It’s too early for grand proclamations about the New York Knicks, but we’ve seen enough basketball to know where to look.
With the Knicks 10 games into the season, here are eight early-season themes that I’m keeping an eye on:
A source of optimism
The Knicks may be 5-5, but the surrounding numbers paint an optimistic picture.
They’re fourth in points allowed per possession and 14th in points scored per possession, hardly the profile of an average team. They haven’t been blown out. And yes, that includes Monday’s 16-point loss to the Boston Celtics, which was closer for most of the game than the final score implied.
When healthy, the Knicks play two lineups more than any others: the starters, as well as the four reserves around RJ Barrett. Both of them have been smashing successes so far.
The first unit is trouncing opponents by 17.9 points per 100 possessions. The bench has been a wrecking crew, too: plus-7.2 points per 100.
If the Knicks are at full strength, they are doing quite well. And speaking of full strength …
Barrett’s on/off numbers
For years, an awkward reality followed around the Knicks. If Barrett, the promising up-and-comer, were in the game, they were probably losing those minutes.
The theme occurred too often (and too drastically) for people around the Knicks not to notice. The team was a dreadful 12.3 points per 100 possessions worse when Barrett was on the court last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. In 2021-22, that figure was discouraging, as well: minus-7.1.
But Barrett entered this season improved. And so far, both the conventional and the advanced numbers have followed — in some cases, to the extreme.
The Knicks now thrive when Barrett is around. Through 10 games, they are a whopping 21.2 points per 100 better when the 23-year-old is in the game. They’re 5-2 when Barrett starts and 0-3 without him.
It’s too early to read into these numbers. After all, Barrett has played only seven games, missing two with a knee injury and another because of a migraine. The analytics have a way of smoothening themselves with time. Head coach Tom Thibodeau, a proponent of on/off stats like these, says he prefers at least 20 games of data before he forms opinions. But 21.2 is a massive number. Only one NBA player topped it last season: the one-man wrecking crew that goes by Nikola Jokić.
This isn’t to say that Barrett, who is averaging an efficient 22.6 points, can join the ranks of a multi-time MVP. It’s more of a commentary on how radical a leap these first 10 games have been for him.
Chances are, Barrett’s on/off numbers will become less extreme. But considering his improvement (especially as a decision-maker), and considering the way the Knicks shift him between starting and bench lineups, he has a chance to buck his former, less desirable trend and become one of the group’s most important contributors.
The 3-point shooting
There’s another reason the Knicks are so much better when Barrett plays this season. An offense will run smoothly if it has a walking fire pit as its starting small forward. And Barrett has sunk half of his long balls this season, which offsets the group’s long-range woes.
Or maybe we should rephrase that to “supposed long-range woes,” because the Knicks, after all the hullabaloo about clanky shooting, are hitting their 3s as a team.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, they were ninth in the league in both 3-point makes and attempts. Thibodeau repeats that the goal is to be high volume from deep at league-average accuracy or better. The Knicks are 13th in 3-point percentage.
If the Knicks find ways to get more 3s for say, Quentin Grimes, they could boost their percentage, considering Grimes has been a 40 percent long-range shooter and can go long stints without shots. That scenario feels more likely than the group cratering to the bottom five in percentage. After all, it’s not like the Knicks’ relative 3-point success is because players are shooting far better than expected.
The Knicks were in the middle of the pack in percentage over the second half of last season. Barrett’s 50 percent marker will come down, no question, but it’s only a small part of the equation. For every Jalen Brunson (43 percent) that is bound to regress a bit, there is a Julius Randle (26 percent) on the other side.
The team is hitting 37 percent of its catch-and-shoot 3s, according to Second Spectrum, a fine enough number that could continue. It creates lots of open shots because defenses would rather New York’s slashers put up jumpers than muscle their way to the hoop. Sometimes, those open shots go in. And so far, they’ve gone in enough.
It’s the biggest improvement from last season to this one: The Knicks, who were 19th in points allowed per possession in 2022-23, entered Tuesday night ranked fourth in the NBA. And the leap has occurred unconventionally.
It’s not like the Knicks are taking away the paint, as they’re designed to do, and benefiting from poor opponent 3-point shooting, as was the case a few years ago, when they rode the fourth-ranked defense to their first playoff appearance in nine years. Oddly enough, the Knicks are dead last in the NBA in blocks. But they’ve made an impact in other ways.
Teams don’t receive second chances against them. They’re arguably the best-rebounding team in the league (and we’ll get to more on that later). They rarely ever foul. They have excelled in scramble situations. Mitchell Robinson went from trying to swat every shot as a young buck to now holding his ground. And a defense that historically hasn’t forced tons of turnovers is now doing so in bunches.
Piece it all together, and the Knicks have guarded well in a way that makes it seem they should best last year’s 19th-place finish.
Julius Randle’s percentages
Randle is shooting 34 percent. The numbers are slowly getting better — but “slowly” remains the operative word.
Randle said it himself last week; he did not expect to come into this season on fire, given that he’s recovering from summer ankle surgery. He wasn’t cleared for five-on-five until the beginning of training camp. He’s found more of a rhythm over the Knicks’ past four games but has still made just 43 percent of his shots over that time.
As for what to expect over the next 10 games, who knows?
The minutes crunch
Thibodeau has dropped different versions of the same line throughout the first few weeks of the season. Everyone, he says, has to sacrifice.
On some nights, that’s meant taking fewer shots. On others, it’s meant less playing time.
Sometimes, Grimes will finish with only four or five shot attempts. Only three other starting perimeter players around the NBA own a usage rate (the percentage of possessions that end in one of his shots, turnovers or fouls drawn) lower than Grimes’. Other times, Donte DiVincenzo, the summer’s big free-agent signing, will play a minute total in the teens. He’s already done that in seven of 10 games.
It’s a wonder to see how this progresses, and whether there is an odd man out in Thibodeau’s rotation that is worth following.
First sub of the game
A season after Immanuel Quickley finished second in NBA Sixth Man of the Year voting, he is no longer the Knicks’ sixth man. Instead, Josh Hart is the first reserve into games with Quickley following not long after. The move gives the Knicks more size, since Barrett is always the first one out, which allows him to run with the second unit.
But we’ve seen it affect Quickley’s playing time, too.
He’s playing 24.4 minutes a game, 4.5 minutes less than he received last season and about four minutes less than Hart is getting. Especially because Hart has struggled thus far, the change has stood out.
If Hart, who just played his best game of the season starting in place of Barrett on Monday in Boston, continues to fade in and out, does Quickley usurp him and earn closer to 30 minutes? Or could an increase in Quickley minutes mean someone else losing time?
Thibodeau hasn’t been nearly as willing to play Brunson, Quickley and Grimes together this season as he was in 2022-23. (For full transparency, I’m not sure why. I have not asked the coach, and there may be something about the matchups the Knicks have had that’s encouraged him to stray away from the trio. For example, the Knicks have played Boston’s massive frontline twice, and Thibodeau prefers size against imposing creators like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.)
So if Quickley — who has been his usual, needle-moving self — were to play more, could that mean less time for Grimes or another of the guards, such as DiVincenzo? Or maybe Quickley continues to run for only 24 minutes a night.
No backup power forward needed
It’s not too early to call it. They don’t need one.
A long wing? Sure. Someone to man the Tatums of the world? Absolutely.
That flaw showed even more than usual Monday evening when Thibodeau started Hart in place of Barrett. The first unit has struggled when Hart stands in for Barrett so far this season. But the Knicks were going up against the mighty Celtics, who are lined with brawny wings who would bully tinier options, like DiVincenzo or Quickley.
So Hart, who switches between wing and a backup power forward, entered the first unit, if only because Tatum and Brown are horrifying tests for anyone, let alone a smaller guard.
But let’s get back to Hart’s other role, which was somewhat controversial coming into this season and which, only 10 games in, we can say has not been an issue.
The Knicks employ two centers, Randle and a bunch of guards 6 foot 5 or smaller. They have no conventional backup power forward. And yet, the boards have been no problem — and that’s not just because Robinson is a vacuum.
Robinson is in the midst of a fabulous season on the glass. But even when he’s not around, the Knicks are cleaning up.
The tiny second unit — comprised of Quickley, DiVincenzo, Barrett, Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein — is chewing up the offensive glass and recovering enough defensive boards to stay alive. Heck, when Robinson isn’t on the floor, the Knicks are still one of the NBA’s most dominant teams on the boards. They’re especially adept at chasing down long rebounds.
Remember, basketball isn’t about height; it’s about how you use it. It always stood out that DiVincenzo had a better offensive-rebound rate last season than the man he replaced, Obi Toppin, a more conventional power forward. It’s showing for a second unit that is snagging all kinds of boards, even as Robinson and Randle sit on the bench. Meanwhile, we are yet to see a backup power forward eviscerate the Knicks because they don’t have someone taller than Hart at that spot.
The Knicks could use a big, defensive-minded wing, because — well, who couldn’t? But so far, using Hart at power forward hasn’t hurt them a lick.
(Photo of RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley: Brian Fluharty / Getty Images)