The Resurgent New York Knicks Are Working Their Way Back To Relevance
The 2020-2021 NBA season is still in its infancy, yet there has been no shortage of headlines as player activism and the league's evolving COVID-19 response continue to dominate the news wire. On the hardwood, the much-maligned draft class of 2020 has exceeded expectations, with LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, Tyrese Haliburton, Pat Williams, and Anthony Edwards performing quite admirably in limited action. The James Harden saga came to an abrupt end in Houston as the star guard finagled his way to Brooklyn, dramatically changing the Eastern Conference's outlook. Harden's newest teammate, the ever mercurial Kyrie Irving, has returned after a mysterious absence, leaving Nets brass and fans with more questions than answers.
With all of these storylines, the NBA's biggest surprise has been the performance of Thibs' upstart New York Knicks. With the season a quarter of the way through, let's delve into how these "new look" Knicks have managed to stay competitive early on.
Any talk of the Knicks success this season begins and ends with their defensive efforts, a hallmark of all Thibodeau led squads. Coach Thibs' Knicks rank 1st in points allowed with 102.8 PPG. In their last three games, the Knicks have held their opponents to a whopping 87.7 PPG. The numbers don't lie, but what's even more telling is the tape; this group is playing with discipline and enthusiasm on the defensive side of the ball.
The coaching staff placed an early emphasis on communication and accountability from the start of camp, and it's starting to pay dividends. Part of Thibodeau's brilliance is his propensity for maximizing his players' effectiveness; this was evident in his masterful run in Chicago and 2018 when he took Minnesota to its first playoff series in 14 years. Whether it's pick and roll coverage, transition defense, or rebounding, this group has fully committed to playing with effort and intensity.
On the floor, the "lucky lefties" Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett have been the Knicks' primary weapons on offense. Randle is having a career year averaging 22.5 PPG, 11.3 RPG, and 6.0 APG. Randle's performances have been reminiscent of former Knick Anthony Mason, using his brute strength and explosiveness to punish defenders in the low post and open court.
Randle has always fancied himself as a facilitator of sorts, but this season he's staking his claim as one of the NBA's best playmaking big men. Randle's extended his range this season, shooting a career-best 35.6% from three and 81.4% from the stripe, morphing into the nightmare matchup many envisioned him being out of Kentucky.
R.J. Barrett shows no signs of a sophomore slump upping his output in almost every statistical category averaging 17.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG 3.4 APG while managing to limit his turnovers to just under 2.0 per game. While Barrett's clunky jump shot hasn't done much for his shooting percentages, he seems to be getting a better understanding of where he fits in this Knicks offense, and to his credit, he rarely forces the issue on offense. Defensively, he's been a "swiss army knife" utilizing his length and lateral quickness to disrupt and frustrate opposing matchups. R.J. isn't a finished product, but he continues to play with a level of maturity and pace well beyond his years, which bodes well for continued development.
Alec Burks has been one of the most significant difference-makers on the 2nd unit; Burks' ability to finish around the basket and, more importantly, convert from the perimeter have given the team a much-needed scoring option when Randle and Barrett are off the floor.
The biggest surprise for Knicks fans this season has been the emergence of 1st round pick Immanuel Quickley. The Kentucky guard performed admirably in spot minutes in the preseason and continues to impress Knicks fans with his poise and grit coming off the bench. Quickley's dazzling array of runners and floaters paint the picture of a far more nuanced guard than previously advertised.
Quickley was billed as a "project" of sorts, a combo guard with the ability to stretch the floor, but he's emerged as the team's most encouraging option at point guard.
The Knicks certainly have their fair share of flaws; the team's perimeter shooting can be abysmal in stretches, which speaks to personnel more than scheme. Thibodeau is still giving his starting unit heavy minutes, which has been recurring criticism throughout the years. Nagging injuries have pushed Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks in and out of the rotation. Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., and Frank Ntilikina still have question marks, and there are murmurs that Mitchell Robinson may be unhappy with his role. All things considered, the Knicks are playing competitive basketball, taking steps toward becoming a viable free-agent destination.
For the first time in a long time, the Knicks seem headed in the right direction.