The Knicks Are Off to a Decent Start. Is This a Drill?

The final time the Knicks gained at the very least half of their first 10 video games was throughout the 2017-18 season, after they had been 6-4. They completed the marketing campaign 29-53.

This season, the Knicks began 5-5, and a few followers are daring to hope that perhaps this Knicks crew is totally different. Perhaps this one can break the playoff-less streak that started in 2013-14. The unhealthy information is that the season is headed within the unsuitable route. The Knicks have dropped three in a row to place them at 5-6, with a number of blowout defeats.

Coach Tom Thibodeau has this crew taking part in exhausting, and the Knicks have overwhelmed good opponents, together with the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks. Coming into the Charlotte Hornets recreation on Monday, the Knicks had the eighth best defense in the league. They’re now right down to thirteenth after dropping to Charlotte, 109-88.

The Knicks haven’t fielded a top-10 defensive crew since the 2011-12 season, when their fifth-ranked protection took them to the playoffs. The unlucky flip facet: This yr’s crew has one of many league’s worst offenses.

The Knicks have additionally struggled with accidents: Alec Burks, Austin Rivers and Obi Toppin have all missed time — three offensive-minded gamers.

One thing the Knicks have of their favor is that this season has produced a number of unusual outcomes, and never only for them. Evening after evening, partially due to the shortened season, no crowds, the pandemic and minimal time in coaching camp, a number of groups are dropping huge or to opponents who didn’t look like threats. Some groups, just like the Toronto Raptors (2-8), who’re primarily based in Florida due to the virus, are underperforming. A number of prime gamers, like Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Nets’ Kevin Durant, have missed a number of video games as a result of they examined constructive for, or had been probably uncovered to, the coronavirus.

The shortened season helps the Knicks in one other means. Banking wins early on offers them cushion in opposition to the losses which might be nearly unavoidable because the season grinds on. However it’s nonetheless early, as Knicks followers realized in 2018.

Here’s a take a look at what’s gone proper and unsuitable for the Knicks to date.

The most important purpose the Knicks have been aggressive this yr is Julius Randle, who has began off sturdy. Randle is averaging 22.1 factors, 11.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per recreation — all on tempo to be profession highs — on 49.4 p.c taking pictures. He’s averaging extra assists this yr than his final two years mixed. If he retains this up, Randle ought to deservedly make his first All-Star crew.

He appears extra snug on the ground, and Thibodeau has been adept at benefiting from Randle’s versatility — for instance, ensuring he’s getting the ball on totally different components of the courtroom, relatively than merely attempting to bulldoze opponents within the publish. Randle is expert at creating for his teammates. The difficulty is that the Knicks don’t have many playmakers or shooters round him to ease his burden.

RJ Barrett, 20, is taking part in a variety of minutes this yr — 37.9 minutes per recreation, vs. 30.4 his rookie yr. Barrett is, nonetheless, taking pictures a dismal 36.5 p.c from the sector and 18 p.c from deep, each down from his rookie yr, when he also struggled.

Watching the video games, you’ll be able to see Barrett’s enchancment in different areas. He performs extra aggressively, has developed into a powerful rebounder (7.6 rebounds per recreation for a guard is spectacular) and has improved his passing. He’s a stable defender.

The consistency just isn’t there, although, and the inefficiency is problematic: Barrett is averaging extra pictures than factors. On opening evening, Barrett shot 11-of-15 from the sector for 26 factors in opposition to the Indiana Pacers. The subsequent recreation, in opposition to the Philadelphia 76ers, Barrett shot 2-of-15 from the sector for 10 factors. After which he shot poorly once more for the next three games.

His incapability to shoot places extra stress on Randle. Barrett is making solely 26.5 p.c of his pictures when there isn’t a defender within six feet of him. He’s additionally hitting solely 17.4 p.c when he catches the ball and shoots it.

However Barrett remains to be impactful for the Knicks, regardless of his scoring woes. His web score (primarily a measure of how significantly better or worse a crew is with a participant on the ground) is minus 2.8. This isn’t ultimate, however it’s among the many greatest on the crew amongst those that obtain severe minutes. When Barrett isn’t on the ground, the Knicks’ web score is minus 13.8. That’s a much bigger hole than the one for Randle, who’s their greatest participant.

It’s nearly time for the Knicks to decide to an extension with Mitchell Robinson, who’s now in his third yr. It’s tough to gauge his true worth. He’s a extra conventional middle who can’t unfold the ground and largely will get his factors on dunks.

And like Barrett, Robinson is a combined bag.

By way of 11 video games, Robinson’s manufacturing in a number of classes has decreased whilst he has performed extra minutes (30.1) than common, although the additional time appears to have given him room to seize extra rebounds than earlier than (8.1 per recreation). He’s additionally under his per-game profession averages in blocks (1.9) and field-goal share (68.2 p.c; nonetheless very environment friendly).

The most important enchancment for Robinson is that he’s been capable of keep on the ground. Earlier than this yr, he struggled with foul hassle, however now he doesn’t soar for up-fakes as typically, making it tougher for defenders to attract fouls. That was his greatest weak spot. Now, not a lot.

The Knicks don’t have many gamers who can break down defenses, which is what makes Elfrid Payton important for Thibodeau. The Knicks minimize him within the low season and re-signed him to an inexpensive one-year deal. He’s in all probability not part of the Knicks’ future plans. However he has been a gentle, veteran presence on the ground, which they’ve wanted.

He isn’t a lot of a shooter, however he’s expert at stepping into the paint. This yr, he’s scoring above his profession common with 14.5 factors a recreation, and is tallying 4.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per recreation.

Payton, 26, now in his seventh season, additionally doesn’t make many errors on the ground. For essentially the most half, he stays inside himself and takes care of the ball. (His turnover share is an below-average 14 percent this season.) He’ll almost certainly by no means be a starter on a championship crew, however he’s been a pleasant pickup for the Knicks.

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