clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Knicks’ Starters Can’t Keep Getting Outplayed by the Bench

New York’s starting lineup is somehow both the most-used and second-least-successful in the NBA. Meanwhile, a reserve unit highlighted by the likes of Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley continues to thrive.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a red-hot 5-1 start that threatened to make “Bing Bong” the new motto of New York City, the Knicks have more or less settled into the team we expected them to be heading into the season. They’re better on offense after adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, tied for ninth in the NBA in points scored per possession thanks to a newfound commitment to hoisting 3-pointers; 39.9 percent of their shots have come from beyond the arc, up from 32 percent last season. They’ve dipped down to 17th in defensive efficiency, though, due partly to the new backcourt’s inability to match the on-ball effectiveness of ex-starters Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton.

That simultaneous rise and fall has Tom Thibodeau’s team looking like the photo negative of last year’s squad, which rode an elite defense and a shocking All-NBA turn from Julius Randle to the East’s no. 4 seed. The Knicks enter Tuesday’s meeting with the LeBron James–less Lakers in ninth place at 9-8, with a winning percentage and efficiency differential suggesting they’re somewhere between a 43- and 46-win team—a little above average, but not a real contender. Which, again, seems about right, given both the quality of the previous roster and the moves they made this summer.

The devil’s in the details, though, and zooming in on those reveals a team that has cratered since that hot start. After a tough road loss to the evidently-for-real Bulls on Sunday, New York has lost seven of its last 11 games, with a bottom-10 offense in November. Their last four Ws have come against the Bucks without Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez (and with Jrue Holiday on a minutes restriction); the 76ers without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Matisse Thybulle; the Pacers, who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by shooting 2-for-20 in the fourth quarter; and the league-worst Rockets, whom the Knicks barely squeaked past with a 17-4 fourth-quarter run. The Magic are 2-13 against the rest of the NBA; they are 2-1 against the Knicks.

There hasn’t been much joy at Madison Square Garden of late, with the Knicks repeatedly getting themselves stuck in the mud. Watching them calls to mind the old adage: If you want to get out of the hole, first you need to put down the shovel. In New York’s case, that means finding a way to shake up a starting five—Walker and Fournier in the backcourt, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett at forward, Mitchell Robinson in the middle—that has been outscored by a staggering 87 points in 270 minutes, making it both the most frequently used and second-least-successful lineup in the entire NBA.

The bulk of the damage has come on defense: The Knicks’ new-look starting lineup is allowing 119.9 points per 100 possessions outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass—an execrable level of point prevention that, if representing the whole team, would slot in several sub-basements below the Grizzlies’ last-place defense.

The starters give up a ton of 3-pointers—nearly 42 long balls per 48 minutes, accounting for just under 45 percent of opponents’ total shot attempts—and those shots are finding the bottom of the net at a scorching 41.6 percent clip. That number’s likely to come down some, just by virtue of the variable nature of long-distance shooting. It’s not wholly artificial, though.

Like Trae Young’s Hawks did in the playoffs, opponents have had success manipulating and exploiting the Knicks’ preferred coverage. You beat the tip-of-the-spear defender on the perimeter; you get into the teeth of the defense; you draw help from the low man responsible for covering the corner; you spray the ball out to an open shooter. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Combine those schematic lapses with the sort of lack-of-focus breakdowns you didn’t often see from the Knicks last season—aggressive over-help when it’s not required, late rotations, lackadaisical closeouts with hands down, etc.—and you’ve got a recipe for target practice:

The hope was that any defensive decline would be offset by a more multifaceted offense that relied less on Randle playing in isolation. With rare exceptions, though, that hasn’t materialized: The starters are scoring only 103.7 points-per-100, which would rank 25th in the league over the full season.

Fournier’s shooting just 40.5 percent from the field, with his worst assist-to-turnover ratio since 2017. And while Walker’s drilling 41.7 percent of his triples, he’s rarely ventured into the lane, looking to penetrate and score less than he has in years:

On the Outside Looking In

Season Total Drives Total Minutes Drives Per 36 Pass-Out % % of Shots at Rim
Season Total Drives Total Minutes Drives Per 36 Pass-Out % % of Shots at Rim
2021-22 120 394 11.0 48.3 20
2020-21 439 1369 11.5 43.7 20
2019-20 609 1742 12.6 39.2 26
2018-19 1248 2863 15.7 37.0 31
2017-18 923 2736 12.1 31.1 28
2016-17 977 2739 12.8 33.3 34
2015-16 889 2885 11.1 36.7 31
2014-15 826 2119 14.0 35.4 30
2013-14 808 2557 11.4 36.6 27
Drive data via NBA.com’s player tracking. At-rim shots data via Cleaning the Glass.

Kemba’s not alone there. Nearly every member of the Knicks’ rotation is driving less frequently this season than in 2020-21; Randle and Barrett, New York’s leaders in frontcourt touches last season, have combined for about 7.5 fewer forays into the paint per game. Some of that owes to the prioritization of the long ball. Some of it, though, stems from clear discomfort in a group that has struggled mightily to lock into a rhythm. (SNY’s Ian Begley reported Sunday that “privately, a couple of top rotation players have expressed frustration with how things have played out on offense.”)

Some possessions are all gridlock and stagnation, with nobody moving away from the ball. On others, it’s the wrong kind of movement—an ill-advised cut from the weak side, bringing a second defender to the action to clog the lane and deter a post-up or drive. Sometimes the ball handler can’t create an advantage one-on-one off the dribble; sometimes a teammate can’t capitalize once that edge is created, squandering opportunities with hesitation that allows the defense to reset.

Hit-ahead passes thrown behind streaking teammates, lobs off-time and off-target, handoffs not actually handed off, shots forced in traffic or not taken confidently off the catch—name a form of offensive dysfunction, and the Knicks’ starters have put it on tape:

“It’s just weird out there right now. That’s the best way I could describe it,” Randle recently said. “It’s just kind of weird, and just a little bit choppy, and we’re just trying to figure it out.”

That includes Randle himself, who remains productive—one of just three players averaging more than 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game this season, alongside MVPs Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo—but whose 2020-21 scoring and shooting efficiency has declined during an early-season skid emblematic of the team’s larger malaise.

Last season, when the Knicks stagnated, they turned to Randle to bail them out with an array of exceedingly difficult shots that went in at career-best rates, fueling his rise to All-Star, All-NBA, and Most Improved Player glory. This season, though, the prayers are more often going unanswered:

Knick Without the Knack

Season Points Per Shot Attempt Pull-up FG% Stepback FG% Points Per Iso Points Per Post-Up
Season Points Per Shot Attempt Pull-up FG% Stepback FG% Points Per Iso Points Per Post-Up
2020-21 Randle 1.143 41.5 36.8 0.90 0.93
2021-22 Randle 1.049 34.1 32.4 0.85 0.85
Drive data via NBA.com’s player tracking. At-rim shots data via Cleaning the Glass.

The woes of Randle, Barrett (down to 38.8 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from deep, as last season’s shooting surge fades from memory), and the rest of the Knicks’ starters are thrown into even starker relief when viewed alongside the performance of the dudes who check in when they check out. New York’s second unit—Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, and Taj Gibson—has been hammering fools, outscoring opponents by 49 points in 89 minutes.

While some of that group’s success owes to particularly poor perimeter shooting by opposing reserve corps, the difference in energy, execution, and cohesion between the starters and reserves couldn’t be more clear. This is what the Knicks looked like during last season’s killer second-half run: pressuring the rim, bombing away from deep, hunting early offense in transition; on a string on the defensive end, aggressive on the ball and disciplined on rotations and closeouts, excellent at preventing 3-point attempts and at forcing opponents to take contested shots.

Thibodeau’s fully aware of the schism in productivity between his first and second units; that’s why he’s essentially benched his starters in the fourth quarter of a number of recent contests, riding his bench in hopes of cleaning up the mess their counterparts made. Quickley, Burks, Rose, and Toppin lead New York in fourth-quarter minutes over the past eight games; Walker and Fournier have been mothballed for the entire final frame in six of those contests. I’m not positive what roles the veteran guards had in mind when they signed with the Knicks, but I’m guessing “You’re Thibs’s new Carlos Boozer and Keith Bogans” wasn’t part of the pitch.

Calls for Thibodeau to damn the torpedoes and play small ball more often—most notably by redistributing some center minutes to a Randle-Toppin pairing that could help speed up New York’s pace of play, afford hustle merchant Toppin more playing time, and give Randle more opportunities to attack slower 5s off the bounce—will likely go unheard, given his bone-deep belief in playing traditional centers to protect the rim. But he wouldn’t be playing his backups so damn much if he didn’t recognize that something was wrong, and that whatever it is goes beyond a new lineup needing more time to jell.

“You know what they say,” Thibodeau recently told reporters. “When it’s 10 games, you say you need 20. When you get to 20, you say 30. And you get to 30, you say 40. And then before you know it, the season’s over, so it’s a bunch of bullshit.”

The Knicks have sputtered amid the supposedly friendliest part of their calendar, an early-season slate that’s been one of the softest in the NBA, according to several different strength-of-schedule metrics. That’s about to change: After the Lakers, New York will take on the surging Suns, Hawks, and Nets before opening December with another date with the Bulls. It’s the kind of rough patch that will become more common for the Knicks, who now face the toughest remaining schedule in the league.

That’s why it would’ve been pretty nice to bag those wins against the Magic … and why, if Thibodeau doesn’t want his team’s sluggish starts and brutal third quarters (they’re getting outscored by nearly 10 points-per-100 coming out of halftime) to become a terminal condition, he needs to go under the hood and figure out how to tune up his first five.

One (admittedly unlikely) option? Move Walker to the bench. The samples are small, but the starters’ problems have basically disappeared once Kemba does: Lineups featuring the foursome of Randle, Barrett, Fournier, and Walker have been outscored by 12.4 points-per-100 in 732 possessions, while versions featuring Randle, Barrett, and Fournier without Kemba have blitzed opponents by 24.8 points-per-100 in 163 possessions.

Nearly all of those minutes have come with Rose in Walker’s place. It stands to reason that starting a larger point—Rose is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, while Walker measures 6-foot and 184 pounds with a 6-foot-4 wingspan—with much more experience executing Thibodeau’s defensive scheme could help mitigate some of the issues with dribble penetration, screen navigation, and blown rotations that have plagued New York. If Thibs didn’t want to move Rose out of the sixth man role in which he’s been so effective, he could also elevate Quickley, whose per-minute production has been nearly identical to Walker’s this season, and who would also provide more length (6-foot-3, 6-foot-8 wingspan) and better ball pressure up top. Doing that would mean breaking up the extremely effective second unit, though, which Thibs seems loath to do.

Maybe he’d be more amenable to shuffling Fournier to the bench, for either Quickley or Burks, under the guise of trying to kickstart the foundering Frenchman’s game by giving him more freedom to handle and create against backups. Fournier’s averaging fewer touches per game and posting a lower usage rate than he has in seven seasons; while Knicks brass didn’t guarantee him $54 million to sit on the bench, they also didn’t do it to park him in the corner, so it might be worth a shot to see if they can get him going. Or maybe Thibs, ever the defense-first traditionalist, likes the idea of his four perimeter starters backstopped by Nerlens Noel, the shot-blocking, steal-snagging last line of defense who missed 11 of New York’s first 15 games. That group is plus-seven in its first 30 minutes together; maybe he’d like to get a longer look at it before making any big changes.

Perhaps that’s wise. After all, at this stage last season, the Knicks were 8-9 with a negative efficiency differential; shit, they were under .500 with 20 games left. It can take time for things to fall into place.

“[The offensive rhythm] really wasn’t there at the beginning of last year, either,” Barrett recently told reporters. “That’s why you have 82 games.”

The Knicks need to use the ones they’ve got left to locate some answers—how to get Randle rumbling to the rim more often, as he did on his way to 34 points in the loss to Chicago; how to get Barrett and Fournier knocking down spot-up jumpers and contributing as secondary playmakers; how to improve upon a 25th-place showing in defensive rebounding rate; and how to more effectively limit and contest 3-point attempts. Finding them could be the difference between the Knicks being more or less the team we expected and becoming a better one—the kind that can not only make the playoffs, but make some noise once it gets there.