The Mixed Bag
Who are the New York Knicks? Sitting at 25-21 and seventh in the Eastern Conference, Tom Thibodeau’s squad has tried its hand at just about every identity. Some weeks the Knicks look like a team built on hard-nosed defense and slashing to the hoop on offense, but there are lapses in which the three-ball is prioritized, the perimeter defense falters, and the team chemistry looks discombobulated. They’ve been a team of inconsistencies; a couple weeks ago, the Knicks seemed poised to launch into the upper echelon of the NBA. But now? The Knicks are trying to get back to who they are at their best.
At their best, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle were playing like stars, and Tom Thibodeau’s personality was evident through the team’s collective effort of stout, gritty defense. During their eight-game win streak, the defensive effort paced the Knicks, who held opponents to under 100 points per game. At an average of 97.8 points against them, that average would easily be the best in the NBA (the Cleveland Cavaliers top the ranks of opponent’s points per game at a formidable 106.7, and the Knicks land at 7th overall on the season). Over this winning stretch, the Knicks were paced with over 20 points per game by each of their star players – Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, and RJ Barrett – and during their most recent four-game winning stretch, Brunson and Randle averaged roughly 30 points per game while Barrett was sidelined with a hand injury. Similarly to their previous win streak, the team boasted an impressive 98.3 opponent’s points per game during this stretch. The key for the Knicks is clear: play gritty defense at a consistent clip while Brunson, Barrett, and Randle do just enough to win.
Unfortunately for New York, maintaining a consistent level of play has been a struggle. Prior to their eight-game win streak, the Knicks were 4-6 in their previous ten games, and a five-game skid followed in the aftermath. Recently the Knicks got back to Tom Thibodeau’s identity of relentless defense before dropping a heartbreaking loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The second half has been a struggle on the offensive end, as the Knicks rank 26th in the league in second-half scoring (compared to 7th in first-half offense) and they’ve been especially poor in the 4th quarter (26th in overall offense, and 29th in field goal percentage). Second-half struggles have been a theme in recent years for the Knicks, and this habit has reared its head as Milwaukee recently overcame a 17-point deficit to steal the game at the Garden. What should have been an uneventful win against Indiana became a nailbiter as the Pacers erased a 25-point lead, and the Wizards erased a 14-point Knicks lead in the fourth quarter but couldn’t finish the comeback as the Knicks escaped with a 112-108 victory. While Brunson has elevated his game (currently averaging career highs in points and assists per game) and Julius Randle is playing at a level similar to his illustrious 2020 campaign rather than his frustrating 2021 season, the Knicks continue to lack the consistent star power that can win games late in the fourth quarter. The Knicks hope that Randle can sustain his All-Star play, as the offense struggles to find its rhythm when he’s not playing well – as seen in the Knicks’ most recent loss, in which the Wizards got their revenge. In fact, when Randle scores under 25 points per game the Knicks are 10-13, but when he hits the 25-point threshold the Knicks are a healthy 11-6. Although top teams in the Eastern Conference may boast bigger stars, the Knicks find themselves in a position to make life difficult for any opponent if they play the style of team defense that Tom Thibodeau continues to preach.
Finding Their Footing
A cause of these inconsistencies – these hills and valleys – during the first half of the 2022 campaign may largely be attributed to Tom Thibodeau’s shuffling rotations. Veterans Derrick Rose, Cam Reddish, and Evan Fournier have essentially been phased out of the lineup after uneven starts to the season. Meanwhile, RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Obi Toppin, and Mitchell Robinson have all spent stretches on the bench with injuries. The Knicks have juggled rotations, fielding several permutations as they’ve sought to compensate for injuries, poor play, and a lack of chemistry. Finally, it appears like things are clicking for Thibodeau’s squad. Barrett is back from his injury and playing at a high level (averaging 22 points, 2.2 assists, and 5.8 rebounds in five games since returning), and young players – Quentin Grimes, Miles McBride, and Immanuel Quickley – have become prominent contributors. Grimes chips in with a steady 37% from three-point range, McBride provides a spark with tenacious perimeter defense, and Quickley – after a rough start to the year – has averaged 20.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.9 rebounds in the eight games since he’s been elevated to the starting lineup. The Knicks will need to continue developing their young talent and making life easier for their stars.
Second Half Outlook
The 2022-23 season is going as well as the Knicks could have hoped. Jalen Brunson has elevated his game after receiving a massive $104 million contract, Julius Randle has returned to form, RJ Barrett has found offensive consistency, and the young draft picks are blossoming into contributors. Perhaps most notably, the team has found a level of defensive prowess that was absent last year, and this will continue to be their key to success. The Knicks will need to remain resolute on defense as their schedule won’t get any easier. With 36 games remaining, the Knicks have the 2nd most difficult schedule in the league to close out the second half of the year. If the Knicks hope to finish as a top-six seed and avoid the play-in, they will need to assert themselves as a top defensive team in the NBA while relying on consistent output from their core. It’s a necessity for Randle, Brunson, and Barrett to stay on track as the team pushes toward the playoffs.
Up next, the Knicks will look to take on a gauntlet of Eastern Conference foes, starting with the Atlanta Hawks.
Written by: Josh Läufer (@joshlaufer)