The Knicks gave someone else a turn to start the game in Charlotte. The question is: what now?
Good Morning! First of all, thanks for opening this newsletter. If the last two weeks’ worth of Knicks basketball has left you less than enthusiastic about consuming content about a team with a negative 5.4 net rating over their last seven games, far be it from me to blame you.
Second, instead of a traditional game recap of Friday’s loss, I’m tackling the game a bit differently for today’s edition. Hope you don’t mind.
Finally, if you’re not yet a full subscriber and would like to become one, you know what to do:
🏀 Game Night 🏙
Who: Knicks vs Pacers
When: 7:30 pm
Who’s out: Nerlens Noel remains questionable after missing practice yesterday. For Indiana, rookie Chris Duarte is questionable with ankle soreness, and TJ Warren remains out.
Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter!
What to look for: Derrick Rose said yesterday that the Knicks’ first unit worked on a lot of set plays. I wonder why.
As I’ll explore more below, New York seemed like it found some answers against the Hornets. We’ll see if they ask the same questions against Indiana.
Game Recap: Knicks 96, Hornets 104
⌚️ TL;DW: Kemba Walker came out looking like Kemba Walker (much more on that below), and the Knicks shot out to a 16-point 1st quarter advantage. After the bench maintained the lead, like clockwork, the starters gave it away and then some over the middle third of the game. Immanuel Quickley and the bench brought New York back, but after a back and forth 4th quarter, Miles Bridges - easily the best power forward in this game - made all the big plays down the stretch to seal the victory.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Alec Burks - His first star. Not only is it long overdue, but he’s probably a spot too low. Burks has been good for a while now, and his stat line finally reflected it: 15 points on 6-of-12, nine boards, three dimes, two steals and a block. He was everywhere, and a huge part of almost everything good that happened for the Knicks in this game.
⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley - In my closest decision of the year, gets the nod over Burks because this one was headed to a blowout until Quickley came in and, yet again, changed the entire complexion of the game. He missed his last five from the field, but his three 3-pointers in just over three minutes gave the Knicks life and spurred a back and forth battle the rest of the way. The best part? After the third of those makes, he got the defense to bite on a drive and then dropped a perfectly timed pass to Burks in the corner to give the Knicks the lead back. He is only scratching the surface.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Kemba Walker - Did he finish as strong as he started? No…but his 26 points, and the way he went about getting them, should give the Knicks something to be encouraged about moving forward.
If they choose to take the hint.
The most frustrating part of Friday night’s loss to the Hornets is that by the middle of the first quarter, it felt like the Knicks had found something.
Yes, Kemba Walker had his best quarter of the season on a court he’s probably more comfortable with than anyplace in the league. It would be easy enough to write off New York’s 34-18 first quarter lead as a result of nothing more than a struggling guard finding his groove.
And Walker’s shot-making certainly had a lot to do with it. But it was more than that. The offense flowed through Kemba, with him calling more of the shots than he has during any single stretch of play this season. It was a sound game plan, as much because of where the game was being played as it was because of how poorly their recent starts had looked.
Except here’s the thing: New York didn’t come out looking to put the ball in Kemba’s hands. In fact, he was hardly involved in the action over the few handful of possessions. In related news, those possessions were largely ugly. Other than one nice side action between Julius Randle and Evan Fournier that resulted in an open Fournier corner three, the opening two minutes featured two rough RJ misses at the rim, a baseline iso for Randle, a Randle turnover where LaMelo Ball simply took the ball out of Julius’ hand, and the one time Walker had the ball with a chance to do something, a Mitch moving screen.
That’s when the switch flipped, and we witnessed something we haven’t seen nearly enough of this season:
Not much to this: Mitch sets a screen (or at least the closest approximation of a screen Mitch seems capable of setting), Rozier goes under, and Walker, without hesitation, fires away.
Let’s be very clear: Kemba needs to shoot every time a defender does this. If he doesn’t, it completely neuters his ability to positively affect the offense at a high level. If he doesn’t shoot, defenders will keep going under, thus taking away Walker’s ability to drive - something which is already hamstrung by his diminished physical state. The only chance he has to strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams is by letting it go from deep whenever he gets a sliver of daylight.
Even with that initial make, Rozier remained unconvinced on the next play:
Again, the key here is that Walker displays zero hesitation putting up the shot.
It was a call back to the first few games of the season, when the entire team, perhaps fueled by adrenaline, put up 147 attempts from deep in their first three games. Their average over the last 10 has dipped to 34.4, which is still a respectable 16th in the league-wide rankings over that time. Even so, their attack has looked more muted, as if going 13-of-48 against the Magic in the third game of the season has made them slightly more gun-shy ever since.
Whatever’s been going on, those consecutive threes by Kemba set them up nicely from there on in. The next time down the court, Rozier finally goes over the screen, and Walker knew what to do:
(An observation: this play didn’t go the way Randle thought it would. It seems that he was on his way to posting up Miles Bridges, as he bypasses setting an actual screen, like he did on the previous possession. Kemba also gives away that he didn’t originally intend to drive because of the momentary hesitation on his move.)
On the next play, Randle and Kemba again repeated the two-man game. Julius screened high, and Charlotte conceded the deep three, which Walker air-balled. You know what? Fine by me! For the 11th best 3-point shooter in the league (min. 50 attempts), that’s never a bad possession.
The next two plays contain perhaps the most concerning signs for the Knicks I’ve seen this year:
Here’s the Hornets flying down the court off an inbounds following Kemba throwing the ball of Mason Plumlee’s ass and giving Mitchell Robinson an easy put-back to throw down.
At this point, the Knicks have a 13-4 lead. This game is right there to put away early, and squash any Hornets momentum before it has a chance to form. It was also a test case for what some (including me) have thought about their early struggles: if only the offense got going, the defense would follow suit.
Nope. There’s Julius Randle in no man’s land, hanging down in the paint for no discernible reason. He’s not tagging. He’s not needed to help. He’s just there. The ball predictably pings to his man wide open in the corner, and splash. Not great, Bob.
And yet, that’s arguably less concerning than what transpired next:
Immediately after the defensive breakdown, here’s Julius walking up the court, hands on knees, just as Kemba tricks Rozier into thinking he’s going to use the Mitch screen and instead turns on the jets for the and-one.
We see RJ give props to his guard right after a really nice play. We see Fournier let out a fist bump, and then go over to dab up his teammate a few moments later. Perhaps Julius had a reaction after the camera left him behind?
Maybe he gives Kemba his props afterwards in the huddle. Maybe I shouldn’t be playing body language doctor. Maybe I’m including these consecutive clips because I’ve been defending Randle all freaking season and I’m fed up that he hasn’t yet rewarded my good faith.
But something just seems off here.
And yet, on the very next play…
…Julius defers, and Kemba rewards. Knicks up 21-9. Clearly, whatever frustration Randle was feeling with not being the guy wasn’t impacting his willingness to feed the hot hand. That’s…a good sign, no? Hold that thought.
After LaMelo hit a runner1, Walker then fed Fournier for a bucket2, which was followed by RJ grabbing a long rebound and turning it into a fast break dunk. Then, after he hit one more 3-pointer, Kemba finally got a breather with 17 points on his ledger to zero points next to Randle’s name.
Here’s the first possession after Kemba left the game:
It’s a microcosm of New York’s offense for almost all of last season, and for much of this one as well. Julius gets, Julius holds, Julius jukes, and when Julius draws the double, Julius passes. If it doesn’t work on the first try, lather, rinse, repeat.
This is still good offense sometimes. It was good offense here! But the challenge for Randle now is to figure out ways to help the team when he’s not doing the LeBron James Lite Act.
Next possession, you can see Julius again expect to get the rock, until Derrick Rose sees a better option:
This is the sort of play that only a point guard can make.
Rose has the speed and the handle to parlay the Taj screen into a matchup advantage, the vision to see not only Burks in the corner but the low man (Nick Richards) change his momentum towards the paint, and then the passing acumen to deliver the rock right into Alec’s waiting hands. It’s the textbook example of why almost every offense in the NBA runs through a perimeter ball handler.
Next possession, it was Randle’s turn, and the results are a bit different:
I tweeted at the end of the first that Randle should be commended for passing the rock a lot in the opening quarter, but I was too effusive in my praise. This play is a perfect example of forced playmaking. Gibson doesn’t have much choice but to put it up with the clock winding down, and it’s not a great look.
These are the kind of possessions that show the limits of an offense run by Randle. If he doesn’t draw the double, the best option is often to take a tough shot himself rather than force a lesser player to do the same. The reality is that last season, Randle drew so many doubles because he hit so many tough shots.
This year, that hasn’t been the case. According to Cleaning the Glass, his points per 100 shot attempts are down to 103.9, which is not only a ways off from last season’s 114.3, but even below his 2019-20 figure of 108.2.
That downfall was never more evident than in the 13-minute stretch over the second and third quarter of this game, when a 45-33 Knicks lead turned into a 64-75 disadvantage. Over those 13 minutes, Randle did what Randle feels most comfortable doing and tried to take over the game. The results: 4-for-13, 3 turnovers, and one very generous assist on a swing to Kemba in the corner that Walker turned into an up and under layup.
If you’re keeping track, that’s 13 shots in 13 minutes for Julius after he took just two shots in the first 12. He also didn’t take a shot in the final 3:44 after he checked back in for Obi Toppin. Right now, that’s Julius in a nutshell: he’s either the sun at the center of the solar system, or one of Pluto’s moons, not really noticeable without a high-powered telescope.
After the game, Randle noted that right now, the Knicks don’t seem to have a lot of chemistry. You think? The offseason additions that were supposed to raise the tide have instead left them shipwrecked, and instead of making Randle’s life easier, they just seem to be making him more perplexed.
As dire as this sounds, it isn’t time to give up hope. The 2010-11 Miami Heat, which combined three of the best and smartest basketball players on the planet who were all used to having the ball, famously started 9-8 while the figured out how to best leverage each other’s skills and abilities.
This Knick team doesn’t have the talent to rip off 21 wins in their next 22 games like that Heat team did, but Walker’s performance on Friday night solidified that there is a ceiling out there that they haven’t come close to reaching yet.
The question now is how, or more specifically, who? As in: whose offense is this? Dwyane Wade showed just how much he cared about winning when he, a two-time All-NBA 1st Team player and Mr. Miami Heat himself, told LeBron “you need to take the reigns now.” A 31-year-old Kemba Walker isn’t in the same stratosphere as a 26-year-old LeBron James, but right now, the Knicks may be better off with him running the show than last year’s All-NBA 2nd Team forward.
This doesn’t mean Randle will or should be relegated to the background. He is still New York’s best late-clock option, and there will always be a dozen or so plays per game where nothing is working and someone needs to bail them out. Conversely, Randle should also continue to see the rock very early in the clock to see if he can catch an unsuspecting defender off guard for an easy conversion. Finally, we should remember: this is still the fifth best offense in basketball, and the Kemba/Fournier/RJ/Julius foursome did have the equivalent of a league-leading offensive rating through the first half-dozen games.
Keeping all that in mind, the Knicks have to leverage the fact that they can get 48 minutes worth of Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose, and Immanuel Quickley running the show, and turn the keys over to the point guards even more than they have been. The good news is that we’ve seen Randle be less of a ball-hog and more of a finisher earlier in his career, and that player is still in there somewhere:
2017-18, LAL: 16.1 points in 26.7 mpg, 51.1 touches/gm, 1.35 dribbles per touch
2018-19, NOP: 21.4 points in 30.6 mpg, 59.5 touches/gm, 1.80 dribbles per touch
2019-20, NYK: 19.5 points in 32.5 mpg, 68.8 touches/gm, 1.67 dribbles per touch
2020-21, NYK: 24.1 points in 37.6 mpg, 83.6 touches/gm, 2.27 dribbles per touch
2021-22, NYK: 21.0 points in 35.6 mpg, 75.6 touches/gm, 2.28 dribbles per touch
In that final season in LA, Randle took 69 percent of his shots at the rim and hit them at a 69 percent clip3, according to Cleaning the Glass. Few bigs in the NBA were as prolific down low. Over the last two seasons though, Randle has taken less than a third of his shots at the basket and is hitting them at just around 60 percent.
There has to be a way for these numbers to go up. Can Julius be the Draymond Green of New York’s offense, making plays as the roll man after high screens? Kemba might not be Steph, but he’s certainly still deadly enough to make it work. It’ll take buy in from Julius. Is he willing? We’ll find out.
Whatever it looks like, something needs to change, at least if this team wants to reach its ceiling. It’ll take sacrifice, which is something Randle has made in other contexts since he’s arrived.
This may be his one toughest yet.
#NYK75: No.68 - Steve Novak
All-Time Franchise Ranks:
Games Played: 135 (140th)
Points scored: 1012 (141st)
Scoring average: 7.5 (178th)
Total Playoff Points: 30 (82nd)
Win Shares: 7.8 (95th)
Best Knicks Stat: T-1st in regular season 3-pointers / game at 2.1 (with J.R. Smith)
Remember my corollary in the introduction of this countdown, when I said that meaningless numbers during losing seasons wouldn’t get you very far in this list?
Well Steve Novak is the opposite of those folks. Novak made 282 regular season threes in a Knicks uniform, plus eight more in the playoffs, and every one of them felt positively massive.
You’d never have guessed he’d wind up making anywhere near that level of impact at the time he arrived. After being taken 32nd overall in 2006 by the Rockets (a pick obtained from the Knicks in a Vin Baker/Moochie Norris salary dump, ironically enough), Novak bounced between the NBA and the G-League before being waived by both the Mavs and Spurs in the year prior to signing with New York.
And then, boom: Novakaine took the league by storm. In 2011-12, he led the NBA in both 3-point percentage (47.2 percent) and made threes per 36 minutes (with 4.7 per 36, he towered over second place Patty Mills at 3.3/36). He was also New York’s secret weapon, with the best on/off differential of any rotation regular.
He followed up that first season by becoming a key cog on the 53-win 2012-13 squad, setting the tone on opening night by going 5-of-8 from deep against the defending champion Heat. It was one of seven times he hit five or more threes in a game that season, taking an average of 7.57 attempts in those seven games. Novak was as efficient as they came.
Sadly, the Knicks traded him, a first and two seconds for the bag of stale tripe known as Andrea Bargnani. Novak bounced around the league for four more seasons but never came close to approximating his impact in the Mecca.
But his two years in Gotham are more than enough to get him in the top 70 here.
Strap on the belt. The champ is here.
One of two curl plays in the first quarter in which he absolutely left RJ in his dust. Picking up on a theme from Friday’s newsletter, Barrett’s defense continues to show red flags, with several on-ball moments in this game to add to his previous off-ball struggles.
A long two, after he bypassed an open three. What the hell has happened to Evan?
I could not make this up if I tried.