100 % Pure Love
This Knicks team is impossible not to adore. Here's why the best might be yet to come.
Good Morning, and a belated Happy Valentine’s Day to all the lovers in the place. I hope Cupid treated you well. To celebrate, I’m pulling an arrow from my quiver and shooting out today’s edition free to all. If you’d like to become a full subscriber, your reciprocated love will of course be appreciated:
We’ll get to a recap of this weekend’s action in a bit, but first, a preview of tonight’s game:
🏀 Who: Atlanta (11-15)
⌚️ When: 7:30 pm
½ Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter.
📍 Where: The World’s Most Famous Arena
🤕 Who’s Out: Mitchell Robinson will miss his second game as he awaits surgery on the fractured right hand suffered on Friday night in Washington. The initial timetable for his recovery is four to six weeks, which means he could be back by the start of the second half of the season and only miss another nine games. If it’s closer to six weeks, he’d likely miss 15 or 16 due to the condensed schedule. Fingers crossed.
As for Frank, at least he’s still helping the Knicks in their social media game:
For Atlanta, DeAndre Hunter (right knee meniscus surgery), Bogdan Bogdanovic (right knee avulsion fracture) and Rajon Rondo (back) are all out, while Tony Snell (right Achilles soreness) is questionable. There hasn’t been an update on Kris Dunn’s injured right ankle in a while, but he’s likely out as well.
Despite the injuries, the Hawks still sport a formidable starting five of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, John Collins and Clint Capela, plus sixth man and OAKAAK Danilo Gallinari, but it gets pretty thin after that, with the likes of Brandon Goodwin and Solomon Hill playing prominent roles. Oh, and if you’re pissed that 8th overall pick Obi Toppin has only been seeing a dozen minutes a night, imagine being a Hawks fan and watching Onyeka Okongwu getting DNP-CD’d.
🚫 It’s a Trap! With all their injuries, perhaps its unsurprising that Atlanta is just 1-6 in their last seven with a minus 12.4 net rating - good for 28th in the league over that stretch. The Hawks aren’t as good from deep as you might think (16th in frequency, 19th in accuracy according to Cleaning the Glass), but this game still scares the shit out of me, and it should frighten the Knicks as well.
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100 % Pure Love
Hold on…we need to set the mood:
Oh yes, the love…‘tis flowing. I’ll wait while you grab a towel.
The Knicks are 13-15, but it feels neither naive nor premature to be all in on this team, whatever the hell it is. Spunky also-ran? Dark horse 6th seed? Sneaky Bradley Beal destination? Possible Kawhi landing spot this summer? I had you going until that last one.
Even if we’re not there there yet, wherever we are, I gotta say…it feels pretty good. As of this very second, the Knicks have scored THREE more total points (that’s one more than two and two more than one!) than their opposition this season. Since Jeff Van Gundy was coach, they’ve only finished three seasons with a positive scoring margin: 2010-11, ‘11-12 and ‘12-13.
There’a a long way to go till we get to that point, and we’ve had false starts here before (the 2017-18 team had a positive scoring margin until Game 37 and finished 29-53), but this feels different. There is an authenticity to their level of play that isn’t owed to unsustainable performances. Their best player only has a 51.7 effective field goal percentage, which is on the low end for the league’s usage monsters. We know the opponents’ open shot data and how it seems due for a massive regression, but we’ve been expecting the other shoe to drop for almost two months now. It might just be something they’re doing right.
Of course this love-fest comes after two wins against two woefully undermanned teams, but then again, how many times have the Knicks faced woefully undermanned teams in the past and served as the Advil for what ailed them? Good teams beat the teams they’re supposed to beat, and while the Knicks may not be good, they are always well prepared and ready to compete. So no, you will not find apologies here for either the 109-91 beatdown of the Beal-less Wizards or the 121-99 defeat of the bricktastic Rockets.
What you will find is legitimate optimism that the best may be yet to come. To explain why, I’m going to highlight five moments from this weekend’s game which gave me hope that the Knicks have another level up in them. What comes after respectable? Who knows. But I think we’re about to find out.
Derrick Rose, Drawing Contact
Even in his heyday, Derrick Rose was never someone who lived at the free throw line.
His two best seasons in that respect came during Thibs’ first two campaigns in Chicago, when Rose averaged 6.6 and 6.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, respectively. Watching him in the years immediately following the torn ACL - including his lone season in New York - you could tell he was shying away from contact at times.
Perhaps those days are behind him:
It’s early, but Rose has already been to the line nine times in 63 minutes for an average of 5.2 FT’s per 36. That’s neck and neck with Immanuel Quickley for second among rotation players after Julius Randle (6.3/36). Rose has been maintaining that number all year long - the first time since those early Chicago years he’s been hitting the charity stripe more than five times per 36 minutes.
Rose has struggled around the rim this season, and we’ve already seen why in a few instances during his second stint back. When he pulls up on drives and settles for that little one-handed push shot, it often finds iron instead of net.
More of plays like the one above would be much preferred, please and thank you.
Julius Randle, Playmaker
I mean, what more can the man do to get himself on the damn All-Star team.
This corner three attempt from Alec Burks doesn’t go down, but how many other linebacker-sized individuals in the NBA today can execute this drive and kick? That Randle is displaying this level of unselfishness deserves praise in its own right.
How rare is what he’s doing? Here are all the players in NBA history 6’8” or taller who have averaged (or are currently averaging) five or more dimes per game in a season where they also put up 20 a night: LeBron (18 times, Dear Lord), Bird (10x), T-Mac (6x), Durant (5x), Grant Hill (5x), Magic (4x), Wilt (4x), Giannis (4x), Scottie (4x), Garnett (3x), Blake Griffin (3x), Kareem (2x), Jokić (2x), C-Webb (2x), Jamal Mashburn (2x), Antoine Walker (2x), Boogie Cousins, Paul George, Stephen Jackson, Jalen Rose, Domantas Sabonis, Sidney Wicks…and Julius Randle
Right now, our man is putting up 22.4 points and 5.6 dimes a night. If he completes a season with these numbers, he’ll etch himself in stone on the above list of names, all of whom besides Rose and Jackson made at least one All-Star team, and most of whom are (or will be) in the Hall of Fame.
Keep it up, big guy. The respect will come eventually.
Immanuel Quickley, Dishing & Swishing
Quickley is coming off a weekend where he scored 38 points on 24 shots (including two massive threes on Saturday night when it looked like the game might be getting away from the Knicks), but my favorite play wasn’t a made bucket:
Through the first 24 games of his brief NBA career, Immanuel Quickley is averaging 4.9 assists per 36 minutes. Among 27 rookies who have played at least 200 minutes, that ranks fourth behind only LaMelo Ball (8.0/36), Tyrese Haliburton (6.6/36) and Cole Anthony (5.1/36).
Quickley’s ability to make buckets has garnered most of the attention, and rightly so, as he’s still leading all first-year players in points per 36 minutes (min. 200 minutes played). That said, the next step in his game, and the determining factor in whether he can be a starting point guard for a good NBA team or not, will be his evolution as a passer. Looks like the above one to Randle are a great sign.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have room to grow as a scorer as well:
While all of New York has fallen in love with Quickley’s floater, opposing teams have become just as wise to his preferred means of percolating.
If they’ve read the scouting report, they also know that one of IQ’s weaknesses at Kentucky was finishing in the restricted area, where he shot under 50 percent around the rim. The above extension and conversion was one of two close-range finishes Quick had on Saturday night, and is the latest sign that no one should be putting any ceiling on the Knicks’ precocious neophyte.
Obi Toppin, Patiently Pursuing the Post
Not a ton of rookies have this in their bag:
One of the great revelations I experienced as a young lad came when I was caddying on weekends at a local club and one of the older boys showed me what a golf cart could do if you removed the governor. Holy shit, did I almost die.
Thankfully, my two-wheeling never resulted in serious injury, but I still remember the difference from before and after I got that valuable life lesson. Right now, Obi Toppin feels like a golf cart with the governor on. He’s still functional - like in the above clip against Houston - and can get you where you need to go, but we know there’s so much more under the hood.
We got a glimpse at the end of the same game:
The fact that we know it’s there and not being used makes the waiting so very hard. But like any chastity belt, once that baby is off, it’s going to feel oh so sweet.
Unfortunately, the Knicks don’t run lineups that allow Toppin unfettered access to the lane, and thus, the sorts of lob attempts that he regularly got at Dayton. That day will come eventually, but for right now, seeing Toppin get more methodical and effective by the game is an incredibly encouraging sign.
Most fours in the league today - and especially backup fours - don’t stand a chance against something like this. It’s only been 18 games, but the signs of growth are already encouraging.
Like the US Supreme Court once uttered about pornography, culture in team sports is best defined as “I know it when I see it.”
And this, my friends, is culture:
Forget everyone rushing to pick Payton up; the fact that the man diving on the floor is the same guy who everyone and their mother wants to put on the next train out of town speaks volumes in and of itself.
The Knicks have a good thing going. Sustainability and ceiling questions remain, but the good juju? There is no denying its presence.
Leon Rose and the front office owe it to themselves and the fans to keep their eye on the prize and not make any moves where long term viability is sacrificed, but they also owe it to themselves, the fans and this team to continue improving around the margins. We are past fading for Cade. The new path is one that has bore more fruit than tanking if you’ve been paying close attention to the NBA’s recent history: get good, and wait for the right star to take notice.
We’re 28 games in and it’s culture season in New York. If that’s not love at first sight, I don’t know what is.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone tomorrow! #BlackLivesMatter