Only nine percent of the NBA shoots with their left hand. Of the 33 southpaws in the league, 12% are on the New York Knicks. To the surprise of many, the Knicks have surpassed every preseason expectation, with New York currently fifth in the East with an impressive 42-31 record. Every player on the roster has contributed significantly to this prosperous season, however, none of it would be possible without their lefties.
Whether it was a coincidence or a legitimate strategy by general manager Scott Perry to assemble a roster where the three primary scorers are all left-handed shooters does not matter because it has worked. The best free agent signing of the summer was the team acquiring former Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson for $104 million over four years. For a player who came off the bench for 18 games the year prior, this appeared to be an overpay, but after seeing the results from this season, this may be one of the greatest financial steals in NBA history.
Brunson joined an already-established Knicks core that underperformed in the 2021/2022 season after they broke their eight-season postseason drought the year prior. This group consisted of role players such as Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Mitchell Robinson, though RJ Barrett and Julius Randle were the centerpieces of their offensive scheme. Both Barrett and Randle saw their shooting percentages plummet, especially from three-point range after they both shot over 40% in 2020. This decline in efficiency had the team unable to produce enough offense to even make the play-in tournament.
However, this season, the trio of Brunson, Randle and Barrett can become the first group of three teammates to all average 20+ points per game for the Knicks. Fifteen NBA trios all-time have accomplished this feat, with the most recent being Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker for the 2019/2020 Boston Celtics. With scoring and pace at record-high numbers this season, the uptick in player scoring averages is not a shock, however, this would be the first time all players averaging 20+ are left-handed.
Throughout the entire off-season, the Knicks were pushing very hard to acquire Donovan Mitchell, however, the package the Utah Jazz wanted in return did not align with New York’s interests. Instead of sacrificing a plethora of draft picks and multiple key rotation players to add this superstar guard, the Knicks decided to go a different route. Jalen Brunson had been linked to New York for months before the signing and whether or not they were able to add Mitchell, Brunson was committed to the Knicks.
The front office was content with their free agency, however, Knicks fans were very disappointed with the lack of star power they attained, expecting another mediocre year in 2023. Before this season, Brunson had never been a full-time starter, but even though he was snubbed from the All-Star game, the Villanova guard has turned into the savior New York needed.
In the four seasons in Dallas, Brunson averaged just 11.9 points, with his best season being last year at 16.3 points. In year one with the Knicks, he is averaging 23.8 points with a legitimate shot at winning the Most Improved Player award. Brunson is having a career year, with not only points but three-point percentage (41%), player efficiency rating (21.3) and assists (6.2), which all rank top 30 in the NBA. All these career-high statistics can be contributed to his 26.4% usage rate, also the highest of his career. Jalen Brunson has always had the potential, but when sharing a backcourt with the likes of Luka Dončić, he reverts to a supporting role. Now with his team to command, the former Wildcat can show off his entire repertoire, which has helped catapult the Knicks to being 11 games over .500.
Jalen Brunson With The Killer AI Speed Cross 🔥 pic.twitter.com/H8cwbAjm4F
— Ultimate Sports & Entertainment (@Ultimatesport5) December 15, 2022
Their second left-handed phenom is a power forward that has received his fair share of criticism from the Knicks fandom but has earned their respect back with a spectacular campaign this season. Julius Randle was dreadful last year, especially in comparison to 2021 when he won Most Improved Player. In 2022, Randle had a 15.7 PER, which for reference, is just barely above average at 15 after his three-point percentage went from 41% to 31%, field goal percentage dipped from 46% to 41% and even his free throw percentage dropped from 81% to a shade under 76%. The falloff was substantial, but the Knicks stayed committed to their former All-Star.
Following a fantastic first half, Randle earned his second career All-Star nod this year, putting up even better numbers than his 2021 season. His offensive reliability has been the major difference maker, with Randle finally becoming a prolific enough scorer to force double teams. While turnovers and escaping pressure still occasionally plague him, the former Kentucky Wildcat has improved significantly at finding the open man and creating higher percentage shot attempts.
Randle’s basketball IQ has grown immensely with his ability to will his team to victory, currently 11th in the NBA with 8.3 Win Shares. This can be attributed to moments such as his iconic game-winner on March 3rd against the Miami Heat to extend the Knicks’ win streak to eight, which earned the rare double-bang call from Mike Breen. This past Monday, Randle also dropped a career-high 57 points in a heartbreaking home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He has revolutionized his offensive game, with him rising to the moment on multiple occasions this year. Right ahead of him in Win Shares is Brunson with 8.4 WS. The tandem has brought the Knicks back into relevance after a frustrating season on the sidelines.
OH MY JULIUS RANDLE pic.twitter.com/MOzlwiB7ub
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 4, 2023
The distaste for the Julius Randle signing was very loud when he first arrived in New York in 2019. He was the Knicks’ big free agent signing but in comparison to their city rival Brooklyn Nets, who added All-Stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in that same off-season, two players many projected to land with the Knicks, Randle appeared to be an underwhelming compromise. However, fast forward to 2023 and the Brooklyn “super team” that even consisted of former MVP James Harden for a season was all broken up with zero hardware to show for it. While the Knicks ignored the need for star power, they built a strong nucleus that has them above Brooklyn in the standings. Also contrary to popular belief, Randle outlasted both Nets’ free-agent signings from 2019.
Another key addition New York added in 2019 was drafting RJ Barrett out of Duke. The former Blue Devil was not the Duke alumni the Knicks envisioned after winning just 17 games in the 2018/2019 season. Zion Williamson was supposed to be in the Big Apple – the next Patrick Ewing – however the lottery did not grant the Knicks the first overall pick, therefore both Williamson and Ja Morant were off the board by the time it was their turn to draft.
Despite New York missing out on a generational talent, Barrett may have worked out better in comparison considering Williamson’s inability to stay on the court. Barrett has played in over double the games of his former collegiate teammate with 264 games played over a meager 114 for Williamson, who missed all last season with a foot injury and has only suited up for 29 games this year.
RJ Barrett had a NIGHT in the Garden. pic.twitter.com/icpIXRtKbm
— NBA (@NBA) December 24, 2022
While on the court Williamson has dominated, but there is a major asterisk around his availability. On the contrary, Barrett is on pace to play 70+ games for the third consecutive season and while his perimeter shooting has fallen off, it has helped him rework his game to emphasize his greatest strength – taking it to the rim.
Barrett has been an inconsistent shooter his entire career, but this year, with his struggles from deep continuing, he has decided to forego a few of his three-point attempts and has taken it inside the arc more often. This improved shot selection has his two-point shooting percentage at a career-high 49.4%, significantly better than his previous career best at 45.7%. Efficiency will always be Barrett’s kryptonite, but when he plays with his head and utilizes his finishing ability, he is a valuable third-scoring option.
The Knicks have the core pieces in place to be true Eastern Conference contenders for the foreseeable future. If the standings remain relatively similar to how they are now, New York will face off against their failed trade target Donovan Mitchell and the Cleveland Cavaliers. No team with as high a quantity of left-handed players has even made a serious playoff run, but the Knicks would be the first team ever with their three primary scorers being southpaws. It is an unorthodox roster, but the Knicks are still winning. The postseason will be the first test for this team to determine if they are a regular season fluke or a real threat to the juggernauts of the East.