Kenny Smith Thinks The Knicks Problem Is ‘They Always Have The Second-Best Player’

In two of the last three years, the New York Knicks have earned a mid-seed in the Eastern Conference, with one series win in those two playoff appearances. This year, they are again in a similar spot, sitting in a tie for fourth in the East at 12-7 with the Philadelphia 76ers coming into Tuesday night’s In-Season Tournament quarterfinal game in Milwaukee.

Jalen Brunson has been terrific this season for the Knicks, averaging 24.9 points and 5.5 assists per game on 46.7/47.4/83.0 shooting splits, while also providing strong point of attack defense for one of the league’s best units. However, even with Brunson seemingly on his way to his first All-Star selection, there is a question of whether New York has enough star power to really factor into the conversation for the conference title in the East. Brunson has been terrific and Julius Randle has been much better the last few weeks, but they don’t have the proven No. 1 that many of the other top teams do.

On TNT’s pregame show ahead of Knicks-Bucks, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley pointed to that being the biggest issue facing the Knicks, with Barkley believing they need to make a trade and Smith explaining how they enter most games with the second-best player (at best), which doesn’t mean they can’t win but does mean they start most games with a thinner margin for error.

Now, I would push back on the idea that Brunson isn’t better than Paolo Banchero at this moment, as I think that undersells the quality of play Brunson has played at so far this year. I do have serious questions about Randle’s ability to find a high level in the playoffs given what we’ve seen from him the last two trips New York’s made, but Brunson was terrific last year and certainly seems capable of at least maintaining his level in the postseason.

That said, I do think most would agree with Smith’s assessment when it comes to most of the rest of the East’s top teams (with the Cavs as the other one where I’d have Brunson as a coin-flip with Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland) and it is the thing that makes their path forward a bit murky. To have a chance at overcoming not having a dominant number one guy, you need everyone on the team to play at their best in the postseason, which only further heightens the importance of Randle, R.J. Barrett, and others to not only carry their regular season quality into the playoffs but find ways to elevate their game. That hasn’t happened in New York’s recent playoff trips and while star-hunting is something every team wants to do, at the least they need to identify secondary stars that are able to be at their best in the 16-game season