. How can they improve their slow team?

Quick: think of the Knicks most exciting Knicks dunks of the season so far.

Maybe Enes Kanter on Boogie?

Maybe the KP spin-dunk vs. Philly?

Tim Hardaway Jr. on Cleveland?

We already knew the Knicks had a wing problem. And their last-place three-point shooting is well-documented. But, as their playoff hopes dim and trade chatter simmers, a more fundamental need has become increasingly evident: athleticism.

The Knicks might have overpaid Hardaway Jr. to be a streaky second scorer, but he offers verve that the team otherwise lacks (though he hasn’t had any dunk as massive as his Final Four flush).

But Timmy aside, who on this Knicks roster is an above-average athlete?

Michael Beasley is smooth with a quick second-jump, but not a high-flyer. 32-year-old Courtney Lee can slash well and occasionally get up, but has never been a deft finisher. KP is remarkably mobile for a 7’3″ human and can absolutely throw it down, but his game isn’t premised on his athleticism (at least at this stage). Lance Thomas specializes in dirty work, and Doug McDermott has merely respectable ups. Frank Ntilikina has flashed impressive leaping ability, but he’s slowly developing offensive confidence. Trey Burke is speedy, but very small. Kanter, Jarrett Jack, Ron Baker, Kyle O’Quinn, and Willy Hernangómez aren’t exactly known for hang-time.

I mean, just check this Knicks Top 5 Plays of the Week montage. Perfectly fine stuff, but far from electrifying. Their Top 10 from November is weak sauce, and their top play of December on this list is friggin’ Melo’s return to the Garden.

Obviously, the eye test and highlights are not the most scientific approach to measuring a team’s athleticism, but some basic numbers illustrate the impact of the Knicks grounded approach:

  • The Knicks rank sixth-worst in transition points scored and transition frequency (NBA Stats).
  • They sit bottom-five in loose ball recoveries—an indication of effort, but also the ability to out-run and out-jump opponents.
  • The Knicks have made the second-fewest drives to the hoop, and, accordingly, rank second-worth in points off drives (NBA Stats). The team leader in points off drives per game, Hardaway Jr., ranks outside the top 70.
  • The Knicks have only one player (KP: 26th) in the top 75 in dunks for the season, with Kanter (78th), Beasley (83rd), and O’Quinn (99th) as the only others in the top 150 (per Basketball Reference).
  • Surprisingly, the Knicks rank 11th in average speed, which helps prevent fast break points, but that is offset by their woeful lack of production on drives and transition offense. Clearly, they are missing guys who can create shots and wreak havoc on defense via their athleticism.

For comparison’s sake, just look at the Lakers—a bottom-feeding lottery team—that recently ran the Knicks off the court. That roster is still being formed, but simply having Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, (now svelte) Julius Randle, and Kyle Kuzma enables an elite level of productivity in the open court, which can compensate for the unpolished, unstructured play frequently exhibited by young players. In that recent contest, for example, L.A. looked alarmingly jumpier and faster, and outscored the Knicks 22–7 in transition.

On defense, effort is a problem, sure, but look at the top 10 highest scoring outputs against the Knicks this season (all Knicks Ls):

  • Denver (1/25): 130 points
  • Lakers (1/21): 127 points
  • Pelicans (1/14): 123 points (OT)
  • Warriors (1/23): 123 points
  • Chicago (1/10): 122 points (2OT)
  • Washington (1/3): 121 points
  • Houston (11/1): 119 points
  • San Antonio (12/28): 118 points
  • Minnesota (1/12): 118 points
  • Houston (11/25): 117 points

No shame in getting bested to top four West squads (Warriors, Rockets, and Wolves rank 1-2-3 in offensive rating, and Spurs game came on the second leg of a back-to-back). But look closer and a few other trends emerge, besides the disturbing fact that every non-Rockets game has occurred since late December. The Lakers, Wizards, and Pelicans are top ten in transition points, and the Nuggets are one of the most efficient fast break teams in the league (they didn’t light up the Knicks in that department, but their overall spryness was more than evident, especially with Baker starting in place of THJ). That Bulls game went into double-overtime.

On the other hand, their best defensive performances have come against the Suns, Clippers, Heat, Nets, Grizzlies, and Sacramento—all of whom fare poorly in transition FG%. Sac Town, Miami, and Memphis are towards the bottom in pace.

Above-the-rim athleticism and physical versatility is paramount in the modern NBA, and the Knicks roster is cripplingly devoid of players that check those boxes. So, what to do? As the trade deadline looms, the Knicks have been ubiquitously mentioned in chatter, though it seems like the front office will prioritize offloading money and acquiring draft picks. That’s smart—the draft offers the best opportunity to find springy athletes (Mikal Bridges? Jaren Jackson Jr.?), and veteran wings could be available this summer. They’ve already been linked to 3-and-D specialist Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who might not excel at off-the-backboard alley-oops, but the Knicks could use someone with the confidence in their own ups to give it a try. Trevor Ariza is an unrestricted free agent, and while past his prime, his versatility and length would still help. Personally, I like the idea of pursuing Will Barton—a highlight-maker that can rain threes when hot.

For the time being, assuming the Knicks slide out of the playoff race and clear the frontcourt logjam before the deadline, Jeff Hornacek should embrace a looser, more freewheeling style that heavily features the Knicks more athletic—and younger—players. He could start Frank, give Burke consistent minutes, and even move Damyean Dotson into the rotation. In general, they could benefit from picking up the pace (they currently rank 19th), jacking more threes, and going isolation less often (easier said than done).

Skills and tendencies can be taught and developed, but raw athleticism is more intrinsic. As the Knicks re-tool, they should look to boost their collective vertical, and in the meantime, do what they can to compensate for their lack of hops.