Heading into the 2020-2021 NBA season, it was looking like another year of disappointment for the New York Knicks and their fans. Now… maybe not?
We’re 21 games into the NBA season, and the Knicks are 9-12, sitting in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference. The 7-11 seeds are all within one game of each other.
They’re still under .500, but this Knicks team has shown fans something they haven’t seen in a while: an identity.
While the Knicks still struggle offensively – ranked dead last in the league with 102 points per game – they finally found something they’re good at. Defense.
Defensive Identity Under Thibodeau
Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, a Coach of the Year candidate, has his Knicks ranked first in the NBA in team defense, holding opponents to 104 points a game.
Opponents are shooting 43% from the field and 32% from three, the latter of which is also best in the league.
In the fast-paced, three-point-filled environment the NBA has become, this is rather challenging. Yet, the Knicks are doing it.
Another thing fans haven’t seen in years… the Knicks are competitive. And it doesn’t matter who they’re playing.
Though the final score may not always reflect it, the Knicks have been in every game across almost the full 48 minutes each night.
The defense obviously has a lot to do with it, and it’s resulted in some blockbuster wins to give the organization, and fan base, life again.
Out of the Knicks’ nine wins, six of them are against the Bucks, Pacers, Hawks, Celtics, Jazz, and Warriors.
Those are all playoff teams, some of them even top-contenders. And while the regular season may not mean much to contending teams like Milwaukee and Boston, to the Knicks, these wins are everything.
It shows them that they can get it done. That they can win those games where they “can’t” or “shouldn’t” win.
With that, players have taken the opportunity to shine. A few Knicks have stood out through the first 21 games, including one of them putting up an All-Star caliber season.
Big Names Stepping Up
Randle-RJ-Quick: 75 points on 27-48 shooting today pic.twitter.com/VK1nuM4Bsg
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 31, 2021
To begin, the Knicks have five players averaging double figures in points. If I told you this before the season started, you’d probably laugh.
But seriously, though. The Knicks are spreading the ball around and finding baskets through multiple players every single game. Julius Randle (22, 11, and 6), RJ Barrett (18, 7, and 3), Alec Burks (14 PPG), Elfrid Payton (12 PPG), and the electric rookie Immanuel Quickley (12 PPG) are keeping New York on pace as they continue bettering their offensive game over the season.
Randle and Barrett have been the two leaders on this team through the first 21 games. Randle has been hot since opening night, already notching multiple triple-doubles and establishing a clear role on the team. He’s even earned some All-Star votes.
Barrett has taken a big step forward his sophomore season, and that’s something Knicks fans really needed to see. His points per game 18 points, up from 14, and rebounds per game are up from five to seven. Barrett’s shooting percentages are relatively the same, but his free throw percentage has seen a large increase from 61% his rookie year up to 76%.
Barrett has notched 20 or more points ten times this year, including six of the last ten games. He’s taking much better shots and isn’t making unnecessary mistakes on the offensive end.
The offense flows through him and Randle, and Barrett’s growth has led to more wins already this year.
Life Comes at You Quick(ley)
Last three games: 21.8 PPG
⁰Quickley’s locked in. pic.twitter.com/7w9UBM7Tnu
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) February 1, 2021
Immanuel Quickley, the second-round pick out of Kentucky, has looked nothing short of phenomenal lately.
Quickley’s scored 25 or more points in three of the Knicks’ last four games, and this should be more of a sign of what’s to come rather than an outlier hot streak.
As mentioned after draft night, Quickley and Obi Toppin were expected to bring hope back to Madison Square Garden. Toppin got injured early in the year and is still earning his role in the rotation, but Quickley’s taken advantage of every opportunity thrown his way.
His go-to floater seems to always go in the basket, and the offense looks a step faster when he’s on the court. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be the Knicks’ true point guard of the future or more of a scoring-guard type of player, but he should be starting games very soon.
Bottom Line, Looking Ahead
Fans should be truly pleased with what Thibodeau and his staff have transformed this team into early on. They’re miles ahead of where we thought they’d be, and they’ve already fixed the hardest thing to fix: defense.
As Samuel L. Jackson said in the movie Coach Carter, “Offense will come. We have all season for that.”
If the Knicks can maintain this strong defensive performance as the season continues, we might be watching New York Knicks basketball longer than we’re used to in recent years.
The Eastern Conference is a lot tighter than people may realize.
As of writing this article, the standings look like this:
- 76ers – 15-6
- Nets – 13-9
- Bucks – 11-8
- Celtics – 10-8
- Pacers – 11-9
- Hawks – 10-9
- Cavaliers – 9-11
- Hornets – 9-11
- Knicks – 9-12
- Raptors – 8-12
- Bulls – 7-11
The Knicks are only six games back of first place…
Obviously, the Knicks won’t be the top seed, or even in the top five for that matter. But in terms of staying afloat in the bottom few playoff seeds, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched with the way they’ve been playing.
The NBA has a new play-in format set for the bottom few teams come playoff time. If the Knicks can keep staying in games the way they have and start pulling some of them out, we might see the Knicks in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Buckle up, New York Knicks fans. We may be in for a fun next few months.