It’s still early, but…
Even though the Knicks have only played 12 games this season there are some early indicators worth taking notice of. The goal coming into this season was simple, be a better playoff team without sacrificing the future. The Knicks appeared to have done that on paper. However, in order to be a better playoff team they need to have a good regular season record, especially one in the top 6 to avoid the play-in tournament. Currently the Knicks are in 7th place, so let’s review what has gone well and what needs to improve over the next 70 games.
Talent is everything
Even though the roster is better than last season’s, so is every other team’s in the East. So the question isn’t, did the Knicks get better? The question is, did the Knicks improve enough?
The early indicators are that they have done enough to be in the top 6. The ease in which the Knicks can score now has been encouraging. New York no longer needs Randle to be an all-NBA player every night in order to have a chance to win. In fact, they actually don’t even need him to be on the floor as much.
There are 3 reasons for that. They are Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, and Obi Toppin. The veteran guards haven’t disappointed. Both are playing well and making the game easier for their teammates. As I mention in my prediction and the reasons why the the Knicks would win 48 games. New York is one of the few teams in the East that has quality point guard play for all 48 minutes. Last season turned around after the Derrick Rose trade. Now having Kemba replace Elfrid Payton as the starter has taken the team to a new level. Aside from being able to get to the rim at will, Kemba is also shooting 45% from behind the arc on volume, 6 attempts per game.
Evan Fournier as the complimentary wing to RJ has been a major upgrade over Bullock. His ability to create off the dribble unlocks the offense and provides a necessary dimension come playoff time. He has also been knocking down big shots. Expect Fournier to play even better as his chemistry with his new teammates improve.
The other encouraging trend that no one is talking about is Obi Toppin’s development. The drafting of Toppin didn’t make sense last year, especially after Randle’s breakout season. But Toppin has turned himself into a true asset. You now hear fans complaining why Toppin isn’t getting more of Randle’s minutes. As a Knick fan you also aren’t worried about the team falling off a cliff if Randle misses time due to injury. Remember, last season Randle only missed 1 game.
So while all these are positive reason to be excited about, there are a few that are a little concerning
The Intensity is lacking
Like I mentioned before, no one believes the Knicks are a championship team, the reality is that this is a “bridge year“. Next season is when the expectations start getting ratcheted up. It’s all about getting better by building on the things the team did well last season. One of those things was bringing focus and defensive intensity on every play. That was how the Knicks were able to exceed expectations last season by winning 41 games when they were predicted to win 22-23 games.
But this season it hasn’t always been there. It appears that the Knicks know they got enough offensive talent to get back into games, so they aren’t worried about losing leads or falling behind. But what is most concerning has been Randle’s effort, especially when you consider it is early in the season. I can understand being tired in the middle of the season, but not at the beginning. We all knew that Kemba and Fournier weren’t defensive stoppers, so we expected the returning core players to pick up the slack. However, Randle, the team’s leader isn’t always leading by example.
This is concerning because every other team in the East got better. There are no off-nights anymore. The Knicks have already lost to Orlando, Toronto, and Cleveland, teams which weren’t projected to make the playoffs. I predicted that one of the ways the Knicks would exceed the experts’ prediction of 41-42 wins was by Thibs ensuring the Knicks cleaned up against the bad teams. That isn’t happening yet
Things that need to improve
One things that I expect to improve through out the season is team chemistry. The Knicks have a roster full of experienced, smart, and unselfish players. But their top-end talent isn’t as good as the other teams. So they really need to play as a cohesive team on offense, like the Warriors or the old Spurs teams. While the Knicks have been blowing leads against inferior teams like the short-handed Sixers, it can be fixed. Integrating two new ball-handers into the rotation isn’t easy. But once they do, they will get away from a lot of Iso-ball that has made it hard for them to put away teams at the end of games.
But the best way for a team to improve is through the development of their own players, especially those on rookie contracts. As mentioned earlier, Toppin has improved significantly compared to his rookie season. But Quickley has gotten off to a slow start. Rob Brunswick explains in his article about Quickley’s sophomore slump, why we shouldn’t worried yet. While I trust IQ’s shot will come around, what the Knicks really need is for him to show he can be a playmaker for others. IQ really needs to set up when Kemba or D-Rose miss games in order for the Knicks to reach their potential.
But the player I was hoping to see continue to develop is RJ. The Knicks’ 2nd best player needs to take his game to the next level. New York has gotten him the supporting cast his game needs in order to flourish. RJ needs to get better at finishing near the rim, especially through contact. What makes RJ special is his size, not his speed. He needs to punish teams by going downhill when the defense is bent thanks to the play of Julius, Kemba, D-Rose, and Fournier. That is the only way the Knicks will max out their potential.