Ending on a High Note
Don't tell a couple of young Knicks these games didn't matter.
Good morning! We made it!! The offseason is finally here. It’s been quite the journey, filled with a few high highs and mostly low lows, but through it all, we have persevered, trudging through the muck while merely seeking to survive another day. Now, with 82 up and 82 down, it’s time to look back and attempt to gain some perspective on what just transpired.
That process will start a little bit today, but will continue over the weeks and months to follow. I have a full slate of offseason content planned between now and the draft / start of free agency, including the final Stars of the Game standings, revisiting preseason predictions, awarding some honors (and dishonors), asking the big offseason questions, making offseason predictions, going through the top “What If?” moments of the year, ranking our young core, ranking impending free agents, draft prospects and trade targets, detailing potential versions of the offseason, and much, much more. Plus, I’ll be finishing off my Knicks Top 75 list with the top four players over the next week.
If you’re not yet a full subscriber yet and want to be here for all the action, take advantage of today’s “I made it through the season in one piece” 20 percent off discount and sign up now:
Sunday: Knicks 105, Raptors 94
In a game the Raptors may not have been playing to lose but also certainly weren’t playing to win, sitting both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet and giving a notch below peak defensive intensity, two Knick sophomores used the opportunity to put an exclamation point on their season - and perhaps send a message to the front office in the process.
This game was fairly close throughout, with each team taking turns going on double-digit runs in the first half. With the score tied at 75 early in the fourth, who else but Immanuel Quickley came in and righted the ship. Behind 13 Obi Toppin points in the final five minutes, New York won going away. When the final buzzer sounded, both IQ and Obi had new career highs, and the Knicks could go into the offseason with a silver lining on an otherwise disappointing year.
Friday: Knicks 114, Wizards 92
In a face off between two teams with every incentive to lose, the Wizards went the extra mile and ensured themselves a much needed defeat with some blatant tankery prior to tipoff. In addition to Kyle Kuzma and Bradley Beal already being out, neither Kristaps Porzingis nor Kentavious Caldwell-Pope suited up.
The Knicks didn’t have nearly as much of an option to go the tanking route even had the wanted to. In addition to Mitchell Robinson and Quentin Grimes joining the long list of Knick vets on the sidelines, RJ Barrett left the game shortly before the end of the first half after landing awkwardly on his right knee and did not return. Not that they really needed him. Immanuel Quickley had 23 points and 10 assists while Obi Toppin set a short-lived career high with 37 points. After New York went on a 19-0 run midway through the game, this one was never in doubt.
As a result of their season-ending flurry, the Knicks will need to get very fortunate on lotto night if they hope to move up. Here’s the facts and figures of their lottery situation:
As of now, the Knicks are alone in the 12th spot in the lottery, meaning they have a 1.5 percent chance at the top pick and a 7.1 percent chance at a top-four selection. They also have a 6.7 percent chance of moving down to 13th.
Their spot in the lottery drawing could change depending on what happens in the West play-in games. If either New Orleans or San Antonio (who play each other on Wednesday night, with the winner advancing to face the loser of the Wolves / Clippers game) advance to the playoffs by winning two play-in games, the Knicks will jump to 11th in the lottery odds, which would mean a 2.0 percent chance at the top pick, a 9.4 percent chance at a top-four selection, and a 12.6 percent chance of dropping to 12th.
If you’re wondering about what could have been, had the Knicks lost their last two, they’d be in 10th position, with a 3.0 percent chance at the top pick and a 13.9 percent chance at a top-four selection. They also ended up finishing three games “behind” San Antonio and four back of the Lakers.
If you wish the Knicks had been able to leap all the way up to 8th - the highest they were ever realistically going to get, and a spot that would have them sitting with a 26.3 percent chance at a top-four pick - you’d probably have had to deal with many or all of the key young players being benched weeks ago. As I’ll get to in a bit, some of the kids have simply been playing too well to have allowed for more losses than they’ve gotten. In their place, the Knicks could have potentially signed hardship exemption guys as warm bodies, a’la the Blazers over the last six weeks. None of those players would have been around past this season though, let alone made meaningful progress where the organization’s larger goals are concerned. Given who’s been doing the heavy lifting and how they’ve been doing it of late, it’s tough to have too many regrets about a fall in the lottery standing.
And yet, if someone in the 8th, 9th or 10th spot jumps up, there will be questions, because aren’t there always.
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 The early word on RJ Barrett, according to head coach Tom Thibodeau, is a knee strain that will have him back playing in three weeks to a month. Thibs says the plan for his players is about three weeks of “active rest” anyway, so it seems like any real harm has been avoided after RJ’s initial scare.
🏀 Leon Rose will end the season not speaking to reporters, but he did give a one-on-one interview to MSG’s Mike Breen. In the interview, Breen asked Rose about several topics, from the job Tom Thibodeau has done to the progress of the young players to his assessment of Julius Randle. While I don’t personally care much about any of what was said (because when exactly do league executives ever reveal much of anything in press conferences), the Randle comments were arguably the most noteworthy.
While Rose said that Randle told him he wants to remain a Knick, he did admit that his starting power forward was “not comfortable at times” and that this effected his play.
You don’t say.
After all is said and done, the Knicks finished the year with a record of 37-45. Their winning percentage of .451 is tied for the 47th best (or the 27th worst, depending on your viewpoint) in team history.
Some other facts and figures:
As discussed above, the Knicks finished with a better record than two play-in team in the West.
New York also finished with a better net rating (minus 0.4) than one play-in team (New Orleans at minus 0.8) and one playoff team (Chicago at minus 0.5). Their overall rating ranked 19th in the league, while they sported the NBA’s 23rd ranked offense (one spot lower than last season) and its 11th ranked defense (seven spots lower than last season).
According to Cleaning the Glass, a team with New York’s efficiency differential would normally be expected to finish at .500. The difference between their differential and their actual win total was the fifth worst in the league. This speaks to how bad they were in close games (a minus 24.1 “clutch” net rating, which ranks dead last in the league) but their 18-26 record in close games also isn’t nearly as lopsided as some other teams (Indiana is 11-34, for instance, while the mighty Celtics are 13-22) which speaks to the fact that the Knicks probably got a little unlucky as well.
Since the All-Star break, the Knicks had the best defense in the league, giving up 109.7 points per 100 possessions. That was a hair better than the Grizzlies and the Celtics, who ranked 1st and 6th in overall defense this season.
And finally, my favorite quirky stat:
Knicks net rating without Kemba Walker on the court this season: positive 2.4 in 3008 minutes, or 76 percent of the season.
Knicks net rating with Kemba Walker on the court this season: negative 9.1 in 948 minutes.
This reminds me a lot of last year’s on/off numbers involving Derrick Rose (plus 10.6 in 937 minutes with Rose; minus 0.3 in 1301 minutes without Rose after his acquisition; minus 1.1 in 1200 minutes before Rose’s arrived).
The Knicks thought they were solving their point guard woes with the Kemba acquisition this summer. Turns out, they were just making them worse.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
I know, I know…I’ve gone off the rails with the late season stars. 1, 2, 3 is so much cleaner, but with how much their roster has been depleted, how little the game themselves have come to mean, and most importantly, how much certain guys have elevated above the pack, I’ve had to pivot a few times. Today will be one last such instance.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: Last night, Immanuel Quickley became the eighth player in franchise history and the youngest Knick ever to post a 30-point triple double, finishing the game with 34 points, 12 assists (to only three turnovers) and 10 rebounds. Only Richie Guerin and Bernard King have hit those particular high marks before.
With all due respect to the other man getting today’s 3-star designation, it is not a stretch to say that Quickley was the best player on the floor for the Knicks last night, or for that matter, for the last eight weeks. He was toying with whoever the Raptors put on the court to defend him by the end of the night.
In the 24 games since February 16 (which has become like December 31 is for RJ Barrett) Quickley has per-36 minute averages of 21.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.8 turnovers while hitting 44.6 percent overall and 39.3 percent from deep. The Knicks outscored teams by 8.8 points per 100 possessions in the 653 minutes he played over that time and were outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions in the 499 minutes he sat. Accounting for playing time, he has been the most positive force on the team for close to two months now and it’s not particularly close.
It has gone beyond the growth of any one skill or trait. He has become the leader that this team was sorely lacking for almost all of this season. As Thibs said after last night’s game in heavily praising Quickley, “he is giving us everything.”
Watch him, for example, at the end of the first half in Washington. With the clock winding down and Obi working on the best half of his young career, instead of Quickley taking what would have been a very defensible floater, he baited the defense until they sagged off Toppin in the corner and then fed his sophomore classmate for the first four-point play of his career:
Early on last night, we saw the same unselfishness yet again:
Quickley and Toppin have shared the court for 201 minutes over the last dozen games, outscoring teams by 16.1 points per 100 possessions in that time. That figure is fourth best among 153 two-man combos who have seen at least 200 minutes of court time in that stretch, trailing over two Tatum-led combos in Boston and Jaren Jackson Jr and Des Bane in Memphis.
Their connection is clearly special, and one the Knicks need to account for in making their offseason plan. Many Knicks fans would kill to see them as the starting 1/4 combo on opening night next season. With results like this, it’s hard to say they haven’t earned the chance.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Obi Toppin: Just like Friday, we knew fairly early on in yesterday’s game that this had a chance to be a special night for Obi Toppin.
I’m honestly not sure how to even begin talking about the last two games of Obi’s season, or for that matter, the last 10 days.
Over his last five games, Toppin has scored more points - 136 - than all but eight players in the NBA. That stretch was capped this weekend when Toppin set two new career highs, first with 37 against Washington and then with 42 last night. That’s 79 points on 50 shots, including 12-for-23 from deep over both games. His late season hot streak from long range nudged him just over 30 percent from behind the arc for the season - 30.8 percent to be precise. That’s the same exact accuracy on threes as Julius Randle shot.
How did he improve his overall game so much? More time, if you ask him. As he stated the other day, he hasn’t been looking over his shoulder when he makes a mistake nearly as much as when Randle has been healthy and available. Instead, he’s just playing free and clear.
His improvement has been stark. The proficiency from deep has certainly helped a lot, especially since it sets up a domino effect when teams actually fear his ability to convert from distance. We’ve also seen even more of the live wire fast breaks that have come to define the team’s bench minutes:
Toppin finished the season scoring 1.48 points per possession on transition opportunities. 154 players completed at least 100 fast break chances this year. Among them, Toppin’s efficiency was highest by a significant margin. The difference between him and second place Carmelo Anthony (1.39 PPP) is the same as the difference between Melo and 19th place Ben McLemore (1.30 PPP).
But Obi’s ability to spur a fast break almost by himself is nothing new, and to a certain extent, neither is his ability to catch a well-placed lob, although those opportunities also seem to be coming more frequently. Just like I pointed out in a recent newsletter regarding a few games against Charlotte over the last few weeks, even when Washington knew it was coming, they couldn’t stop it:
Obi’s presence on the court essentially requires an opposing team to keep a traditional rim protector by the rim or have a rock solid defense that walls off his forays into the painted area.
But even then, he occupies the attention of a D in a way that’s fundamentally opposed to the man who has started ahead of him for two seasons. Julius Randle, for better and (as has often been the case this season) for worse, is just about the most predictable high usage player in basketball. Teams know exactly what he wants to do. Starting in the Atlanta series, that made guarding him a lot more manageable, especially when his threes stopped dropping.
Toppin offers no such comfort. He is in perpetual motion. Sometimes, his shots will look easier than those coming off the hands of Randle, but that’s just because he’s already done his work before the defense has gotten set.
And just to make sure we know he’s capable of pulling a few other tricks out of his sleeve, Obi occasionally pulls off a move like this:
As this season has come to a close, we still don’t have everything we need to know about Obi Toppin. For as much as his one-on-one moments can look promising, he doesn’t even register on the NBA’s isolation tracking page because he has fewer than 10 such possessions.
Compare that to Randle, who has 350 isos this season, which is fifth most in all of basketball. Randle’s efficiency on those shots is 0.86 points per possession - not a disastrous number, but easily the lowest of any player who commands a significant amount of these sorts of looks. Not that any Knicks fan needs a stat to tell them the offense turns into an absolute slog when Julius starts going into his bag.
And that, right there, is why the last several weeks has to give the front office a lot to think about heading into this summer. Over his final 11 games, Toppin’s per-36 minute averages were 23.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists on a .584/.441/.800 slash line. No NBA player has put up that line over the full season.
If this year winds up being one that we look back on as the moment the organization turned a corner and finally discovered a young core worthy of that designation, I’m betting that Toppin’s emergence will matter every bit as much as RJ Barrett’s and Immanuel Quickley’s. He is just getting started. Hopefully the Knicks do their part to pave the way for what comes next.