The New York Knicks were applauded for their restraint this offseason. Despite having a ton of money burning a hole in their pockets, new executive Leon Rose and the Knicks chose the patient approach — which has not always been the franchise’s M.O. — and avoided overspending on a role player expecting them to be a star amid a less-than-stellar free agent market.
However, given their struggles last year and the lack of high end talent coming into the roster, the expectation was that Tom Thibodeau’s first season in New York would be another lean one. The offense was the league’s worst in the halfcourt a year ago and a leap wasn’t to be expected in that area, and while Thibodeau’s presence figured to command a greater commitment on the defensive end — something the Knicks desperately needed — few expected them to be among the league’s best on that end.
And yet, the Knicks are 4-3 thanks to one of the best defensive units in the entire NBA, one that is third in effective field goal percentage against (49.3 percent) and sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions (106.3), per Cleaning the Glass. They have size and length across the board and use it effectively, replacing last year’s apathy on that end of the floor with what one might even call a tenacious appetite for playing defense.
Sustaining this level of play will be a challenge, in large part because of the energy required to do what they have been at the minutes their top players are being asked to play. R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle are logging 38.7 and 38.4 minutes per game, respectively, both good for the top-3 in the NBA thus far. While that’s a Thibs staple, it does run the risk of seeing players wear down as the season wears on. Even so, it should be applauded what the Knicks have done thus far even while acknowledging the potential for a drop-off defensively that would likely see some of their wins turn into losses down the road. Most notably, this is a genuinely fun team to watch, something few expected when they took a look at this roster.
Randle is leading the way, playing All-NBA caliber basketball through two weeks of the season and averaging 22.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game on tremendous efficiency (50.9/40.7/76.2 shooting split). The scoring and rebounding from Randle isn’t necessarily new, but this level of playmaking is, and that is the area that is really impacting this Knicks offense in the most positive manner. Randle’s always been a skilled scorer and a terrific rebounder, but up until this season, his career high for assists has been 3.6 per game. He’s more than doubled that to start the season, as the Knicks have gotten him not only to initiate his own offense, but to serve as an initiator for the team, something that is very much needed with their point guard rotation.
The Knicks are asking Randle to do a lot of ball handling at the elbow and on the perimeter, and not just for dribble handoff actions. Take this play from Monday night where Barrett comes around and Randle fakes the handoff, screens Barrett’s defender to create separation, dribbles in to keep his man from rotating down, and slips a bounce pass to Barrett for the and-1 finish.
Randle has five or more assists in six of the Knicks seven games (7+ in five of those), so it’s not a situation of him simply racking up a big night or two carrying his average. He has genuinely become an offensive initiator and playmaker for this Knicks team, and his scoring to start the season means he’s drawing extra attention from defenses. This means even when he doesn’t get the assist his passing out of doubles, Randle can get the defense scrambling and help create open looks after a few passes.
Around him, the Knicks are getting about what one would expect from Barrett, who still hasn’t found his three-point stroke, but is averaging north of 18 points per game and is a tremendous rebounding guard. Elfrid Payton is off to one of the most efficient seasons of his career, with 13.6 points and 4.6 assists per game on surprisingly good shooting with a 49.5 effective field goal percentage. And then there’s Immanuel Quickley, the rookie guard who has burst onto the scene in his first three game, providing a spark off the bench to the tune of 10 points per game that has Knicks fans swooning about a player many expected to go way later than he did in the Draft — New York turned heads, and not necessarily in a good way, when it picked him 25th.
There will surely be rookie moments for Quickley, and how long of a leash Thibs gives him to make those young mistakes remains to be seen, but the energy he brings to the offense has been hard to ignore, most notably in the comeback win in Atlanta on Monday. Quickley had 16 points off the bench, and for a team with big guards like Barrett and Payton starting, he provides a unique change of pace they simply can’t replicate with anyone else on the roster.
Always providing that spark ⚡️
Quickley with the sweet take end of the 3rd quarter. pic.twitter.com/eDVYmqX612
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) January 5, 2021
The fans that want Quickley to start are going to be disappointed simply because Thibodeau is going to roll with a veteran like Payton who plays terrific defense over the rookie, but the former Kentucky guard has more than earned solid rotation minutes with his play early on — and for a Knicks team that is playing well but is still in a future-facing situation, he should be given room to grow.
Throw in Mitchell Robinson continuing to be a monster as a rim protector and lob threat, as well as Austin Rivers providing stability and scoring to the backcourt off the bench, and you have a Knicks team that is pretty damn fun to watch when they have it rolling. We’ll see how long that lasts, but the good news thus far is that while they’ve had some lopsided losses, they’ve also gutted out some close wins over good teams in Atlanta and Indiana. Those results have been more impressive to me than the blowout of the Bucks when they caught fire from three, because those performances are more replicable than this team becoming the 2015 Warriors from deep on a regular basis.
The Knicks may not be able to keep up this pace, but for a franchise that has provided fans with little to get excited about in recent years, it’s a welcome sight to see. I mean, we even got a mid-regular season Mike Breen “BANG!” last night on MSG, which is exceedingly rare.