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Taking Care of Business
It ain't pretty, the Knicks keep racking up W's.
Good morning! This Knicks season continues to get more and more interesting. Do they take it easy on their fans? Heck no! Is it character-building? I hope so, either for them or us. All caveats aside though, New York is a top-10 NBA team by any metric, as we’ll get into more below. Can they keep it going? And is there a non-star trade that might be able to help put them over the top? We’ll get into all that, plus this weekend’s games, right now.
Game Recap: Knicks 117, Pistons 104
⌚️60 Seconds or Less: Astute Knicks fans had their antennas up as soon as they learned that Detroit’s best player, Bojan Bogdanovic, would miss this game with an illness. As if it wasn’t enough of a trap game already, that pushed the trap dial to 11.
So it was a pleasant surprise when New York took a commanding 39-22 advantage after the first quarter. From there though, the Knicks again showed their tendency to let up at the worst time, allowing the Pistons to get a little too comfortable from deep and close the half on a 15-4 run. The third quarter was the Ju & Jalen show, as the pair combined for 20 of New York’s 28 points to help keep the hot-shooting Pistons at arms’ length. Detroit got it to a two-possession game a few times in the fourth, but the Knicks always had a response, and in a welcome change, the last three minutes were stress free.
💪 Tough to Handle: More and more, we’re hearing opposing coaches repeatedly describe the Knicks (and their best players) by using the same terms: tough, physical, and a handful to deal with.
That was never more evident than this weekend. After outscoring Washington in the paint by a 50-28 margin on Friday, New York manhandled a Pistons team that didn’t suit up anyone over 6'8". The Knicks doubled up Detroit’s offensive rebounding total, 18 to nine, including three on this first quarter possession alone:
Thus far this season, New York has been content to match finesse with brute force. They have the third highest offensive rebounding percentage in the league, are fifth in put-back points per game, and have the second most drives in basketball. Collectively, they are a hammer in perpetual search of a nail.
🤔 Rotation Reflections: The Knicks have essentially become a six-man team. Since RJ Barrett has returned to the rotation, six Knicks - IQ plus the starters - are playing over 30 minutes a night, while the other three players (Obi Toppin, Deuce McBride and Isaiah Hartenstein) have combined to average 29.7 minutes in that three-game span.
It seems clear that Tom Thibodeau is losing trust in some of his reserves, at least when things get tight. Deuce McBride hasn’t scored in a week and has one or zero field goals in seven of his last eight games. He didn’t see the court in the second half yesterday, and Jalen Brunson has been playing into fourth quarters before getting his first (usually short) second half breather. Meanwhile, over his last 18 games, Isaiah Hartenstein is shooting 36 percent and averaging under four points a night. His last double digit scoring game came six weeks ago.
As for Obi Toppin, it’s been barely a week since he’s been back in the lineup, so I’m not ringing any alarm bells just yet. Still, an 0-for-7 weekend couldn’t have felt great, especially with the trade deadline fast approaching.
About Friday Night: Knicks 112, Wizards 108
⌚️60 Seconds or Less: Another night, another near heart attack, but ultimately another win for the Knicks.
This one started off slow for both teams, with New York and Washington combining to shoot 16-for-53 overall and 4-of-22 from deep in the first quarter. It was also a first half of runs, with 8-0 and 11-2 spurts for the Wiz mixed in with 12-0 and 8-0 bursts from the Knicks. After a third quarter in which Jalen Brunson took control (5-of-6 shooting, 13 points), the Knicks opened the fourth with one last run of 14 straight to go up 94-79.
It was almost enough for the Knicks to violate their legal obligation to torment every member of the fan base at least once per evening, but sure enough, the Wizards made a push behind 30 combined fourth quarter points from Kyle Kuzma and old friend KP. The tensest moment: after a late 9-3 Washington run cut the lead to four with 16.1 seconds left, Julius Randle fouled Kuzma on a 3-point attempt. Luckily, Kuz missed the second of three, and Brunson sealed the win with four clutch free throws.
💣 Dunk of the Season? Well this wasn’t very nice.
For a guy as big and as strong as Julius Randle is, you’d almost expect him to have more moments when he sends another large human into the quantum realm, but I suppose the rarity made this all the more special.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: Talk about getting screwed.
After Friday night’s game, Immanuel Quickley was squarely in second place in the stars race, and closer to Jalen Brunson in first than Julius Randle in third. Sure enough, Randle goes out and does something not seen since Patrick Ewing was in his prime, and IQ yet again gets relegated to the bronze.
Not that there’s any shame in that, especially in the context of this team.
New York came into this season billed as a big, er, mid-three of Brunson, Randle and Barrett. Two of those players are now in the thick of the All-Star conversation. The third started off dreadfully, rebounded nicely, and then got hurt. In RJ’s absence, Immanuel Quickley came alive, doubling his scoring average from 10 to 20 a night over the seven games Barrett missed.
In the three games since RJ returned, Quick has largely maintained his significant role, playing over 30 minutes a game. Over the weekend, he scored 35 total points on 26 shots - more than passable efficiency given everything else he does.
More importantly, Tom Thibodeau seems reluctant to take him off the court in the fourth quarter, and kept him on the court for the entire final 12 minutes in each weekend game. On Wednesday against Indiana, that was mostly at the expense of Quentin Grimes, but on Friday in Washington and yesterday in Detroit, it was Barrett who took a seat for parts of the home stretch.
These are the sorts of difficult decisions that lie ahead for Thibs as long as New York’s top six all remain healthy. For the moment though, keeping Quick in the gam is one of the easier calls he has.
⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Jalen Brunson
I know, I know…you don’t care enough about my plight, constantly having to pick between these two, to deal with my complaining. But complain I will. It is getting more, not less difficult to select between these two for top honors. What I wouldn’t give for a computer algorithm to start taking this out of my hands. I’d settle for Punxsutawney Phil at this point. If he sees his shadow, Randle; if not, Brunson.
This weekend, Randle had the worst game of the two, struggling a bit from the field in Washington and committing the costly foul that nearly made things too close for comfort. But even in a lesser effort by his recent standards, Julius grabbed 16 boards and largely defended well.
And then yesterday, Randle did something not accomplished by a Knick since Patrick Ewing nearly 27 years ago to the day, topping 40 points and 15 rebounds in the same game. 11 of his 42 came in a fourth quarter that was closer than it probably should have been, including a step-back triple that gave the Knicks some much needed breathing room with under four to go.
His defense remains spotty, when when Julius needs to man up, he reminded us he’s more than capable:
And yet, at least in the judgment of this observer, Randle was not the best Knick on this weekend.
Brunson ended up with 27 points yesterday, just three shy of becoming the fourth Knick guard ever to post at least four consecutive 30-point games. He seems to be in the running for a different record or accomplishment of this nature every other game.
I’m slotting him above Randle here - the ultimate in splitting hairs - for this reason: his baskets against Washington felt like the most necessary ones of the weekend, and even though he didn’t take as many shots as Julius yesterday, he was every bit as effective when he did put it up. He continues to do things on a nightly basis that defy logic and reason:
The Knicks play eight more games before the All-Star reserves are announced on February 9, including two straight (against Brooklyn and the Lakers) on national television immediately before the final coaches’ votes are tallied. It is too close to call definitively right now, but if forced to pick just one, I’m going Brunson. Randle is still very much in the running though, and it’s not impossible that the Knicks get two entrants. Their play over the next few weeks should factor largely where that’s concerned.
Speaking of which…
🖼 The Big Picture 🖼
The numbers and data, while they haven’t yet put the rest of the NBA on notice as to what may be brewing in New York, are starting to raise some eyebrows.
At the very least, if you’re a fan who had notions of a special 2022-23 season, you certainly feel pretty good about your premonition right about now.
With their win yesterday, the Knicks momentarily gained sole possession of the 9th best record in the NBA. Their yearlong net rating of plus-2.8 is good for 8th best in the league, and seems to indicate that this isn’t fool’s gold. Sure, it seems like they’ve played a bunch of games against teams missing their best players (including both wins this weekend), but according to Cleaning the Glass, their win total is actually slightly below where their point differential says they should be. They don’t have a “signature” win over a top team, but they also haven’t dropped a game they entered as heavy favorites either, which is more than almost everyone else in the NBA can say. Zooming out, the numbers paint them as a competent bunch with a very high floor.
And yet, when you watch them night to night, they feel like anything but. Over the last dozen games alone, we’ve seen:
Four missed free throws in the final 66 seconds in a loss to Chicago
The Dallas disaster that I’m still not ready to talk about
A down-to-the-wire win against a bad Spurs team that trailed by nine early in the fourth
A 16-point lead with just over three minutes left in Toronto get cut to two
A 16-point lead against the Bucks evaporate in under five minutes
A 25-point home lead vs Indiana reduced to two points as Tyrese Haliburton watched from the sidelines
A 14-point fourth quarter advantage cut to two vs a Washington team missing Bradley Beal, and most recently…
A 20-point-lead get whittled down to six against a Detroit team missing, well… almost everyone.
Each of these instances featured unique breakdowns that may or may not be indicative of larger issues. At the very least, something in this team’s DNA does not mix well with prosperity, and they lack the ability to throw down the gauntlet that great teams possess.
And yet, this not-great-but-maybe-very-good team continues to perform above their expected weight class. They are 7-1 in their last eight games and 15-6 in their last 21. Their current starting lineup has the fourth best net rating of the top 25 most used five-man groupings, trailing only the vaunted quintets in Golden State, Denver and Boston. Since that starting five first began opening games together, New York in 17-10 with the third best average point differential in basketball, trailing the Grizzlies and neck & neck with the Nuggets and Nets.
Again, it is difficult to reconcile the data with a team that can operate at times like clockwork and at times like a broken clock - stuck in place, hoping that one of the two times a day it is right coincides with the final buzzer.
I’ve argued in post-games that we’re not used to mediocrity in New York, and that this might just be what it looks like. Perhaps that’s true.
Or perhaps this is a team still figuring out what it wants to be - what it can be. That process has been messy, but at least there are more messy wins than messy losses.
And hey…what else did we really expect?
When: 3:00 pm
Weiss & Rosenbloom Personal Injury Report: Free and clear for New York; Fred VanVleet is questionable for Toronto.
Halftime: NO ZOOM TODAY…my wife is down for the count with the flu so I’ll be on double duty with the kids. Hopefully back on by Wednesday.
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Four years after he posted a cryptic Instagram message stating that “The truth will come out” about the trade that sent him from New York to Dallas, Kristaps Porzingis sure seems to have changed his tune.
In an interview with NBA.com’s Mark Medina, the former face of the franchise opened up about the end of his time with the Knicks and some of the mistakes he may have made that led to his departure. Noting that his various injuries have humbled him and forced him to contemplate who he is outside of basketball, Porzingis admitted to missing the feeling of being beloved by a fan base that had been yearning for a savior. Regarding his messy exit, KP was forthcoming:
“Could I go back and do things differently? For sure, from our side. I was hurt. If I kept playing, it would’ve been completely different. I’m young and listening to people and what they’re telling me on what I should do with my career. You don’t know any better. That’s how things went at that time. I can only say really good things about the organization because I enjoyed it so much playing there in New York and playing in front of those fans.
It was a dream come true. In the moment, I didn’t realize it’s not like that everywhere. New York is a special place. Madison Square Garden is the most special place I had ever played in. But at that moment, I thought it was like that on every team. I had the most fun playing in The Garden.”
After adding that “how things went with the communication wasn’t my style” and that his “style would be different with whatever needed to be done,” Porzingis admitted “I was wrong.” When Medina began to ask him about the famed missed exit meeting, KP interrupted the question with this response:
“You think I came up with that? (laughs). It is what it is.”
What should we make of these comments? That depends on what you care about. KP has the chance to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and is currently playing for a team as close to top-three lottery odds as they are to a guaranteed playoff birth. If it is genuine contrition you’re seeking, perhaps the apologetic and regretful nature of these comments should be taken with a grain of salt.
But if you’re someone who would love to see Porzingis back in a Knicks uniform, and aren’t really worried about how sorry he really is for any wrongdoing on his part (or, for that matter, whether Steve Mills and Scott Perry are primarily to blame for the dissolution of that relationship), then these comments should matter a great deal.
Is wanting him back a reasonable stance? Focusing just on what he cold bring on the court and leaving aside all of the noise, there are still four huge questions that need to be answered:
Where Does KP Fit? Porzingis has played almost exclusively at center since leaving New York, although the Wizards have dominated opponents at both ends in the 166 minutes KP has shared the court with traditional rim-running big man Daniel Gafford this season. Still, Porzingis would have to play a fair share of his minutes in the middle. Mitchell Robinson has his weaknesses, but more importantly, the Knicks have essentially constructed their roster around his strengths. Porzingis isn’t the offensive rebounder or rim protecter that Mitch is, so if New York wanted to pivot, they’d have to consider whether KP’s positives make a change worth it (and how much his weaknesses upset the current formula they’ve stumbled upon).
How Much Would KP Cost? Speaking of Robinson, the front office looks wise for inking him to a descending contract that pays him $43 million over the next three seasons. Given the rising cap and lack of big names available this summer, there’s a chance KP’s next pact could start at $40 million annually. It remains to be seen whether his market gets that frothy, but all it takes is one, as they say. Of course, that one team would have to recon with the third question…
Can KP Stay Healthy? This is the big one. If his injury questions didn’t exist, Porzingis is young enough (he’s turning 28 this summer) and talented enough (he’s legitimately part of the East All-Star convo) to warrant a big investment. New York currently features three players who like to work inside the paint, including Jalen Brunson, who has over 1500 minutes of shared court time with KP under his belt. Porzingis' 3-point shooting could go a long way to further unlocking their offense - maybe even enough to shift the ever-present discourse around searching for a star player. Can he stay on the court though? He's been remarkably durable for the Wiz this season, but that's barely a three-month sample size. Last but not least...
How do they Get Him? Porzingis is a free agent, but the Knicks have no realistic path to opening up enough space to sign him outright. That would mean a sign and trade. Would one of New York’s large salary players be going out in the deal? And if so, who?
That’s enough tomfoolery for now, although I have a feeling we’ll be revisiting this topic again before all is said and done. In the meantime, the snakes can stay in the grass, and the Knicks shall remain KP-free.
See y’all soon! #BlackLivesMatter
The Kings inched ahead by percentage points later in the evening.
Apologies if you commented on that particular postgame newsletter or wrote me an email about it. I still can’t bring myself to read them.
The highest lead was 17, but it was 16 with 2:25 to go in the third, and the Bucks went ahead with 9:31 left in the fourth.