After yet another lackluster start to the season, the New York Knicks seem to have hit something resembling a stride during their recent 5-5 stretch of games.
The team is looking more cohesive, trusting each other better on the defensive end, has gotten some key stops down the stretch and even closed out games with a sense of urgency. That seems like something so basic, yet these are traits not seen during much of last season or the beginning of this one.
Small sample size? Maybe. But as a long-time Knicks fan, I’m seeing this change as rather overt compared to the last few years of dysfunction.
With all the focus recently on “brand building”—and following new Brand manager Steve Stoute’s Scaramucci-esque moment on air—there is a strong case for the Knicks to simply double down, ditch the flash, buy into interim Head Coach Mike Miller’s scheme and invest in some stability with the current group of guys.
After all, the ‘brand’, team owner James Dolan is trying so hard to recreate, may benefit more from the team’s recent play than any marketing campaign that management eventually strings together.
When A four-game winning streak actually means something
February 3 at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, in Cleveland, the Knicks were fresh off a gritty come-from-behind win against the Indiana Pacers two nights before. They seemed determined to prove their first win in a while wasn’t a fluke and that they had turned a corner.
Unfortunately, the suddenly competitive Cavaliers built a 10-point advantage going into the final five. Any self-respecting Knick fan would usually throw in the towel at this point. We’ve all seen this too many times before, especially against fellow bad teams.
Yet, the Knicks forged a comeback to tie the game behind a clutch effort by forwards Marcus Morris and Julius Randle. Fast forward another five minutes of OT, and the Knicks kept up the pressure, along with the hot shooting to carve out a feisty second win in a row, 139 -134.
Somehow, this wasn’t the last of it.
Three nights later on February 6), back home at Madison Square Garden and reeling from what was supposed to be a season-killing trade at the deadline, the Knicks proved their mettle once again.
With the Orlando Magic up by 10 in the fourth, guard Wayne Ellington picked up where Morris left off to hit consecutive deep bombs before some solid defense and jumpers by Randle and Taj Gibson sealed the deal, 105-103. Magic coach Steve Clifford was left furious with the refs for not noticing his call for a timeout with seconds left to go in the game.
For once, it wasn’t the Knicks who were left frustrated by last-minute guffaws. And for once, the cards just seemed to fall in their favor. Had interim coach Mike Miller’s group turned the corner?
Any skepticism was put to bed when the Knicks visited Little Caesars Arena and took on the Detroit Pistons just a couple of nights later, on February 8.
Late in the game, center Mitchell Robinson and Randle took advantage of a lack of size in the middle—the Pistons were fresh off trading away big man Andre Drummond to the Cavs—creating some crucial second-chance opportunities to put the game away 95-92.
And while the Knicks dropped two games heading into the NBA All-star break (a close 2OT loss to the Atlanta Hawks and respectable one to the Washington Wizards), along with a 106-98 home loss to the Indiana Pacers after it, the orange and blue are 13-21 since Mike Miller took over as Head coach.
That would somehow be good for seventh in the Eastern Conference if this record was taken in isolation.
The team was scoring at a rate of 107.6 points a night (prior to the All-Star Break) and doing it at a shot clip of 45 percent while only turning over the ball 13 times. In comparison, the Knicks were scoring 100.5 points a game at a 42 percent rate under former coach David Fizdale. What’s more, they were turning the ball over 15 times and letting opponents score more points while amassing just four victories during a 22-game stretch.
The cast is basically the same, with the exception of Marcus Morris, who was traded to the L.A. Clippers for forward Moe Harkless.
So what’s changed?
Mike Miller’s “one game at a time” leadership seems to be trickling down to the younger players. There are simplified offensive and defensive schemes, patience and team chemistry. These are all hard-to-quantify aspects, sure, but they have been palpable.
In now-customary fashion, this season saw yet another overhaul of the Knicks roster. This iteration was brought together seemingly as an afterthought after losing the Kevin Durant / Kyrie Irving sweepstakes. There appeared to be very little thought about the style mix, overstocking of certain positions (and undermanning of others), etc.
Yet, the group was apparently expected to immediately perform like a playoff contender. That horrendous start doused water all over any delusions of mediocrity while dooming yet another “he’s our guy” coach.
Such has been the story this past decade for the Knicks. With seven coaching changes in 10 years, multiple roster overhauls and ever more change…
Yet, I’d argue that what the team has shown recently is just as good as the best of these Knicks rosters this past decade. (Except, of course, the 2011-12 team featuring Jeremy Lin, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. They finished the shortened season with a winning 36-30 record while making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.)
In fact, there is something to be said about these Knicks lately that hasn’t been said for a while: Despite lacking star power, the group has shown grit, determination and fight. Those are pillars of a brand, something a team’s fans can begin to identify with.
Heck, if this was the beginning of the season, you would have begun to hear murmurs around the league about this particular team’s sleeper potential!
Is any of this real?
Retaining key talent for the upcoming season along with a simplified offensive and defensive scheme may be the recipe for a slow-yet-satisfying Knicks’ revival. Here are the pillars to keep patiently building around:
Mitchell Robinson, C
The 7’0″ big man has probably been the most exciting story coming out this season (as he was last year too). With exceptional leaping ability and timing, Robinson is a constant defensive threat with his shot-blocking. He finishes just consistently enough above the rim. This year saw him increase his scoring (9.2 ppg. versus 7.3 last season) and do it at a more efficient rate (73.0 percent vs 69.4 percent FG).
Robinson has struggled to stay on the court due to foul wows, and with a tendency to try and challenge every shot, he has often stayed on the bench during key stretches of games.
Through February, Robinson has nonetheless been a beast on both ends, limiting his foul trouble and playing a key role in helping the Knicks close out games by creating second-chance opportunities and finishing at the rim.
Notable stat line this month: In 35 mins played against the Hawks on February 9, Robinson tallied 15 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals on 7-8 shooting during a 140-135 double OT loss.
Julius Randle, PF/C
An undersized forward at 6’8″, Randle makes up for his lack of height with the kind of brute strength that lets him muscle his way inside and finish with consistency.
Unfortunately, Randle’s awful shooting from deep (26.4 percent 3-pt shooting), has defenses sagging off of him.
However, after a slow start to the season, Randle’s numbers over the last 10 games are stellar: 23.1 ppg., 11.7 rpg., 2.8 apg., 0.9 bpg. and 0.9 spg. He is an unquestionable go-to option late in games and has come up with key plays down the stretch more often than not.
Notable stat line this month: In 46 mins played against the Atlanta Hawks, Randle put up 35 points, 18 rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal while going 9-12 from the free-throw line.
Elfrid Payton, PG
A tall point guard, Payton has an uncanny ability to rebound the ball and is able to penetrate through defenses, finding himself in the paint at a consistent rate. He has quietly become the team’s de-facto floor general and team leader.
Payton’s another player with a god-awful jump shot that makes him a nonexistent threat from outside (23.7 percent 3-point shooting) and even the free-throw line (53.6 percent).
In a recent stretch of games, Payton has been lights out, however. A near triple-double threat every night on offense while rarely turning over the ball, Payton’s quick hands and great defensive IQ have been racking up steals and forcing turnovers like no other Knicks guard this season.
Over his last nine games, Payton is averaging 13.3 ppg., 9.6 apg., 6.1 rpg., 2.6 spg. and 2.1 TOs while shooting a 45.9 percent field goal rate.
Notable stat line this month: In 33 mins against the Cavs on February 3, Payton put up 17 points, 15 assists, 11 rebounds and one steal while turning over the ball just once. In the last five games, he has also twice racked up five-or-more steals.
While Robinson, Randle and Payton have caused their fair share of recent excitement, the roster has run suddenly run deep with contributions coming from unexpected places.
Young point guard Frank Ntilikina has played with a lot more confidence off-late. He is second in the rotation behind Payton and keeps some of the best opposing guards in check with his long wingspan and quick feet. Like Payton, his offense is still very much a work-in-progress.
RJ Barrett has continued to develop nicely and plays with strength and hustle when available. A hard worker with maturity beyond his years, Barrett’s focus in the offseason must be one his outside shooting and consistency at the line.
Damyean Dotson has quietly turned into a high-energy player with the potential to heat up quickly. His sharpshooting from outside over his last seven games (52.0 percent 3-point field goal clip) has proved immensely useful.
Veteran bigs Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis have provided instant hustle and timely offence during stretches when the rest of the team has struggled. Gibson’s locker room presence has been consistently praised throughout the season.
With exception to Dotson, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington are the only two Knicks that provide a consistent outside shooting threat. As both veterans are likely to move on from the team next season, the Knicks must replace them with some consistent shooters to bolster the offense—preferably some younger options this time who are more likely to develop and stick with the franchise.
Forward Kevin Knox and guards Dennis Smith Jr. and Alonzo Trier have clearly regressed this season but are still worth the patience in developing. The Knicks need to accept who they are as a young team and all the growing pains that come along with that.
Continue to stockpile prospects—even those that “busted” with other franchises—and see what sticks while instilling a no-frills, hustle-first brand that can grow with the team.
Somehow, these Knicks still have an outside shot of making the playoffs. Whether that happens or not, the talent level is showing some signs of life, leaving team management at a crossroads of whether to keep this year’s core or rebuild from scratch yet again in the offseason.
With the team’s recent strong play and semblance of developing identity, this is the first time in years to nurture and develop the existing cast rather than wishing for some drastic summer change.
Stats accurate as of Pre-All-Star Break unless otherwise noted.