The Knicks have been woefully inconsistent in Year 2 with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, but a playoff or play-in spot is not out of range.
Monday night’s matchup with the San Antonio Spurs proves to be the New York Knicks’ 41st game of the 2021–22 NBA season—the halfway point of what has been an unpredictable wild for the franchise and across the league.
Similarly, last season’s 72-game schedule saw the Knicks at an even 18-18 after playing the Spurs at the midpoint with fans slowly returning to Madison Square Garden. This time, the Knicks are 19-21 but firmly in the mix for the backend of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Taking the temperature of the franchise is four of The Knicks Wall’s staff writers, answering questions about the topline players, the looming trade deadline, and expectations going forward.
Who are your best and worst performers halfway through the season?
Pat Kiernan: It’s tough to pick a best performance so far, isn’t it? Would it be so bold to say Obi Toppin? The three-point shooting isn’t there, sure, but he’s looked so much more comfortable on the court than last season and brings instant energy off the bench. We’ve seen him hit a career-high of 19 points twice this season, all under the frustration of Tom Thibodeau only playing him about 16 minutes per game this season. Other than him, Julius Randle has been so solid regardless of all the flack he’s been given. Teams are game-planning against him as a star now, so it’s natural to see numbers move a little. When you look at performances like the 30-point, 16-rebound game against Indiana last week, you know that’s the type of playmaker you’re getting with him.
When it comes to worst, there’s almost your pick of the litter. The most egregious Knick has been Evan Fournier, who is putting up career-lows in just about every category after moving over here from Boston via Orlando. Outside of contests he plays against the Celtics, he looks abjected from the game. His offensive decisions and shooting have been abysmal, and his defense is nowhere to be found. Aside from him, it’s disappointing to see RJ Barrett regress, rather than make the third-year leap so many had hoped to see. Struggling immensely from three-point range compared to last season and being beaten often on the defensive end after promising an All-Defensive campaign this season leaves reason to doubt the type of player he will blossom into in his career.
Candace Pedraza: The best performance so far this year is tough considering that there are no true standout players this much through the season yet. For me, Derrick Rose was a huge and obvious spark both off the bench and inserted with the starting unit before he went down with an ankle injury. His absence is being felt heavily by the team as they feel far more stagnant and careless in their backcourt. As for worst performance,
I’m going to take a wild guess and assume everyone else will be naming the same Frenchman at this slot. He has not lived up to his contract, to say the least, but we should have all seen that coming considering he was going from a lottery team in Orlando to a possible playoff contender in New York who needed his shooting ability. His 13.5 points-per-game average is around his career average of 14.3, but we all understandably expected more on a deal like his.
Kemba Walker’s reawakening and Evan Fournier’s career night are a tie. Walker’s 44 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists to zero turnovers against the Wizards was the first time “Cardiac Kemba” had shown up for a full game. In classic Knick fashion, the supporting cast did not show up, and the Wizards eked out the win.
Fournier’s 41-point game was a gift from the gods and played a critical role in my favorite Knick moment since at least 2014. The Celtics killer torched his former team more than usual this night, going off for a career-best 10 three-pointers. His team needed every single point, and the clutch scenarios in which he drilled those shots should be properly respected.
Worst: RJ Disappears vs. Cleveland
RJ Barrett has had a turbulent third season, to say the least. There are moments he appears to be on the cusp of truly being great. Then there are nights when you wonder what the hell is going on. His six-point performance in a loss to the Cavaliers earlier this season is an example of the latter. It was a display of what Barrett looks like at his worst, and yikes. He shot 3-for-13 from the field, turned the ball over four times, and did not do much else to compensate for his failings in 33 minutes of playing time.
Patrick Diaz: The Knicks have been an overall disappointment this season and have not been able to build on the last season, they currently sit at 19-21 and 11th in the Eastern Conference standings and look more mediocre by the day. The free-agent signings haven’t worked but the worst performance of the season so far has to go to Evan Fournier. He just hasn’t lived up to the contract he signed this past summer. As of January 9th, the Knicks have played exactly 40 games, in 15 of the games Fournier has scored in the single digits. The only team Evan Fournier seems to get up for is the Boston Celtics, he might have a personal grudge, but it’s the only time he’s looked worth the contract he was given. He also doesn’t give much in other facets of the game, he’s not a good defender and he can’t pass or rebound for being one of the bigger guards in the league.
What do you make of regression from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett?
Pat Kiernan: Again, I don’t know how much to call Randle’s season a regression. Defenses are playing tough against him, and he’s still averaging nearly 20 points, over 10 rebounds, and almost five assists per game. That still puts him in a select group of All-Stars putting up those numbers this season. Turnovers are obviously concerning, that being the most glaring issue for him especially when he gets doubled by defenses. Barrett’s season is a lot more concerning, considering his shooting percentages are down across the sheet.
The perfect eye test for what the two of them could be was the game against the Pacers last week where the two of them put up 30-plus points in the same game for the first time in their careers. Rather than try to run the offense outside of himself with Fournier, Kemba Walker, or Alec Burks, Barrett was treated as the secondary playmaker on the team that night and it worked out tremendously. That’s how the offense should flow from now on.
Candace Pedraza: Watching almost all the games so far, it’s clear that both players are aiming to do too much in games to try and spread the floor and help their team get an offensive rhythm going. For Barrett, his attempt at becoming a 3-and-D wing has not gone as planned. He’s only shooting 33% from long range, a drop from his 40% averages from last season (to be fair, he’s also attempting far more three-pointers to begin this season). As a result, he has shied away from attacking the basket which has always seemed to work for him, especially as he only gets better at finishing and stronger.
For Randle, you see instances of his old self cropping up in hard-to-watch spins to the basket that usually results in turnovers, or holding onto the ball for too long in the post, forcing him to pass out for a bad shot or taking a bad one himself. But when he’s successful by using his strength, not hesitating on long-range shots, or playing off of a competent point guard, he looks like the Most Improved Player from last year. Both need to be more aggressive moving forward, especially in the paint. I feel that both tend to settle for what they think is needed at the moment but not what’s smartest or most available to them as potential offensive engines on this team.
Mike Cortez: The decline of the Lucky Lefties is easy to identify, a little less easy to explain. The problem with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle is that neither can hit the ocean from the sand more times than not. Both have seen declines across the board in their shooting numbers. Barrett is shooting worse everywhere on the floor. His free throw progress feels like a distant memory, he is back down below 70%. Randle has had a nearly identical decline to his left-handed right-hand man, shooting worse in every area from the floor.
What makes the declines even more alarming is that the long-range misses are coming on open looks, the closer attempts are the product of poor shot taking. The struggles have had a significant impact on team success, mainly because Derrick Rose seemed to be the only guy capable of scoring on a consistent basis.
The erratic scoring nights of both guys have only made the need for a true star to unlock the team’s potential even more obvious. Randle and Barrett are good players, but they happen to be the same type of player, neither capable of shouldering the superstar load.
If you missed the game last night you missed the Lucky Lefties cook the Pacers, combining for 62 points in a. 104-94 win at MSG
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 5, 2022
Patrick Diaz: RJ Barrett’s third-year regression might be the most disappointing thing for the Knicks this season. After taking leaps in his sophomore season Barrett has struggled to find his footing, almost all of his statistics look like they did in his rookie season. This may be in part to the Knicks force-feeding Fournier earlier in the season and Barrett taking a back seat, it might have been politics or coach Thibadeau feeling pressure to feature the latest big-money addition but it’s undeniable it’s hurt Barrett’s progress. RJ Barrett was projected to a 1B/second option this season but many nights he’s looked like a distant third; Barrett is still averaging more points, assists, and rebounds than Fournier in his regression.
Even with his own struggles, Julius Randle is having the best season by far of all the Knicks, he’s averaging a double-double with 19.5 points a game and 10.1 rebounds to go with 4.9 assists. Only three other forwards in the league are doing that, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Domantas Sabonis, and Joel Embiid (if you count him as a forward).
How should the front office approach the trade deadline?
Pat Kiernan: If I’m Leon Rose, I’m still on every phone call about Myles Turner. Rather than let Mitch Robinson play the season out before deciding his contract fate, why not trade for a better shooter and shot-blocker in Turner. The Knicks definitely have the draft capital and prospects to make a deal work. More importantly, though, is the point guard situation. Walker and Derrick Rose are both so injury prone, and Thibs seems reluctant to try Quickley out as the team’s primary ball-handler. That’s where De’Aaron Fox comes into play. Fox, a speedy point guard, would be a welcome addition to the team that’s last in the league in pace of play. His 21 points per game and five-plus assists per game for the Kings so far would be highly beneficial to a Knicks team that lacks scorers and playmakers outside of Randle. This would be a harder trade to work out than Turner, as the Knicks would have to say goodbye to more of their prospects to swing this type of deal.
Candace Pedraza: It’s clear that the Knicks are still missing a true point guard that Thibodeau is willing to start. Kemba Walker finally started to shine in the role, but his injury woes became an issue once again. Immanuel Quickley is a great up-and-coming point guard for New York, but Thibs has yet to consistently show faith in him as being at the helm permanently. It would greatly benefit the team if they could secure an explosive point guard like De’Aaron Fox. They could also try and get actual wing scoring in someone like Kelly Oubre Jr., who was rumored to be someone that the front office was interested in before this season started but were perturbed by his drop-off in shooting efficiency. However, I don’t feel that they are aiming to shoot very high if they are trying to offload anyone in exchange for any of their less than needed role players like Kevin Knox or their draft picks for 2022 and beyond. I am operating on the assumption that they will be more than happy to wait for free agency even if things go even more awry, or if the Knicks miss the playoffs this year. Last year, unfortunately, appears to have been too good to be consistent or true with their current roster.
Mike Cortez: If the team chooses to roll a major move over to the end of the season, it is hard to be invested in the rest of the season. Everything the Knicks have shown this season has proven they are not going to match the success of last season. Even if they had brought everyone back, these struggles would still exist. It’s time for the front office to get ambitious.
The asset chest has been stocked for close to three years now, the front office just needs to start playing some hands. Leon Rose seems to be taking the approach of a poker player with a tight range, refusing to budge unless he likes the cards on the board. It might be time to open that range and explore major trades with high risk like Fox or even slightly above marginal move like Cam Reddish.
Patrick Diaz: The front office hasn’t really done anything to fix New York’s sluggish performance. The only saving grace is that, with the East jampacked with teams like the Knicks hovering around .500, the right move can get the Knicks going in the right direction. But is there really a trade out there the Knicks can make to propel them into playoff contention? Aside from the Damian Lillard dream being dead, the rumor mill is filled with the usual suspects, like Ben Simmons, with whom the Knicks have no connection at this point. The Pacers have been public about trading off their stars, a possible avenue the Knicks can take to beef up the roster. This most intriguing name on the trading block is Fox, a dynamic player who can solve New York’s most pressing issue, finding a franchise point guard. It’ll take a godfather offer from Rose and co. to acquire the young floor general; Fox is having kind of a down year and it might be the perfect time to strike.
What are our expectations for the remainder of the season?
Pat Kiernan: It hurts to say, but this isn’t going to turn into the season everyone expected at its onset. The Knicks will likely be a .500 team vying for a spot in the play-in tournament, but that’s O.K. The future of the franchise shouldn’t be dependant on ping-pong balls come the summer, and that’s still a step forward compared to the last decade. And maybe the Knicks get on a hot streak in the second half much like they did last season and change everyone’s opinion of them. Even so, it’s apparent that this team isn’t worthy of that next echelon of playoff contenders. More moves will have to be made for that to happen. For now, it’s just nice to get frustrated over basketball games they could have won, rather than run to see how each loss puts them closer to the top of the draft lottery.
Candace Pedraza: My expectation for the rest of the season is mediocrity. I love this team, and I was encouraged given the postseason appearance last season. I also have full faith in this front office’s drafting skills as they got Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Miles “Deuce” McBride, all of whom are excellent rotational pieces. But I truly expect not much different from this squad than we’ve already seen: one game where everyone and everything is in sync, followed by 8-10 afterward where you are left scratching your head, wondering why so and so is still out on the court after giving nothing on either end of the floor. I hope I’m wrong.
Mike Cortez: The best-case scenario for this current group is an opportunity to participate in the play-in games. The offense and defensive intensity are far too fickle from this bunch.
The return of D-Rose should help restore the bench mob to one of the premier units in the league and give the Knicks some sort of edge once again. But will it be enough? To sift through the bottom half of the East? Yes. To advance past a play-in and into the playoffs? Remains to be seen, and if they do reach that level it would require Walker, Fournier, Randle, or Barrett taking a quantum leap in production, consistently.
Patrick Diaz: The season is at its midway point and the Knicks are playing a favorable schedule this month. The problem is they haven’t been able to separate themselves from the pack, it’s reasonable to expect the Knicks to win a lot these upcoming games versus sub .500 clubs but the Knicks are also a sub .500 club. Don’t be surprised if they lose more than they win, disaster is always imminent with this team. If New York doesn’t make a power move with a trade expect more of the same from this squad or you can wait until April and hope for another nine-game win streak like last season.