With a relatively easy victory over the Raptors yesterday, the Knicks have now won nine straight and sit tenuously in the fourth seed at 34-27. Naturally, New York is aflutter over the Knicks playing meaningful games in April and generally appearing to be a competent organization. Let’s look at the Knicks and how real this turnaround is…
What exactly are the 2020-21 Knicks?
They are the 2020-21 version of the old Jeff Van Gundy Knicks, a slow paced/defensive squad. Tom Thibodeau has done a very nice job adjusting his plodding/defense-first style to the 2021 NBA but, in reality, the Knicks are similar in spirit to their 1990s ancestors. The Knicks are 19th in offense and an impressive 4th in defense, all done at the slowest pace in the NBA (96.0). Slow pace is obviously relative to the current NBA (for example, the 1997-98 Knicks had a pace factor of 88.2 and were 25th in the NBA). I’m sure Thibs would play even slower if the style of NBA play permitted it.
For a frame of reference, here are Thibs’ offensive and defensive ratings and pace in his full seasons as a coach (he was fired halfway through 2018-19 so we won’t review that one):
-2010-11 Bulls (62-20): Offense 11th, Defense 1st, Pace 23rd
-2011-12 Bulls (50-16): Offense 5th, Defense 2nd, Pace 28th
-2012-13 Bulls (45-37): Offense 23rd, Defense 6th, Pace 27th
-2013-14 Bulls (48-34): Offense 28th, Defense 2nd, Pace 29th
-2014-15 Bulls (50-32): Offense 11th, Defense 11th, Pace 23rd
-2016-17 Wolves (31-51): Offense 10th, Defense 27th, Pace 25th
-2017-18 Wolves (47-35): Offense 4th, Defense 27th, Pace 24th
Thibs has always demanded a slow-paced offense (to avoid fast breaks the other way) and in that sense he has very much stuck to his roots in New York (no pun intended). We can probably chalk up Thibodeau’s offense-first teams in Minnesota as an anomaly unique to the personnel in Minnesota (The Wolves have been unable to play defense since they let Kevin Garnett go the first time).
Knicks versus their Peers
The clear favorites in the East are the Nets, 76ers, or Bucks. The Knicks fall into the group of squads that have about a 50% shot of making the second round. They are in a virtual dead heat with Atlanta, who the Knicks beat in a very entertaining game last week (they would play the Hawks in the first round if the season ended today. Here’s how the Knicks stack up with their peer group teams (the above .500 squads in the East outside of the top tier):
Knicks: 34-27, 1.73 SRS
Hawks: 33-27, 2.24 SRS
Celtics: 32-28, 2.47 SRS
Heat: 32-29, -0.68 SRS
SRS can be misleading sometimes and particularly so in a season like this one where so many key players have sat due to rest, injuries, or COVID. Here’s how each team has done in the injury front with its top players:
-The Knicks have been more fortunate than the other teams in this tier on the injury front. The Knicks two top scorers players Julius Randle and RJ Barrett have missed only one game all year. Randle is also leading the NBA in minutes per game (37.5), which is fourth most MPG for a player since 2014-15 (the most MPG in a season was logged by Jimmy Butler playing for Thibs in 2014-15 at 38.7).
-Atlanta lost De’Andre Hunter for much of the season. Trae Young was healthy until a bad ankle sprain versus the Knicks last week.
-The Celtics have missed about seven games from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown but Tatum has admitted to struggling to recover from COVID. Marcus Smart missed about 20 games with injury and Kemba Walker is being load managed due to bad knees.
-The Heat have consciously load managed Jimmy Butler (he’s missed 17 of 61 games). Bam Adebayo has missed seven games.
Thibs’ approach has been to ride his workhorses, while other teams have sat their stars. When rotations tighten up in the playoffs and all the stars play every game, it is possible that Boston, in particular, will look better than New York.
Randle’s incredible 2020-21 season has been the primary engine for the Knicks’ offense. It’s not quite clear where this came from. Randle was always a perfectly competent NBA player but now he’s a point forward who does everything! Let’s compare his stats from last season with this one:
-2019-20: 32.5 mpg, 19.5 ppg, .460 FG%, .277 3FG%, 9.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 17.5 PER, .062 WS48, -0.3 BPM, 0.9 VORP
-2020-21: 37.5 mpg, 24.0 ppg, .462 FG%, .416 3FG%, 10.5 rpg, 6.0 apg, 20.1 PER, .148 WS48, 3.9 BPM, 3.4
Incredibly, Randle has almost doubled his three-point attempts and went from a terrible three-point shooter to an excellent one (he’s 11-15 from three his last two games!). Randle has also nearly doubled his assist rate, all without a rise in turnovers.
Looking at Randle’s shot chart is even more astounding. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Randle has radically reduced his inside shots. Only 17% of his shots come within three feet of the rim (compared to 40% for his career). His long two point shots have gone up to 15% (from 9% for his career) and threes are up to 29% (compared to 16% for his career). Somehow, Randle has shot a career high 42% on long twos and threes (his career averages on both are 34%). All of this suggests that Randle’s shooting may regress unless he has found a new level of shooting proficiency at age-26. This is possible but not likely. In fairness, Randle’s 2019-20 season was abnormally bad as well and the average of the two seasons is in line with what he did with New Orleans in 2018-19.
Putting aside whether this playing level is sustainable, Randle likely deserves to be on an All-NBA team but the notion that he is a serious MVP candidate is silly. He is 21st in BPM, 11th in VORP and plays the same team roles as Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid, who have all been better this year. Stats aside, none of those GMs would trade their stars for Randle in a million years. You can understand why New York fans would get excited but that is a bridge too far.
On the other side of the ball, the Knicks have been the best team at defending the three all year (.337% allowed). The interesting question is whether three-point defense is a skill or more a result of random chance. Generally, most of the scholarship finds that three-pointers are much harder for a defense to control than two-pointers and that luck is much more of factor in the results. Indeed, plenty of others have thought that the Knicks are due for a regression (or maybe a progression?) in this area.
Is it possible that Thibs is somehow good at three-point defense and that variance is less of an issue on three-pointers with his teams? Let’s review his rankings against three-pointers as coach in prior years:
-2010-11 Bulls: .326% (1st)
-2011-12 Bulls: .325% (3rd)
-2012-13 Bulls: .346% (5th)
-2013-14 Bulls: .351% (8th)
-2014-15 Bulls: .335% (3rd)
-2016-17 T-Wolves: .366% (23rd)
-2017-18 T-Wolves: .366% (18th)
The NBA world has changed a lot since Thibodeau coached the Bulls but he consistently kept opponents to low three-point percentage and was routinely one of the best teams at preventing threes. If we throw away Thibs’ Minny experience (and that time does appear to be an anomaly), this year’s Knicks are facially similar to his old Bull squads. The difference, though, is that the Knicks are actually allowing a lot of threes this year (10th most allowed). So, the evidence is mixed on the luck versus skill issue. My sense is that Thibs gets some credit for the three-point defense but they are probably on the high end of their defensive range against three-points and are due for some bad luck at some point.
Thibodeau will ride the scorching hot Randle as far as he can. This ride will depend on matchups but making the second round is quite achievable in this year’s playoffs. Regardless of playoff outcome, the Knicks are having their first relevant season since 2012-13 and the future is potentially bright. They have a ton of cap room to burn (there is another challenge on the horizon because Randle’s contract is up after 2021-22. If he can continue to play near this well, he will get the max. If the real Randle is the 2018-19 version that would be an overpay). I am always highly skeptical that a James Dolan-led franchise will stick the landing but the opportunity is certainly there for a good Knicks team for a few years to come.