Dropping the Ball
The Knicks' kids got a lot of run this weekend. It didn't go so well.
Good morning, and I hope your new year has started off on a positive note (i.e., better than the Knicks). Alas, we trudge forward in a season that rests on shakier ground by the day, getting further and further away from the promise of the preseason and closer to the reality that this may just be another one of those years.
We’re not quite there yet though, and as such, we’ll continue to analyze the games in full force before turning our attention to draft picks, ping pong balls and things of that nature. If you’re not yet a full subscriber and would like to get in on the action, you know what to do:
🏀 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 The Knicks helped kick off the NBA’s trade season today, although not in the way many expected. They’re acquiring Denzel Valentine from the Cavaliers in a three-way trade that sends Rajon Rondo from the Lakers to Cleveland. In return, New York is sending the right to Louis Labeyrie to LA. Labeyrie was acquired on draft night back in 2014, and has never played in the NBA, nor does he figure to.
If you’re waiting for a film breakdown of what Valentine, a fringe rotation player for Cleveland averaging under three points per game, brings to the Knicks, don’t hold your breath. This is all about money, and in all likelihood, Valentine won’t ever spend a minute on New York’s roster.
The reason they’re doing this deal has to do with LA’s untenable salary situation, and the fact that the Lakers are saving about $4 million by rerouting Valentine to the Knicks. For their trouble, New York will pocket a reported $1.1 million from LA.
So why was New York so willing to jump in here when they’re just getting cash and not a draft pick of any kind? Simple: it probably doesn’t alter their existing plans one bit.
It was reported on Sunday by Shams that the Knicks were likely to ink Ryan Arcidiacono to a 10-day hardship deal, with a strong possibility he sticks for the rest of the season. In order to make that happen, New York would have had to waive a player from their 15-man roster since they have no spots open. That player is likely to be Wayne Seldon Jr, whose contract becomes fully guaranteed in four days.
By jumping in this deal now, they’ll waive Seldon - a move which they were likely to do anyway in the next 96 hours - and bring on Valentine into that roster spot. While there’s certainly a chance they just keep the former Michigan State star, given the reporting on Arcidiacono, my guess is that Valentine will be waived as soon as he’s acquired, opening up the spot for the former pesky Chicago point guard.
So essentially they’re getting a cool mil for nothing.
Last night: Knicks 105, Raptors 120
In a sentence, the Knicks got beat by a better team. Anything else said about this game is an expansion on that basic point.
This may seem overly simplistic to point out, especially since the Knicks have now lost 20 games this season, most of which have come against better teams. But in the immediate aftermath of most of those losses, there was a sense that New York could have done more to change the result.
Not so last night. One could argue that the four best players on the floor (the unconscious Fred VanVleet, plus Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes) all played for the opposing team, and their level of dominance seemed to suffocate the Knicks’ effort rather than inspire a greater one. Throw in New York’s inability to deal with Toronto’s size due to a depleted big man rotation1 (see: a 44-30 rebounding edge and a 52-36 advantage on points in the paint) and this one felt over almost before it began.
Friday: Knicks 80, Thunder 95
This was a bite more frustrating, if only because you felt like the outcome might have been different if both teams shot at their expected levels. Oklahoma City came into this one as the least accurate 3-point shooting team in the league, while New York ranked as the 8th best. Sure, the Knicks were missing two of their top marksman percentage-wise in Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose, but they still had a number of guys who have struck fear into opponents from deep throughout the season.
It didn’t matter. Despite a 12-3 start which saw the Knicks come out of the gate flying, New York wound up shooting a season-low 19.5 percent from deep on 41 attempts while the Thunder tied their season high with 18 made triples. Even with that disparity though, it was impossible to ignore New York’s lack of shot creation on the night, especially with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander putting on a clinic whenever he got the ball. On that note…
⓵ New York was sorely missing its advantage creators. Leon Rose knew what his task was this offseason: make it so that all of the burden of generating easy offense didn’t fall on Julius Randle and Derrick Rose. As such, he brought in two additional shot creators in Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, and leaned in even more to the team’s existing proficiency for pull-up threes, bringing back Alec Burks and drafting Quentin Grimes and Deuce McBride to join Immanuel Quickley in what promised to be a formidable arsenal on offense.
The first 35 games showed us that the intended formula wasn’t working, but the last two showed us what would happen if the bunsen burners were replaced by a couple of rocks. Without almost anyone to draw doubles (Julius), penetrate the defense (Rose/Kemba) or get them easy buckets (Mitch), they were left to rely on making threes at a proficient rate. Instead, they shot them at a 25 percent clip over both games, and lost each by 15.
New York has a nice young core, but it doesn’t have a proficient engine to make things go, and it’s possible those elevated to bigger roles simply weren’t ready for the moment. Speaking of which…
⓶ The young players are not yet ready for prime time. In the previous section, I said that New York was without almost anyone who could draw double teams. The notable exception was RJ Barrett, who put forth one of his better back-to-back scoring outputs of the season in these two games. Indeed, he did some nice things, including several nice finishes at the rim that provided hope for what lies in store over the rest of the season.
But it would be an exaggeration to say Barrett had a strong weekend, especially after last night, when he was flat out careless and lackadaisical on more than a few possessions on each end of the floor.
A four-point swing in a 15-point loss may not seem like a big deal, but these sorts of costly blunders are becoming all too common for RJ.
As he found the ball in his hands a lot more than usual over these last two games, his penchant for plays that turned the game in the wrong direction was only further exposed. Barrett had eight turnovers to just six assists as he ran the offense for large swaths of both games, during which we saw some truly terrible passes…
…and a few instances of his other major bugaboo: getting blocked or missing badly on drives, which in turn creates easy transition looks for the opposing team. And yet, Barrett is going to appear in the Stars section below because at least he was able to take on the responsibility of running the offense and getting some buckets and easy looks out of it in the process.
Deuce McBride, who started at point guard both nights after Walker was a late scratch with a knee injury suffered in pregame warmups on Friday, wasn’t able to gain much traction and went just 4-for-15 between both games2. Immanuel Quickley wasn’t much better, going a combined 7-of-20 with six turnovers to just five assists. Quentin Grimes hit some late threes in Toronto and did a nice job on help defense, but his 1-for-6 showing on Friday hurt them immensely in Oklahoma City. Obi Toppin was the best young Knick, but as we’ll get into below, he wasn’t nearly assertive enough to make a real difference in the outcome of either game. The less said about Kevin Knox, the better.
⓷ The season is on the brink. In light of everything I just wrote, there now exists a very real floor for this team that is far lower than almost any reasonable expectations that existed heading into the season.
In a rumored move announced by Shams about an hour and a half before game time, the Knicks are planning on signing Ryan Arcidiacono, who spent the last four years providing bench energy from the point guard spot for the Bulls. Then during the game, Mike Breen mentioned that the Knicks hope to have the results on tests to Kemba Walker’s knee today. Given that Kemba missed both of these games due to something wrong with the knee that has been giving him issues for years, nothing should be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, Derrick Rose is out another month. New York just completed arguably their easiest nine-game stretch of the season and went 5-4, albeit with a depleted roster in every game. That’s…fine, but in a brutal East, fine isn’t going to cut it. The next 10 games are manageable but it’s also possible that the Knicks will be underdogs in seven or eight of those contests. After that, things get absolutely hellacious, with 15 of 21 on the road and four of the six home games against current playoff teams.
Which gets us to…
Standings Check In
Avert your eyes (or, if you’re a proponent of tanking/playing the kids, feast them):
The Knicks are not only back in 11th place in the East, but have fallen to a season low 22nd in net rating, with the 22nd ranked offense and 20th ranked defense. They do not have the statistical profile of a team that should be taken seriously, and we are four games from the halfway point.
In light of that, the front office is going to have some very interesting decisions on its hands over the next month. There are 18 games remaining between now and the trade deadline, and New York has several potentially appealing pieces that might be of interest to contending teams, none more so than Alec Burks, who has been arguably their best player. Derrick Rose (health pending) and Kemba Walker (ditto) could also draw interest, although probably less so. They also need to decide what their plan is where Mitchell Robinson is concerned, who will be unrestricted come this summer.
Randle and Fournier trades are unlikely for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are their contracts, although crazier things have happened (remember, Julius cannot be moved until at least February 3). But even a roster with those players remaining has a chance to be pretty bad, if only because it already has been.
If you’re wondering just how bad things can get, they are currently 3.5 games “ahead” of the Thunder and Pelicans, who are currently tied with the fourth worst record in the league. In essence, the Knicks are about as close to securing a playoff seed as they are to having the fourth best odds in the draft lottery.
Welcome to the NBA in 2022.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ RJ Barrett: For as much as I just railed on RJ, he still accumulated 45 points on 34 shots, got to the line 16 times, and pulled down 11 rebounds against the Thunder and Raptors. There were a few too many moments of questionable effort and decision-making for me to give him anything more than one star (not to mention the woodshed OG Anunoby took him behind on several occasions early on), but even so, he had quite a few nice finishes.
This pretty right hander came after a Thibs timeout, which itself followed RJ allowing Fred VanVleet to take him down into the paint like he was a passenger on a moving train. For a guy built like he is, there are still far too many plays where Barrett fails to use his size to his advantage, especially on the defensive end, but on offense as well.
That’s why the 16 free throws between these two games were such an encouraging sign (although making more than 62.5 percent would be nice). Ditto for the occasions he took advantage of the matchups presented to him, both on Friday when the Thunder had no rim protectors on the court (as detailed beautifully by Ben Ritholtz here) and yesterday when he was able to get a switch against a smaller defender:
More than a few fans have wondered what RJ would look like as the first option on offense. We seem now to have gotten our answer: quite a bit of good, more than a bit of bad, and remaining questions about how many of these kinks he can work out with more opportunities to learn in live-game situations.
⭐️ ⭐️ Obi Toppin: After a tentative Friday game in which he only took four shots and finished with five points, seven rebounds and one assist, Toppin tied his career high with 19 points last night and set a new high in assists with six. He also had six boards, two blocks and a steal while playing almost the entire game (the Knicks were outscored by six in the 2:50 he sat).
My biggest disappointment in Obi is that he wasn’t even more assertive, although the increase from one night to the next was encouraging.
Even more encouraging was his playmaking, which his assist total undersold on both nights.
The thing about Obi that distinguishes him the most from Randle is the speed at which he both moves and makes decisions. Here, Obi does just enough to bait Siakam for the help before whizzing a jump pass to a wide open Fournier:
The shame of these last two games is that we didn’t get a chance to see Toppin alongside either Walker or Rose. While no one is doubting that a good version of Randle would have been a boon to New York’s efforts, being able to see Obi get run time with at least one guard who can penetrate the teeth of a defense would have been nice.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Alec Burks: Was he that much better than Toppin, or Barrett for that matter? It’s not like his numbers (20 points on 18 shots between both games, plus seven rebounds and three assists) were all that great. He did have five steals last night, but also got his fourth foul less than a minute into the third and was forced to the bench, which not coincidentally preceded a Raptor run.
But Burks gets three stars for two reasons. First, there was a distinct “adult in the room” feeling whenever he stepped foot on the court, especially last night, when the Knicks were in dire straights before he came into the game in the first quarter. Burks immediately calmed things down, using his craftiness to generate offense where little grew before he entered:
Mostly though, this is a chance to reward the most quietly effective player on New York’s roster this season on a weekend when no one else was particularly notable. The spoils of competence, as it were.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue with the #NYK75 list, as well as have a deeper dive on some of what we saw over the weekend.
Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, Jericho Sims and Julius Randle all missed the game.
Tom Thibodeau pulled McBride after five minutes last night and waited until garbage time to reinsert him. There was one obvious blunder in which McBride went under a screen and allowed Fred VanVleet to spring for a triple, his second of the game in a short span of time. Thibs said after the game that the move was meant to generate more offense, which clearly speaks to how he views McBride at the moment.