The 2021–22 campaign was tough to swallow for Knicks fans as they saw young players languish on the bench until too late into the lost season.
“Obi Toppin!” rang out from every corner of The Garden.
Second-year forward Obi Toppin was putting the finishing touches on a career-high 42 points against the Toronto Raptors in the season finale, capping his performance with a dunk that got anyone with a pulse out of their seat.
Obi in the season finale:
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 11, 2022
The finale performance capped off a five-game stretch of filling in for Julius Randle in the starting lineup, in which Toppin averaged 27.2 points per game and shot 55.1% from the field. It was a successful audition to prove to he is ready for a bigger role—and Toppin was not the only one putting together a compelling argument for more playing time.
Immanuel Quickley, Toppin’s best friend on the team and draft classmate, put on a masterclass of his own in the season finale. Starting at point guard, Quickley pieced together a 34-point triple-double and a career-high 12 assists in a Knicks win. Quickley averaged 8.8 assists in his final five games of the season.
As joyous and encouraging as the final stretch of the season was for Quickley, Toppin, and Knicks fans, it was emblematic of the 2021–22 season: too little, too late.
Preseason skeptics ended up right about the Knicks after all. The Knicks came crashing down to earth a season after finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference to 11th place at 37-45.
Starts at the Top
The easy fall guy for the team’s regression this season is Tom Thibodeau. The honeymoon phase wore off rather quickly for Thibodeau, who became somewhat of a meat shield for any and everything that went wrong. Thibodeau definitely deserves a fair portion of the blame, however, the onus of a failed encore season starts even higher than the bench, right at the top with the folks who built the roster.
Leon Rose has a reputation for being as chatty as Paulie from GoodFellas and lived up to that reputation by speaking publicly for the first time on the final day of the season. The silence from Rose this season felt more like hiding, compared to the “building silently” vibe Rose’s silence gave off while the Knicks enjoyed one of their best seasons since 2000.
Rose and general manager Scott Perry have plenty to answer for, chief among them believing that last year’s squad was good enough to make the playoffs again with minor tweaks. The thought that throwing a bag at Evan Fournier and landing Kemba Walker on a bargain deal would be enough to solidify the Knicks as “back,” and not a pandemic fluke, is a criminal offense.
Even if you took into account the unconfirmed rumors that Perry actually wanted DeMar DeRozan, but was overruled by Thibodeau who preferred Fournier—which opens a can of worms about dysfunction being alive and well at MSG—the offseason was one of inaction.
The front office gambled that lightning would strike twice with bargain-bin veterans Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Derrick Rose. It was a gamble that a team built around Julius Randle with marginal pieces and an improving RJ Barrett would be enough to remain a presence at the top of the East.
Stuck in His Ways
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This also happens to be the definition of Tom Thibodeau’s approach to coaching.
As lackluster as the front office was in the offseason, there was enough talent on the roster to at least make a play-in game. Nerlens Noel ended up as the only true disaster re-signing. Noel appeared in a meager 25 games and averaged Jason Collins-like numbers when he was on the floor. The good news is Noel’s disaster class of a season was erased by the emergence of second-round pick Jericho Sims, who looked the part of a long-term solution to form a center duo with Mitchell Robinson.
But no one’s weaknesses got put on front street quite like Thibodeau. This season, he proved that his hiatus from coaching did little to change the way he coached; he left, he learned nothing, and he returned.
Thibodeau’s rotations were the hot topic of the season for the second-straight year. Instead of forcing Elfrid Payton at the starting point-guard position, it was Alec Burks. He refused to consider a world in which Kemba Walker could provide a spark off the bench, deciding to see Walker’s role through a black and white lens: either Walker started or kept his warm-ups on.
Obi Toppin still struggled to find minutes, as Thibodeau continued to shy away from embracing a Toppin-Randle frontcourt for reasons still not known in the realm of common sense. Toppin improved in every facet of his game and flashed those improvements in the 15-minute bursts Thibodeau allotted him until Randle was shut down for the season.
The key difference in fan outrage was that the guys he rode last season who shined so bright last season, namely Randle, Burks, and Derrick Rose, did not replicate that success this season, or were injured, thus increasing the fan frustration.
It is easy for Thibodeau to point to Rose’s season-ending injury in mid-December as the reason the Knicks did not at least crack the play-in, and if he is smart, that is the exact reason he used to buy himself more time in New York. But that argument ignores the fact that Thibodeau’s stubbornness limited the minutes of Quickley, and Deuce McBride to a lesser extent.
The refusal to install Quickley as the starting guard, especially once the team was mathematically eliminated from contention, was his most egregious error.
Despite Alec Burks clearly not being cut out to be a lead guard, Thibodeau forced the issue and the result was a slow-paced offense that did not score well, nor defend well. It was blatantly obvious to anyone blessed with decent eyesight that Burks was miscast as a point guard, and much more lethal as a spark plug off the bench.
This error left no true lead playmaker on the floor, which put more pressure on Randle to sustain his Herculean levels of production, which sadly came to an end in more ways than one.
First they love, then they hate you, then they love you again. Julius Randle is hoping that pattern swings in his favor next season. Randle’s regression comes in layers, but his struggles shooting the basketball are at the crux of everything that went wrong with Randle.
There is an interesting case study to be had on Randle’s performance with fans in the stand versus in empty arenas. Peace of mind goes a long way, and it felt as if Randle was chasing just that all season, never finding it. Randle rarely looked happy this season, often reserved, and in some cases, brooding.
He did not take well to the shift from MVP chants to boos, returning the switch-up with a thumbs down. After that, it was never the same. Fans took any missed shot, any turnover, any lazy defensive rotation to boo. The conversation has drastically shifted from Randle becoming the unlikely star player to someone the team can live without.
Optics and drama aside, Randle still produced. He was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder once again, averaging 20.1 points and 9.9 rebounds. It is not the 24 and 10 from last season, but good production nonetheless.
The basketball reason for why his season felt like a nightmare was simple, he could not hit a jumper.
The Curious Case Of Julius Randle
Last year's Most Improved Player was one of this year's most disappointing shooters.
Out of 68 players that attempted at least 500 jumpers this season, Randle ranked last in efficiency with eFG% of just 40.95 pic.twitter.com/vV9jaXbUxt
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 16, 2022
Like the boos, Randle did not cope well with being unable to knock down jumpers. When he was not getting to the rim this season, Randle’s offensive bag came up empty. His three-point percentage plummeted to 30.8% after shooting a career-best 41.1% from deep last season.
The dip in percentages would not have been as big a deal had Randle simply changed his attack. Instead, he hoisted too many mid-range jumpers, averaged the same amount of three-point attempts, and got to the free-throw line less.
Things have come full circle for Randle in New York. His relationship with the fans is fragile, and the rise of the young players could force the front office to rethink things. Even the most cynical of fans could not have foreseen just months after inking an extension that the question of Randle being on the team in two years was a legitimate question.
When Randle signed his extension, he said he wanted to spend his prime in New York. At the time, he was the undisputed best player on the team. That is no longer the case, and if Randle truly meant he wants to spend his best years in New York, it will be as supporting RJ Barrett.
He Has Risen
RJ Barrett’s rise was the saving grace of this season. Barrett’s 2022 run in which he averaged 23.6 points per game as the top option. Once the action started to flow through Barrett consistently, the mood of the season changed; at worst, Barrett was gaining learning experience on how to crank out 20-point performances every night, even when he isn’t on.
🐍 🍁 MAPLE MAMBA SZN 🐍🍁
RJ Barrett returned and dropped a career-high 46 points on the Miami Heat.
Relive the glory ⬇️
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 26, 2022
The solution was getting to the line. Scouts may have had their doubts about Barrett’s “wiggle,” but they clearly underestimated his strength and his patience. Barrett showed a knack to make something out of nothing by duping a defender into contact.
In his final 41 games of the season, Barrett averaged 7.4 free-throw attempts per game, a stark contrast to the 3.6 per game he averaged in his first 29 games.
The next leap comes when Barrett combines his ability to visit the free-throw line with refined accuracy. His free throw percentage trended in the wrong direction from his second year, declining from 74.5% to 71.4% this season.
If Barrett can swing that percentage back up and beyond, ideally as high as 80%, and the Knicks have someone they can rely on to find 25 points a night. At the bare minimum, Barrett has proved that the Knicks should at least give him next season as a true trial run, as his rookie extension comes closer into view.
The Quick Pivot
There were many lessons learned from Barrett’s ascension. The most important lesson is that the Knicks can prepare for a step forward relatively quickly by utilizing pieces already on the roster to surround Barrett.
If the front office wants to make the quickest possible turnaround with the least amount of work, it would be to build Barrett a similar model to what Houston built for James Harden.
The Rockets’ formula was simple: Harden was at the epicenter of everything, Clint Capela was the rim-runner, and the rest of the supporting cast launched three-pointers until their arms hurt. It was a formula that worked out pretty well for Houston and could work for the Knicks.
Should the front office lean into this type of remodeling, it could help salvage the Evan Fournier signing, which ended up being a solid addition. Fournier set the franchise record for three-pointers made in a single season with 241. The feat was not only a franchise record but a personal record, beating his previous high for three-pointers made in a single season by 68.
As much as fans want a full-on youth movement, there is no denying that if deployed properly, a player hitting 200-plus three-pointers at a 38.9% clip is someone you want around RJ Barrett.
Another big piece towards this remodel is securing Mitchell Robinson’s future. Robinson not only has strong chemistry with Barrett, but he has also now proven himself capable of anchoring the defense and cleaning the glass. Robinson finished second in the league in offensive rebounds with 295, trailing only Memphis’ Steven Adams.
Taking care of Robinson in the summer would be a strong step in the right direction. With Jericho Sims emerging as a legitimate player, Robinson has a true backup to share the load with.
Thibodeau has been at work with the young guys, and the fruits of their labor are starting to shine. The time has come for Thibodeau to let the kids mature. Immanuel Quickley needs to play at point guard, starting point guard to be specific, barring a blockbuster signing or trade in the offseason. Quickley is the best defensive option, spaces the floor with limitless range, and is ever-growing as a playmaker.
A lineup of Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and Quentin Grimes logged just 26 minutes together this season. If things are going to change, that number has to compound like Tesla stock next season.
The lack of court time from the young guys was another sign of the team’s too little, too late season. Tom Thibodeau was given a new lease on life out of respect for his Coach of the Year campaign in his first season. But if Thibodeau is going to be the first Knick head coach since Mike Woodson to last a full three seasons, he will have to change it up.
Anyone familiar with Tom Thibodeau knows he has as much variety as a dollar pizza spot—he will fall on his sword before changing his ways. Where that leaves him and the team depends on what happens over the summer, and something has to happen.