Better late than never on the game thread…
Our old friend, Chris Herring, is at SI.com now, and he has a nice piece up about the Knicks that, well, I dunno, man, I just needed something for a new thread since the Knicks don’t play again until Sunday.
What’s the next step for the formidable Knicks, both now and beyond this year?
For now just about everything starts with forward Julius Randle. He was a tornadic turnover machine last season, coughing up more miscues in one-on-one situations than any other volume scorer in the league. Yet after a tireless offseason, Randle’s been a completely different, All-NBA type player this year, averaging 32.2 points, 8.5 boards and 5.2 assists on 50.7% from three the past two and a half weeks.
The challenge here is that opposing teams likely won’t let him wreak havoc that way in a playoff series.
Yes, at times Randle calls his own number in the middle floor, where it’s tougher to double-team him. But clubs like the Celtics and Heat will send aggressive traps at him when he’s serving as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. Similarly, when Randle’s acting as the roll man, defenses will sell out on him and simply dare guard Elfrid Payton to shoot floaters, which he connects on just 38% of the time, according to Synergy.
Derrick Rose, who’s knocked down his wildly flat midrange jumpers at a career-best rate this year and created a bevy of “Kobe Assists,” presents one obvious way to get around the Payton problem.
More than anything, though, Randle—equal parts freight train and maestro—will have to let the game come to him if and when teams seek to force the ball out of his hands. That means trusting his teammates in the corner, where the Knicks have launched a greater share of triples than any other NBA team thus far.
“Knocking those down is crucial, because it makes the defense change what it’s doing. It’s a huge help to [Randle] and our team,” says second-year wing RJ Barrett, who’s enjoying a breakout season of his own.
New York was dead-last in the NBA, at 32.8% from three, when left wide open in January. The club ranked fourth in February at 42.9% on those shots. Then ranked eighth in March at 41.9%. No one’s been better than the Knicks in April, a month when they’ve hit 48.4% of their wide-open treys.
Lots more good stuff at the link. Go read it. Herring is great. And I adore that he used the term “Kobe assists.”
My one criticism is that he does one of those sort of, “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” bits at the end where he doesn’t really actually answer his own headline question as to what he thinks is next for the Knicks. It’s obviously one of the questions that has been dominating our mindspace for some time now, even as much as we’ve been enjoying the winning streak, “What comes next?” is an important question and it’s fascinating just how open-ended everything is. In a good way, I’d say, but I think there are some obvious pitfalls out there, and that’s what I would have liked to have seen Herring address a bit more. Still, it’s a good piece and it’s always nice to see the Knicks get praised in places like SI.com.
Man, does it feel weird.
A seven-game winning streak? Weird.
Being ahead of the Heat and the Celtics? Weird.
Fielding a very likely All-NBA player? Weird.
But most of all: being down six at the half and feeling ultra-confident about getting the win? Super duper weird.
Lo and behold, that’s the world we live in. A team that was penciled to win around 24 games total (and not just by me: by Vegas, who actually had the Knicks o/u at 22.5, never forget) is now strolling down every victory lane like it’s not that big of a thing at all. A guy who I was totally partial to give away for a second rounder and a bag of chips is putting up historical numbers and has a very high chance to run away with the MIP and an All-NBA berth (if I had to bet now, I’d say Julius could even sneak into the second team. Injuries to many other stars play a factor here, but other than Giannis and Kawhi, who else you got at forward that played better than Randle for the whole season, considering the win/loss column and everything? Ok I’m probably drunk on recency bias). A guy who we were all (well, most of all) worried about becoming another bust because he couldn’t shoot is actually capable of hitting six threes in the same game and is shooting 39% from three for the season, all the while getting closer and closer to .100 WS/48 in his age 20, second season. Would be mercs are playing with heart and desire and are executing defensive schemes like they really enjoy playing defense.
(Now seriously. I think parents should call Thibs and ask what’s his secret to getting – almost – every player active and participative on defense with gusto, and then put that to work in order to get their 5-year old brat to eat broccoli. If I had to guess, the secret is just shouting repeatedly in their ear, facemask half-down your nose, BROCCOLI and then send them out of the house for an hour if they so much as look at candy)
Getting back to us again: this is such a weird year that our third string center (?), 437-year old, grizzled minimum vet Taj Gibson has become an integral part of the team so much that we’not feeling at all the loss of defensive beast Mitchell Robinson – of course, that’s also because Nerlens Noel is shining under the spotlight, at least on the defensive end. Fun fact: now I totally savour the vision of guys rolling down the lane to try and dunk on us when Nerlens is in the vicinity of the rim. Those blocked dunks suck the air out of opponent lungs (and, by the way, watching Nerlens play reminds me a lot of the late Dion Mays, the best ever SlamBall defender – only Nerlens does things without trampolines and padded suits). Such a weird year that Derrick Rose looks the part of the evangelical prodigal son and our trade with Detroit has become a home-run, something that would have never been thought possible in regard to the words “Knicks” and “trade”. Such a weird year that we care very little about Obi being a fish out of water and IQ being on a month-long slump (yeah, good game last night, but the guy is yes and is no, is in and is out, is up and is down – I mean, forgive my inner Katy Perry, he’s hot and cold)
What happened in this game, you might ask? Well let’s see.
The Knicks started out super hot from three, going up 17-8 early and making it look like it would have been a quiet, in-control night. But suddenly Charlotte began to catch fire, especially PJ Washington, who by the end of the first quarter would go on to score 17 points coming off the bench and hitting three after three from the top of the key. The second quarter would be just much of the same, a juked up shooting contest between these two teams with a few guys joining the party (IQ and Rozier come to mind). A notoriously stingy Knicks defense ended up conceding 66 points in the half, with Charlotte hitting 12 of 18 from three because of their own marksmanship but also our lackluster effort on defense.
Cue the second half (and a lot ot probable BROCCOLI shouts from Thibs at the intermission) and the music changed. RJ Barrett, who ended the first half with 3 points on a very meager 1-for-8 shooting tally, scored 18 in the third riding a wave of trifectas like he was ready to dust off Novak’s double discount check. Meanwhile, the entire Charlotte team went on to score 16 points in the stanza, and got behind by nine before the start of the fourth. From there it was easy peasy game management for the Knicks, with Rose looking particularly spry and focused not only on getting his but also finding the open man. Defense did its part – maybe the invisible sixth man came back – and kept Charlotte at 15 points for the quarter, cutting the Hornets’ offensive output in half as we were running a special Black Friday offer.
Game was over, Bullock got the interview nod, and everyone was happy.
– Well, I mean, pretty much everyone? If I had to single out just a couple Knicks, it would be Barrett (24 pts, 1 reb, nothing else, +9 +/-) playing the role of the vicious hope killer while doing absolutely zilch in every other statistical area and Derrick Rose (17 pts, 1 reb, 5 ast, +2 +/-) putting the sigil on this flower-flavored beauty of an ugly win, always being where he needed to be in the fourth. But every significant contributor was good last night: good Julius on an off-night (5-for-16 from the field but 10 boards, 7 assists, 2 steals, and a whole lot of good-to-great positional defense – oh by the way: Julius’s posting a positive DBPM for the first time in his career), stout Nerlens hitting double figures in boards again, Reggie shooting only threes but making out with a 5/12 total for 16 points, IQ giving an adrenaline shot right to the second unit heart in the second quarter (5/9 from the field, 4/7 from three, 17 points for the night), Taj being his usual dependable self (6 points, 8 boards – 6 of which on offense! – , a steal and two blocks), Elf not being a wretch. There’s too much good to really pick anyone out.
The really good:
– The feeling we wouldn’t have lost. That’s a budding contender sign. Don’t get me wrong, we won’t be contenders in 2021-22, but if our management doesn’t get crazy (which of course it might, we’re the Knicks) and we stay in the lane there’s a high chance we’re a lock for a top-4 seed in 2022-23 (Brooklyn will have self-destroyed itself by then, Giannis may not be long for Milwaukee if they flame out again in the playoffs like I fear they will, Miami will be goodish but Butler will be worn out. We’ll be young and ready). Nights like these are just a teaser trailer for that.
– We have come to expect that by now, but Obi and Knox combined for 2 points and 2 boards in 12 minutes of playing time. Obi’s gameplan is a rare wart on Thibs’ coaching season face: you see it, you don’t know how it came to be that way, and it’s ugly as hell. Knox just mostly sucks, but Obi’s got the motor, there’s got to be something to tap there. Asking him to stay on the perimeter and randomly crash boards is a strange way to use him (not that his 10.6 REB% does him any favor). Given that Randle looks like a minor cornerstone for us, maybe an extended look at the trade market for him could really be the right way to maximize that asset.
– You know what gives me the biggest joy of this seven-game winning streak? Having Clyde call these games. I kid you not, I was afraid he never got to see again a winning Knicks team from the booth. Well, there you go. The man deserves it. And Breen too. But Clyde mostly.
– What happened to seven seconds of Frank or less? And why was it ever a thing? Anyway, I think we should savor every single Frank second that will come in the next 13 games, because it could be the last in a Knicks jersey. It’s amazing to think that for all the fuss that came with Frank’s playing time and role management it will probably end with a whimper and everyone involved will probably think it just… had to go that way. Frank’s Knicks tenure will then forever be the gold standard for my future failed, but maturely handled, Ted Mosby-like relationships.
– Fizdale : Trump = Miller : Biden = Thibs : ????
– Tonight we shot 45 threes. We started the year shooting consistenly 25-30 threes per game. This won’t be a trend, but it’s a welcomed sight.
– I forgot J.R. Smith was Eastern Conference Player of the Week once.
– I read a nice piece on the Athletic about reassessing Isiah Thomas time at the Knicks helm, and I don’t know if it is recency bias again or just nostalgia, but I encourage you to read it and not coming away with the thought that Phil Jackson was by far worse than him in terms of basketball-related things during his presidency. I felt aghast when this thought dawned on me, but it feels so true now that I had a day to cement that notion.
Until next time!
There is obviously some debate over whether Thibs’ “treat every game like it’s Game 7” strategy is a good one, and one of the best critiques of it is why I predicted more wins than most posters (not all, of course. Who could out-optimize swifty, for instance?), which is that we have seen this exact thing happen multiple times in NBA history, where a hard-nosed “do anything to win” coach comes in, turns the defense around, gets more than expected out of a team, then after a season or two, burnout sets in and everything collapses. A relatively recent example was the “Scott Skiles effect,” Skiles turned around Phoenix, Milwaukee and Chicago and burned out in each place. It got to the point where Orlando started burning out midway through his first season there (he was fighting with the GM and wanted to quit midway through that first seaon, but waited until the end of the season to quit). He hasn’t coached since.
So I had no doubt that Thibs, like Skiles, would wring out every win he could get by teaching these guys to play hard-nosed defense.
So why, then, am I not worried about the corresponding burnout? Well, for one thing, I am a bit, just in the sense that the options for improving the talent on this team for next season are not exactly limited, but they’re not quite diverse, either. Four of the key players to getting the Knicks just to mediocrity this season are veteran free agents (Burks, Bullock, Noel and Rose, who makes this list only so far as “being better than Payton” has helped this year), as is Elfrid Payton. Their key area to add talent looks to be the #15/16 picks in the draft, or perhaps a max offer to a restricted Lonzo Ball that might very well just be matched by New Orleans. So I am a bit worried, but there is one key thing in Thibs and the Knicks’ favor… they’re the Knicks.
Which is to say that unlike Milwaukee, Orlando, and even Chicago and Phoenix, just being decent and having a pretty good core is appealing when you’re a big market. Jeff Van Gundy did a similar job in 1995-96, taking the Knicks to a 13-10 record in the back end of the season (along with a playoff series win over a similarly mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers team where he basically just played the starters every minute) where the Knicks were cutting salary to make moves in free agency. And one of the hottest free agents that year, Allan Houston, picked the Knicks over an up and coming Pistons team that had Grant Hill on it, who had won just one less game than the Knicks while being significantly younger with an All-Star centerpiece who would be just 24 the next season.
Now, was even a 34-year-old (in the 96-97 season), clearly declining Patrick Ewing (with a 33-year-old Charles Oakley as the other key player on the team, with the Knicks planning to move on from Anthony Mason either way) still a more appealing centerpiece for free agents back then than this current Knicks team? Maybe, but it’s still true that a mediocre Knick team is more interesting for star players to try to maneuver their way to than a decent Milwaukee team or a decent Orlando team. Let’s say Chris Paul wanted out of OKC this offseason instead of last, and the Suns were the same team they were last year… would he still choose the Suns over the Knicks? I doubt it.
In a way, Thibs is taking a roundabout way to getting where the Nets were when Durant and Kyrie wanted to come there, or where the Clippers were when Kawhi wanted to come there.
There doesn’t seem to be any Kawhi/KD level guys this offseason, which is a major critique of this plan, but who knows who will become available next year, when the Knicks will be able to make a big move before having to decide on resigning Randle and Mitch (if Mitch is still here), so just one more year of mediocrity could be enough to work, so that’s why I’m not too concerned about Thibs burnout.
Guys, rejoice. This might be the last time we’ll be over .500 until 2021-22 opening night, so let’s the warm feeling sink in for, like, twenty seconds before indulging in some precious self- and Thibs-loathing.
I mean, who would have guessed that at the 37 games mark we would have won nineteen games? I penciled the 2020-21 Knicks at 24 wins and even felt a bit optimistic, so even considering the “easy” stretch in February/early March I would have guessed 14 wins tops. Exceeding that total by 4 wins is sincerely impressive, and if falls squarely on the shoulders of a plethora of people, which go by these names: Randle, Julius; Thibodeau, Tom; Barrett, Rowan Jr.; the whole coaching staff; and so on until we get to Elfrid Payton who probably deserves some credit but will only get the brunt of my totally biased criticism.
Instead of recapping last night valiant but ultimately stolid effort (starters played big minutes, Thibs exhibited very little patience with the second unit, Julius had a monster game, Noel played great but has no hands on offense, Frank hit three threes in less time than it takes to warm up a hot pocket and then did nothing at all, Quickley sucked big time, Obi looked like a giddy japanese tourist doing that annoying thing where photograpical perspective gets used to give the illusion you’re the only thing impeding the Pisa tower’s ultimate crumble-down), I’d opt to assess people at the All-Star Game milestone, putting a few numbers here and there just to give a perfect Italian public employee impression: looking busy and saying mostly coherent things but secretly hoping that someone else does the real hard work so I can get my 11AM cappuccino.
Without further Bob McAdoo, here’s what I think of the 2020/21 season so far:
– Julius Randle: last year a diamond in the dough, this year a frigging basketball lean and mean machine, who gives you consistent star effort night in and night out and is shooting lights out from deep (seriously, 40.8% from three on 169 attempts is huge and doesn’t cry out for regression anymore – even if, yeah, let’s bank on the fact that at the end of season that percentage will be around 37%, which is still amazing). Last night I took personal offense at the Garden chanting “MVP” to Julius. MVP chants are acceptable only in three cases: 1) you are really an MVP candidate, which Julius is not, let’s be honest; 2) you’re a blossoming star in year 2-3 of your NBA experience and the crowd is giving you a nice confidence boost (I’m perfectly ok with Quickley getting MVP chants); 3) you’re sort of a folk hero because you can’t really play star-level basketball but give 110% effort on the court and deserve some happiness (I’d be perfectly ok with Taj Gibson getting MVP chants) or you’re a disgraced former highly touted project and you’re playing for once at the top of your and everybody else game (the Michael Beasley against Boston experience). Since Julius is none of those things, and has instead been a great pro and probably a top-30 player this year, those MVP chants are disrespectful. Appreciate him for his contributions and don’t expose him to post-ironic trivial affections displays, come on. Grade: A.
– RJ Barrett: it looked like all hope was lost with his first 10-ish games, where he couldn’t buy a bucket from deep apart from the first Indiana game, but how things have changed with him. We probably have to accept that his ceiling is somehow lower than it looked when he went to Duke, but a 44/35/73 shooting split isn’t so bad for a player still learning to zero-in on his spots on the court on offense. If I had to bet on his peak, right now I’d say left-handed prime Tyreke Evans who actually defends. It’s a nice thing to have in house at a kind of controlled cost. His .067 WS/48 is at least adequate for a buddying second year player. He has also displayed the very encouraging skill of not getting conditioned by a cold streak. Grade: B-.
– Immanuel Quickley: <drooling> *what the hell is this thing where I swear that I won’t fall irrationally in love with the next promising Knicks rookie and then I inevitably do so as soon as there’s a glimpse of talent in sight* <stops drooling> If the 2020 draft was held today, there’s no doubt that IQ wouldn’t last past the 8th pick, so we’re just keeping alive the tradition of the lower draft pick being our actual lottery pick and viceversa. Seriously, after LaMelo, Wiseman, Hali, Edwards, (maybe) Patrick Williams and (very maybe) Isaac Okoro who would ever not draft Quickley? Dude has a 0.6 VORP on a .500+ team as a rookie while shooting 39% from the field. That is some serious shit, because if he ever figures how to up his FG% to 42 with the same shot chart and doesn’t forget how to shoot freebies you really have a premium offensive weapon here. I would be very curious to see him in a starting role here and there, but some warts aren’t excisable from Thibs at all, so you take the cool record with the stupid decisions about young players. Grade: A- (for a rookie. Otherwise it would be a B-, I expected more from him on defense. Also, likely an A+ for Kenny Payne who, if I had to put money on the line, would bet was the insider who told Rose IQ was the guy once Maxey was off the table).
– Mitchell Robinson: it’s a bit weird to see that smoking hot babe who made your sixteen year old head turn everytime she walked down the street becoming a still beautiful but less dazzling adult woman and to find out you like her even more for that. Getting older means learning that the trade-off between dependability and spectacularity always favors the former. I’m way less excited about Mitch than I was two years ago, but at the same time I have way more faith in him being an integral piece of our next playoff contender. He showed the ability to impact the game even when the numbers aren’t there, and opposing offenses look like they fear him more now than when he was a basketball Doc Ock lookalike. I still think it’s disturbing that he never employs anything but dunks and tip-ins on offense, but as long as Payton and Rose are our PGs it’s hard to blame him for sure. Anyway WS/48 and VORP still vouch for him, and the fact that he was able to withstand 28.8 MPG limping from injury to injury until his hand finally caved in confirms he’s a legit building block, even if he’s just Tyson Chandler redux. Grade: B.
– Elfrid Payton: look, it’s not his fault that his game is so ugly to watch. He’s a basketball player whose gifts are basically wasted in this era (and maybe previous eras as well? where would Payton be able to go in the handcheck era?) but who has found Thibs’ trust because… I honesly don’t know. Among regulars, he’s the one with the lowest WS/48 (.041, not that awful when you’re the worst of your team) and lowest VORP (-0.2. Guess who’s the other “regular” with a negative VORP) and so it looks like the dreaded eye test goes hand in hand with cold, cold numbers. His AST% is virtually the same as IQ’s and more than a little lower that Julius’ and Rose’s. He’s basically the basketball version of the owner’s son, so… he’s our James Dolan? I don’t understand. Thibs’ insistence in playing him above IQ or even – gulp – Rose is dumbfounding, but let’s chalk it up to Thibs being Thibs, let’s curse under our breath and move on. Grade: D-
– Obi Toppin: how is it possible that year after year after year our scouting department/GM staff commits the same mistake over and over again? If you ran a KB consensus before the draft, everyone would have posited that, well, Toppin wouldn’t have been the right choice for this team like, at all (and that was true for Knox, and so on). How dumb does a bball lifer to know way less than our roundtable of brilliant but unexperienced minds? Obi’s advanced numbers aren’t even that bad, and you wonder what would he deliver if given the chance to play at least 20mpg on a longer leash, but as soon as you catch him move on the court… something’s off. He’s got IQ’s totally opposite demeanor: he doesn’t look like he belongs and moves so awkwardly that it resembles that kid in seventh grade who had randomly located growth spurts so he always ended up banging his knees on the desk because he still isn’t used being 5″ taller. Even Obi’s shot is awkward (and all-around bad, 29% from three is Josh Smith territory). If I had to bet, he’ll follow Knox’s steps and be on the fringe by 2024. I would advise trading him, but I’m rooting for him because the effort is there and he looks like a great kid. Grade: C–
– Derrick Rose: ouch. It hurts to give DRose a grade, because I frankly hoped I would have never seen him again in a Knicks uniform, but alas, if Thibs could he probably would try to sign Kirk Hinrich to play point for us. I don’t dislike DRose as much as I thought I would, maybe because he’s shooting an unsustainable .455 from three and that buoys his mediocre offensive performances or maybe just because he’s better than Elf and, well, heavy rain is better than a tornado. Still looking for a starting PG one could root for, and hoping that he’s not resigned next year. Grade: C.
– Nerlens Noel: diuhvsvbasviuva abvfd vcaclbujavdfc adcdcvadfcd còl. Sorry, I’ve tried to write a sentence with the same technique Nerlens uses to grab the ball in the offensive sets. I really liked the Mitch-Nerlens tandem because while they are very similar in concept, but they also provide a nice change of pace from one another. Nerlens is less menacing in space on defense but has a majestic knack to stop fools at the rim (and swipe everything in sight like a drunk uncle participating a bit too enthusiastically at his nephew’s pinata party), so it’s not like opposing offenses can really game plan for both in the same exact way. Having him at that price has been a boon and I wish we would resign him for multiple years, assuming he doesn’t go space buffet on us one day or another. Grade: B.
– Reggiec Bullorks: after a hot start got derailed by an injury, Burks has been pretty meh. An offensively capable meh, but still meh. Bullock is meh since the dawn of time, save for the spare 5/7 from three game. They’re perfectly fungible and perfectly forsakeable. Grade: C- (but if we have to keep one, let it be Burks)
– Nick Fragilina: you really can’t bet on this horse. As much as Frank looks improved (while still being mostly made from intangibles and dreamy eyes), he was listed as questionable for yesterday. Obscillating between unusable and useless, you wish you could pencil him in for 12MPG but reality always breaks in exactly at the ecstatic peak of a reverie, exactly like a challenge called on a single point (like, Duane Casey, what the fuck? Who calls a challenge to negate an and-one in the second quarter? You ruined a beautiful fantasy and I hate you for that). Let’s trade the lad and set him and us free. I can’t bear to break my heart even once more. Grade: INC.
– Austin Rivers: the proverbial flash in the pan. Remember Quivers? Yeah, life goes on very fast. It’s amazing how his advanced statistical profile resembles Elf’s but one is totally dogged and the other one is thrust back in the starting five as soon as he becomes available. Grade: D-
– The coaching staff: solid B+. We’d like to see more flexibility, but you can’t argue with results.
Now that we’ve wrapped a winning half-season, let’s brace for what’s next and let’s hope we don’t execute one or more bad trades. See ya!