What We’ve Learned Through Two

DETROIT, MI – DECEMBER 11: RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks looks on during a preseason game against the Detroit Pistons on December 11, 2020 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

After playing two preseason tilts vs. the Detroit Pistons, the Knicks have found themselves at a 1-1 record. There have been promising performances by some Knicks and miserable minutes by others. It is clear Tom Thibodeau has focused mostly on defense in the few practices he was able to hold leading up to the preseason. New York held Detroit to 84 points in the opener, before slipping and allowing them to score 99 points last night. R.J. Barrett has provided the most pleasing play of any Knick thus far, which is very encouraging for the Knicks who need Barrett to elevate his play in his sophomore campaign. The Knicks have been put in a precarious position due to the league’s sped up offseason. A brand new coaching staff has had little time to implement their tutelage, meanwhile many new acquisitions haven’t had much time to gel with the rest of the roster. Despite it being so early and just a couple of preseason games vs. a subpar opponent, their is still plenty to take away from the Knicks first two games.

The Positives

R.J. Barrett has been the beacon of hope for the Knicks thus far. He’s averaging 20 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on an efficient 51.5% shooting. The most impressive part is that he’s scored so efficiently, despite shooting 11.1% from three on 4.5 attempts per game. Once Barrett gets the long ball going, he will clearly be the Knicks best option offensively.

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The additions of Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel have been plusses as well. Burks is averaging 11 points per contest in just 19.1 minutes per game and owns a +5 +/- (3rd on the team). Noel leads the Knicks in +/- (+10.5), while averaging 9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and a steal per game in just 22.9 minutes of action.

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Obi Toppin has displayed a very high motor, an ability to put the ball on the floor, several post moves, and his freak athleticism already. His numbers don’t reflect the ceiling he’s shown, although his shooting and defense clearly need some work. He is averaging 5.5 rebounds per game which is encouraging as his rebounding was a question heading into the draft.

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The Knicks defense has been very impressive under the defensive guru, Tom Thibodeau, excluding allowing a 31 point explosion by the Pistons in the 1st Quarter last night. The Knicks have held the Pistons to 91.5 points per game (84 on opening night) with a shooting line of 37.2% from the floor and 29.7% from three. The Knicks have forced 41 turnovers between the two games, led by Mitchell Robinson who has 4 steals (all in the opener).

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The Negatives

The Knicks were one of the worst shooting teams across the board last season, shooting 44.7% from the floor, 33.7% from three, and 69.4% from the charity stripe. Those ranked 25th, 27th, and 30th (last) amongst the NBA in the 2019-20 regular season. Leon Rose addressed the Knicks shooting woes with the additions of Alec Burks and Austin Rivers. Rivers unfortunately has been out due to a lingering groin injury, but Burks has proven to be a nice addition already.

Despite the hot hand of Burks, who’s shooting a slash of 50%/50%/100% (FG%/3P%/FT%), the Knicks as a team are shooting an abysmal 42.5% from the field, 23.2% from deep, and 57.8% from the line. The key contributors to the Knicks inefficient shooting have been Julius Randle (40.9% on 11 attempts per game from the field and 60% on 7.5 free throws per game), Obi Toppin (27.8%/12.5%/57.1%), and Kevin Knox (25%/0%/50%). Barrett has shot a solid 51.5% from the floor and a livable 71% from the line, but is struggling from three (11.1% from three on 4.5 attempts per game). Randle’s inefficiency plagued the Knicks a lot last year between his shooting numbers (46%/27.7%/73.3%), along with averaging 3 turnovers per game. Thus far, the Knicks go-to scorer is shooting poorly once again and averaging a troubling 3.5 turnovers per game. It’s only been two games, but Randle severely needs to improve his efficiency offensively for the Knicks to scratch the surface of .500 basketball this season.

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Equally troubling, Kevin Knox hasn’t made a three-point shot through two games and Mitchell Robinson has tallied an impressive 9 fouls in 41.2 minutes of action.

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Another alarming statistic that the Knicks severely struggled with last season is assist to turnover ratio. The Knicks are currently averaging 21 assists to 23 turnovers per game this year (0.91 AST/TO). That’s staggeringly worse than the 1.54 AST/TO (25th in the NBA) they posted last season. Given, the Knicks shooting and turnovers can be due to rust, but it’s certainly concerning as their troubles have come against the Pistons who were 22nd in the NBA in Defensive Rating last season. Not to mention, the Pistons lost three of their top defenders from last year (John Henson, Reggie Jackson, and Christian Wood), who were their top 3 players in Defensive Rating who played over 15 minutes per game in 2019-20.

Tom Thibodeau had said he wants the corner-three to be more prevalent in the Knicks offense leading into the season. New York has only attempted 10 corner-threes in two games, while shooting them at a spectacular 50% clip. However, New York has attempted 46 threes from above the break and are shooting them at a horrible 17.4%. A few other worrying shooting statistics are- the Knicks are 1-6 (16.7%) on floaters, 21-80 (26.3%) on all jumpers, and 7-42 (16.7%) on attempts from 25-29 feet.

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Now What?

The Knicks have gotten productive and poor minutes from their Point Guards. Elfrid Payton is 2nd on the team in +/- (+6), while averaging 7 points, 4.5 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1 steal per game. However, he’s committed 6 turnovers and is 0-3 from three in two games. Dennis Smith Jr. has played some of the best defense of his Knicks tenure and has averaged 2.5 assists along with a steal in just 18.6 minutes per contest. Like Payton, Smith Jr. has struggled with shooting and turnovers (20% from three and 5 turnovers). Frank Ntilikina and Immanuel Quickley both appeared to play a glimpse of Point Guard last night, but neither were offered much of an opportunity. Ntilikina has played solid defense and is 2-3 from three, but he’s averaging 4 fouls and 2.5 turnovers per contest in just 15.5 minutes of play. The Knicks desperately need at Point Guard to step-up and run the offense. They are responsible to get the Knicks top playmakers going in the spots of their liking (Barrett, Randle, Toppin, etc.).

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Excluding the Knicks questionable guard play, Randle needs to be more efficient and the Knicks need to make shots. Austin Rivers could be the answer for the Knicks at point and with their issues from three. Rivers is more of a SG, but could fit at Point Guard if he plays alongside other ball handlers such as Barrett, Burks, and Ntilikina. Whoever is at the helm of the Knicks offense, they need to create open looks for their teammates by getting into the paint and drawing the defense, while knocking down the open three when opponents dare them to shoot. The key to the Knicks success offensively lies in the hands of their Point Guard. The question remains, who is the right man for the job?

The Knicks will look to their defense to try and pickup their 2nd win of the preseason vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers at MSG, Wednesday at 7:30PM.

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