Nearing the halfway point of this unusual and eventful NBA season, the New York Knickerbockers stand with a record of 14-15, good for sixth-best in the East by slim margins UFA.
This is by all accounts a surprisingly strong campaign, with a roster very similar to last year’s but results far different. There’s plenty of credit to go around, from head coach Tom Thibodeau to All-Star candidate Julius Randle, and little reason not to think this is real.
But if the Knicks want to not only maintain this impressive first half but build on it, they’ll need to work on a few things. Here are five points of improvement for New York heading into the latter part of the 2021 schedule.
With a healthy sample size to work with, it’s safe to boil down the Knicks that can create for themselves and others, consistently, are: Randle, Alec Burks and Derrick Rose. RJ Barrett, Elfrid Payton and Immanuel Quickley don’t have the consistency down pat, though they’ve all stepped up from time to time.
New York managed to win games despite ranking 23rd in offensive efficiency, but if they want to make any real noise and maximize the talent they have on paper, that’s going to need a bump. Barring a trade, one of Barrett, Quickley or Payton will need to become a nightly threat in order to lift the Knicks’ offense.
Quickley has shown signs with his stepback jumper, but can still airmail games. Ditto for Barrett, though we recently experienced a solid month of high-level play out of him. Payton needs to find offense outside of his 3-7 foot awkward finishing game.
Three-point shooting volume
Tied to the previous point, a lack of creation (and lack of shooters) hurts this facet of the Knicks’ offense, a mildly important one in the modern NBA. New York is shooting threes at the second-lowest rate in the league, despite being smack center in the league in shooting percentage.
There are ways to bolster their shooting output without major roster or system changes. More Quickley minutes would help, and with how Randle is shooting from deep, there’s little harm in getting him to put up a couple more each game. Just attempting more of these looks will spread defenses out further, opening up lanes and creating more looks from deep.
Get Obi Toppin his looks
Performance aside, Toppin is going to play out the season as a backup big for the Knicks. They invested their lottery pick in him and presumably see him as a future cog. So while he’s out there playing meaningful minutes, New York should look to better utilize him while he’s not bringing much to the defensive end or glass.
To be clear, NBA teams shouldn’t be building offensive systems around backup rookie big men, and Toppin looked lost in some of his early games, but he’s begun figuring out how to make use of space and his leaping ability. Watch an offensive possession with Toppin on the floor prior to the Rose trade and you’ll see him screening, moving and cutting into lanes, calling for the ball to little avail.
Rose is doing a much better job of setting Toppin up in these spots, leading to an uptick in his scoring. The Knicks will want to try and keep this up, as helping Toppin blossom into a threat will not only add to his individual production, but make better use of the bench unit and put increased pressure on defenses.
Win winnable games
One of the joys of this Knicks season is how this team has refused to lose quietly or easily, playing up to competition and giving tough teams a run for their money. New York’s defense grinds down superior opponents and puts them in vulnerable positions late for the Knicks to take advantage.
On the flip side, the Knicks are 8-8 against teams with a record under .500, by no means bad or disappointing, but an area for growth. One half of great play won’t be enough for this team to make the playoffs, so taking advantage of lulls in the schedule has to be crucial. New York cannot afford L’s to Chicago or Charlotte, especially with how close they are in the standings.
Ranking 20th in free-throw shooting isn’t devastating to New York’s postseason aspirations, but so long as they’re free, the Knicks should lock in a bit more at the stripe.
These pesky charity shots hurt this team in the past, and considering 16 percent of their points are coming from there (ninth in the league), this should be something to watch going forward.
Randle and Barrett have done their part, each improving over last year’s outings. Increased Quickley minutes will bump this number up, as will Mitchell Robinson missing time.