Stay of Execution?
The Knicks won, but uncertainty still reigns supreme
Good morning! Say what you want about whether last night’s win will ultimately end up meaning anything in the long run, but if nothing else, it was nice to wash away the stink of that Saturday performance. Onwards and upwards, as they say…
Game Recap: Knicks 92, Cavs 81
⌚️30 Seconds or Less: A little more than 24 hours after arguably their most embarrassing defensive performance of the season with that second half Mavs meltdown, the Knicks held the Cavs to 21 fewer points than they’ve given up to any opponent all season, and the third lowest opponent point total under head coach Tom Thibodeau. This was an ugly affair, with more traveling violations called (14) than any NBA game in the last 25 years. The teams combined to make just 13-of-64 from behind the arc and had 40 turnovers between them. While those numbers make the defensive performances seem better than they were, the Knicks did show up with a much improved effort, spurred by 80 minutes of perimeter protection provided by Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, and a forgotten bench guard who found his way into Thibs’ plans, at least for one night…
🤔 Rotation Reflections: Was Tom Thibodeau coaching for his job?
Perhaps that’s what last night’s decisions came down to. Whatever it was, the Knicks coach tightened things up yet again, going back to a nine-man rotation for the first time since the west coast swing and leaving Cam Reddish on the outside looking in. He also sat Derrick Rose in favor of Deuce McBride, but we were told after the game that it was because this was the second night of a back to back, and to expect Rose back in the rotation moving forward.
Let’s start with Cam, whose topsy turvy Knicks tenure swung yet again in the last few weeks. Over the seven-game stretch from November 5 to 16, Reddish was a starter averaging nearly 30 minutes a night. More impressively that that, the Knicks were even in his minutes, while each of Brunson, Barrett and Randle were in the red. On November 18 in Golden State, Reddish got hurt and missed the next three games, during which time Quentin Grimes regained the starting spot that was probably always meant to go to him. Since returning against Memphis, Cam’s minutes and effectiveness have slowly dwindled, bottoming out with what was unquestionably his worst performance of the year against Dallas.
Is this it for the man Leon Rose acquired from Atlanta nearly a year ago? At the very least, it seems like whatever good Cam did over the first 16 games of the season wasn’t enough to cement him as part of the organization’s long term plans. One figures his name will pop up in trade rumors before too long.
Speaking of trade rumors, there’s a fresh one regarding Derrick Rose, who is a possible target of the Mavs according to Ric Bucher. We’ll see what comes of that. In the meantime, it’s fair to wonder whether he deserves continued minutes here. Deuce is an offensive wasteland at the moment, shooting just 32 percent overall and making just one of his 15 attempts from deep on the season. That said, his defense is such a plus that it might be worth dealing with the shooting struggles, especially given that he’s a dozen years Rose’s junior.
📸 Play of the Game: There’s been much hullaballoo about Obi shooting too many threes lately and straying too far from his bread and butter of flushing it around the basket. As such, it was great to see him get a few easy hoops in this game, one where Brunson found him on a nice cut to the rim, and then this bad boy from Deuce:
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Mitchell Robinson: With much love to Grimes and Deuce for their outstanding perimeter defense, I’ll go Mitch here for a solid night of board patrol and rim protection. Grimes in particular was a tough honorable mention, because his 40 minutes of defense were vital to this W, but it’s tough to overlook his offensive struggles (2-of-8, four turnovers, one assist) on a night where he never looked comfortable with the ball in his hands.
Also, Robinson was the star of the most symbolic possession of the game, if not the most meaningful one. Jalen Brunson brought the ball up the court leading by nine with 1:23 to go in the game - still enough time for a final Cavs push. The possession ended with two Brunson free throws 49 seconds later thanks to not one but two offensive rebounds. Robinson didn’t get credited with either one, but kept the ball alive both times, including this maximum effort play as he was falling out of bounds:
⭐️ ⭐️ Jalen Brunson: I actually don’t think this was one of Brunson’s better games this season. He probably forced a couple shots, had just four dimes, and committed three turnovers - an astronomical number for him. And yet he still finished with a tidy 23 points on 16 shots, including the biggest bucket of the game: a step-back jumper with under two to go and the Knicks without a field goal for over five minutes. He also had a key dish to Julius on the next possession to widen the cushion, and finished with two free throws to seal the deal.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quikley: A question for your consideration: after Jalen Brunson, has Immanuel Quickley been New York’s second best player this season?
The more I thought about it, the more I think the answer is not only yes, but a resounding yes. Julius Randle has certainly been their second best offensive player, but his defense has arguably been the biggest issue on the entire team. Quentin Grimes has been on IQ’s level defensively but has played about half as many minutes and has struggled more than Quickley on offense. RJ has righted the ship a bit these last seven games but the overall sample size remains lacking at both ends.
Quickley has not only been a metronome on the defensive end (New York’s 102.9 defensive rating in his 548 minutes cannot be ignored), but he’s also turned around his offense after a dreadful start. After putting up just 7.5 points a night on 35 percent shooting in his first dozen games, he’s been at 12.6 on 46.8 percent over his last 12.
It begs the obvious question: why, pray tell, would they ever consider trading this guy? I wrote on the subject a few weeks ago, and it’s even more baffling now.
These are the guys you keep.
The Big Picture
Through 24 games, with the same number of contests played at home as on the road, the Knicks have a record of 11-13.
That places them tied for 10th in the East with the Washington Wizards. They’re a half game back of the Heat, 1.5 back of the Nets, and 1.5 up on the Bulls. Of everyone ahead of them in the standings, only the Pacers figure to drop down, probably after making a trade that makes their tanking efforts a bit easier.
If Indy does indeed join the Brick for Vic brigade like everyone figured they would this season, and assuming the troubles for the Bulls get worse and not better (they’ve lost 8 of 11 and play New York three times in the next 19 days), it sure seems like the Knicks are going to remain squarely in the play-in picture for the rest of the season.
Maybe that’s a little presumptuous, and it could obviously change with a significant injury and/or a big trade. This team also isn’t above losing a game on any given night.
Even so, 11 wins in 24 games is what it is, and it certainly places them a category above the dregs of the league (Charlotte, Orlando, Detroit, Houston and San Antonio), each of which sport net ratings of negative 6.3 or worse. New York finds themselves in the next group up - one of nine teams that are all within one point per 100 possessions of the other eight for their average scoring margins:
Given this logjam of mediocrity, and the recent reporting from Ian Begley that the franchise has absolutely zero intention of pivoting into a tank, it’s probably a good time to buckle up for the long haul. The Knicks, rightly or wrongly, are going to continue playing games that matter, at least if your definition of meaningful games are ones that have an impact on an eventual postseason run. That run may wind up being only a game, but based on where things stand and what we’ve heard, it would be something of a surprise if at least one play-in game wasn’t in New York’s future.
It’s important to make this backdrop abundantly clear because it colors everything else about what they will or won’t and should or shouldn’t do this season. Sure, you might still see a trade that sends out an outgoing rotation player with a draft asset coming back in return, but its hard to envision them consummating a deal that makes the club meaningfully worse in the short term.
That reality, even more than who is holding the clipboard, is why blowouts like Saturday can feel so frustrating and why wins like yesterday can almost feel counterproductive. If you’re someone who believes that this season’s results are ultimately meaningless and that every decision that gets made should be in furtherance of an ideal future that is at least a year away and probably even further out, then anything that keeps this team in “the race” is merely proof of concept for people who don’t know what they should be looking for.
On the other hand, sports seasons are living, breathing beings that can evolve over time. The most famous recent example is last year’s Boston Celtics, who were a game under .500 in mid January and ran roughshod over the league the rest of the way. They obviously have an MVP-level player in Jayson Tatum and a core of guys tailor made for the modern game, but they needed to find themselves and emerge from the chaos nonetheless. It’s not impossible to see these Knicks pulling off a far more scaled back version of the same turnaround.
The Celtics started their rise about a month before the trade deadline, but their world-beater status was solidified after they excised Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and Enes Freedom at the trade deadline. Those deals helped clear up an overstuffed rotation and left them only with guys who made sense at both ends.
New York doesn’t have anywhere close to Boston’s ceiling, regardless of what in-season trades they might be able to pull off, but that doesn’t change the sense that they are a roster in need of rejiggering. With Tom Thibodeau’s latest move to remove Cam Reddish from the rotation, they now have two guys riding the pine (along with Evan Fournier) who would probably be in demand in the right deal. Throw in Derrick Rose (whose age and current level of production make for an odd fit), Immanuel Quickley (discussed above), a too-deep center rotation, and the whole Julius/Obi situation (can they possibly barrel towards year-four of these two on the same roster?) and it’s fair to suggest that damn near half the roster might be in play.
And that’s all before we get to the coach. If the primary concern was whether or not he had lost the locker room, Sunday’s performance could be seen as evidence to the contrary. It could also be seen as a good team having an uncharacteristically bad shooting night. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The scheme remains a massive question mark, but again: if we know that adding wins remains a top priority this season, should we really expect a total change in their defensive approach without a training camp to fine tune things? If they made such a shift, could it actually work?
More than anything, these questions make one thing abundantly clear: even if wins remain the top goal, the Knicks have to arrive at April with a clear idea of who they are as a basketball team.
Yes, they want to trade for a star player. But that is a finish line, not a path forward (and the inability to distinguish between those two has arguably been responsible for many of their issues this season). It doesn’t answer the tough questions, like what (and who) compromises their identity? Since he arrived, the answer has been Thibodeau himself, but if the Knicks are no longer a Thibs team, what are they? Can he still be part of the plan moving forward? Or, as I suggested on Saturday night, has that ship already sailed? If that’s the case, is his replacement already on the staff, or do they look to the outside? And will it be someone who has the ability to enhance their existing strengths, or will they need to further adjust the roster to fit what the next coach wants to do?
The more questions get asked, the more you can see why they’re going to run this thing ‘till the wheels fall off before making a change. Maybe that’s for the best.
But one thing is for sure: with where the Knicks are at right now, one fairly impressive win is no longer enough to stem the tide.