The Knicks: Big Hopes on the Biggest Stage

While it is still early to worry about the state of the team, the Knicks will still need to fix several key issues to improve their record.

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After missing the playoffs last year, the New York Knicks are desperate to rekindle the spark that shaped their 2020-2021 season. With multiple key changes to their roster, including the addition of former Dallas point guard Jalen Brunson and the development of young players such as RJ Barrett, the team hopes to scratch the eighth seed once again. However, currently standing with a mediocre record of 9-10, the Knicks have yet to make an impact in their conference. While it is still early to worry about the state of the team, the Knicks will need to fix several key issues if they hope to improve their record.

Despite having the third-best defensive rating in the league just two seasons ago, the Knicks have now regressed to the 20th-best defensive rating with just over 113 points allowed per game. While head coach Tom Thibodeau has been praised in the past for his teams’ defense, the Knicks currently struggle to guard the perimeter, a crucial aspect of modern basketball defense. In a 118-133 loss to the Boston Celtics in early November, the Knicks conceded 27 three-point shots, which is currently the fourth most made “threes” by a team this season. Throughout the game, the Knicks often looked confused on defense, with players miscommunicating switches and double teams on star duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. “I want to take a look at the film, but there were some that I felt we could have challenged better […] Obviously our defense wasn’t at its best, and against a team like that, it has to be,” Thibodeau said in the post-game interview.

Thibodeau’s famous high-intensity, man-on-man defense has not translated into the best results with teams that utilize pass-heavy offenses. Rather than having each player put their entire effort into guarding a specific opponent, the Knicks should use more of a zone defense, where switching between players requires less effort, especially in pick-and-roll situations. With zone defenses, players are spaced out at certain positions around the court, leading to better communications for help defense. This is especially crucial when guarding teams that rely more on off-ball movement to create open shots, like the Celtics.

Knicks fans should certainly be worried about their team’s subpar defense—but the mediocre performance of forward Julius Randle has been equally concerning. After winning the Most Improved Player award and earning an All-NBA second-team selection just two seasons ago, Randle has been unable to show consistent quality in his play. In a particularly abysmal performance earlier this month against the Phoenix Suns, Randle had just nine points, six rebounds, and two assists on 36.4 percent from the field and 25 percent from the perimeter. In a majority of the offensive possessions of the game, Randle handled the ball, performing isolation plays to create his own shots. However, these were to no avail, as his poor and predictable handles led him to settle for heavily contested jump shots or commit turnovers.

Randle’s defensive efforts have been criticized as well. On transition defense, Randle is often one of the last players down the court, leading to open shots for opposing teams. In crucial battles for rebounds in the paint, Randle often becomes frustrated and gives up entirely, leading to new possessions for other teams. In one play against the Suns, a defensive miscommunication led to an open shot in the corner for a Suns player. Rather than rushing to contest the shot, Randle criticized his teammates for allowing the player to get an open shot.

As a leader of the team, Randle must improve his attitude. On offense, he needs to facilitate more to give his teammates greater opportunities to get open shots. With shooters such as guard Evan Fournier and lob threats like forward Obi Toppin, there are a variety of options Randle can rely on to put the ball in the basket. With less energy expended on offense, Randle can start putting more effort into defense, like fighting for rebounds or rushing to contest shots.

Fourth-year guard Barrett has also been facing struggles on the offensive end this season. Averaging 18.3 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game, and 2.9 assists per game, Barrett’s statistics are all down from his previous season. He has also been inefficient, with only a 40.4 field goal percentage and a 27.3 three-point percentage. While Knicks fans have had high hopes for the fourth-year player to blossom into a franchise cornerstone, Barrett seems to struggle to find his role on the team.

In a similar fashion to Randle, Barrett needs to avoid forcing shots. While fans have had high expectations for Barrett to be a primary scoring option, it may be best for Barrett to act as a secondary scorer. Barrett would be able to improve his efficiency by moving off-ball and taking shots created by the playmakers around him, such as Brunson. Off the court, Barrett could also improve his three-point shooting, as his slow jump-shot form has led to easy contests by defenders.

In order for the Knicks to reach the “promised land” of the playoffs once again, it is vital to ensure better defensive schemes, as well as improvement from key starters. In a conference headlined by teams such as the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and Philadelphia 76ers, the Knicks will need to step up or step aside.