Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com‘s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Sir Isaac Newton probably didn’t have the Knicks in mind when he developed the law of gravity. But given how aggressively New York subscribes to the theory of what goes up must come down, he might have.
In recent years the Knicks and their loyal fans had grown accustomed to mid- and late-season collapses.
Back in 2017–18 under Jeff Hornacek, there was the excitement of a 17–15 start … before a 12–38 finish. During the 2016–17 campaign, they jumped out to a 14–10 mark, before going 17–41 the rest of the way. And in 2015–16 with Derek Fisher, New York began with a 20–20 record, to only finish the year 12–30.
Frankly, this season looked like it would be more of the same. The club sat at 19–18 during the All-Star break, then dropped nine of its next 15 contests to fall to 25–27. The Knicks’ spring program was intensifying, and their usual subway stop–out the playoff race–appeared to be coming up soon.
But four weeks after the Knicks are still on the train, having won 10 of 11 as the league’s newest team.
Because of those previous cases, Knicks fans know better than to count their chickens before they’ve hatched. Still, together with New York currently two games clear of this seventh-seeded Heat–and holding a 90% probability of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s projection version –we’re going to peer ahead just a bit. What is the next step for the powerful Knicks, both today and beyond this year?
For today just about everything starts with forward Julius Randle. He was a tornadic turnover machine last season, coughing more miscues in one-on-one situations than any other quantity scorer in the league. Nevertheless after a tireless offseason), Randle’s been a wholly distinct, All-NBA kind player this season, averaging 32.2 points, 8.5 boards and 5.2 assists on 50.7% from three the past two and a half weeks.
The challenge here is that opposing teams likely won’t let him wreak havoc that way at a playoff series.
Yes, at times Randle calls his own number from the middle floor, where it is harder to double-team him. But clubs like the Celtics and Heat will ship aggressive traps at him if he’s functioning as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. Similarly, when Randle’s acting as the roll man, guards will promote on him and simply dare guard Elfrid Payton to shoot floaters, which he joins on only 38percent of the time, according to Synergy.
More than anything else, however, Randle–equivalent parts cargo train and maestro–will probably have to allow the game come to him if and when teams want to push the ball out of his hands. That means trusting his teammates in the corner, in which the Knicks have launched a greater share of triples than every other NBA team thus far.
“Knocking those down is crucial, because it makes the defense change what it’s doing. It’s a huge help to [Randle] and our team,” says second-year wing RJ Barrett, who’s enjoying a breakout season of his own.
New York was dead-last from the NBA, at 32.8% from three, when left wide open in January. The club ranked fourth in February at 42.9percent on those shots. Then rated eighth in March at 41.9%. No one has been better than the Knicks in April, a month when they’ve hit 48.4percent of their wide-open treys.
Reggie Bullock’s been the club greatest flamethrower during this recent hot streak. Over those 11 games, he has hit an impressive 53.1% (17-for-32) of his tries in the corners. Just as significant: Bullock has helped produce some of those looks–in basketball lingo, you would say he’s”hunted” themby slinking away from defenders to place himself more directly from the ballhandler’s line of sight.
The critical nature of Bullock’s character , both as a shooter and a capable midsize guardian, presents an intriguing question for this summer: How much is it going to cost to keep him beyond this season? (This could also be asked of heart Nerlens Noel, who has been a fantastic fit in replacing the wounded Mitchell Robinson.) On one hand, it may not be a massive deal for New York to loosen the purse strings . On the flip side, with the Knicks eventually appearing legitimate, they may be more prone to go big-star searching, which–should they end up landing one–would make it tougher to retain a well-rounded player like Bullock.
Another thing to see: Is there room for upside with this team, or are these Knicks already maxing out?
Of all of the things you can question with New York–Barrett’s occasional tendency to run hot and cold, the group’s high foul rate on defense, if the Knicks have been the beneficiary of very good luck with opponents missing from three–it is almost impossible to knock this team’s effort.
After years of geometric shapes and riddles–and virtually no mention of the defensive side of the ball at times–it has been refreshing to see the Knicks devote to getting quits on a nightly basis. In any given quarter you will notice the long-limbed Noel issuing more return-to-sender notices than a neighborhood post office, or see New York’s left-wing stoppers swarming like cicadas on their rotations and closeouts.
“It’s some hard work. It’s real,” Barrett says of the defensive intensity trainer Tom Thibodeau needs each possession. “But you kind of get used to it as the season goes along.” (One more thing to monitor, which Thibodeau’s dealt along with his players: The group’s fourth-ranked defense hasn’t been always solid in that run of success. It’s been more of an offensive hot series. The Knicks hemorrhaged 113.5 points per 100 possessions from April 16 to April 27, among the NBA’s 10 worst rates in that window.)
Often when people discuss Thibodeau and his ideology, both are framed through the prism of moments and possible injuries. And that’s understandable, given the Bulls’ struggles to stay healthy during his time in Chicago. (Aside from Rose’s ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs, Joakim Noah and current Knick Taj Gibson also got injured during the team’s first-round series loss that year.) But the better question may be whether the Knicks’ every-night mill will depart enough in the tank to allow them to get another gear in the playoffs.
Then again, this was a youth-led group that travelled 21–45 past year. One that attracted back seven of its best nine spinning players, and–with the NBA’s lowest payroll–didn’t include any substantial free agents.
So even if New York ends up flaming a month from now, fine. We know whatever goes up has to come down at a certain point. But after eight decades, it has been fun to see the Knicks like this sort of hang time .
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