A quarter into the 2022-23 season, the Knicks — both as a team and many key players — have been a miserable letdown.
What can be said about the current iteration of the New York Knicks? A quarter of the way through this regular season, a few things jump off the page, so to speak, for those who watch games consistently.
The Knicks have been extremely average. Not so bad that most fans are firing up draft generators to see just how much the team needs to tank in order to get a chance at one Victor Wembenyama or Scoot Henderson, but not so good that they are a clear-cut playoff — or even play-in — contender.
Being in this purgatory in the Eastern Conference is especially worrisome this year. While many teams seem to have improved with offseason acquisitions, the Knicks kept it low profile with their signings and moves. If other teams did not improve, they still have some hope with younger players beginning to flourish while also keeping their W-L column fairly loss-heavy, guaranteeing a chance at being atop a generational draft.
While there are some real shining spots for New York, like Jalen Brunson’s first season with the team going almost better than anticipated and younger players like Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Cam Reddish starting to carve out a clear role on the team, the negatives are unfortunately starting to teeter this team past mediocrity and into a true losing season.
Can that be remedied with the consolidation of roles through trades, or through a change at the head coaching position? Possibly. But until any of that is set in stone, the Knicks have shown through 21 games who they probably are.
By the numbers
Record: 10-11 as of Nov. 29
Offense: 115.8 PPG (7th), 11.9 Offensive Rtg. (9th), 45.8 FG% (23rd), 32.3 3PT FG% (28th)
Defense: 114.6 Defensive Rtg. (23rd), 116.6 PPG from opponents (25th), 35.5 OPP 3PT% (15th), 45.8 OPP FG% (7th best)
The Knicks are treading water in many categories to measure both offensive output and defensive prowess. So for this year, they along with many other NBA teams have opted for more drop-back defense and help in the paint as opposed to playing more zone defense or playing more aggressive point-of-attack defense to counteract how many screens are thrown their way on a nightly basis.
This could be because they had to wait for Quentin Grimes, one of their better POA defenders, to return from a nagging foot injury. But even he has had to wait out a return to head coach Tom Thibodeau’s lineups with a big logjam at the guard position this season. He, along with Reddish, are already proving themselves to be valuable guards off the bench, and sometimes even outplay the Knicks’ current starting roster.
This all being said, numbers only tell half of the story.
What is going on with RJ and Julius?
RJ Barrett entered this season with very, very high expectations placed on him. Having finally cracked 20 points per game last year, it finally felt like he was about to solidify himself as a borderline All-Star wing with the Knicks, especially with the addition of Jalen Brunson.
Julius Randle entered this season with a slightly different chip on his shoulder. He had a fairly average season last year but was nothing close to how he looked during his MIP campaign year which saw the Knicks get into the playoffs as the fourth seed. He looked selfish at times, often holding onto the ball for far too long which led to turnovers due to defenses reading him like a book when he would get into the paint. Many attributed this to him lacking a true point guard to actually guide him, and the rest of the starting unit, on offense.
So, New York added a true point guard. The result? Unfortunately, much of the same from Randle and some disappointing outings from Barrett, as well.
Randle and Barrett have not only been inefficient on the ball but have also been lackluster on defense. Randle only has 0.018 defensive win shares and has one of the worst defensive ratings of players who have started for New York this year, trailing only Evan Fournier.
Barrett is almost in the same arena — he has a defensive rating of 118.5, and his defensive win-share total is only 0.024. He’s also allowing opponents to score the most second-chance points off of him, averaging 11.4 points per game in that field. It would be unfair not to mention that Brunson is also underperforming on defense, but he is at the very least overperforming on offense.
Neither Randle nor Barrett is doing much to improve this current roster. Both are performing selfishly — almost every game is starting to feel like they’re doing what they can to get themselves back into a rhythm at the risk of the team’s success. It’s especially frustrating considering that they finally do have a regulating force in Brunson. But, it continues to be seen that maybe, both Randle and Barrett cannot exist on the floor together.
The Knicks’ kids are alright – but for how much longer?
Once again this season, just like last, the Knicks bench is a bright spot. Based on net rating, the Knicks bench is seventh overall in the league. They are only behind some good company — teams like the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns just to name a few.
They are led by Immanuel Quickley this season, who has by far been the most impressive young guard for New York. Quickley is not only starting to perform on offense, especially with his signature three-ball, but his defense has taken a big leap. He ranks 10th amongst all guards for FG% against him, third overall in defensive rating, eighth in steal percentage, and seventh in defensive win shares — all categories that find him atop defensive rankings for New York.
Even with the slumping of Derrick Rose, the bench has been in the young guard’s reliable hands. He, along with Reddish, Toppin, Hartenstein, Sims and other role players have been impactful early on this season. It has even begged the question of whether Quickley should slip into the starting rotation alongside Brunson considering he could elevate their effort on defense and clean up some of Brunson’s defensive woes.
All this being said, there are some holes. Obi Toppin, who is again stuck behind Randle in the Knicks’ rotation, has been struggling as of late. On the season, he’s averaging 8.3 points per game along with 3.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists, but for the last 10 games, he’s been only averaging 5.7 points per game on 34.4% shooting from the field.
His success, as well as the success of the rest of New York’s young core, is paramount to whether or not to consider their offseason to have been a failure, or to consider moving veteran pieces like Rose or Randle to make room for them to keep growing around Brunson.
Other than moving those pieces, though, they could also consider a new head coach with more of a plan on offense than Thibodeau currently has. As of now, they appear stagnant and heavily reliant on either Brunson or Randle carrying the team. While Brunson has shown the ability to do so, Randle has not so far this year. And, for a defense-minded coach, the team has been abysmal at getting stops at the three-point line. A change at this position could help get a second wind out of this team. As of now, though, it looks like Thibodeau will remain at the helm of this very average ship.
Summary: C+ season so far
The front office for the Knicks has a product in front of them that they created. Whether that was purposeful or not remains to be seen, but one hopes that they have one or two moves up their sleeve to try and improve what is shaping up to be a middling team with no chance at the play-in, yet no chance at good draft positioning.
It feels like no one in the front office nor anyone on the Knicks could have predicted that Brunson would so quickly become the focal point of the team. He is far and beyond their best player, and someone that the team could build around if they chose to go the route of a rebuild. However, you get the sense that they are too far gone into whatever plan they have in place to go for a full tear-down operation. What they are is what they are, and so it’s truly on players like Randle and Barrett to step it up alongside Brunson to make this season somewhat salvageable.
New York needs to hunker down on defense, find different plays for Barrett and the other youth of the team to flourish with, and possibly a new home for veterans like Randle and Rose so that those impacted by positional logjams can finally flourish. A quarter of the way into the season, I’m not sure if New York has plans to do any of the above. And that is where all fans should be concerned about the direction of this team.