A trip that started sweet has turned sour, but there's still time to end it on a high note.
Good morning. What an awful New York sports day. Yeesh. Thankfully we’re three days away from stuffing, with a little turkey on the side. Maybe some pie as well.
Game Recap: Knicks 95, Suns 116
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: For 27 minutes, this was a game. New York was far from perfect, but they were defending just well enough to keep Phoenix in check and scrapping by with enough baskets to keep the Suns honest. Then, with the score tied at 60 early in the third, the wheels began to come off. The Knicks gave up 30 points in the final 8:28 of the period, with the Suns scoring half of those points from deep and the other half on good looks down low as many of New York’s recent defensive issues reared their ugly head. The offense, save for one stretch of Brunson brilliance, also came to a halt, and the Knicks scored just six points over a nine-minute stretch between the third and fourth quarters, most of which came with Brunson out of the game. The last six minutes were full on garbage time.
🤕 Injury Report: Part of the reason New York struggled so mightily when their starting point guard left the floor in the second half is because their backup point guard wasn’t there to pick up the slack. Derrick Rose left the game before halftime with a sore toe, and his status moving forward is uncertain.
This could be a massive issue. For as much as Rose has felt like a natural target to move out of the rotation to accommodate both Quentin Grimes & Cam Reddish and keep it at nine men, some stats suggest Rose’s presence has been vital. Without either he or Brunson on the court, the Knicks were barely clearing 100 points per 100 possessions going into last night, and while we don’t yet have the updated numbers, that figure is sure to go down1. Deuce McBride came in in the third to replace Rose, and while he scored nine points and wrecked his usual havoc on D, the team struggled in his minutes.
How well the roster can withstand Rose’s absence may come down to the aforementioned Reddish, who himself left Friday’s game with a sore right groin and missed the game yesterday. That injury opened the door for Quentin Grimes, who not only played, but started and saw a team-high 32 minutes. Also back yesterday was Mitchell Robinson, who looked rusty and restricted in 17 minutes of action off the bench, possibly due to a new knee brace.
🤔 Rotation Reflections: Things are about to get interesting, and there’s no shortage of questions to be answered in the immediate future.
Primarily, has Quentin Grimes now stolen back his starting job with Cam on the mend and Grimes looking like New York’s best two-way wing yesterday? Even if that’s the case, you’d think Reddish had done enough to retain a rotation spot. For that to happen, the rotation either needs to expand to 10 men or someone currently playing has to sit. Assuming Cam’s injury isn’t long lasting, you’d figure they’d rest Rose until he’s fully healthy, but what happens if he’s ready to play before Reddish is?
And on top of all of this, what becomes of Jericho Sims, who has had arguably the most impressive road trip of any Knick and doesn’t appear to have a path to playing time? He saw 16 minutes of action in Phoenix with Mitch working his way back into game shape and Hartenstein ineffective, but it’s tough to imagine Thibs deploying a permanent three-man center rotation.
As always, there are more questions than answers with this team moving forward.
About Friday Night…Knicks 101, Warriors 111
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: While the Knicks have certainly given worse efforts this season (and there was a sense of defensive urgency in this game, if somewhat chaotic at times), this was perhaps the messiest of New York’s 16 games to this point. Playing like a team that was uniformly under the weather and in some sort of a fog, the Knicks missed countless good looks, including several lobs, dunks and bunnies. Golden State hit a flurry of threes early en route to a 35-point first quarter, and even thought New York fought back and eventually got the lead down to eight, this was never a game you really thought they could win.
🔢 By the Numbers: The Knicks had several bugaboos in this game - turnovers, giving up fast break points, and offensive rebounds to name three - but they deserve credit for either drawing even or just slightly losing each of these categories by the end of the night. They also stayed in the game thanks to their ability to not only get to the line, but capitalize when they were there, going 32-for-34 at the charity stripe while the Warriors went just 11-for-20. So that’s all good.
Not so good: yet another game where New York’s lack of 3-point shooting had the effect of them playing with one hand tied behind their backs. While Golden State, hit 18-of-50 looks from deep, the Knicks attempted only 34, making just nine2. Granted, the Warriors take more threes than any team in the NBA and got a boost from Klay Thompson’s most efficient game of the season. Even so, the lack of shooting was glaring.
It wasn’t just the threes either, as the Knicks made just 21-of-53 shots from 2-point range. The end result: an effective field goal percentage of just 39.7, which is the 4th lowest since Tom Thibodeau became coach.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
Another tough choice, what with very little consistency between the two games that were played.
⭐️Jalen Brunson: Brunson gets a star for about a half a quarter’s worth of elite work, when he scored 11 points in four and a half third quarter minutes yesterday to briefly keep the Knicks in a game that was slipping away. He finished with a tidy 27 points on 21 shots, but notched just three assists, giving him a pedestrian 7:2 AST:TO ratio on the weekend. His Friday outing, in which he made just two of 13 shots, was arguably the worst of the season (although he did go 8-for-8 from the line, and in the process, became the sole owner of the second longest free throw streak in franchise history. Sadly he missed one yesterday, so Courtney Lee’s 52 straight remains the standard bearer).
⭐️ ⭐️Jericho Sims: Might be grading on a curve here, especially since he was just so so yesterday, at least in comparison to the rest of the trip. But Sims was once again New York’s best center in Phoenix, just like he’s been for the entirety of this road trip. Against the Warriors, he was probably the lone bright spot of the game. With Mitch back, it’ll be interesting to see if and when they can steal time for last year’s 58th pick who continues to be a revelation.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️Quentin Grimes: You’re damn right I’m giving it to him for one game. Grimes had eight assists yesterday, which is as many as any Knick not named Jalen Brunson has had this season. These weren’t dime-store dimes either:
Three things happen here. First, the defense has to respect Grimes as a shooter enough to run him off the line. Second, he wastes no time in reading the defense and reacting properly, scurrying into the paint to draw the help. Third, he has the passing savvy to put it right into Mitch’s shooting pocket so he can simply rise and dunk.
On defense, Quentin might have been even better. On ball, off ball…you name it. The guy is a metronome. Even when he messes up - like he does here when he goes for a Booker pump fake - he does so in a way that’s recoverable, by going straight up, and then making the immediate effort on the second jump to contest the shot.
It’s not hard to see why the Knicks didn’t want to let this guy go this summer.
Now as for the guy that almost found himself starring for the Utah Jazz this season…
RJ Uh Oh
Those of you with photographic memories will recall I used this same heading several weeks ago, when the Knicks were sitting at 2-1 but saw their face of the franchise struggling out of the gate. In that letter, in which I largely critiqued RJ’s lack of passing in the early going, I pointed out how Barrett had the lowest efficiency of 79 players who had played at least 100 non-garbage time minutes in the young season. To update that stat, he’s now 297th out of 329 qualifying players. So that’s…something.
But it also doesn’t tell the full story of why RJ Barrett is currently killing the New York Knicks. Of all the players with a lower overall efficiency than RJ, only one - Charlotte’s Terry Rozier - has a higher usage rate than Barrett, and at least Rozier accounts for nearly a quarter of his team’s assists when he’s on the court. RJ is only good for about an eighth of New York’s dimes when he plays.
And that’s just on offense. Defensively, it might be even worse. In the 135 minutes Barrett has been on the court during this four-game road trip, the Knicks are giving up 117.9 points per 100 possessions. In the 57 minutes he’s sat, that number drops to 90.5 - a staggering difference for a player whose stability is supposed to be tied to his consistency on this end of the floor.
Of course, anyone who watches the Knicks knows that he’s far from the only culprit. After briefly playing with the ferocity of Dennis Rodman against the Nuggets, Julius Randle wormed his way beneath the soil and is back to his old tricks.
Randle’s gross inconsistency (and to be clear, this is one of at least a dozen fairly egregious effort/awareness issues we saw from Julius last night) is not only why it’s hard to blame any other player for New York’s woes, but why it’s hard to get excited about watching this team in general. You take the life of your sports fandom in your hands every night…am I getting maximum effort today? Passable effort? Negative effort? And if so, will we be able to withstand it? The whole thing makes you yearn for a team that’s probably worse in the aggregate but isn’t so bipolar as to induce hair loss by game 30.
But the Randle discussion is old hat. We know that for every Denver game, there will be an effort like last night, and probably more. Any suggestion that the Knicks need to move on from Julius in order to make any progress is stale by this point. The cat has long since left the bag.
This RJ thing, though…this is fresh, and not in a good way. Yes, the efficiency issues have been there since he entered the league, but there was always an assumption of growth in several key areas that would at least mitigate the lack of top-tier shot-making. It’s coming, his supporters would say, buoyed by his demeanor and dedication to being great.
Now, that once steely demeanor only conveys one emotion: defeat.
Out of the 972 blocks he’s had over the course of his career, I’m not sure Bismack Biyombo has ever had one come so easy. There is precisely zero chance this shot goes down.
It goes directly to the point of my column after three games: RJ’s stagnation as someone who makes other players around him better has been downright alarming (and from the look of his face after this swat, he knows it).
Barrett is now averaging 3.1 assists per 36 minutes, which is the exact same number as he averaged last season…which is the same as the number he averaged the year before that…which is a tenth of an assist higher than he averaged the year before that. It’s not that he can’t do better; we know he can. We just aren’t seeing it, and too often, it results in hopeless looks like this one.
The same goes for the defense:
This isn’t Devin Booker or Chris Paul taking RJ off the dribble; it’s Josh Freaking Okogie. He makes one move and completely throws Barrett off balance.
If you make an NBA player’s life this easy, they’re going to take advantage, whether it’s an All-Star or a guy just trying to hang onto a roster spot.
Fast forward to the early third quarter, and we had another moment that nearly caused Thibs to pop a blood vessel:
Truthfully, I’m not sure what Thibodeau is most peeved at: the initial Mikal Bridges blow-by that necessitated the Grimes help, the late reaction by RJ to recover to Booker, or the fact that Barrett failed to put a hand up until the shot had left the hands of last year’s All-NBA 1st teamer. All are worthy contenders.
Is this all still the result of a sickness that has now lasted a week? Perhaps that’s some of it, but the season-long tape of RJ’s defense - not to mention the fact that New York’s defense is about 10 points per 100 possessions stingier without Barrett on the court through 17 games - would like a word with that argument.
But much of that can be blamed on Randle, without whom RJ’s defensive on/off stats improve markedly3. I also wonder about his current physical makeup, and whether he's carrying too much weight to be able to move effectively on the perimeter against the guards and wings he's tasked with guarding on any given night.
But even if the defense comes around, the offensive question marks still remain. And we’re not just talking about four games either.
We’re now on year-four of RJ Barrett’s career. Over that time, he has been given far more shots than his efficiency and overall impact profile would seem to warrant, at least if we go by NBA history. Just how rare is the length of the rope he’s been given? Over the last three decades, 186 players have taken at least 3000 shots over their first four years of their career. Going back to the 1989 draft, which occurred 30 years before RJ was taken, just eight of those 186 players had taken that many shot attempts while also putting up the following stats over the first four years of their career:
an effective field goal percentage lower than 47.5
an assist percentage under 15
a rebound rate under 10, and
a turnover rate above 10
As of now, given his current numbers, Barrett is slated to become the ninth name on the list, which reads as follows4:
At first glance, the presence of Carmelo Anthony seems immediately encouraging, as does the likes of two-time All-Star Caron Butler.
Digging a little deeper though, we can see that not all eFG%’s are created equal. I went back and found the average eFG% for each of these four-year stretches in NBA history, and pitted those averages against the eFG% over the first four years of each player’s career (and in RJ’s case, the first three years and 17 games). Barrett has easily the largest drop off between average eFG% and his own eFG% over the same stretch: a 6.4 percentage difference.
Second worst is Dion Waiters. Like Barrett, Waiters was a top-four pick in what was considered a very top-heavy class (the Anthony Davis/MKG/Beal draft), but because of his pedigree and the fact that his team wasn’t very good, he got every opportunity to be successful. Over his first three seasons, he had per-36 minute averages of 17.6 points, 3.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds.
RJ is currently a tick better, at 18.9, 3.1 and 5.9, but that’s only because Waiters’ role shifted massively in his third season, which is when the Cavs reacquired LeBron James. Finding Dion’s unbridled and inefficient brand of basketball ill-fitting of a LeBron-led squad, Cleveland shipped him off to OKC, where he spent a few seasons before resuscitating his career in Miami as a more complimentary piece than the guy who the Cavs thought they were drafting. Legal issues eventually got Dion suspended, and he was out of the league before his 29th birthday.
Barrett, thankfully, is not a guy anyone fears is going to have a panic attack on a plane after consuming edibles, or is going to call out sick from work only to go frolicking on a boat in Biscayne Bay5. But Waiters remains a cautionary tale for a different reason: what if RJ’s presumed destiny as Star-J/Maple Mamba is holding him back from a far more realistic end game?
We know Barrett can score a bunch of points, but so could all of the guys on the above list, all but two of whom were top-10 picks6 and all of whom averaged at least 16 a night at least once in their careers. The key is that very few of them did their teams any great service by taking all those shots, and it’s no accident that only one player on the list - Melo - has a box plus/minus above 0.0. Thus far in his career, RJ ranks bottom-three out of these nine players in that stat, as well as VORP and Win Shares, along with Waiters and Thornton.
The bright side: Barrett has all kinds of time to turn this around. In addition to being the only Knicks on this list, RJ and Melo also share the designation of being 19 years old when they were drafted. The rest of these guys were starting to enter their prime by year-four, whereas Barrett is not yet close. He’s a month-long hot streak away from raising his effective field goal percentage above even qualifying for this list, and we know from past performance that he’s more than capable of going on a run. I’m not betting against it happening.
But for right now, the guy who was the face of the franchise not long ago finds himself in unfamiliar territory, not only among this unflattering statistical comparison, but diminishing in the eyes of the fan base with each additional subpar outing.
The shooting will turn around, if only because it can’t get much worse. Likewise, the defense will rebound as soon as he gets out of his own head and stops trying to justify all $107 million every time he takes the court. I’m frankly not worried about either one happening.
What I do wonder about, however, is whether Barrett will have a come-to-Jesus moment about what sort of NBA player he needs to be to help his team win games, and whether he’s up for what such a shift will entail. Just as importantly, will that reconciliation happen here, or will he be sent somewhere else, as he almost was this summer?
That, perhaps more than anything, is the irony of RJ’s cold start. This summer, many worried that the front office would send him packing, but now, that seems rather unlikely.
Not because the Knicks are dead set on keeping him, but because who in the league right now is willing make a big bet on RJ Barrett figuring it out?
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 According to a Friday report from Shams, the Knicks “have shown a willingness to discuss Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley in trade talks, league sources say, as a way to sort out the team’s glut at the guard position over the course of the season”
Ian Begley, who has been all over the Quickley thing since before the season, added the following:
“Some teams have had cursory trade conversations w/members of NYK organization involving Derrick Rose, as The Athletic notes. As SNY reported last week, NYK has also gotten calls on Immanuel Quickley. In some talks, NYK has sought draft compensation as part of return, per sources.”
I’ll have more thoughts on this later in the week, but in short, if you’re troubled by the idea of Leon Rose looking to move on from IQ less than two and a half years into his tenure as a Knick, you’re in good company. He’s the guy you keep, not swap out to kick the can down the road for another few feet.
🏙 Game Night 🏙
When: 8:00 pm tonight
Injury Report: Too early to say, but it would be surprising to me if Rose or Cam played.
Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter.
What to Watch For: Can the Knicks make it a winning trip and head back home at .500? Or will they fall two games below .500 for the first time all season? The tight-rope walk of respectability continues…
Perhaps more concerning: Minutes with no Brunosn and no Randle had been yielding a defensive rating of 132.8. Tiny sample size of 65 possessions before yesterday, but still…not great.
This issue was just as pervasive in the Suns game, which saw New York make just seven 3-pointers to Phoenix’s 17. It cannot be overstated enough: the Knicks are going to have a hell of a time keeping up with good to great offenses if they can’t improve their willingness and ability to convert it from deep.
A 103.6 defensive rating in 188 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass
Some perhaps not obvious categories on this chart: Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player and Box Plus Minus.
Al Thornton was taken 14th and Desmond Mason went 17th.