From Turkeys to Triumph
In typical Knicks fashion, New York followed up their most lopsided loss of the year with maybe their best win.
Good morning! I hope everyone had a restful holiday weekend. Thanks for not minding a took a few extra days off…I have to say, in retrospect, I needed it. This season has been intense. More intense than the first 20 games of an NBA season probably should be. Why? Because there’s no emotional roller coaster quite like the New York Knickerbockers, that’s why.
We had another couple games’ worth of highs and lows since our last newsletter, which I’ll of course have a full recap on below. First though, my wife tells me today is something called “Cyber Monday” and that I should not look at our bank statement until the day is over. In the spirit of this special day, here’s a 20% off opportunity to receive this newsletter, as well as exclusive access to a halftime zoom with yours truly every game, right here:
Let’s get to it:
New York, inconsistency is thy middle name.
One night after giving up their third highest point total of the season to Phoenix at home while looking unable to offer any real resistance to the Suns’ attack, the Knicks walked into the building of the league’s best offense over the previous two weeks and held Atlanta to their lowest point total of the year. That’s the ‘21-22 Knicks in a nutshell: moments of brilliance interspersed with sluggish malaise.
Knicks 97, Suns 118
That malaise mostly came on the defensive end Friday night, when New York never made anyone in a Suns uniform uncomfortable. Phoenix attempted only 28 threes, but got wherever they wanted inside the arc, with Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Cameron Payne combining to shoot 9-of-17 from between 10 and 20 feet. Sound strategy against most teams is death against these Suns, but then again, there is no lesser evil against maybe the best team in the league.
There were a few key stretches that defined this game. The first one came in the second quarter, when New York’s backups ratcheted up the defense like they usually do, holding the Suns to just two points over a five-minute span in the beginning of the period. This is where the Knicks felt the absence of Derrick Rose though, as Phoenix stifled the bench mob on offense and prevented them from making their customary push.
The other key stretch was the polar opposite of the first. New York’s offense got going in the third quarter behind Kemba Walker (remember him?), who scored 10 of 13 Knick points and helped cut the lead to 10, but Phoenix responded with a counterpunch every time it looked like New York was on the verge of closing the gap. A brief bench flurry to begin the fourth wasn’t enough to make a real dent, and the Knicks suffered their first garbage time blowout of the season.
Knicks 99, Hawks 90
Already without Derrick Rose for the previous two games, the Knicks sat Kemba Walker here, which meant Alec Burks was inserted into the starting five. With fans clamoring for Quick Time, Burks may not have been the hero we deserved, but he’s certainly the one we needed. Aside from scoring a team-high 23 points, he went nuclear during a decisive stretch late in the third, scoring 12 points in 96 seconds. The Knicks offense faltered down the stretch, but they won the battle of attrition by holding the Hawks to just 16 fourth quarter points.
Their throwback defensive performance was not only due to Burks’ insertion into the starting five, but also more playing time for Immanuel Quickley (31 minutes, including some suffocating defense of Trae Young in the fourth quarter) and the introduction of Quentin Grimes into the rotation (15 minutes vs Atlanta after 17 vs Phoenix). Those two plus Jericho Sims (aptly filling in for an injured Nerlens Noel), the perpetual blur that is Obi Toppin, and RJ Barrett, looking quite comfortable with the backup kiddos, played a 3:30 stint to begin the second that was arguably the most enjoyable stretch of basketball in any game this season.
Speaking of which…
⓵ The kids are alright: It’s impossible to put into words how wonderful it was to watch five Knicks, all between the ages of 21 and 23, all drafted by the club, share the floor and look like absolute gangbusters on Saturday night. The tone was set before MSG could even get the score back up on screen:
When’s the last time we’ve seen four Knicks collectively shot out of a cannon, putting the fear of God into an opposing defense in transition? Poor Danilo did well not to lose his Pasta e fagioli1.
Of course, the youth movement looks that much more impressive when pitted against…
⓶ The starters, who still ain’t right. Burks replacement of Kemba was a clear boon for the defense. He also had zero problem playing alongside Randle on offense, who he shared the court with for nearly 800 minutes last season. He was assertive and decisive in ways Walker sometimes has not been.
But that pairing (along with Mitch, Fournier, and a combo of RJ and IQ) still allowed a 16-0 run to the Hawks between the second and third quarters that briefly made this game very uncomfortable. It was the sort of stretch we’ve come to expect like clockwork this season, and it all started when Randle checked in, and the energy level fell off a cliff. Much more on this below.
⓷ A tale of two seasons: Check out the splits for the Knicks now that we’ve hit the 20-game mark of the year.
First 10 games: 111.9 offensive rating (4th in the NBA), 110.4 defensive rating (27th in the NBA)
Last 10 games: 103.5 offensive rating (26th in the NBA), 105.5 defensive rating (9th in the NBA)
This is a little deceiving. The offensive downfall really started after the first six games, when the Knicks had the third ranked offense in the league during their 5-1 start, and were 0.4 points per 100 possessions from the 1st place Sixers. They’ve been 24th ever since, scoring 10 fewer points per 100 in their last 14 games.
Maybe the biggest takeaway is that even with their new additions, the Knicks need to win with defense. New York is 9-0 when they hold teams to 103 or fewer points.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
I’m calling an audible. I have six stars to give out and there were two players who were far and away the best Knicks of the weekend. I’m not about to pick between them…my newsletter, my rules. Sorry.
Before we get to them though, a few honorable mentions…
Obi Toppin: Watch Toppin on this play in the late second quarter that starts with a spirited contest from the paint on a John Collins three pointer:
He’s starting to sprint towards his own hoop as he’s coming down from the block attempt. Now that’s commitment to transition.
Does it lead to the occasional offensive rebound for the opposing team? Yes, which is why Obi-led lineups give up 7.1 percent more offensive boards than those without him, a differential that ranks in the 4th percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass.
A small price to pay for salvation. Even giving up those boards, Obi is part of a bench unit that would be leading the league in defensive rating by a mile. More impressively, he has emerged from the pack of backups as the on/off offensive rating gawd, with the Knicks scoring 12.8 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court than when he’s off.
Immanuel Quickley (+9.1) is close, but Toppin’s presence on the court is so damn unnerving for opposing defenses, both in the half court and on the break. He continues to be a revelation.
Evan Fournier: After four straight games in single digits, Fournier has put up 16 a game on a 43/51/77 slash line in his last five. His one dud came against Phoenix, where after hitting his first three from deep in the opening minutes, he was probably feeling it a little too much. His 20 points on 13 shots in Atlanta were vital in the win.
His D still leaves a bit to be desired at times, but it’s hard to put that on him when the he’s usually surrounded by folks giving a similar blah performance.
RJ Barrett: Just want to throw him a bone after his first game shooting over 50 percent from the field in nearly a month. Maybe a rebound is in the works.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Alec Burks: When he gets going, he’s as dangerous as any bench shooter in the league. All he needs is a sliver of daylight:
Alec’s elevation into the starting five makes sense on a lot of levels. Aside from being more comfortable with the surrounding personnel and Tom Thibodeau’s system, Burks is someone who can offer both creation and spot-up gravity without giving up anything on the other end.
Kemba Walker has vacillated between hero and zero on the offensive end of the court, it would seem, because of how drastic a role change it has been for him, going from dominating possessions for the better part of a decade to being one of several lesser cogs. Burks has no such adjustment to make; this has always been his role.
Amongst 137 players averaging at least four 3-point attempts per game, his 45.1 percent conversion rate is 3rd in the NBA. Not bad for a guy essentially making the midlevel exception.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: Here’s where we’re at with Quick over the last 10 games:
He’s one of four guys averaging at least four assists and three made 3-pointers per 36 minutes on at least 43 percent shooting from long range in that time span. One (Steph) is going to win the MVP, another (Booker) will be on an All-NBA team, another (Trae) will be an All-Star, and IQ, well…he finally cracked 30 minutes in a game on Saturday.
He did not disappoint.
Quickley’s growth from “fun and interesting bench bomber” to “are we sure this guy can’t be a staring point guard on a playoff team?” has been nothing short of miraculous. This isn’t what you’re supposed to get from the 25th pick in the draft.
He’s doing it in every way imaginable, and the fact that he was ice cold from deep on Saturday and still made a monumental impact on the outcome of the game is a testament to that fact. His ability to run pick and rolls has grown by leaps and bounds, as shown by the timing of the whip pass to Grimes above, made precisely when Lou Williams put two feet into the paint.
Here he is toying with Atlanta’s backup big duo of Gallo and Colllins like it’s nothing:
He has another nice sidearm pass to Obi a few minutes later that Collins blocked, but it was just another example of how he’s playing with supreme confidence right now. No possession seems too large. No defense has been able to rattle him. He is a player who is good, is getting better, and he knows it.
The improvement hasn’t just been from deep.
After starting the year 6-of-16 from the midrange, he’s now hit 10-of-18 in his last 10 games. That may not sound like a lot, but his ability to scare teams on the drive will be key, especially since he rarely gets all the way to the rim. Oh, and did I mention his defense on Trae Young throughout the game, but especially in the final frame, when he held Young scoreless until a final meaningless basket as time expired?
A star is emerging at MSG. As for whether he’ll ever get that elusive starting job…
🤔 Ask Macri 🤔
With all due respect to Evan Fournier, who has certainly caught a fair amount of ire, and RJ Barrett, who is just 21 and working through it, the two camps that have emerged within the fan base are “Blame Randle” and “Banish Kemba.”
On paper, it’s Kemba, all the way, every day. The most glaring number of this Knicks season is Walker’s on/off differential. According to Cleaning the Glass, New York has a positive 14.0 net rating whenever Walker sits, with an offense that would be virtually tied with the top-ranked Jazz and a defense nearly as stingy as the league-leading Warriors.
And Walker, to be clear, has not been great. For as much as he fights2, there are times he can’t overcome his size on defense. In comparison to someone like Quickley, who is disruptive the moment he steps foot on the court, it is night and day. It’s not just the size or inactivity either; he is out of place too frequently, whether it’s hedging too closely to a ball handler or getting caught ball watching after a driver has blown past him. A defensive rating that poor has more than one cause.
On offense, the numbers are good - he’s in the 73rd percentile for his position in points per shot attempt, and his turnover rate is pristine as usual - but you also forget he’s on the floor when he’s not initiating a play, to say nothing of when he doesn’t have the ball at all. His drive and kick moments, like this pretty whip pass he delivered to Fournier in the third quarter on Friday…
…have not been a frequent fulcrum of the offense.
These are real issues, and on defense at least, they are unlikely to be something he overcomes. That screams “backup point guard” where he’ll be easier to hide and where his (still quite respectable) ability to take guys off the dribble and nail a step-back three should come in handy even more.
That would almost certainly mean either Rose or Quickley elevates to the starting five, as a backup threesome of Walker, Rose and Quickley would be too small for comfort if Burks starts. Or maybe the Knicks put Grimes in the rotation and just spend the rest of the season alternating rest days for Rose and Walker in an effort to keep them both fresh, essentially kicking the can down the road ‘till playoff time. For as unlikely as this may seem, I’d still bet on it over them shipping out Walker via trade so soon after making such a fuss over his arrival.
Whatever it is, something needs to change. What I’m less clear on, and what Saturday made me think about even more, is whether Walker is the real problem.
The numbers with Randle and no Walker look pretty good at first glance: plus 8.7 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 3rd in the NBA. That’s good!
It’s also a tad deceiving. Most of this number comes from the defensive improvement (100.4 defensive rating with Randle and no Walker). Again, it is tough sledding on D with Kemba in the game.
On offense though, Randle w/o Walker lineups are only about league average on offense. If you take away the minutes that Randle has played with Obi (100 possessions that have generated a fire-breathing 121.0 offensive rating), the remaining minutes Julius plays without Walker have garnered just 106.2 points per 100 possessions, which would rank just outside the top-20 league-wide. That’s a far cry from when Randle played without Elf last season, when New York generated a 114.2 offensive rating in more than a thousand such minutes.
All this is to say that it’s more than just Walker gumming up New York’s offense. It’s easy to say this simply comes down to Randle missing shots he made last year, and that is part of it. His points per 100 shot attempts is at 102.2, which is the lowest since his second season in LA, and nowhere close to the 114.3 he put up last year.
I think it’s more than that though. To Ray’s implication above, Randle has too often been letting his offensive struggles impact the other parts of his game. He’s not the first player to let that happen, but when you are the star of the team and its alleged cultural cornerstone, it cannot happen.
No one expects him to bring Obi Toppin’s level of energy - Toppin is special in that regard in ways that can’t be taught - but the drop off in oomph when Obi exits and Randle enters in palpable. That shouldn’t be the case.
On the bright side, he is not hogging the ball. He is not outwardly dogging it on D (well, not that often, at least). I think by and large, he has been smart about picking his spots to take over. There have been real signs of progress in recent games, including in the third quarter against Phoenix, where New York went tit for tat with the Suns largely on Walker’s back with Randle as more of a supporting piece. It is tempting for him to look at the tape and ask “what more can I do?”
And that is his challenge: finding ways to help the team in between the lines of what is obvious, both on and off the court. The shots will start to drop eventually, and maybe when they do, all this concern will go away. In the meantime though, I’d offer that Julius can do a better job of being what he is paid to be: the unquestioned leader of this team.
#NYK75: No.61 - Al Harrington
All-Time Franchise Ranks:
Games Played: 140 (136th)
Points scored: 2683 (61st)
Scoring average: 19.2 (10th)
Mad threes per game: 2.1 (T-1st)
Win Shares: 7.5 (97th)
Best Knicks Stat: T-2nd most 35-point/10-rebound games in the last 20 years3, with 4 (Carmelo Anthony - 1st; 16 games)
One of the tougher guys to place.
On one hand, there’s a pretty good argument he doesn’t belong here at all. Harrington was in New York for under two full seasons, and the Knicks were 18 and 20 games under .500 in the games he played, respectively. Even more than the fact they were a bad team, they were a team whose games were almost completely devoid of meaning. From the moment the trade came down that brought Harrington here in the first place, shipping off Jamal Crawford’s contract to Golden State in a move to clear space for a gambit that was nearly 600 days away, the dye was cast. New York was merely biding time for the Summer of 2010.
On the other hand, even in such a situation, can stats ever truly be meaningless? Harrington was a bucket during his time in New York. In his first season, Harrington was the only player in the NBA to average at least 20 points and six boards while shooting over 36 percent from deep and hitting at least two 3-pointers per game. Nowadays, that sort of stat line is common, but back then, it was way ahead of its time.
More impressively, New York had a nearly dead even point differential when Harrington played in that first season, but dropped to that of a bottom-four team when he sat. Harrington’s shooting dropped off a bit next season, and with it, so did his effect on New York’s overall performance, but it’s still tough to discount the offensive punch he provided.
If Gallo made this list and Nate Robinson and David Lee will as well, Harrington deserves to be on here for at least helping to make those first two D’Antoni years watchable.
8 charges drawn, which is 6th in the league.
With Amar’e Stoudemire.