At A Crossroads
The Knicks laid quite the egg on Saturday. Is it correctable, or just the tip of the iceberg? The choice is theirs.
Good morning. I wrote a few weeks ago that I wouldn’t blame anyone for starting to bypass these letters, because reading about this team was starting to get awfully frustrating. And that was before Saturday’s abomination of a performance - one so bad, it harkened back to the before time, prior to Tom Thibodeau’s arrival started to make such things a relic of the past.
It was so bad that I’m ditching the normal newsletter format and instead taking a bit of a different approach to this one, both zooming in and zooming out to try and figure out where this team is at with an 11-12 record and more questions and answers. But first…
Game Recap: Knicks 99, Nuggets 113
(ICYMI: It wasn’t nearly this close)
If there was one play that summed up New York’s Saturday foray from the relative comforts of NBA mediocrity into the depths of lost seasons’ past, it was this one, midway through the third quarter, when the Knicks were somehow still in a game they really had no business being in:
Every ill that plagued the Knicks on this day, and for much of this season, was somewhere to be found in this play.
Poor transition defense. No Knick disrupting the general comfort level of their Nugget counterparts. A lack of urgency covering the 3-point line from a team that has given up the seventh most corner triples in the league and from a player who has been the culprit on several such breakdowns. A lack of communication between the supposed best and second best players on the roster.
And finally, several seconds earlier, the cause of 5-on-4 to begin with:
In case it’s not clear, that’s RJ Barrett, holding his form long after the ball has left his fingertips, as if trying to will it into the hoop. If I was 13 of my last 58 from deep - good enough for the worst 3-point conversion rate of the 119 players who have attempted at least 50 threes in that time span - I’d probably try to do the same.
Of course, Barrett’s poor shooting shouldn’t have been the story to come from this game, even if he was 1-for-7 on the afternoon. It became so afterwards though, when Tom Thibodeau seemed to call him out for failing to put in the same extra work that elevated his shooting last season:
“It's similar to last year. I have a lot of confidence in him being able to work his way out of it. When you throw in he's been sick, and to me you get rhythm when you work. Last year, he got going when he started coming in every night to shoot. So there's no notion that you do it sometimes, you got to do it all the time. So get back in the gym, get back to grooving your shot. Shoot a lot of threes and you'll start making more.”1
I listened in live and while it’s fair to interpret this as a poor choice of words, Tom Thibodeau is not a man who misspeaks. He was calling out his 3rd-year would-be star who has played like anything but2.
The other notable line to come out of the postgame - that “there may be more changes coming” - may also apply to Barrett. Face of the franchise or not, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if RJ is relegated to the bench soon - not as deep as Kemba Walker, who seems to be behind Clyde in the rotation at the moment, but not as a starter anymore at the very least.
If and when that happens, it’ll be notable. It also isn’t likely to cure what ails this team. No, what Saturday revealed in full, and what we’ve been seeing in drips and drabs this year ever since the opening tip against Boston, is that the special sauce which made the #Big15 Knicks hum has gone stale.
And just like McDonalds, it’s not like there was any confusion about what was in the sauce. Extra effort, plain and simple, even when there was a 95 percent chance it wouldn’t make a difference. We’ve seen that extra effort at times this season. Hell, we even saw it (albeit briefly, when the halftime buzzer was about to sound) on Saturday:
Critics wondered all of last year when the other shoe would drop on New York’s defense, ranked in the top-five for most of the season despite allowing more open threes than almost anyone. I maintained it never would drop as long as they maintained the level of effort they became known for, and that’s because even when a shot was technically “open” against New York, opponents knew that someone, somewhere, was milliseconds away from flying in to offer some resistance. There was no such thing as a comfortable look against last year’s Knicks. They lived in the muck. And they loved it.
This year’s team? The tape speaks for itself.
Perhaps they came into this year thinking they outgrew last year’s requirements by virtue of their upgrades and internal improvement, but the fact remains that this is still a roster with less top-end talent than something like 20 to 25 other NBA teams in a league where top-end talent usually wins out. They overcame it last season. This year, not so much.
And so nobody has to parse the meaning of my words, yes, that was a direct shot at Julius Randle, who has been emblematic of so many of New York’s issues this season. At times, including twice last week, Randle has looked like last year’s version. His defense in the Brooklyn game in particular was borderline inspired.
It’s probably not a coincidence that they played the Nets on national television and he was going against a player he surely measures himself against, however ridiculous that might seem. And it’s not like Randle has been universally poor all season long. He fluctuates, just like he always has. The difference last season was that those fluctuations happened far more infrequently, and the default was a player who rarely conserved energy on defense even though he did so much heavy lifting on offense. It’s why I wrote in this very space that he had an honest to goodness argument for a top-five MVP finish. I meant it.
But there’s just been way more of this stuff this season:
I was vociferous in defending Randle on Thursday night in the face of fans who were getting on him for two missed free throws and an Alex Caruso-forced turnover. So why am I calling him out here?
Because after two brutal losses, this was a game where the leader of the team needed to set the tone. Randle did, in all the wrong ways. In reality, Julius wasn’t responsible for a greater number of breakdowns than anyone else on Saturday afternoon (take it from someone who had the misfortune of going back and rewatching every Denver 3-point attempt multiple times. I am now blind). No one was good.
But the reason Randle stands out, and the reason so many fans have such a short fuse with him, is that when he doesn’t give the extra effort, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Take the play above, when Randle plants two feet in the paint before Campazzo even thinks about slinging the pass. If there was any doubt about what he was going to do, Julius made the decision easy.
Again, this is technically what Randle is supposed to do: cover middle after a breakdown. But there’s a way to pull this off and still maintain enough mobility to get out and offer a cursory contest. Instead, it’s comfort city for Aaron Gordon, as it was for most Nuggets all day long.
He’s certainly not the only offender. Nerlens Noel gets caught ball-watching here, and IQ gets blown by pretty brutally. Derrick Rose has a textbook dig but then fails to cover the corner after its clear no one else was coming. That’s a trust issue - something else that’s sorely lacking with this group too often.
Like I said, there were a number of offenders, including two players who often escape critique on the defensive end but who arguably had the worst afternoons of all.
Watch RJ Barrett here. At no time does he have any idea who he’s supposed to be covering, because if he did, he’d have realized that his man was on the other side of the court.
Barrett had another transition gaffe in the second quarter, when he was playing several feet off of Will Barton for no apparent reason, and Barton simply rose into an open shot. It missed, as did many Denver looks that came against poor coverage. There were also a few makes that came against good D, including a few of the latter Zeke Nnaji triples once New York finally started to respect him. This stuff has a way of evening out in the end.
Here’s another one that the Knicks are lucky didn’t hurt them, but was an example of the most consistent breakdown that occurred throughout the game:
Let me preface this by saying that Nikola Jokic is impossible to guard. That’s why he not only won MVP last season but did so while putting up one of the great offensive seasons in the history of the league. You can’t take away everything, and sometimes he makes plays that just leave you tipping your cap (he had one no-look pass to the corner that faked Evan Fournier out of his shoes later in this game. Fournier’s lack of a close out still stunk, but perhaps he was just in awe. Or something.)
Either way, you can’t let him have these looks. What Mitchell Robinson does here is not defense, and nor, for that matter, is whatever the hell RJ and Ju are doing. What is Barrett’s purpose here, exactly? And what was Randle going to do if Jokic swung the ball to Green? There are too many possessions with questions like this.
Back to Mitch: I understand that he’s hurt. His rim protection and offensive rebounding have been huge nonetheless. But his mobility issues are just killing them right now:
Nikola pushes off, but instead of getting right back out, Robinson hesitates, as if he needs to recalibrate before getting out to contest the shot. Mitch’s quickness is part of what made him so great over the last several years. It has been missing, and against stretch fives, that hurts.
As Thibs pointed out after the game, more than half the league now has at least one big man who can space the floor. This is not a problem that is going away.
(As an aside, I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if the Knicks made a serious push for Myles Turner. This isn’t the first time Thibodeau has mentioned the prevalence of teams who can go five-out, as if to ask, “where’s mine?” Noel and Taj have both taken corner threes this season, so the notion is being encouraged behind the scenes. Now its just a matter of getting someone who can make them).
Between Robinson, Noel (available for just 10 games, and ineffective at times when he’s played) and Taj (11 games played), the inconsistency of New York center position has been the most underrated aspect of them falling to 24th in defense. Against a team like Denver, who for all of their injuries can still go five-out for 48 minutes, this was perhaps a perfect storm.
It’s tempting to use that (and a whooole lot of missed open threes by New York) as an excuse for their first true ass-kicking off the season. Likewise, this is still a team that has had a second half lead in all but three games, and one of those (Indiana) they got within one.
But both talking points would only hide the truth: this was a no-show job that would make Paulie Walnuts blush. And that, more than anything, is why every Knicks fan should wake up this morning with serious concerns about what lies ahead.
It was probably too convenient to think that the removal of Walker would cure what ailed them (although save for the first quarter against the Bulls, their defense had looked largely solid in the three games prior to Saturday). Either way, we can now be sure it wasn’t the magic elixir that would get things back on track. Needless to say, with two losses to the Magic and a near defeat by the Rockets, no game can be taken for granted. If this level of play continues, the season can absolutely spiral out of control.
They have moves they can make. Trade season opens in 10 days, and I’m sure they will be active. Putting RJ into the second unit and elevating Grimes might actually give the starting five a jolt (and judging from Grimes getting an extended run with the starters in place of Barrett on Saturday may be an indication Thibs is mulling it over). At center, I mean…the NBA’s ultimate in unspectacular consistency is sitting right there on the bench. I’d be very curious to see how they look with Taj starting and Mitch off the bench, where fewer stretch fives will be in to hurt him.
But these are all bandaids. At the end of the day, as Julius himself said afterwards, this is about looking in the mirror. It’s been a while since this organization was at a crossroads, but it feels like they’ve arrived at one now. They’re best player has displayed the sort of inconsistency that left two teams ready to move on from him and left our own fan base just as willing to part ways before last season. Can he get back to what he was?
Time will tell. The same goes for RJ, whose shooting slump has extended well past any funk he was in last season. The sooner he accepts the fact that he’s not “destined for greatness,” as he told the New York Post right around when his shooting slump began, and that greatness instead comes from hours and hours in the gym, the better his chances get.
It has to start with them. The Immanuel Quickleys, Obi Toppins, Quentin Grimes and Deuce McBrides of the world are tireless (and, if you’re looking for silver linings, evidence of good things long term for this regime), but if they’re being depended on to rescue this season, this season is not going to be rescued, at least not in the way we now still hope.
Perhaps we get a healthier dose of all the kids after all. If that happens, this season will have pivoted in a way that almost no one could have possibly expected before it began. They’re another bad six weeks away from looking awfully hard at the top of the 2022 Draft3.
Or we look back on this 11-12 start as nothing more than a bumpy transition for a roster that tried to reconfigure itself but realized that with this core group of players, there was only one style of play that was ever going to work.
But it’s getting late early. The clock has just about struck midnight, and Saturday’s pumpkin was proof of just how bad things have gotten.
The choice is theirs.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
Please. They should be thankful I don’t take stars away.
#NYK75: No.56 - Nate Robinson
All-Time Franchise Ranks:
Games Played: 312 (43rd)
Points scored: 3897 (40th)
Scoring average: 12.5 (66th)
Made threes: 414 (9th)
Win Shares: 15.2 (56th)
Best Knicks Stat: One of five Knicks ever with at least 45 points, six rebounds and six assists in a single game.
It’s hard to imagine the Knicks getting more from the 21st pick in the 2005 draft (or, for that matter, a 5'9" guard getting more out of his talent) than Nate Robinson.
For the duration of his time in New York, Nate was viewed as something of a novelty act. Despite having an obvious ability to score while being on many teams who struggled immensely in that respect, Robinson started less than 20 percent of his games as a Knick. Even with a lack of organizational belief, he increased his scoring in each of his first four seasons, topping out at 17.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds as a sixth man in 2008-09.
And then of course there were the highlights, not only in the dunk contests - none of which were all that memorable if we’re being honest - but in games, when for brief moments he would make you wonder just how ridiculous it would be really be if a team gave him the keys and let him roll.
We sort of found out a few years after he left, when he helped Tom Thibodeau’s undermanned Chicago Bulls put a scare into the Miami Heat. It showed he probably deserved more of a shot during his four and a half seasons here, not that it would have made a difference in wins and losses, but it certainly would have made for a better show.
If nothing else, where Nate was concerned, you could always count on at least that much.
And if you disagree, go read the previous paragraph about just how bad RJ has been shooing. If I know that stat, you better believe Thibs does too.
If you think that’s hyperbolic, consider: only six teams have a worse net rating than the Knicks since November 1. Four of them entered this season with the intention of tanking, the Pelicans have not yet seen their best player in uniform, and the Blazers have been Knicks West, only worse.