We decided to review how the Knicks were doing after the first 20 games of the season. Everyone likes to look at the season in 10 game increments, but because of the usually short offseason we decided to give the team more time at the start of the season.
The expectations for this season are more about player development and culture setting than wining games. We can all agree that the front office and the fans wanted to see the following: a well coached, competitive team, that plays great defense, while also developing its young players.
So even though the team has a losing record, it feels like the Knicks are moving in the right direction. That is why I am giving them a grade of B. Let’s take a look at how the Knicks have performed in the first 20 games and what they need to accomplish over the next 52 games.
The Product: B
While wins is not the barometer for success this season, it is nice to see the Knicks getting off to a surprising start. Before the season started the Vegas odds makers were predicting that the Knicks would win around 22.5 games, a 31% winning percentage. It would be the equivalent of winning 25-26 games in a regular 82 game season.
While it’s still early, the Knicks are on pace to win 32.4 games, 10 more than Vegas predicted. In my first article of the season “What is considered a successful season” , I wrote that the ideal win total for this season is 29. This would be an improvement over expectations, but would still keep them in the lottery. If the Knicks continue their current play they could make the playoffs as an 8th seed.
As Mikey Murphy describe in his article “Knicks defense is gaining fame”, the Knicks are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. After 20 games, the Knicks are ranked 1st in points allowed at 102.7 points per game, but 6th when adjusted for pace (per 100 possessions). A significant improvement over last season when they finished 23rd.
The improvement can be attributed to better effort and scheme as they are protecting the paint and taking away opponents preferred 3-point shots. The Knicks rank 1st in 3P% allowed at 31.3%. But what has been key to the turnaround is that Thibodeau’s strategy has remained consistent. Unlike last season when it changed from game to game.
What has also helped is the improvement of the individual players. Everyone likes to focus on R.J. Barrett’s offense, but his defense has improved immensely. Every night he is guarding one the opponents best offensive players and shutting them down.
Then there are Julius Randle and Kevin Knox. Both were considered liabilities on defense because of focus and effort. Both have improved as on-ball and team defenders. There no longer is a Knick on the court that the opponents can actively pick on.
Despite being one of the worst offenses in the NBA, I am giving the Knicks a “D” grade because the talent simply isn’t there. This team is in desperate need of a player that can breakdown a defense and get to the rim. Elf has that ability but his lack of outside shooting and low basketball IQ is holding the team back. This hurts R.J. Barrett who is also not a good shooter. Together they are the worst shooting backcourt in the NBA. The Knicks need to move on from Elf and play Quickley, Rivers, and even Frank Ntilikina at the point instead. The other player that will help get the offense going is Alec Burks, his shooting and playmaking were sorely missed during the 12 games he injured. Having him out there spaces the floor for R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle, the star of the offense.
Player Development: B-
The improvement in the Knicks’ play can be attributed to one of the focal points of the season, play development. Most fans view it as something that is just for young players. However, veterans can also improve with good coaching, just look at Julius Randle. He went from being viewed as a salary dump to a potential all-star. Despite being physically gifted, his game seemed limited and outdated. Thibodeau has turned Randle from a tunnel visioned scorer to the engine of the offense. Randle is putting up career highs in scoring (22.2 ppg),assists (6.0 apg),rebounds (11.1rbg), and 3P%(34.7%).
Young players: C+
As for the two young core players, R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, the results have been mixed. Both have shown improvement, especially on the defensive end. The concern is on offense. While R.J.’s offensive stats have improved, they haven’t been as a good as you would hope for from a 2nd year player. Part of the issue is the supporting cast, particularly Elfrid Payton. Barrett is most effective when he is surrounded by shooters.
As for Robinson, his defense has improved, but his offense hasn’t. Our Rob Brunswick asked “When will Mitchell Robinson shoot his shot”, and the next day Thibs replied saying it was going to happen soon, that was January 3rd and we are still waiting.
The young player that needed to develop the most has shown improvement. Kevin Knox is key to the Knicks rebuild because his value decreased to bust level after last season. Knox’s improved defense and aggressive mindset on offense has helped turn his game around. Having his former college coach Kenny Payne mentoring him has helped. Knox has proven enough to warrant taking Bullock’s place in the rotation. That is a dramatic turnaround from last season when he was buried at the end of the bench.
Draft Picks: B+
It looks like Leon Rose and Walt Perrin did well in their first draft. While Obi Toppin hasn’t gotten a chance to play much, you can tell he is going to be a good player. We all know he can score, but his passing has been impressive, and his defense doesn’t look awful.
But the real surprise has been Immanuel Quickley, who looks like the steal of the draft. Getting a player of his quality with the 25th pick in a weak draft is amazing. No one except Kenny Payne knew that this kid could hold his own as a point guard. The only issue I have with the rookies is that they are not playing enough.
Free Agents: B+
While the free agent signings were low key, they were good. Sometimes the best moves are the one’s you don’t make. Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Austin Rivers are nice vets signed to good contracts that fill a need. It’s a vast improvement over last season’s signings that cost more and whose games didn’t compliment our young players’.
As the Knicks pass the 20 game mark of the season there is a lot to be excited about. The team is giving great effort and the young players look promising. The next step is to transfer playing time for the vets to the youngsters. As mentioned, there is no reason why Knox shouldn’t play more than Bullock.
The same goes for the point guard position, Elf doesn’t fit with this team. Start Rivers or Quickley and let Frank Ntilikina get back in the rotation. This will be the last chance Frank will have to prove himself, and Knicks have nothing to lose. This will not only help Barrett, but all the other starters. Lastly, Thibs needs to think big picture, let Mitch shoot and have the youngsters play more even it costs the team a couple of wins. We don’t need to have R.J. and Julius lead the league in minutes played just so Thibs can chase the 8th seed in the playoffs.