It’s been a roller coaster ride to begin the season for the New York Knicks, with many ups and downs through 24 games. However, could the Knicks be getting more out of their players?

Without question, Tom Thibodeau’s seat has been warm since the season kicked off in mid-October. But compared to last year, he’s been more flexible with his rotations, plugging in different players in various different situations to see what works the best out on the floor for the Knicks. Considering New York is currently 11-13 in the standings and just two games under .500, things could be much worse. Jalen Brunson has been nothing short of amazing since his arrival, and we’ve seen promising strides from the youngsters too.

But keeping in mind that the front office and the coaching staff are pushing toward fighting for a playoff spot, play-in or not, the Knicks need to see more out of their players.

At the end of the day, some of that fault falls on the players for not reaching expectations, but some should also fall on the coaching staff for not utilizing players properly. Putting players in the wrong positions not only hurts the player’s growth but the team’s growth too since the Knicks could be tapping into a certain area of a player’s game that open’s up the whole floor for them. I’m not talking about any player in particular, and I feel that there are a few players on the team that need certain areas of their game unlocked.

But as long as the Knicks staffers continue to let it go under the radar, this team will only be capable of beating teams bound for the lottery.

While Saturday’s game against the Mavericks was disheartening as the Knicks lost by 21, the back-end of the back-to-back on Sunday versus the Cavaliers was a step in the right direction for the Knicks. Thibodeau featured a 9-man rotation that did not include Derrick Rose or Cam Reddish in the outing, and it seemed to work well, as they held their opponents to under 100 points for the first time this season. While their offensive output was their lowest of the season, their defensive efforts went a long way in limiting Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell from clean looks in half-court sets.

Going forward, the Knicks need to build off this win. Obviously, there are still wrinkles to iron out on the offensive end, but given their recent stretch of success scoring the ball, the Knicks should focus on any effort they can to improve on the defensive end. With all things considered, this New York squad held the Cavaliers to 34.9% from the field and 22.9% from downtown. They should continue to roll out similar rotations if it means that these are the players that will get it done on defense.

Furthermore, here are some areas for the Knicks to focus on if they want to string together more wins as the season goes on.

Julius Randle’s defensive lapses

This almost seems like a given. It’s no secret that Julius Randle has been disengaged at times on defense, which has led to many easy baskets, no matter what team they might be playing. From ball-watching to losing assignments, Randle’s preposterous effort on defense regardless of the player or position they play has been a huge red flag for the Knicks this season. Taking into account that Julius Randle called a player’s meeting early in November regarding accountability on the team, he has to hold himself to his recent lack of effort on defense.

Check out these tweets from some of TKW’s own:

According to Cleaning the Glass, Randle ranks in the 1st percentile for opponent’s effective field goal percentage, boosting their shooting by 7.6% when he’s on the floor. To make matters worse, he also ranks in the 3rd percentile for opponent’s field goal percentage around the rim, as teams shoot +9.8% better with Randle “protecting the paint”. Lastly, he ranks in the 2nd percentile for opponent’s mid-range field goal percentage, as the opposition shoots +9.7% better in Randle’s presence.

It’s been a rough stretch of defense for Julius Randle, no doubt. But the Knicks need to get him going on defense somehow. Taking a look back to what he did just two years ago on defense in his All-NBA second-team season should be something for him to review over the next few weeks. In that season, he ranked in the 66th percentile for opponent’s effective field goal percentage, 65th percentile for opponent’s mid-range field goal percentage, and impressively in the 88th percentile for opponent’s 3-point percentage. He hasn’t been the best defensive player in his career, but you can tell his effort levels through his defensive numbers.

If Julius Randle can defend with more effort and urgency, similar to what he did in the 2020-21 season, it will boost the Knick defense in a big way, combined with his offensive play.

RJ Barrett’s shot selection and frequency

Given that it’s his fourth year in the league, Barrett’s play has been disappointing to start the year. With how he played toward the end of last season, many thought that RJ would make an even bigger leap this year. While he tends to shoot more from around the rim, his percentages are very poor, especially for his position. He currently shoots 57% around the rim, 35% from mid-range, and 29% from three. The reason why he shoots so poorly is mainly due to his shot selection. Take his final shot against the Bucks as an example. Not only did he hesitate on his game-tying three-point attempt, but there was plenty of time to call timeout, set up a play, and give it to a better shooter from the outside to tie the game.

For his career, Barrett has not shot well overall, and it mainly comes down to shot selection. Around the rim, he tends to force up bad shots when he’s smothered by his defender instead of making a pass, which he has done far too many times. While his shot IQ has been poor, it takes one person to help him recognize his struggles and see the floor better, which is why I have confidence in Barrett’s improvement as his career progresses.

But for now, he needs to take fewer shots and look to get better looks for his teammates. Given how well players like Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes have played around the rim along with being respectable three-point shooters, for RJ to get the ball into their hands would make him more efficient. It’s important for Barrett to wisely pick and choose his shots going forward if the Knicks want to boost their shooting percentages overall as a team.

Using Obi Toppin as more of a threat around the rim

Something that I’m sure many people are frustrated with, Obi Toppin hardly does anything on the inside. When watching a Knicks game you can usually find him sitting in either corner, ready to pop the three when he’s given the opportunity. It’s true that he’s not the focal point of the offense, but given that they drafted the athletic freak of nature two years ago, it’s surprising that the Knicks do not use him more.

Toppin is easily the biggest lob threat on the team, yet 36% of his shots are around the rim and a ridiculous 53% of his shots are from a 3-point distance this season. In his first two seasons, Toppin’s proportions were better, but this year everything has come to a halt, especially since Toppin is no longer shooting the three-ball well this season after shooting well above 40% in the Knicks’ first 10 games of the season.

In each season of his NBA career, we have seen more progression with Toppin’s shot-creating ability, especially since there are a lack of passes to him on the inside, which forces him to do something himself. Take a look at this possession this past Sunday against the Cavaliers.

Talk about putting his skillset on display. Toppin utilizes Isaiah Hartenstein’s screen and gets into the paint, drawing several defenders with him before dumping it off to Hartenstein for the layup. Even if that look to I-Hart wasn’t there, there were 3 Cavalier players in the paint and two more nearby to help on Toppin’s drive. No matter who is screening for Obi, it is a great avenue to utilize Toppin as a ball handler in this type of situation due to his reputation for finishing dunks and layups around the rim. This gives the defense a tough decision to make, whether to double and give up a potential three or trust the defender to take him one-on-one.

No matter whether he’s playing in the post, around the rim, or in a pick-and-roll situation, Toppin is better off doing any of those three things rather than sitting in the corner, only to chuck up a low percentage three. He’s not the go-to guy in most situations on the floor, but if he can’t be utilized properly given his stature and athleticism, he’s better off being traded, especially for his sake.

More burn time for Deuce

This has been developing even more, especially since I last touched on it in my previous article. Although his offense is still a significant work in progress, his defense is some of the best we’ve seen since the Knicks had guys like Reggie Bullock and Frank Ntilikina on the roster just two years ago. His toughness on the defensive end has been stellar as he gets into the grill of his defenders. When he’s paired with Immanuel Quickley on the floor, the defensive efficiency goes through the roof.

According to PBP Stats, when both IQ and Deuce are on the floor, their defensive rating is a resounding 90.28, while they force their perimeter opponents to shoot 48.5% from the field, and just 27.3% from behind the arc. Although having played just 67 minutes together this season, this is a dynamic duo that needs to be put on the floor together. They’re both strong perimeter defenders, and although Deuce is limited for the time being on offense, Quickley makes up for that with his solid finishing around the rim and streaky shooting as he is still finding his shot from distance and will surely find it as the season goes on.

Adding Quentin Grimes into the mix makes the lineup even more dangerous. In a limited sample size of 27 minutes, Grimes, McBride, and Quickley have a defensive rating of 73.33 and force opponents to shoot just 13% from three, which is a testament to their defense, regardless of how many minutes they’ve played on the floor together. Their defensive efforts as individuals should emphasize how lethal that group can be when they are playing together, regardless of their size with Grimes being the tallest.

No matter who Miles McBride is paired with on the floor, he makes his presence known defensively as he gives every ounce of effort he can each time he’s out there. From the looks of it, Tom Thibodeau may continue to run this 9-man rotation if any of his words from Sunday’s press conference were an indication.

What’s Next

The New York Knicks will have yet another test at home, facing Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks at home on Wednesday night at 7 pm on ESPN and MSG. Following their 4-game home stand, they’ll head down to North Carolina where they’ll visit the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night on MSG.

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