Back to the Drawing Board
The Knicks can't carry their momentum with them back home.
Good morning! Would it be a much better morning had Ricky Rubio gone, say, 4-of-9 from deep, instead of having a once-in-a lifetime, “of course this shit happens to the Knicks” sort of game? Why yes, yes it would. But we deal with what we have.
And what we have is a talented, flawed and frustrating 6-4 team that continues to give us the highest of highs (feel free to check out Saturday’s recap of the Milwaukee game ICYMI) and the lowest of lows (we’ll get there momentarily). Before that, our weekly reminder for anyone who would like to become a full subscriber:
Game Recap: Knicks 109, Cavs 126
⌚️ TL;DW: After an inspiring last three quarters in Milwaukee, the first half was a reversion to form for the Knicks: a mix of strong and sloppy play, and more than anything, defense that lacked the edge New York was known for last season. You knew they were the better team, but also that they were tempting fate. Sure enough, in the second half, fate answered. Cleveland hit 13-of-18 from deep, including Ricky Rubio finishing off a career high 37-point game that included 8-for-9 from long range. A spirited Knicks comeback in the fourth featured several hard jabs but the Cavs always had a counterpunch when needed. In the end, it was another tough loss that left questions about how they can recapture a consistent fighting spirit.
⓵ I spoke to soon. In my weekend newsletter, I wrote that the Knicks “found something they’ve been missing all year” in Milwaukee, and that hopefully, that comeback win would serve as a turning point. It did not.
The Knicks still have the same game plan as last year - help off shooters to protect the rim - but there remains a lack of tenacity in their recovery that is clearly making shooters comfortable (see: career games from OG Anunoby, Myles Turner, Grayson Allen, and Ricky Rubio, all in the same week). The missing edge also revealed itself on the boards yesterday, when they were out-rebounded 48-32.
⓶ Derrick Rose didn’t change the complexion of the starting five much. On his own, Rose was excellent filling in for a resting Kemba Walker, finishing the game with 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including being the only player who could hit shots during the third quarter stretch when the game started slipping away. That said, there is still something off about the opening unit. Cleveland turned a one-point halftime deficit into an 11-point lead in just over six minutes, and the Knicks had no answers at either end.
⓷ The backups, on the other hand... This was another game where anyone watching didn’t want the subs to check out of the game (and in the fourth quarter, Thibs - for the most part - gave everyone their wish). Quentin Grimes even got his most meaningful play of the season, and even though he air-balled his first look, made a positive impact with his hounding defense.
Say this about the Knicks: whoever it is that winds up coming off the bench absolutely brings the fire. The on/off numbers show as much: all of New York’s best ratings belong to players who come off the bench.
Macri, how can you not be worried about…
The starters, given those numbers?
To a certain extent, it’s just a matter of keeping the faith. There is no obvious culprit among the group. Walker and Randle are the most obvious candidates, but blaming New York’s defensive woes all on Kemba, especially after last night, is fraught. As for Julius, he continues to attempt to make the “right” play, and often succeeds (his 5.8 dimes per game are 22nd in the league). He has been far less efficient than last season but not to the point of being a hinderance more than a help. He had several impressive an meaningful makes last night, as he has all year long.
One villain, it would seem, it time, and the fact that the Knicks have not yet had enough of it to garner consistency at either end. Part of the second unit’s success is born from the fact that they got so much time together last season. There is a level of trust they display on the defensive end that is only earned over time.
But you don’t need time to generate effort. It was clear from the opening possession that the starters knew this had been an issue, and sought to rectify it from the gate:
That intensity lasted all of one possession, as the next time down the court, Dean (not Dwyane, Dean) Wade stepped into a wide open three after neither Rose nor Mitch felt the urgency to come out on him:
On one hand, Dean Wade is the guy the Knicks want taking threes. He was 3-of-15 on the year. They’re counting on it.
On the other hand, even the Dean Wade’s of the world will knock these down if they aren’t made to feel uncomfortable, and the Knicks’ starters haven’t been making enough people feel uncomfortable. That has to change for them to get on the right track for good.
I’m betting it will.
Play of the Game
He’s getting some grief this morning for another game that was good on paper (19, 7 & 7 on 17 shots) but left a bit to be desired for those who watched. Still, this block in the fourth gave them one last gasp of air before the balloon popped.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Obi Toppin: The cries after last night’s game were all too predictable after the 4-for-4, 11-point outing Obi put forth in just 11 minutes: why didn’t Thibs play him more.
It was a fair question, at least in the first half, when Toppin saw just four minutes despite another incredibly impressive offensive display. I mean, this is just so smooth:
Toppin is shooting 59.6 percent on the season despite hitting just two of his 15 attempts from deep. That first number is 14th among 237 players who have taken at least 40 attempts from the field this year.
He continues to show progress in other areas of the game as well (his 103.5 on court defensive rating is not a mirage), including his passing, which was on display last night:
Randle is still struggling, so as long as Obi keeps this up, the calls for increased time will only grow louder.
⭐️ ⭐️ Nerlens Noel: We often say that there are things Mitchell Robinson can do on defense that simply can’t be taught, and how those things are the reason we believe he can be a perennial All-Defense-type player for years to come.
But if we’re keeping it real, there are also things Mitch can’t do, at least not as well as his backup, who has been exemplary since returning to New York’s lineup. Watch the ground Noel covers here in aggressively trapping Ricky Rubio above the arc, and then getting back to contest Jarrett Allen at the rim:
His hands remain a national treasure (on defense, I repeat, on defense), and over the last few games, it feels like his energy level has simply been higher than Robinson’s.
I would even understand notions of suggesting a starting center swap, although the numbers before last night with Mitch, Rose and the rest of the starters (albeit in an extremely limited sample size) would suggest that we should wait a few weeks before thinking of such a change.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: FINALLY.
The final stat line (3-for-8 from the field, 12 points, five dimes) undersells the impact Quickley had on this game. Quick, after nine mostly bad (and, more distressing, hesitant) shooting performances, looked like Quick again.
Perhaps it was because he came into a situation with nothing to lose, with New York down 11 after a listless beginning to the third. Whatever the cause, he made his impact known immediately:
Quickley stayed on the floor until the final buzzer, and it was the easiest decision Tom Thibodeau has made all season. RJ Barrett had his first truly off night of the year, and Quickley’s energy on both ends was the best thing the Knicks had going for them.
It ended up being too deep a hole to dig out of and too incredible display of shooting from Cleveland for it to make a difference, but if IQ ends up having the sort of impact we suspected he might before the year started, last night might wind up being the turning point.
🏀 Game Night 🏙
Who: Knicks vs Sixers
When: 7:00 pm
Who’s out: Tom Thibodeau was noncommittal about Kemba Walker’s availability for this one, but he may have just been being coy. For Philly, aside from Ben Simmons, Philly will likely be without Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle (COVID) and possibly Danny Green, who has a bum hammy.
Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter!
What to look for: The Sixers haven’t lost since the Knicks beat them almost two weeks ago, winning six straight against the Pistons, Hawks, Blazers and Bulls at home, and then in the last four days, Detroit and Chicago on the road. They have the best offense in the NBA over that stretch thanks mostly to a league-leading 58.8 effective field goal percentage in those six games. If Harris doesn’t play, the Knicks should feel fortunate; he’s hit over 75 percent on twos since the teams last played.
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 It went a little under the radar on Friday, but the Knicks made another analytics hire, nabbing Owen Phillips to work on the coaching analytics team alongside Nick Nick Restivo. This has been a point of emphasis since Leon Rose came aboard and they now have one of the largest analytics groups in the NBA.
As someone who is admittedly not well versed in the ins and outs of behind the scenes analytics on the team-side, I went to the analytics master himself, NBA analyst for The Athletic and author of the upcoming book The Midrange Theory, Seth Partnow, for some more info:
As I discuss in Chapter 12 of “The Midrange Theory”, ‘analytics’ for an NBA team is actually several different professional disciplines rolled into one. In addition to the basketball analysis, there are aspects of computer science, software development, formal statistics/modeling, UI/UX design, data engineering and even elements of IT which make it all work.
But the analysis is the most tangible and visible part, and generally breaks into three broad categories: personnel, in game strategy and sports science. The latter is frequently a responsibility of people working for and in the training and medical staff but is sometimes the purview of an analytics department as well.
Personnel and in game analysis are the primary responsibilities of most analytics groups. While the line between the two is impossible to draw precisely - many metrics are applicable to either - for teams with both front office and coaching analytics staff, the former tend to focus on personnel issues (draft, trades, free agency, etc.) while the later on game strategy.
That game strategy analysis includes things like lineup combos, opponent and self-scouting for tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, key in game decisions such as using timeouts and coaches challenges, implementing 2-for-1s and late game strategy such as fouling or the necessity of shooting a three in a given spot.
Over the last several years, more and more teams have added coaching analytics staff who travel with the team to be readily available to provide this sport, participate in coach’s meetings and even do on-court work. At least three teams (Washington, Utah and Toronto) even have individuals with assistant coach titles that have genuine technical and analytics expertise, while another 12-15 have one or more analysts in their regular traveling party.
Whether this is the head coach’s choice or something imposed by the front office depends on the team. However, in the case of the Knicks, consider that the team’s head of coaching analytics, Nick Restifo, worked for Tom Thibodeau’s front office in Minnesota and was hired shortly after Thibs came to New York. This is at least strongly suggestive that analytics has not been forced on a reticent coach.
Thank you Seth! For as much as we may have disagreed with his decision to leave a certain 21-year-old off his preseason top 125, Seth is as smart as they come on the topic of basketball analytics, and I’d strongly encourage everyone to check out the The Midrange Theory, available for pre-order right now.
#NYK75: No.72 - Danilo Gallinari
All-Time Franchise Ranks:
Games Played: 157 (116th)
Points scored: 2155 (80th)
Scoring average: 13.7 (51st)
3’s per game: 2.3 (10th; min. 100 made 3-pointers)
Win Shares: 11.5 (71st)
Best Knicks Stat: Youngest Knick to hit eight 3-pointers in a game
I think I’ve told this story before, either in here or on a podcast, but its absurdity bears repeating:
During my third year of law school, while sitting in the trial advocacy office avoiding my work, I was having a spirited discussion with buddy Bernard Ozarowski about how many players in the league I would trade Danilo Gallinari for, straight up. My answer, as I recall, was two: Kevin Durant, and someone we’d ironically wind up trading for twice, Derrick Rose.
My rationale was convoluted and nonsensical in every way. We were midway through the 2009-10 season, and many of the league’s best players (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Stat, Joe Johnson) were entering free agency that summer, and Melo was unrestricted the year after that. Why would we give up such a wonderful asset for someone we could just sign outright?
The nonsense continued. Kobe, Dirk and Duncan? Too old. The Curry kid in Golden State? Bad ankles. Russ? Couldn’t shoot. Dwight? Just a talentless rim runner.
Gallo was a better asset than all of them in my eyes. Entering his second season, his head coach - the man who steered the 7-seconds-or-less Suns and their two-time MVP - called him the best shooter he’d ever seen. That was enough for me.
Once his sophomore campaign finished up, I felt vindicated. Think about how apeshit we all went for RJ Barrett over the previous five games, and then consider that over the final month of Gallo’s second season, he averaged 20 a night on 37.5 percent shooting from deep. The next season, he put up 20 or more 15 times before the Melo trade sent him to Denver. The city loved him, and he loved it here.
His departure may have been the price of doing business, but his short stint in town is enough to get him on this list.