Preseason was a strange one for head coach Tom Thibodeau, who now starts from scratch in the regular season with a very questionable Knicks rotation.
While most teams have a set rotation, the New York Knicks’ rotation seems to be in flux due to recent injuries and personal reasons. The lineups from the first two preseason games were vastly different compared to the final two games. As a result, head coach Tom Thibodeau will have to reassess his roster, what exactly he desires to start the season, and how to balance the youth and the veterans.
Even when it felt like New York had a clue, rookie Immanuel Quickley threw his name into the ring. With two strong performances, Quickley looked like the potential two-way point guard of the future with his shooting, defense, and surprising ability to run the offense. Once on the outside looking in, Quickley has emerged as a rotation lock.
Let’s look at the Knicks roster and who could emerge as the Knicks set their opening night rotation for the Indiana Pacers on December 23rd.
PG: Elfrid Payton
SG: Alec Burks
SF: R.J. Barrett
PF: Julius Randle
C: Mitchell Robinson
B: Nerlens Noel
B: Obi Toppin
B: Kevin Knox
B: Immanuel Quickley
B: Reggie Bullock
Other: Austin Rivers, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Theo Pinson (TW), Omari Spellman, Jared Harper (TW), Ignas Brazdeikis
At first glance, this feels like a proper offense-defense balance. The starting lineup still lacks proper balancing, which is an issue for now. Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle are veterans who returned to be starters. Even with the new regime picking two players who should supplant them, Thibodeau could look for a safe approach to his first rotation. Alec Burks provides an upgrade at the off-ball position, while R.J. Barrett moves to “small forward” in his second season.
RJ Barrett had a NIGHT 🔥 @RjBarrett6
• 25 points (10-17 FG, 4-5 FT)
• 4 rebounds
• 2 assists
• 1 steal
• 36 minutes played pic.twitter.com/fLKDqtypr1
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 14, 2020
Even with this lineup, there are still questions surrounding the rotation. Let’s take a look at those questions surrounding the 2020–21 New York Knicks rotation.
Mitchell Robinson vs. Nerlens Noel
If this was a 12-round fight, both Robinson and Noel won six rounds each. Thibodeau has been comfortable giving both players between 20-25 minutes a night, and I think we’ll see much of the same once Noel has fully recovered from his knee injury. Both players solidify the center position defensively, even if it means the Knicks will play with a non-shooter. Noel offers a bit more activity away from the basket, but I’m leaning Robinson thanks to his current availability as the starter.
Immanuel Quickley’s current (and future) role
Immanuel Quickley did a fantastic job in the final two preseason games to secure a rotation spot to start the season. However, I’m starting with Quickley off the bench right now, for a few reasons:
- The Knicks aren’t cutting Elfrid Payton. The same way New York won’t release Julius Randle to get Obi Toppin more minutes, they won’t just release Payton due to two strong performances from Quickley. The proper action here is to give him a constant role, 25-28 minutes, before reevaluating his role.
- Consider Kevin Knox. As Quickley exploded onto the scene, Kevin Knox showed signs of life, with two solid performances to close out the preseason. Allowing Quickley to continue to work with Knox and offer him a constant point guard in the second unit could help the third-year forward turn the corner.
- What if Quickley struggles with the starting role? Starting at point guard means a healthy dose of Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, and De’Aaron Fox. The list goes on. What if Quickley struggles defending that group, and the improved defenses he faces mean struggles offensively? What does Thibodeau do at that moment? Does he just stick with him, or swap him for one of Payton or Smith Jr.?
Ultimately, it’s easier for the Knicks to ease him into the rotation and then let him have the point guard spot after trading or releasing Payton in March. Then, the pressure is off of him, and he’s further away from being an off-guard at Kentucky. Getting him an initial 300-400 minutes as a backup could help ease his transition into a starter. I think Thibodeau agrees, so I have him a rotation player for now.
Reggie Bullock and the (open) 10th man spot
Before the start of the preseason, Thibodeau commented that the rotation would include “9-10 players,” but historically, Thibodeau’s 10th man has received about 15 minutes per game. Reggie Bullock is my projected 10th man because of his ability to space the floor and his status as a veteran player, but that spot will be rotated throughout. With two other wings in Burks and Barrett starting, and a surging, yet questionable wing option in Knox, Bullock makes the most sense right now to get that final spot.
Austin Rivers’ arrival and eventual role: Dealing with a groin injury for the entire preseason, Rivers will enter the regular season, and his first as a Knick, playing catch-up. That said, it doesn’t mean he won’t contribute. Once fully healthy, expect him to take Bullock’s spot. There, he’ll offer a shooter and driver who can play in the backcourt.
Smith, Ntilkina, and the ones who missed the rotation: We already talked about the guys who made the rotation, let’s talk about the ones who are on the outside looking in.
- Dennis Smith Jr.: Smith is stuck with no real role on the Knicks entering the season. Payton offers the same playmaking, while Quickley provides more shooting. Defensively, Smith has worked hard to become a decent defender, but it appears that Smith has slowed down offensively and lost some of the vertical pop that make him a top 10 prospect four years ago.
- Frank Ntilikina: Achilles soreness has slowed Ntilikina for the last two preseason games, the same two where Quickley shined. Ntilikina could fill many roles—secondary ball-handler, defensive wing, corner three-point shooter—but the Knicks have added several guards who can fill those roles at the moment.
- Theo Pinson: I still question Pinson as an NBA player, specifically how much he could impact the game. However, Thibodeau is known for playing wing players who don’t provide much on offense, à la Keith Bogans. Pinson flashed good defense and some solid playmaking in the preseason finale against Cleveland. I don’t think he’ll get much playing time this year, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if he got a chance.
Unlike last season, the Knicks loaded up the backcourt with veterans who can handle a sizable chunk of minutes. Players like Burks and Rivers could offer the spacing and ball-handling that was missing on the roster. That, plus a returning Payton and Bullock, creates a brand new dilemma for Thibodeau and crew as they navigate that youth-veteran balance.
New York doesn’t have to have a perfect balance right now, but they have several options to shuffle around on the roster throughout the season, creating more questions than answers heading into the regular season.