As the final buzzer sounded on a night when the New York Knicks put up 122 points against the Bucks and still lost by 24 in their In-Season Tournament Quarter-Final loss, it laid bare their main issues. The Knicks merely being solid is no-man’s land in the NBA.
Leon Rose opted for continuity this offseason. They have a good team but are outclassed whenever they face elite teams. Now 2-8 against teams better than .500 and unbeaten against teams below .500. This is the biggest differential in the NBA.
They need to do a better job of building around Jalen Brunson, one of the best and underrated players. He’s converting 45.7% of three-pointers, averaging 24.9 points and 5.6 assists. He’s put on a show since coming to the Knicks last year.
Aside from Brunson, Mitchell Robinson is the best offensive rebounder in the NBA. Julius Randle, for all his detractors, is a walking 25-point, 10 rebound, and five assist forward. They are also well-coached and have one of the deepest benches. Yet, they have a limited ceiling and don’t appear to have a strategy to increase it.
The Knicks Merely Being Solid Is No Man’s Land
Kenny Smith said it best on the TNT telecast:
“This is why the Knicks are gonna stay in the middle. Every game they play, they always have the second-best player on the floor.”
Continuity and a winning record aren’t enough in this league. Not when teams around you are actively looking to get better.
This team cannot compete against the Celtics and Bucks in the East. In the modern NBA especially, this league doesn’t allow teams to rest on their laurels.
For instance, Boston gambled and traded fan favorite, homegrown talent Marcus Smart to acquire Kristaps Porzingis. Now they look electric. Milwaukee won a title only two seasons ago and traded Jrue Holiday to acquire Damian Lillard. Pairing him with Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most frightening duo since Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Judging by the last few seasons, the Knicks appear afraid to gamble. Instead, they seem insistent on continuity. Yet, the more role players they keep without a defined role, the harder it is to make the most of them all.
Sitting Out Two Drafts in a Row
I struggle with president Rose’s vision. They clearly went all-in on continuity. Even to the point where they passed on the draft for the second straight year. It is a highly disagreeable plan in terms of roster construction. While they should have no regrets about trading last year’s first pick for Hart, an excellent player last year, it shouldn’t have precluded them from doing something on draft night.
It’s hard to excuse continually passing on the draft when the Heat, who beat the Knicks on the way to the NBA Finals, drafted Jaime Jaquez Jr.
I fail to see the downside in drafting someone. At worst, it’s an asset to use in a future trade, or if it works out, it’s another valuable asset in building a good roster around Brunson. Rose’s record as an executive has been cagey at best.
The Toppin Trade Is an Example of Their Lack of Strategy
Not only did Rose pass on Tyrese Haliburton, the point-guard extraordinaire, to draft Obi Toppin in the top 10, but they also traded Toppin for pennies on the dollar due to his limited role a few years later.
Furthermore, by trading Toppin, the Knicks took away their main backups moving forward. Now Toppin is helping Indiana to the In-Season Tournament Finals (as is Haliburton).
It isn’t that they traded Toppin that was necessarily the problem. It’s more that they had no plan for him. Furthermore, his skillset helped the Knicks’ second unit run more. The first unit’s half-court ball-dominant style, paired with the second unit’s transition style, made the Knicks difficult to play against.
Now, they don’t have a backup for Randle. They are fortunate he is one of the better and durable players in the league. It hasn’t become a significant problem yet, but it is something to watch. Who plays power forward if Randle needs to sit a game or two?
It’s already affected Hart’s game, who was tremendous last season as the backup two-guard. Now he’s being used as a backup to Randle at the four. This seems to have affected his rhythm within the offense. Hart recently voiced these concerns to the media, saying he doesn’t feel “included” in the offense. It’s all the more odd, considering the Knicks extended him in the offseason. What’s their plan for Hart?
Too Many Guards on the Roster
The Knicks have a lot of guards to feed – too many. Donte DiVincenzo and Hart are similar spark plug players, both infinitely more impressive than current starting guard Grimes. They also have Sixth-Man of the Year contender Immanuel Quickley as the microwave scorer off the bench. That’s three important players all playing the same position off the bench.
Fournier hasn’t been traded yet and collects dust at the end of the bench.
RJ Barrett is playing as an undersized small forward due to the multitude of two-guards on the roster. Having this amount of talent on paper is nice, but the roster construction is clumsy.
Potential Roster Crunch
It’s coming to a crunch for Rose and the front office. They are no longer in control of their situation with Quickley. Despite being one of the more valuable players on the roster, his minutes are decreasing. Furthermore, he’s now a restricted free agent this offseason.
The only good draft pick of the Rose era may walk. Another team can offer more than the Knicks are comfortable doing and sign him in the offseason. Perhaps the Knicks will overpay to ensure they keep him. But does it make sense to have three big-money two-guards off the bench?
Again, these issues will come up when a team stocks up on nice role players without a clear plan for them. The Knicks merely being solid is no man’s land without a plan to use them.
Quentin Grimes Looks Lost in the Pack
Another player without a clear role is Grimes. He’s now had two zero-point efforts sandwiched with multiple games of six points or less, shooting a horrific 5/28 from the field over a long stretch of games. He has one of the team’s worst plus/minus’s. Grimes also had three games this season without scoring a single point.
This is unacceptable for any player in the league, let alone a starting guard. Grimes has now come out to the media saying he doesn’t like his role on the offense. He said that each shot he takes has added weight, knowing he won’t get the ball again if he misses – a clear jab at his coach.
Yet, watching how DiVincenzo plays off the bench: cutting, setting screens, dishing and knocking down open threes, that is how Grimes needs to play, with aggression. Instead, he stands in the corner and watches the game pass him by. That’s on him, not the coach or teammates.
It’s also an example of why it makes so little sense for the Knicks’ front office to have this many guards on the roster and lack of a role for them. Hart is too good to be a backup forward. DiVincenzo is too good to be playing behind Grimes. Quickley is too good to be used just 20 minutes a night. They have too many similar players and not enough of a role for them.
The Knicks Have to Take a Shot to Avoid No Man’s Land
Eventually, the Knicks have to take a shot. Perennially, we hear the same report that the Knicks are waiting in the weeds for a star. Where is this star coming from? They have their heart set on Joel Embiid, but the Sixers are unmoved by the Knicks’ pieces. Plus, there’s no evidence he wants to leave.
In the modern NBA, stars aren’t often testing free agency. Usually, they’re extended long before it. This means if the Knicks are going to acquire someone, it must be via trade.
The last star who wanted to come to New York was Donovan Mitchell, but conveniently, the asking price was too high for the Knicks’ tastes. Perhaps he will become available again. Or, more to the point, the Knicks should have just traded for him when he was available.
Lillard was available before his Bucks trade, but the Knicks didn’t see a fit between him and Brunson. They also sniffed around Paul George but weren’t interested.
DeMar DeRozan is the next name that makes sense; perhaps they will trade for him by February’s deadline. He’s a wing and will ease the scoring load for Brunson. But he’s in his mid-30s and hasn’t taken the Bulls to the next level so that it would be only a short-term fix.
Eventually, the Knicks need to take a shot at something.
It seems that the front office is waiting for the perfect situation to come up. Meanwhile, the Knicks remain in perpetual no man’s land.
The Knicks Should Heed the Lessons of the Past
Fans and front office members will argue the Knicks knocking off the Cavaliers in last season’s playoffs is the reason it was wise not to part with too much for Mitchell.
I disagree; the Knicks are perennially in a holding pattern of stock-piling solid role players without a clearly defined role for them. They have to cash their chips in and take a shot eventually. Stars win games and increase ceilings.
It didn’t make sense to make Grimes untouchable. It only made sense to pass on Mitchell if they planned on expanding the role for the players they kept. Yet, Grimes is barely the fifth option, if not worse. Barrett is a solid player but will always play a tertiary role behind Randle and Brunson. Toppin had no role and ended up being traded for essentially nothing.
The last star the Knicks had was Anthony a decade ago. He didn’t win them a title, not because of the package the Knicks gave up, as some have suggested, but because of previous front offices’ inability to put players around him. Drafting Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina and trading for Andrea Bargnani was a far bigger problem than parting with Timofey Mozgov to close the Melo deal.
Role players can always be found; stars are harder to find. It’s time for the Knicks to have a better plan, define roles, and cash their chips in for better talent.