The New York Knicks have been the laughing stock of the NBA for the longest time. It seems as though they were the consistent punching bag whether it was making fun of their moves, constant disappointments, and overall dysfunction. However, the 2020-21 NBA season has just begun and the Knicks actually look good. Putting “Knicks” and “good” in the same sentence wasn’t something I thought I’d be saying, but they’ve actually shown real signs of progress to start off the year. I’m not here to say this team is a playoff team or anything of that sort, but what I will say is that the New York Knicks are FINALLY putting some pieces together. This could potentially be the start of them getting back on track.
It was a relatively quiet offseason for the New York Knicks. In the draft, they held the eight overall pick and the 25th overall pick. With the 8th pick, they selected Obi Toppin, a high-flying forward out of Dayton with a great blend of athleticism and shooting. He was an electrifying athlete but also had shot-creation and shooting skills that made him intriguing. His defensive capabilities left a lot to be desired, but there was good reason to be excited about Toppin. As for the 25th pick, they used that to select Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley. Quickley didn’t receive the hype that his teammate Tyrese Maxey got, but he was a productive player with a few translatable qualities. His three-point shot was perhaps his most valuable weapon, but his long arms and sturdy frame made it seem like he could be a plus defender at the next level. Some viewed the pick as a reach but I saw it as a justifiable one due to his skill set.
In free agency, the Knicks didn’t do anything overly impressive, but also didn’t make any dumb decisions. They let Bobby Portis walk and instead chose to pay Nerlens Noel, a great backup big who provides rim protection, interior scoring, and energy. They also brought in Austin Rivers as a bench spark plug and they re-signed Elfrid Payton. None of these moves exactly made headlines but the smart part about them was that they were all short-term contracts. Getting savvy veterans who can contribute to winning is never a bad thing, it just gets questionable when you hand out long term deals to these kinds of players. Regardless, the Knicks played it conservatively this offseason. Nothing that filled you with overwhelming optimism, but nothing that made you say the Knicks had a “bad” offseason.
The Knicks have started off the season with a 4-3 record facing some pretty difficult competition. They blew out the Milwaukee Bucks by 20 points and beat both the Pacers and the Hawks, two teams currently in the playoff race. Not to shabby for a team projected to be one of the worst in the league. Perhaps my favorite part of watching the Knicks is how well they play as a team and they really seem to enjoy themselves out on the court. But more specifically, there have been a few key players that have helped lead the Knicks to success.
Julius Randle is owed an apology by a lot of diehard NBA fans (more specifically, Knicks fans). After a year where he struggled mightily with turnovers and inefficiency, it has seemed like he’s found his stride once again. He had a breakout year with the Pelicans just two years prior averaging 21 and 10, which was why I was a big fan of when they signed him during that offseason. However, he was quite poor last year when it came to decision making and overall offensive versatility. Randle is boasting averages of 22.1 points per game, 7.4 assists per game, and 11.4 rebounds per game with a 60.3 true shooting percentage. He’s been hitting outside shots consistently and has been creating for his teammates much more often. On top of that, he’s gotten much better on the defensive end of the ball. The odds of him keeping up a near triple-double average with great efficiency is extremely low, but it’s been refreshing to see that he can still produce consistently and efficiently.
Elfrid Payton hasn’t been too shabby either. 13.4 points per game on 42.9 shooting from distance isn’t anything to write home about, but he’s been a rock-solid contributor so far. Alec Burks got off to a hot start to the season averaging 20.7 points on a 76.0 true shooting percentage, but has suffered an ankle injury and only played three games so far. Even Austin Rivers is averaging 10 points per game on good percentages. The veteran play from the Knicks has been relevating so far, and that could perhaps be the reason as to why they’re playing so well this season.
I think the Knicks are also starting to come around to the idea that young players can be great contributors – with the right opportunity. They’ve done a notoriously poor job when it comes to player development but sometimes all it takes for a player is getting proper minutes to make an impact. I know Immanuel Quickley is blossoming even though he’s only getting fifteen minutes per game. He’s averaging 10 points with a 57/50/100 shooting line. I’ve been watching Quickley very closely the past couple of weeks and what’s been evident in his game is improvement in areas I didn’t know if he could improve in. We never really saw him as an on-ball creator for others but he was able to dish out assists to his teammates extremely well in the preseason. He had one game where he scored 22 points and five assists against the Cavaliers where I was super impressed with his game. However, that was just the preseason. The major improvement I’ve seen him make in the regular season is foul-drawing. This was something he built upon from his freshman to his sophomore year in Kentucky, where he went from 1.7 to 5.2 attempts from the stripe. So far in the NBA, he’s gone to the line 11 times in three games, an impressive mark. He was always more of a shooter and struggled when going downhill but I’ve been thrilled to see him excel more in that area. Perhaps what I love most about him is that he seems to do everything with a purpose. You can always tell he has a plan whether he has the ball or not. Quickley’s energy on the court makes him a joy to watch, and I really hope he can develop into a high-level player for the Knicks in the future.
RJ Barrett hasn’t had the most efficient start to the season but he’s getting a ton of action, as he’s currently sitting as the league’s leader in minutes played per game (Julius Randle is second as well. Two Tom Thibodeau-coached players sit at the top of minutes played per night, who would’ve thought?) and has been averaging 18 points and eight rebounds a night. I wasn’t overly-confident that Barrett was the Knicks’ savior, but I did think he had All-Star potential. Mitchell Robinson has been a productive starter for the team so far but hasn’t really improved a ton of his game. I’ll be interested to see how Obi Toppin plays when he’s healthy again. He was seeing the floor 24 minutes a night and if his offensive efficiency can get better I could see that number rising.
The Knicks still aren’t playing guys like Frank Ntilikina and even Quickley enough, but progress is important. Thibodeau is notorious for being tough on rookies and young guys but I think he’s starting to recognize the talent he has. Ntilikina should be a guy that plays way more often in my opinion. He embodies exactly what Thibs looks for in a player: high energy, defensive minded team player who does everything he can to help his team win. He hasn’t lived up to the eighth overall pick he was supposed to be, but he can be a contributing role player if given a shot.
Will the New York Knicks make the 2020-21 NBA playoffs? The answer is likely no. Even if I was feeling bold, I would say their absolute ceiling is a spot in the play-in game as the 10th seed. The Knicks won’t be a high-level team and they’ll likely start to decline in upcoming weeks. I don’t know what the Knicks can become, whether it’s this season or years down the line. But what I do know is that progress in the NBA is so important. Progress leads to eventual success. If you’re a legitimately good team making the right moves and decisions, eventually things will pan out. The Knicks are in the early stages of their rebuild but I have a lot of confidence in this team. I think they can continue to make strides throughout the season and while their record may not jump off the page, the people who watched the game will know the true story of their season. I am not a prophet, I don’t know what’s next to come. But, if you see the Knicks being televised, I suggest you tune in and watch.