The Kings of New York
The New York Knicks have won 11 of their last 12. After winning only 21 games last season, the Knicks were given an over/under win total of just 22.5 games this season by Vegas. They surpassed that win total in just 45 games, and with just 8 games left in the season, they sit in sole possession of the fourth seed in the East. This drastic transformation was largely unexpected, with no major offseason acquisitions outside of Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, who last coached the Timberwolves to a 19-21 record in 2018-2019.
Out the gate, this iteration of the Knicks felt different. Even though they were not winning a great deal of games, the team’s identity had completely shifted. The Knicks are now a defensive-minded, hard-working force that will give their opponents 48 minutes of hard-fought basketball. Led by the unexpected All-Star season from forward Julius Randle, along with the improved shooting by sophomore RJ Barrett, the Knicks were hovering around the 8-10 seeds in the East, but did not look close to a formidable force in the conference early in the season. However, the team was finally a product their fans could be proud of, playing with heart and cohesion, led by the top-3 defense, and exciting individual offensive performances by Randle, Barrett, rookie Immanuel Quickley, and one random game by Austin Rivers where he scored 14 straight points late in the fourth quarter to carry the team to a win over the Pacers. However, the team still lacked a competent point guard, consistent scoring options, and sufficient ball movement.
Thus, enter Derrick Rose, whom the Knicks acquired from the Pistons in exchange for Dennis Smith Jr. and a future second round pick. Rose had previously spent the 2016-2017 season with the Knicks, but not a single player from that team remained on the roster. Now, he was re-reunited with Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached Rose in the beginning of his career in Chicago. Accompanying him was a young, hard-working team, hungry for the veteran leadership and experience Rose would provide. Rose’s presence proved to be instrumental to the Knicks success immediately, both on and off the court. In his first 10 games with the squad, they went 7-3, bringing them above .500, a massively celebrated feat for Knicks fans. However, Rose unfortunately contracted COVID-19, and wound up missing roughly a month of games. Fortunately for the Knicks, this time overlapped with the All-Star break, so Rose only missed 10 games. Since Rose has returned to the court, the Knicks have been 13-5 with him active, including a 9 game win streak. With Rose active, the Knicks are 20-8, only one win less than last year's season total.
Coming primarily off the bench, Rose has provided an immediate scoring spark for the Knicks’ offense. Pairing with the neophyte Immanuel Quickley, the guards have solidified the Knickerbockers bench as one of the best in the league. In his last 7 games, Rose is averaging 18.8 points, 5.1 assists, and shooting 57% from the field, scoring 20+ in four of those outings.. Of course, their winning ways are not solely attributed to Rose’s presence, but the veteran guards' experience, ability to attack the basket, clutch factor, and leadership should not be overlooked while evaluating the Knicks recent success.
A leap from the 12th seed to potentially the 4th seed cannot be attributed to just one player. The team itself has completely transformed, and Julius Randle’s development and leadership has been a driving factor. After pleading with the new Knicks brass for a coach to hold him accountable, the 6’9” forward got his wish with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau. Under Thibs, Randle has transformed into a superstar, averaging 24/11/6, on 46.4% shooting, and a spectacular 42.2% from three. After only shooting 27.7% from three the year prior, Randle has completely transformed his game, going from driving into the paint with his head down, to significantly improving his vision and shooting, especially along the baseline. He has achieved much of this by working diligently on shooting in the offseason and regular season, much of which he attributes to his late teammate Kobe Bryant. This drive and passion from Randle has flowed throughout the rest of the team, as they now rank as the third best three point shooting team on a percentage basis in the NBA, after being 29th last season. After making his very first All-Star appearance mid-season, Randle has been an absolute force offensively, scoring 25 points on almost a consistent basis. Over his last 11 games, the forward is averaging an absurd 30.8 points per game, scoring more than 30 points in 8 contests. Along with Randle, the improvements of the shooting by RJ Barrett have been essential, with the sophomore shooting 39.1% from three this season, and 45.0% from three since February 6th, much improved from his 32.0% mark as a rookie. The acquisitions of Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks have also greatly improved their three-point ability, percolating and devastating from beyond the arc.
The combination of the two-man game between Randle and wing Reggie Bullock has also been essential to the Knicks development, with Bullock thriving as a three point specialist. Playing off of Randle’s screens, penetration, and post game, , Bullock is hitting 44.7% from three since the All-Star break, while also greatly increasing the rate at which he takes them. Roughly a month ago, Thibs was asked about the Knicks unexpected success with the three ball, as while they weren’t attempting many threes, they were knocking down a high percentage. Since then, The Knicks have greatly increased their three point attempts as a team, upping the number by roughly 5 attempts per game in the past month. This increased volume, and improvement in shooting, has allowed the Knicks to not only score more points, but also come back into games, and put games away, more easily.
During the Knicks 9-game win streak, they won three games in overtime. Prior to this stretch, the Knicks had too often choked significant leads late, or lost games in the last few seconds. Almost every game seemed to go down to the wire, and too often they would end the game on the wrong end. Just before their win streak, 5 of their 7 most recent losses had been within 3 points. However, recently they have clearly either been able to put games away before clutch time, or come up with big shots and stops late in order to win it. Although Randle usually leads the way, their deep bench and backcourt scoring has allowed the Robin to Randle’s Batman to switch hands when it sees fit. Since the streak started, Rose, Quickley, Bullock, and Barrett have all seized opportunities to close out games. The depth and experience that Rose has provided, along with the massive improvements from the other guard depth, has been essential to the Knicks’ ability to close out games.
However, it would be remiss to not mention the massive effect of the Knicks’ drastic improvement on defense. Although they have largely been without one of their best defensive players, center Mitchell Robinson, for the majority of the season, the Knicks defense has been a top-3 defense, especially against the three ball. Thibs has installed a program of hard work and grinding out every possession, bringing a culture of hard-nosed defense and fast-pace to the defense, playing phenomenally as a team. The signings of Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson have more made up for the loss of Robinson, as the two have provided great toughness and defense around the rim. The shot blocking ability of Noel has been particularly spectacular, averaging the third most blocks per game in the league, and seemingly coming up with one major clutch block a game.
Overall, the Knicks have massively overhauled the way they conduct business on the court over the past year, due to an amazing and accomplished coaching staff, which has developed their personnel to the level where every player not on the early 2010’s Bulls is having a career year. Over the past 15 games, the Knicks sport the third highest offensive and defensive net ratings, making them the second most efficient team in the league. With this level of success, it is truly amazing to think that the Knicks, who haven’t made the Finals this century, are only at the tip of the iceberg, with a talented young core and a boatload of cap space this offseason.