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The Knicks are stuck in a place called NBA purgatory. It’s when a team is not good enough to compete for a title but not bad enough to acquire future stars through the draft with a high lottery pick. In the NBA, being an average team with no stars is one of the toughest situations to get out of.
What is most concerning about the Knicks’ situation is that there isn’t a clear path to improving the team. The organization doesn’t want to tank. There are no star players about to enter free agency or stars that are willing to force a trade to New York. So what can the Knicks to get out of NBA purgatory?
First Thing Is Not To Panic
The worst thing the Knicks could do is panic and start trading future assets and cap flexibility to acquire overpriced vets with name recognition. That has been the main issue since the Dolan era started 20+ years ago.
While it is not exciting and it doesn’t provide any instant gratification, what the Knicks are currently doing is the right approach. That is to continue to make good small moves and improve incrementally. When there isn’t a clear path to success, the best thing to do is to prepare yourself to be in position to strike when an opportunity eventually presents itself.
When you look at the other ‘destination franchises‘ in the NBA, the Knicks are the only one with salary cap flexibility and draft capital. The Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Miami Heat, and the Brooklyn Nets, are all over the salary cap and have traded most of their draft picks.
So what the Knicks need to do at this moment is maximize the talent they do have on the roster.
How to Maximize Talent
The current mindset in basketball to put the ball in your best players hands and let them create plays. But works when you have superstars that can impose their will on the opponent. The Knicks don’t have a superstar with a dynamic skillset to do that. But what they do have is a couple of players with a set of skills they are elite at. Those players are Jalen Brunson and Mitchell Robinson.
Brunson might not look the part, but he is one of the best finishers around the rim despite his size. Don’t believe me, then just look at what Kirk Goldsberry posted above. The most important offensive skills in basketball are hitting 3s and converting close to the rim. The Knicks are not great at shooting from deep so they need to make up for that by being elite around the basket.
Steph Curry has his flaws, but he is a great shooter. So the Warriors made that the focal point of their offense, built around Curry’s elite skill by surrounding him with players that masked his deficiencies. Conversely, Curry’s shooting forces defenses to focus on him which make the game easier for his supporting cast.
I am not saying Brunson will ever be good as Curry, because he won’t, but maximizing his talent is the best path the Knicks can take to become a 50+ win team.
One of the supporting players Brunson needs in order to unlock his talent is already on the roster. It’s Mitchell Robinson, one of the best rim-running Centers in the NBA. Mitch provides the vertical gravity Brunson needs to drive to the rim effectively. Defenses need to respect the lob threat Robinson is, so in order to do they can’t overcommit in order to stop Brunson. Mitch is also an elite offensive rebounder who can take advantage of a defense that has gotten out of position in an effort to defend a Brunson drive to the rim. Last season, Mitch finished as the 2nd best offensive rebounder at 4.1 per game.
Robinson is also elite at defense which can make up for Brunson’s short comings as a defender. Opposing point guards might be able to get by Brunson, but won’t want to shoot over Mitch in the paint.
Need to split the Randle & Barrett duo
While it is still early in the season, one thing has become apparently clear. RJ and Julius are not a good fit. While they play different positions their games are too similar. Both are big for their positions, but neither maxes their strength by being an elite finisher around the rim. That is a big issue since both are not reliable 3-point shooters. This season both are shooting in the ~20% range from beyond the arc. So all they end up doing is making the game harder for Brunson and Mitchell by clogging up the paint.
Because of that it is time to make a trade or send one to the 2nd-unit. Fournier should also have his role reduced since his defense is average at best and only exposes Jalen’s weakness on that side of the court. Brunson and Robinson would be way more effective if they were surrounded by big 3-D wings like Grimes and Reddish. Obi would also be a better fit next to Brunson at Power Forward. He is longer than Randle, also is a better shooter and plays above the rim which Randle can not. Julius is a better ballhandler than Obi, but that isn’t a skill set that is going to be featured when you have a point guard like Brunson.
The best way for the Knicks to breakout of purgatory is by maximizing the few elite skill sets on the roster and build around it. Brunson and Robinson and make the Knicks elite at finishing close to the rim which would create opportunities for the shooters on this team; IQ, Grimes, Reddish, and Fournier.