What To Make Of The New York Knicks' Encouraging Start?

This image is a derivative of 2013 New York Knicks 1 by Michael Tipton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The New York Knickerbockers are playing good basketball.

It's been a long time since we've been able to say that, and while their fast early-season start is beginning to slow down, this team is worth keeping tabs on. They're no longer the assumed win for your team, nor the night on the schedule you can allocate to friends and family. The Knicks are intriguing, entertaining, and most importantly, relatively good.

Seven seasons have passed since the Knicks last played playoff basketball. 

A prime Carmelo Anthony and his career-high 28.7 points per game translated into an offence that ranked 3rd in the league which led to a 54-28 record and the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference back in 2012-13. But when their conference semifinal series ended with a 106-99 loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 6, it all started going downhill. 

New York's 9th seed the following season is as good as it has ever been for the Knicks since their last playoff appearance. 

East Seed

Ranked 30th and 28th offensively over the last two seasons, the Knicks have made for dire viewing. They performed about as well as you would expect with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Marcus Morris as the offence's focal points. Defensively, the Knicks have only finished one season since 2012-13 inside the top-20.

It's those terrible numbers and bad memories that make the start to the 2020-21 season so promising.

There is still a long way to go. We've been teased before - think: signing Phil Jackson and drafting Kristaps Porzingis, among others. But we might finally be able to pin where it all began to turn around for the embattled franchise.

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While they've just lost their third game in a row to drop to 5-6, the Knicks are continuing down a relatively promising path led by Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle. It took them 25 games to earn their fifth win last season, while they hit that mark after just eight games this time round thanks to its defence. No, seriously. The Knicks are currently 5-6 thanks in large part to their improving defence.

With a 108.4 defensive rating, the Knicks rank 13th in the league. That's a significant improvement on their 23rd-ranked 113.0 from last season. Only the Hawks and Mavericks allow their opposition to shoot at a lower mark from beyond the arc than New York's 32%. Promisingly, just six teams in the league keep their opponent to under 60% inside the restricted area - the Knicks (59.8%) are one of them.

In particular, Robinson has taken a leap and is becoming one of the best defenders in the NBA. Fourth in blocks with 1.9 per game, opposing players shoot just 59.7% with Robinson in front of them in the restricted area. The two names above him: Anthony Davis (59.6%) and Rudy Gobert (58.9%).

The Knicks are a legitimately good defensive team with Robinson on the floor. Their 106.3 defensive rating throughout his 30.1 minutes per game is among the top-five in the league.

Rather frustratingly after hitting 74.2% of his shots last season (the best in NBA history), the Knicks haven't looked to increase Robinson's load on the offensive end. He's still averaging fewer than two possessions as a roll man per game.

Lucky for the Knicks, Julius Randle is on a tear to start this season.

With 232 points, 118 rebounds and 71 assists through his first ten games, Randle joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history to have 200+ points, 115+ rebounds and 70+ assists this early. If he keeps it up, he will end up alongside Wilt Chamberlain (twice) and Robertson as the only players to ever average 23/12/7 in a season.

He's always had potential on the offensive end. For the most part, he's always had fairly attractive looking counting stats beside his name. But Randle looks different this season. He isn't barrelling headfirst into defenders quite like he used to in the past. Randle still looks more like a bulldozer than basketball player at times, but overall, the 26-year-old is handling the ball better, picking his spots, and has a lot more control over his body when getting downhill. When he isn't creating for himself, the former Kentucky standout sets screens for others like an NBA2k 'My Player' power forward.

Tom Thibodeau recognised Randle's path shortly after he hung 30 points on the Utah Jazz along with 16 rebounds and seven assists: "I think when you look at most players in this league there's a progression to becoming that type of player. They just don't get there overnight. There are steps they have to take along the way, and I think he's done that."

By virtue of playing 37.1 minutes per game (2nd-most in the NBA) and on a team that's slowly starting to come back down to earth, New York's 104.2 offensive rating with Randle on the court isn't the most impressive of numbers. However, it's what happens when he - and Robinson - leave the court that really highlights their impact.

It also suggests that this early-season run may yet be another flash in the pan.

  • The Knicks play with just a 96.3 offensive rating with Randle on the bench.
  • When Robinson sits, their previously impressive 106.3 defensive rating balloons out to 109.2
  • The Knicks are 0.2 points better off per 100 possessions with both on the floor compared with 0.5 with both off.
  • Play just Randle or just Robinson, and the Knicks are -16.1 points and -9.0 points worse off respectively.

The Knicks are reliant on their two big bodies on both ends of the floor. While the likes of RJ Barrett, Alec Burks, and more recently, Immanuel Quickley and Kevin Knox, have all offered encouraging moments this season, they're fleeting. 

New York's 109-88 loss in Charlotte will either act as an eye-opener or the tail-end of another tease. With Randle struggling and the Hornets off to a fast start, no Knicks starter managed more than 15 points. Knox scored 19 off the bench, but 17 of those came throughout a first-half flurry with his shot failing to fall after the break. 

The Hornets zone defence took Randle out of the picture, and the Knicks had no answer.

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Crystal Ball

The future is looking brighter in New York than most anticipated heading into the season. Handed the lowest win-total of all 30 teams, the expectation was for the Knicks to be one of the worst teams in the NBA.

They still might be...

As entertaining as the Knicks have been, as good as they have looked at times to start 2020-21, this three-game losing streak provides us with a more accurate measure of this team and where they're headed. 

While Robinson has been excellent and Barrett provides quality defensive minutes, they're not going to keep teams to 32% from beyond the arc all season. There is an element of luck influencing New York's start defensively. 

With totals of 89, 89 and 88 points in their last three games, it's becoming clear that Randle's play - even if he can keep it up all season - isn't enough for the Knicks to trouble the top teams every night. 

The Knicks are in the playoff picture right now. It has been a fun start to their season and a refreshing change to the last six years. But just like the good team starting poorly every season, there is always the bad team running hot early.

This campaign can be a turning point for the Knicks and steer them on the right path towards the post-season, but the playoff drought is unlikely to end in 2021.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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