Analyzing the Recent New York Knicks "Success"
By: Allen Chun
Last season, the New York Knicks won 21 of 66 games, putting them in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year. With mediocre offseason signings and unlucky draft pick positions, it certainly seemed as if the Knicks were headed towards another typical year of losses.
But as we speak today, the Knicks are currently 6th in the Eastern Conference through 36 games and find themselves bouncing around the 4th to 9th seed. There are still 36 games left in the season, but it does seem like the Knicks have made a proper step forward. With the play-in tournament for the 7th through 10th seeds, almost every team could make the argument for how they could make the playoffs. Let’s take a look at what changes the Knicks made this season to exceed everyone’s expectations and throw their name in the ring.
One of the first moves the Knicks made during the offseason was to sign head coach Tom Thibodeau to a 5-year contract. Regarded by ESPN as “the pinnacle of team defensive strategy in the NBA,” Thibodeau’s meticulous style of game planning and strategizing was bound to affect the Knicks in some way. Throughout the season, New York’s defense has dominated: their defensive rating currently stands at 3rd in the league, completing a turnaround from one of the worst defenses to one of the best.
Right now, the New York Knicks rank 1st in points allowed, 1st in opponent field goal percentage, and 1st in opponent 3 point percentage. Simply said, if a team is facing the Knicks, they are more likely than not having a tough time getting easy buckets, further emphasizing this team’s defensive prowess that prior seasons lacked..
Their starting five -- Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson -- has played the second most minutes out of any 5-man lineup in the entire league despite only playing in 22 games together. With this lineup, they rank 2nd in rebound percentage, 6th in defensive rating, and 14th in net rating*. Down the stretch, their defense has anchored the team to success, as they have successfully defended teams from scoring easy transition buckets and three pointers.
* Stats account for lineups that have played a minimum of 18 games together
In addition, the Knicks team ranks 3rd in opponent points in the paint, 3rd in opponent fastbreak points, 6th in opponent second chance points, and 10th in opponent points off turnovers. It is clear that they’ve found their identity through their staunch defense. For this, Thibodeau deserves a lot of credit. Even in losses against the Nets and Jazz, the Knicks were able to stay in the game because of their unwillingness to give up on the defensive end. They’ve quickly become a team that no one wants to face in a 7-game series.
They’ve found a star in Julius Randle
Last season, Julius Randle was able to get his first chance at being the first option on an NBA team. As teams paid extra attention toward him, Julius Randle struggled to get many open looks, scoring fewer points per game from the previous year and shooting a low 27.7% from three. One year later, Randle has adjusted to his new role in New York and has improved in all aspects of his shooting, passing, and rebounding.
He’s having a career year in almost every category of the stat sheet, shooting 41% from three, grabbing 11 rebounds per game, and averaging 5.5 assists per game. Watching the games, you can see how Randle has everything in his package, from the three pointer and the midrange to the ability to get to the free throw line. He’s adjusting to the defense, finding open teammates when drawing extra defenders, and passing to cutters in the lanes. It is this elite level of play that displays why Randle was selected to be an All-Star for the first time in his career. He’s putting up numbers comparable to some of the best big men in the league.
Above all, Julius Randle is a durable player who has played in every single one of the Knicks games. He’s stayed healthy, which has allowed the team to rely on his consistent scoring and rebounding. The Knicks have unlocked the All-Star potential of Julius Randle, and with it, they have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.
The team has depth
Besides Randle, the Knicks have a supporting cast that includes various players in unique roles. They have a variety of scoring options, including six players scoring in double figures. Most notably, RJ Barrett has made strides in his second season with higher averages in points, rebounds, and assists along with higher efficiency rates. In February, Barrett had a roller coaster of a month with inconsistent play, but as an NBA sophomore, that was bound to happen at some point. Even with the inconsistent offense, Barrett continued to help the Knicks with his defense, and as a result, the Knicks have a net rating of 1.7 when he’s on the court and a net rating of -2.3 when he’s off the court.
Other players like Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley, and Derrick Rose are also a big part of the success. When these three players are on the floor, they have a combined net rating of 21.7, and when they are off the floor, the team’s net rating plummets to -8.2. Off the bench, Alec Burks is shooting a high 40.4% from three while players like Rose and Quickley are building chemistry together to build an elite backcourt. Immanuel Quickley is quickly turning into one of the best rookies of his class, with a decent three pointer, playmaking skills, and innate ability to get by defenders and shoot his signature floater. Even though he ranks 19th in minutes per game among rookies with only 18.6 minutes per game, Quickley ranks 4th in points per game and 7th in assists per game. With the experience of Rose, Quickley can learn how to fulfill his potential as a player and work together to provide instant offense for the team.
The acquisition of Rose provided the Knicks with a slashing playmaker who could get the team a bucket any time. Unlike his short tenure with the Knicks five years ago, Rose has changed both his mentality and playing style to fit in within the Knicks playing style and help the team win games. In 10 games with the Knicks, he’s finding open players on the floor with 4.9 assists per game, shooting the three at a 45.5% clip, and turning the ball over 1.9 times per game. Compare those statistics to five years ago, when he was shooting an abysmal 21.7% from the three and turning the ball over 2.3 times per game. As a veteran and former MVP, Rose can also step into the leadership role for rookies like Quickley and Obi Toppin as well as the rest of the team and continue to mentor them as they seek a spot in the playoffs.
What they can do to solidify a spot in the playoffs and thrive there
The Knicks are hovering around a 0.5 win percentage, and while it puts them in the playoff race, it doesn’t solidify it. The biggest change the Knicks need to make is to pass the ball around and create offensive opportunities for all the players on the floor. The lower number of assists per game indicates that the team is not running offensive plays efficiently, looking for the open player, and as a result, they are taking low quality shots at times.
Even though he has improved, Elfrid Payton needs to improve his shooting skills from three, as he is shooting just 24.1% this season. In general, the entire team needs to not only improve their three point making ability but also take more three pointers. On average, the Knicks take the second lowest number of threes per game, and if they go against a team like the Jazz or the Warriors, they can play good defense but still lose because of the huge differential in three point field goals attempted. The Knicks rank 29th in points scored per game, 29th in assists per game, 25th in effective field goal percentage, and last in pace.
Through half a season, the Knicks are in a position to finally make the playoffs. With 36 games still left in the season, it is imperative that the Knicks maintain their elite level of defense and allow Julius Randle to shine on the offense.
Currently, the Knicks are on 3-1 in their last four games. During those three wins, they outscored their opponents 359 to 318, which included a season high 140 point performance against the Kings. While there is still work to do, they are beginning to fit the pieces in the puzzle and find their flow on the offensive end. Defensively, they are statistically performing better in every category compared to last season. With Coach Thibodeau’s emphasis on defense, the acquisition of Derrick Rose, the potential of Immanual Quickley, and the improvement of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, the Knicks have successfully turned their franchise around from a lottery team to a legitimate playoff team. If they can turn things around with their three point shooting and transition offense, the Knicks will, without a doubt, go a lot further into the playoffs than most people think.
Sources: stats.nba.com, basketball-reference.com, nbashotcharts.com, espn.com