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Are the Knicks Winning With Smoke and Mirrors?

With Julius Randle playing like an All-Star and Tom Thibodeau at the helm, New York is off to a surprisingly strong start. Will it last? There’s reason to believe it will—and won’t.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If the Knicks fans in your life seemed a little too gassed up about Monday’s win over the Hawks, please forgive them. Eight years of feelings coming out all at once can be loud, and a little messy.

See, when the final buzzer sounded in Atlanta, the Knicks sat at 4-3. This should be unremarkable, but it is not, because before Monday, New York had not been over .500 in the month of January since 2013. It’s a low bar to clear, especially in a season that started three days before Christmas, but still: It offers some cause for celebration. And the way the team has gotten there provides more.

The Knicks are moving more on offense and more rapidly on defense under new head coach Tom Thibodeau than they did last season. They look crisper, sharper, more organized; even amid a spate of early-season injuries, most notably to no. 8 draft pick Obi Toppin, New York has looked composed and tenacious. The Knicks have been—dare I say it?—fun, and unexpectedly so.

Every other over-.500 NBA team features returning All-Stars or clearly ascendant go-to scorers, or spent a ton of money in free agency, or swung massive trades this offseason, or all of the above. All New York did this winter was elevate some unproven young dudes, add some sub-star vets, and hire Thibodeau after a dispiriting tenure in Minnesota. So far, though, that’s turned out to be a surprisingly cool hand.

Any discussion of why things are working out has to start with Julius Randle. The 6-foot-8 power forward’s attempt to establish himself as New York’s no. 1 option last season flamed out in a hail of spinning no-chance drives into triple coverage. But through two weeks under Thibodeau, the 26-year-old has produced like a bona fide All-Star, thanks in part to the new coach giving him full command of the offense. Only three players—Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis, and Russell Westbrook—are averaging more touches per game than Randle, according to Second Spectrum’s optical tracking. (Randle’s overall production looks eerily similar to Sabonis’s so far; shouts to lefty drop-step maulers. Somewhere, Z-Bo beams.)

Randle’s doing a hell of a lot with those touches, averaging 22.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, and an eye-popping 7.4 assists per game—all career highs, especially the last one—while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from 3-point land. What’s wild is that he hasn’t totally reconfigured his game; he’s still attacking in isolation just as much as he did last season, and he’s posting up even more often. He’s just … doing it better. He’s making significantly quicker decisions—as Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic noted, a much smaller share of Randle’s shots have come after taking three or more dribbles this season—and looks much more patient as a playmaker, especially when he works inside-out:

Randle’s always had the handle to take opposing big men off the dribble, and the touch to make slick passes. But now he’s turned into a full-fledged boulder rolling downhill in the drive-and-kick game:

Randle looks like a revelation in half-court sets that, despite the Knicks once again ranking near the bottom of the league in 3-point attempts, have seemed better spaced and balanced this season, with more driving lanes and more options than New York’s offense typically featured in years past. Never underestimate the power of dudes standing in the right spots.

“We don’t have to second-guess where we’re going to be at on the floor,” Randle recently told reporters. “We got great spacing. If the defense is going to collapse, I can depend on whoever it is to cut or to be in the right spacing, to make the easy play. We’re all just trying to make the easy play, the right play, and play for each other, and play unselfish.”

The results have been jaw-dropping. Randle has more than doubled the assist percentage he posted in each of the past three seasons. He’s averaging nearly as many potential assists per game as Ben Simmons and LeBron James. He’s set up nearly as many 3-pointers as Westbrook and LeBron, according to PBP Stats, and has created nearly as many points via assist as Chris Paul. All this from a player who, through six NBA seasons, had barely managed a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. (Though, for what it’s worth, Randle is still turning the ball over a ton.) It’d seem completely absurd if it weren’t happening right in front of us.

Even with Randle off to a career-best start, with RJ Barrett and Elfrid Payton both ranking in the top 20 in drives per game, and with Thibodeau’s scheme generating corner 3-point looks at a top-10 rate, New York’s offense has remained shaggy. The Knicks turn the ball over too much and struggle to finish inside; they play at a snail’s pace, even after forcing a turnover, which might be for the best, considering they’re also one of the league’s least potent transition attacks.

After finishing dead last and second to last in points scored per possession the past two seasons, having the NBA’s 24th-ranked offense is something … but not enough to win much, unless you have a damn good defense. It’s too soon to say the Knicks do, but the early returns have been promising: Despite four of their first seven games coming against above-average offenses, they sit sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. There are the occasional lapses in concentration that all young teams experience, but the Knicks have looked active defensively, making multiple efforts within possessions and closing out on shooters with discipline and force—a night-and-day contrast from the barely-there New York units that finished near the bottom of the league in six of the past seven seasons.

Thibodeau’s famed defensive approach—“ice” pick-and-rolls by pushing ball handlers away from screens and toward the baseline, drop bigs back toward the rim, load up the paint and scramble like hell to cover the arc—hasn’t forced many miscues, ranking 28th in both deflections per game and opponents’ turnover percentage. Less aggression can have benefits, though; New York’s right around the league average in opponent free throw rate, a marked improvement over the hack-happy squads of recent years.

Avoiding fouls is an especially big deal for center Mitchell Robinson, who has struggled to stay on the floor through much of his first two seasons. The 7-footer is averaging just 4.1 fouls per 36 minutes thus far, nearly two fewer than he did as a rookie. As a result, he’s averaging just under nine points, eight rebounds, and two blocks in a career-high 27.9 minutes per game.

New York’s allowing 1.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the floor, with opponents taking a far lower share of their shots at the rim when he’s in. They’re shooting 56.4 percent at the basket against him, according to NBA Advanced Stats—a good number, but not an elite one. He might need to reach that level, though, if the Knicks don’t start doing a better job of keeping opponents out of the paint.

Thibodeau’s Chicago defenses routinely ranked among the league’s best at preventing shots at the rim and running opponents off the 3-point line. When he got to Minnesota, however, that prevention dissipated, with the Wolves finishing in or near the bottom third of the league in giving up those high-value looks. Through seven games, Thibodeau’s Knicks have conceded the third-lowest effective field goal percentage in the league. The rub, though: New York’s not taking away any of the juicy stuff, with nearly 80 percent of opponents’ shots coming either at the rim or from beyond the arc. That’s the NBA’s worst defensive shot profile, according to Cleaning the Glass; opponents have underperformed their expected eFG% against the Knicks by a higher margin than against any other team.

That might not be entirely random. Several teams over the past few seasons—the Bucks, Celtics, and Raptors—have allowed boatloads of triples and still managed to stifle opposing offenses at league-best rates, Watch the tape of the 3s New York allows and you can see something similar at work: hard late contests to muddy shooters’ sight lines, but also seemingly judicious choices to let bigs and shaky-shooting wings fire, especially above the break. The big difference: Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto also severely limited shots at the rim. Right now, the Knicks are letting opponents get more looks at the basket than anybody but the Pacers.

This, again, could be partly by design: Funnel drivers to the waiting Robinson and Nerlens Noel, two of the league’s most prolific per-possession shot swatters, and trust them to clean up the messes inside. Pair 48 minutes of quality rim protection—New York’s tied for fourth in defensive field goal percentage inside the restricted area—with increased activity and savvy along the perimeter, and maybe New York will stay a top-five-caliber defense. It seems likely, though, that some regression is coming—and that if the Knicks don’t start taking away looks in the paint, and their luck on open jumpers wanes ...

… they might spend a few nights getting waxed.

Getting Frank Ntilikina back from a right knee injury could help limit some of that paint penetration. So, too, might more minutes for the now healthy backcourt tandem of Austin Rivers—fitting snugly into the slot of Guy Who Seems to Really Friggin’ Love Being a Knick—and rookie Immanuel Quickley, who needed all of three preseason games and three regular-season games to become a fan favorite:

After playing mostly off the ball at Kentucky, the 6-foot-3 Quickley has wasted little time making a case for playing point in the pros. He possesses good feel and pace off the bounce, with the willingness to pull up off a screen and the craft to get into the lane for soft-touch floaters. He has drawn eight fouls and attempted 11 free throws in 46 minutes; he even baited emerging supervillain Trae Young into a three-shot foul in a big spot on Monday.

There’s perhaps no surer sign of just how much Quickley has impressed in the start of his NBA career than this: He appears to make Thibodeau .... happy.

Rivers and Quickley give the Knicks a pair of guards off the bench who can capably defend at the point of attack, break down a defender off the dribble, and knock down a 3—qualities that have been sorely lacking in the New York backcourt for most of the past two decades. (Alec Burks, who started the season on fire before going down with a left ankle sprain, will offer another.) Thibodeau seems to like the look of that pairing; rather than returning to starters Payton and Reggie Bullock, he rode with the reserves for nearly all of the final 16 minutes against Atlanta, during which the rookie exploded for 15 points and set the vet up for what wound up being the game-winning 3.

It was a noteworthy zag for Thibodeau, who’s preferred his more traditional starting unit (thus far unsuccessfully) early in the season. But with the Knicks in need of some juice to climb out of a double-digit hole, Thibodeau went small with Randle at the 5, surrounded him with four wings—Barrett, Rivers, Quickley, and Kevin Knox—and let it ride. That group scored 27 points in 10 minutes to win the game … and, in the process, laid out a lot of what makes the current state of the Knicks so fascinating.

That whole run happened with Randle at the 5 orchestrating, setting screens, and triggering dribble handoffs. Randle and Barrett are both at their best with the ball in their hands, attacking downhill. How can Thibodeau effectively create the space for them to work when they share the floor with Robinson and Noel, who need to operate as screen-and-dive lob threats? Does leaning too hard on Randle as the no. 1 offensive option risk stunting the playmaking development of Barrett, last year’s third pick, who’s now averaging just under 18-8-4 while leading the league in minutes?

Then there’s Toppin. When the lottery pick comes back from his calf strain, how will he fit into the framework of a team now built wholly around someone who plays his position? Beyond that, if Randle keeps this up—well, he can’t keep this up, but something like this—and the Knicks remain competitive enough to bid for a play-in spot, would new Knicks president Leon Rose start thinking about whether to not only guarantee Randle’s $19.8 million contract for next season, but consider him part of the franchise’s longer-term plans? What might that mean for the growth of Barrett, who might not be too keen on being Randle’s second banana into a third season, and Toppin, who came out of Dayton purportedly ready to play a significant role right away?

It’s likely that some of this will sort itself out naturally—that Randle won’t keep putting up Wilt and Jokic numbers, that the defense will regress, and that Thibs and Rose will get a better sense of what they’ve got on their hands before they have to make any big decisions. We might soon look at the Knicks the same way we did two weeks ago: as a team with some intriguing young pieces that might not quite fit together, still very much in the early stages of a rebuild. For now, though, they’re something more than that: a delightful collection of misfit toys bum-rushing its way toward respectability; one that has, even if only for a moment, won more games than it’s lost. And for this franchise, that’s not nothing.