Turning the Page
As the Knicks play out the string, let's look back on where it all went wrong.
Good morning! Only three games left to go in the season! Today we look back at this weekend’s action, and I give my 10,000-foot-view on where this year went awry and who is most to blame. If you want to be there for all the excitement as this team (hopefully) turns the page on a season to forget, you know what to do:
This weekend was defined far more by who wasn’t on the court than by anything of the Knicks who were. Julius Randle missed both games, and Tom Thibodeau intimated that we have probably seen the last of New York’s big man this year. Your milage on Randle may vary, but even his biggest supporters would agree that little good can come of him playing any more games this year.
Whether he’ll be suiting up for the Knicks the next time he plays is another question entirely. There are many factors that will go into that decision, one of which is what New York’s brass thinks it has in Randle’s backup, Obi Toppin, who had himself quite a nice weekend, as we’ll get to in a bit.
Saturday: Knicks 101, Cavs 119
Playing against a team that is still very much trying to win basketball games, the Knicks looked like a team that had just been officially eliminated. The league’s eighth best defense since the All-Star break largely failed to show up, and only a 17-point fourth quarter by the Cavs after the game was fully decided kept this score from looking worse. New York failed to make Cleveland uncomfortable from behind the arc when the game was still in doubt, and watched as the Cavs hit 12 of their first 22 from deep. On offense, the Knicks hit their threes but struggled from everywhere else, hitting just 18-of-47 inside the arc, with RJ Barrett (3-of-13 in the restricted area) serving as the biggest culprit.
Sunday: Knicks 118, Magic 88
Playing against a team that is very much not trying to win basketball games, the Knicks looked like they had the best young core in the NBA. The Magic were already playing a skeleton crew, and that was before Cole Anthony re-aggravated a toe injury and left after just three minutes. To their credit, New York took full advantage, at one point taking their biggest lead of the season at 35 points.
There were no shortage of standout performances. Barrett (27 points on 20 shots, six assists, five boards) rebounded nicely from a dreadful outing, while Mitchell Robinson (12 points, 10 boards, five blocks, three steals) got the better of draft classmate Mo Bamba. Quentin Grimes was also in, and although he didn’t shoot it well, had a few nice moments in his return from injury.
Most impressively, the rookie wasn’t content to call it a season when he easily could have. Great to see him make it back onto the court.
But the real stars of this game were two young players the Knicks should be very, very excited about as they approach their third seasons in the league…
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
Breaking the rules again with this weekend’s stars, splitting the six down the middle between the two guys who clearly deserved them most, starting with…
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: Last night, Immanuel Quickley became the second youngest Knick to notch a triple double1, ending up with a clean 20, 10 & 10 stat line. He’s also the sixth player 22 or under to put up a 20, 10 & 10 game this season, joining Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball, Josh Giddey and Kevin Porter Jr.
I wrote about Quickley’s rebounding a few weeks ago, and about why it was anything but an empty stat in New York’s offense. In short, the sooner Quick gets the ball in his hands, the better the odds are that something good will happen.
We get so wrapped up in comparing Quickley to other point guards around the league so as to over-focus on the things that he can’t do. No, he doesn’t have the handle to regularly get downhill in the half court, and he isn’t going to impress you with nifty finishes at the rim. He also doesn’t have the elite vision of someone who has played exclusively at point all his life.
But what IQ lacks in those areas, he continually figures out ways to make up for in others. For one, every chance he gets to make use of his blazing speed, he does exactly that. Combine that with great court awareness and a pretty darn good passing touch, and we get highlight plays like the dime to Alec Burks above.
But these qualities can be utilized in simpler ways as well. Watch the easy money IQ gets Taj here simply by playing at a brisk pace, keeping his head up and being decisive:
Since February 16, a span of 21 games, Immanuel Quickley has the highest assist percentage2 on the Knicks at 26.3. That figure ranks 28th out of 152 players who have averaged at least 25 minutes over that time3. More impressively, his assist to turnover ratio of 3.38 ranks 10th, and 4th amongst players who account for at least 20 percent of their team’s assists.
This is a player who can run an NBA offense…maybe not full time, but for long stretches, and for a team looking to win. He’s getting better and better in the halfcourt, as we see in the clip at the top of today’s newsletter, and his connection with his fellow sophomore is becoming more special by the day:
Speaking of Mr. Toppin…
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Obi Toppin: Not a bad weekend to set your new career high one day and then equal it the next, but that’s what Obi did against the Cavs and Magic.
20 points a pop was impressive for a few reasons. First and foremost, Toppin did it efficiently, getting to 20 on just 10 shots against Cleveland thanks to a 9-for-9 performance from the line, and then doing so on 16 shots yesterday. For as much as some of this is due to Obi being maybe the fastest big man in the league and getting his fair share of easy buckets in transition, he also continues to remind us of a dangerous half-court player lurking within:
It really comes down to two things for Toppin: shooting, and opportunity. Wouldn’t you know it, but it seems like more of the latter leads to better results with the former.
Is it that much of a stretch to say that this level of shooting has always been there, and Obi just needed to get in a rhythm to let it out? Over New York’s last seven contests, during which Toppin has averaged 26 minutes, he’s hitting 38.7 percent of his 4.4 threes attempted per game. That’s the second best conversion rate on the team in that time behind Alec Burks.
For a lot of fans, the Knicks can’t move on from Julius Randle fast enough. If they do go in that direction, penciling in Toppin for 30 minutes a night next season will still be a risky endeavor, but it’s one justified by the evidence we’ve seen. The kid is getting his shot and running with it.
What Went Wrong?
I want to start my postmortem on the season with something from the always thoughtful longtime KFS reader Qasim, who wrote the following to me a few weeks ago:
"Here lies the Big 15"
I went on a mini-monologue last season on one of the Saturday morning Greenrooms about Bill Simmons and Isiah Thomas' "secret of basketball" (secret of, not secret to) - which, long story short has to do with chemistry, cohesion, and sacrifice.
We had a magical season where we stumbled onto the secret. And fragile as it can be, we lost it with the offseason moves (among other things). You look at this year's Cavs (and Grizz too, though they have far more high-end talent), and I can't help but think they stumbled into the secret themselves.
I say all this b/c I had such a strong feeling about how important our Big 15 were in last season's result - and I don't think Leon, the fans, the media, or even Thibs really acknowledged it. It's hard to sell "doing nothing" as an offseason strategy.
The more I think about this season, the more I think that Qasim is onto something here. I’ll get back to his theory in a bit. First though, I’ll say that for as frustrating as the last five and a half months have been, I’ve come to accept that fact that the Knicks - now 35-44, with the 19th best record and net rating in the NBA - probably got what they deserved.
I don’t mean this in a “bad actor” sense, as if they tried to skirt the necessary process that leads to progression from a terrible NBA team to a good one. Quite the contrary, in fact. The front office could have very easily taken a page from the playbook of many former lead decision-makers that the franchise has employed over the last 20 years. They could have engaged in drastic overpays on long term deals. They could have traded away picks and young players for sub-star level talent that would have raised the floor but capped the ceiling. And while we don’t know for sure whether there was a Melo-type trade available in the offseason, I’m willing to bet that if a hard enough push was made, someone like Damian Lillard could probably have been a Knick.
They didn’t do any of those things. Instead, the brass tried to have their cake and eat it too - win more now, still be responsible for later. They crafted a roster with a seemingly set rotation that would be split 60/40 between veterans and players on rookie contracts, where rookies could be the next men up if need be. The vets they brought in were exactly what they needed, or at least that’s what anyone who watched their playoff evisceration at the hands of the Hawks would have thought. Most of all, by bringing back so many key pieces from last year’s team, New York would be trying a concept that had largely eluded them for the better part of 20 years: continuity.
That continuity was supposed to be one of the two safety nets to guards against disaster this season. The other came in the form of the gruff, grinding and often grating Tom Thibodeau, a head coach whose ceiling has often been questioned but whose teams generally have one of the highest floors in the league.
Perhaps this is why some Knicks fans scoffed at an over/under of just 41.5 wins…it wasn’t that the team was a lock to blow away that total, but it was also hard to foresee them falling below it. After all, how much would need to go wrong for this team not to win more games than it lost?
A lot, it turned out:
🏀 Julius Randle had an almost unfathomable across-the-board drop in efficiency. Down 10 percent from deep. Down 14 from the corners. Down 8 percent on long twos. Down 6 percent on short twos. Down 5 percent from the line. Only in the restricted area did he stay the same, and he was already one of the worst shooters in the league from close range. Add it all up, and it was a drop from 114.3 points per 100 shot attempts - in the 46th percentile for bigs, 54th percentile for forwards - to 101.6, which ranks in the 8th percentile for bigs and 19th percentile for forwards. He has been, in no uncertain terms, the least efficient high usage player in the NBA. Who knew empty gyms could make such a difference?
The offensive drop off had a noticeable impact on his level of focus and intensity at the other end, and New York’s defense went from a unit that was statistically identical whether Randle played or he didn’t to one that is 4.9 points per 100 possessions stingier when he sits. Another way of looking at it: when Randle is off the court, the Knicks defend at a rate that is 1.3 points per 100 possessions better than the league-leading Celtics.
According to Cleaning the Glass, his overall on-court efficiency differential of negative-8.4 equates to 21 fewer wins over the course of an 82-game season. No high usage player who saw over 1000 minutes (Julius has played over 2500) had a more detrimental impact according to this stat, with Rockets’ rookie Jalen Green and Washington’s Kyle Kuzma coming the closest at negative-7.9.
For all the reasons we argued he was a deserving MVP candidate last season - that New York was so dependent on him in so many ways - he is first on the blame list this year.
🏀 The Kemba experiment was a complete bust. I add “experiment” and not simply “Kemba” because there may have been a world where a watered down role could have resulted in a somewhat productive season from the Bronx-born guard. As a starting point guard with this group, however, it was a complete disaster. After an opening six games in which Walker was the most efficient high usage guard in basketball, he had a 46.6 effective field goal percentage over his final 31 games, a number that ranked in the 20th percentile for point guards league-wide.
His individual drop off took its toll, and the Knicks went just 11-20 in the final 31 games he started. Those wins:
Milwaukee without Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Walker played 15 minutes and was a minus-10.
Philly missing Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris.
Indiana, in which Walker was a minus-15.
LosAngeles without LeBron James.
Detroit without Jerami Grant.
Atlanta without Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari, De'Andre Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu and Lou Williams.
Minnesota without Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell.
Detroit without Cade Cunningham and Jerami Grant. Walker was a minus-21 in 19 minutes.
Sacramento without De’Aaron Fox. Walker played 16 minutes and was a minus-2 in a game New York won by 20.
Golden State without Draymond Green.
That’s three wins in 31 games against top-six teams in either conference, and all three came with key opposing players on the bench. The final details are gory: the Walker-led starting-five was outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions, 9th worst of 89 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes, while the team has a positive 2.2 net rating in the 2864 minutes Walker has been off the court.
That means for 75 percent of their minutes, this year’s team has a nearly identical scoring margin to least year’s version…and for the 25 percent of the minutes Walker played, they have the worst net rating in basketball.
🏀 The center position - the backbone of last year’s fourth-ranked defense, was shaken to its core. Mitchell Robinson took months to work himself into game shape, Nerlens Noel was a ghost, and while Jericho Sims is incredibly promising, is still a rookie learning the ropes.
🏀 Derrick Rose, who had a positive 5.8 net rating when he was on the floor, played just 26 games. They missed him in countless ways. He was New York’s best “get me a bucket” guy by a wide margin, and no one else on the roster can bend a defense like him. He also slotted Immanuel Quickley into a lower-pressure role, and while IQ has come out of the trial by fire an improved and more valuable player, he was initially negatively impacted as much as anyone. The other candidate for that designation is Obi Toppin, who was grounded for long stretches without Rose running the show.
More than any of the above though, the Knicks missed Rose in the clutch. Last season, after Rose arrived, he closed 16 games that featured “clutch” situations, with the Knicks going 10-6. Elfrid Payton closed just seven such games after Rose’s arrival, with the Knicks going 2-5. This season, without Rose, the closer was…
🏀 Alec Burks, who had by far the worst clutch point differential in the NBA. The Knicks have been outscored by an unfathomable 102 points in his 110 clutch minutes. Next worst in the NBA is Justin Holiday at minus-69 in 108 minutes.
While the frustration with the normal Burks-led starting five isn’t completely misplaced, they finished with a slightly positive point differential in 434 minutes. It’s the end of games that was its undoing. Which brings us to…
🏀 Tom Thibodeau, who can be connected with every one of the above maladies in some way, starting with Julius Randle. While it’s unclear whether any coach could have reigned in Julius (how many times did we here Thibodeau speak about how the Knicks were a different team when Randle drove it to the rim?), Thibs never figured out how to properly push his star’s buttons this season. Not to consistently defend. Not to adjust his style of play in light of his shooting struggles. Nothing.
In lieu of fixing Randle, he also refused to reduce his minutes as a penalty for poor play and effort. In conjunction with his handling of the Walker benching, which reportedly rubbed some in the locker room the wrong way, it’s fair to question how much his management style took a bad situation and made it worse. Throw in the continued insistence on closing with Burks, his reluctance to bench Walker a second time as New York’s season spiraled down the drain, and perhaps even over-taxing Rose ahead of the injury, and all roads lead back to Thibs.
All roads except one, that is…the one that leads to the top.
🏀 Leon Rose had a fairy tail first season as President. His handpicked coach formed an indelible partnership with a talented but flawed player who craved stardom and was willing to work tirelessly to get it. Once it was clear that Randle solved his biggest problem and could make defenses pay for leaving him unguarded on the perimeter, everything flowed from there. Thibodeau set up a perfect Randle-centric ecosystem on offense and a defense that gave opponents 48 minutes of hell. At the core of that fourth ranked unit was a three-headed monster at center, none of whom were elite by themselves but who were collectively unrelenting.
The result, in totality, wasn’t always pretty, but it was rock solid. They were like a one-story ranch that was nothing to look from the outside but was built on a solid foundation with thick walls and a roof that never caved. This season, they attempted to put another floor on that house without disrupting the existing base. In theory, it was an admirable goal. In execution, it was a disaster.
What the Knicks discovered this year is that what they viewed as minor cosmetic work ended up being major construction, and in attempting that, everything fell to pieces. On offense, we came to realize very soon how much flowed from Randle’s shooting. Without that threat, teams dared him to beat them in other ways. He couldn’t.
Whether his shooting woes inhibited his ability to gel with his new high usage point guard or the cause & effect was actually the other way around remains a mystery. Whatever it was, Randle became a fish out of water, and while he, Kemba, Fournier and RJ all had moments in which they shined, it never felt like they were anywhere close to raising each other’s level of play. Two of the four performing well in the same game was rare; three at once felt like a miracle. Worse yet, the offensive volatility permeated a once sturdy defense.
These problems were nonexistent last year. Aside from RJ getting his handful of on-ball actions, there was one mouth and only one mouth that needed to be fed. If Randle started cold? No worries…it’s not like they had any other options, after all. He shot carefree for 72 games. This season? With every jab-jab-jab-18-footer-brick, Randle had to be feeling the weight of the new additions. It led to even more stagnation and less driving. Every other player embraced Thibodeau’s “read and react” offense. Randle would read and then fall asleep with the book on his chest. We were quickly reminded that making an All-NBA team does not turn you into LeBron or KD. The more Randle battled, the deeper he dug the hole, and there was Thibodeau, standing with the shovel4, never reducing his minutes in a meaningful way.
The front office didn’t account for any of this. Not for a head coach whose response to adversity is to dig in his heels. Not for a top player who is far closer to the 50th best talent in the league than the 15th (and whose lack of mental fortitude made him feel like the 350th on some nights). Not for the event that Kemba wouldn’t work out. Not for how they themselves would operate as a functional decision-making body if things started to go south and a coach they empowered with personnel input offered a different view on how to fix it. Most of all, they didn’t account for the delicate balance needed to make last year’s team work.
The #Big15 Knicks weren’t a house build on a solid foundation. They were a house of cards. It turns out that attempting to change even one component led to its downfall. That’s why this team got what it deserved - for a failure to recognize the truth. The most difficult job a front office has is to be honest with itself. Honesty would have required an about face after that Atlanta series: we had a wonderful season, but banking on catching lightning in a bottle again would be foolish. So much went right to double our preseason wins total. What happens if some of this stuff goes wrong?
Their failure to have this difficult conversion - a conversation, to be fair, that I’m not sure five other teams in the league would have had the intestinal fortitude to carry out had they been coming off a season like the Knicks had last year - is why you’re sitting here today, reading a postmortem a week before the regular season is over.
What could they have done differently? Even in retrospect, it’s a hard question to answer. As an expiring contract, Randle’s value as a trade asset was limited last summer. Realistically, they were never going to deal away the new face of the franchise. Perhaps they could have done a better job of insulating him, but could any additions have prevented this sort of downturn? I’m not so sure. Lonzo Ball probably made the most sense, but that would have required a significant financial commitment. We’ll see how that contract ages in Chicago.
They could have easily let guys like Noel, Rose and Burks walk, but would that really have solved any issues? Aside from taking up cap space this summer when there’s no one worth breaking the bank for, it’s mostly no harm, no foul. Even the Fournier deal can’t really be blamed too much with how he’s looked of late. The biggest issues Burks and Fournier present is that they’re standing in the way of younger players, but that could have been solved at the trade deadline, except the front office didn’t like the options.
To me, it really does come down to signing Kemba. Thibodeau quite clearly never wanted Walker and it seems like Randle felt the same, but the front office couldn’t pass up the opportunity, even if it went against quite literally everything that made this team what it was a year ago. It was also the most “go for it” move the Knicks made. You could talk yourself into Randle and Fournier as holding value now and later, but Walker? It was purely a ceiling play for the present. Worse yet, we never had any indication he could thrive in a lower usage role, and with all the mouths to feed on the roster already, how exactly would that work?5
What if, instead of Walker, the organization made a commitment to continue growing from within, and started Immanuel Quickley from day one? This would have taken a massive amount of buy in from all parties involved - Leon Rose, Tom Thibodeau, Julius Randle, etc - that they were really in this thing for the long haul. That decision, and the resulting elevation of Quentin Grimes into the rotation, would have also been a signal to the rest of the league: We’re not getting high off the fumes of our own success. We know how far we still have to go. We’re going to get there with development. And we’re willing to deal with the bumps along the way to make it happen.
(Imagine if they did this and - gasp - Leon Rose actually held a press conference explaining as much?)
Expectations would have been tempered. Best case, New York surprises again. Worst case, you get a good draft pick with the kids getting experience in high usage roles. The Randle cloud probably still exists, but who knows…maybe no Walker tempers that too.
Instead, New York went in a different direction, and here we are. I’ll end on a positive note: it’s not all bad. Not even close. For all the blame I just dished out, this team will still win between 35 and 38 games. They have legitimately interesting young talent, and RJ Barrett is becoming a star,. With a decent amount of flexibility moving forward and a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, it’s not far fetched to think better days are ahead.
And I’ll get into all of that hopeful prognostication after the season officially ends. For right now though, it’s important to put this season six feet under where it belongs.
As a certain head coach is fond of saying, you either win or you learn. Last season, the Knicks did more winning than they could have ever expected. This year, not so much.
It’s now up to them to learn from that failure. Prior front offices have kept blinders on in the face of adversity. Leon Rose has many outstanding qualities, but it humility chief among them? We’ll find out soon enough.
The only one younger to do it was Kenny Sears. You can read my writeup on Sears, who I ranked as the 35th greatest Knick ever, here.
This measures what percentage of your teams assists you’re responsible for when you’re on the court.
Minimum of 10 games played.
I’m 90 percent sure I saw this analogy on Twitter at some point this season. If it was you, hit me up.
By the way, everyone turned a blind eye to these concerns, myself as much as anyone. But it’s the fans’ job to get excited about what could be. It’s the front office’s job to assess what it.