We’re 15% of the way through this crazy condensed season, as good a time as any to ask premature questions and offer answers we’ll deny or hedge on later. So here it is: your first 2020-21 P&T writers roundtable, written before last night’s loss in Charlotte.
Do the Knicks have a chance of finishing .500?
MMiranda: I don’t think so. To sustain the quality of play we’ve seen so far over the rest of the season, the Knicks would need Julius Randle to play at an All-Star level, Mitchell Robinson to be done with foul trouble for good, Elfrid Payton to continue shooting better than he has in a few years (he is; it’s true!) and Immanuel Quickley to look like the steal of the draft. The defense should be improved with Tom Thibodeau running it, but this roster is deficient in talent, shooting and playmaking. As the rest of the league settles in and teams find their level, the Knicks figure to max out as a scrappy snag of a foe rather than a .500 team.
Stingy: These first ten games are really a microcosm of who they are. As much as I want to focus on the fact that they’re literally .500, the fact of the matter is they’ve had a bunch of real ball squeezers. I’d actually say Julius has been playing at an All-NBA level thus far but there’s no borderline All-Star bringing up the rear. Payton might have had a couple of career nights, but the dominoes are set for him to lose his job. If the Knicks can’t shoot at all, when push comes to shove, the refs will call a foul, and the Knicks will lose by a few. Too much has to go right for them to stay level all season.
Alex: Nah. I’m convinced at this point that Randle’s emergence is for real. Other than Mitch, who can definitely affect games on the defensive end on his best nights (but not to the extent needed), I’m not convinced at all that the rest of this team can do what’s needed to win 50% of their games the rest of the way out. Quickley was great for a few games, sucked out loud the last few. Barrett has looked like a developing star some games, like a monumental bust in others. Payton looks like a starting NBA point guard some nights, completely useless in others. There’s just not enough talent to make this happen (though maybe a fully healthy roster full of nightly boom/bust candidates provides just enough “boom” to prove me wrong).
BennyBuckets: Sure, why not? Heck, they could finish above .500. It’s 2021, where there are no rules. Even if the Knicks finish below .500, Knicks fans can just storm Adam Silver’s office and demand the win-loss records be changed.
Bootum: Maybe if you caught me after 5-3, but now I’m pretty comfortable saying there’s no chance. Even with about as good a start as we could have, we’re only .500 now. Maybe if Frank comes back continuing to shoot 55% on threes.
Which outcome do you think ends up happening with Julius Randle: New York picks up his option for next year, trades him this year or lets him walk this summer?
MMiranda: I think he’s traded. Leon Rose didn’t sign Randle two summers ago; maybe he’s not someone this front office wants to build with. There is the Kentucky connection to consider, but so long as Julius keeps playing like Caesar he could be one of the more appealing impactful trade options available this season. Next summer’s free agent class is not the barnstormer people expected, what with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and others already re-upping with their teams. Randle is young (26), multitalented and comes with options: anyone acquiring him has the choice of paying him $4M to cut him or $19M to keep for one year, which isn’t a crazy figure. The first option could come in handy for a team looking to move a big contract, e.g. should a superstar somewhere become disgruntled and want out. It’s been known to happen.
Stingy: Nah, I think he’ll be back. Even if his early season production drops off a little bit, he’s clearly a tone setter and a monumentally hard worker. He might not be the guy that pulls you up to the promised plateau but he can help build a rope ladder.
Alex: I think they pick up his option. At this point, a sub-$20 million deal for Randle next year (with full Bird rights) is a steal. They’ll keep him for next season and try to see if, with a talent infusion via the 2021 draft and free agency, he can be a player that leads the Knicks to the playoffs. His trade value will actually go UP next year with those full Bird rights should they choose to move him then.
BennyBuckets: Thibs seems to be a big fan of Randle (probably because he works hard and is actually good at basketball), so it shouldn’t be a surprise if the Knicks pick up his option for next season. After that, if the Knicks keep showing steady improvement, perhaps Leon Rose will look to lock Randle up long-term. Get used to Randle, but also be prepared for him to get traded at any minute. In fact, he’ll probably be traded the very second that you come to terms with the fact that he’s extremely talented.
Bootum: The way the season has gone so far, I don’t see him getting moved. While I don’t think his interest would remain nonexistent like I thought it would even with improved play, I still think it’s not a no-brainer for other teams to the point they would give up enough to the point the Knicks want to move him. It’s hard for me to see a team with a more competitive slant than last year doing a Morris-type trade again with a younger player. Randle is seemingly no longer holding up the offense, but is its engine. I think in a free agency that’s no longer as good as it was hyped to be, they may decline his option and extend him (if I’m understanding the CBA right and that it is possible.)
After Randle, who’s been the Knicks’ second-best player?
MMiranda: This was a tough call between RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, but a look at the team’s numbers led me to go with Mitch. Entering Monday, the Knicks were tops in the league in opponents’ three-point shooting (30%) and second in opponents’ field goal percentage (43%). That second figure may not stay that low, especially after the show Denver put on, but if it does it’d be the Knicks’ best mark since 2004. No one player is responsible for that improvement, but with Robinson reducing his foul rate by 25% from last year to this, he’s due as much credit as anyone. With him on the court the Knicks outscore opponents by 2.5 points; with him off, they’re a minus 5.5. Viva la Mitch.
Stingy: It’s the kid big Mitch all the way. I’m with you here, that the only other guy I’d consider is RJ, but the fact of the matter is while RJ is doing a lot, he is still being put in a terrible position to succeed. That has led to his up-and-down-ness. Robinson is steady and getting better by the game.
Alex: Tempted to say Mitch, but injury makes it easy to forget about Alec Burks. About 21 points, four rebounds, four assists on bonkers efficiency (76 TS%, just out of this world) in three games is enough to say he’s the second-best. Mitch might be a really impactful defender and extremely important to the Knicks on that side of the ball, but I think Burks’ absence has proved how much New York misses his shot creation ability.
BennyBuckets: Barrett. Burks was quite good in a small sample size before he got hurt, but Barrett has the potential to be a legitimate offensive force, if he could ever learn how to shoot consistently. It’s not a coincidence that on the nights Barrett is feeling it and Randle is doing his thing, the Knicks look like they can hang with anyone.
Bootum: Elfrid might have an argument, but it would never be made by me out of principle. The Knicks have had a top-10 defense. That doesn’t happen without Mitch. His on-off is a +11; only ones higher are Burks from his two games and RJ, which seems misleading for him. Mitch is the one rotation player on the team with a positive net rating of 1.5.
RJ Barrett’s minutes are up — way up. His two- and three-point accuracy is down. What do you make of his performance so far?
MMiranda: He’s a 20-year-old with 66 games of experience playing 39 minutes a game. I’m not ready to extend him and I’m not worried about him. He’s fine. Ask again next season.
Stingy: He’s made some clear strides in his game. With a little extra syrup on his dribble and some nice counters when he gets in the paint. The midrange pull ups look like his most comfortable shot, which is great, but not ideal. His free throw stroke has looked better and for someone who gets there about five times a game, shooting 71% this year is much better than the 61% like he did last year. Defensively he seems to be as attentive as most youngsters with a lot to learn can be. The trappings of a certified starter — for most any team — are present. So he’s not the lights out shooter this team is desperate for; who cares?
Alex: He’s playing in many ways similarly to how he did last year, but also has shown some improvements. Stingy already kinda noted the things I’ve noticed, too. One thing I will say is that I think Randle’s emergence as the Knicks’ top option (and honestly, superstar) kinda took RJ off guard, after it seemed like the team was going to be his after preseason. I think there’s been a bit of a mental adjustment to that at play for him as well. But he and Randle are playing a lot better this year than last. Elfrid is another story.
BennyBuckets: If he never settles in and fails to start putting up numbers with some kind of consistency, this season will be viewed as a disappointment. But it’s too early to panic. We have to keep our composure. **slams chair into lockers** WE HAVE TO KEEP OUR COMPOSURE!!
Bootum: Am I allowed to be a little concerned? I’m a little concerned. However, while the conclusions from Duke and last year was probably that he needed more spacing to thrive, we haven’t really solved that at all with the least threes attempted in the league and a starting lineup whose best shooter is 33% three-point shooter Bullock. We also learned that heavy minutes were probably not for him, as he played his best ball to end the year with sub-30 minutes loads, and he’s playing a massive amount — 38.2 minutes per game would be the most since Jimmy Butler in 2014-15; his 2.98 miles traveled per game would be the most ever recorded in the seven-year history of the stat. But even with that, even while expecting his 20% three-point percentage to go back to a more respectable ~33%, he has been perhaps the least efficient player in the league with the exception of Russell Westbrook. His shooting numbers this year are nearly identical across the board to last year—and that’s bad. You can’t be a non-shooter and among the worst finishers in the league. But I won’t write him off before he plays a full rookie season or with NBA spacing/minutes.
Would you trade Elfrid Payton this early in the season? If so, why, and for what? If not, why not?
MMiranda: My first thought is “no.” Not because I’m crazy about Payton’s game. The shooting is never going to be there, and opposing guards have torched him all season, a big reason why the Knicks’ defensive rating with him on the bench is nearly four points lower than when he’s playing. But coming into this week, opponents’ effective field goal percentage is nearly identical in both scenarios (.500 vs. .498), whereas the difference in those stats on the offensive end is pronounced. When Payton plays, the team’s offensive rating is 109.4; when he sits, it’s 100.3. Their shooting also nosedives from 52.4% to 48.3% without him. But when I see Orlando’s lost Markelle Fultz for the year with a torn ACL and know the Magic would rather make the playoffs than waste a 6-2 start, and I see some of the names being linked with them as possible replacements...maybe dangling Elf in front of his original team and seeing if they blink is worth a shot.
Stingy: My first thought was “Someone would trade for Payton?!” Not to be too caustic, because Elfrid has had some really good nights and they’ve led directly to Knick wins. The fact is though, this isn’t a value valley. You’re looking at his peak. Heaven forbid Dennis Smith Jr. ever has to play again but yea, you want him?
Alex: If someone is willing to trade anything of value for Payton, you do it. The main thing he’s had going for him is availability, which is certainly an underrated skill. But if the move for the rest of the year is playing guys like Quickley, Ntilikina, Austin Rivers, etc. at the 1 and tanking it up, that’s fine by me at this point. Any delusions of grandeur about making the playoffs after the 5-3 start have left me. I’d rather be that scrappy tanking team that still finishes in the bottom five teams than win whatever games Elfrid’s few outbursts get me, still miss the playoffs and end up with the ninth pick.
BennyBuckets: Payton is the most consistent point guard on the team right now, but the Knicks should still trade him if there are any suitors with actual interest. He can’t shoot, which might be okay if RJ could shoot, but Barrett also can’t shoot, so the starting lineup of this NBA team is filled with guys who aren’t very good at getting the ball to go into the hoop from any sort of distance. In basketball, the point of the game is to score more points than your opponent.
Bootum: I would walk Payton to Orlando if they want him back for anything (and Elf is willing to waive his effective no-trade clause). If you desperately need to have a veteran be among the worst starting point guards in the league, you can just pick up Shabazz Napier off waivers, who can at least shoot. Or Emmanuel Mudiay, if you want to get him right. But even if they’re not the future point guard of the team, finding another point guard to run among the worst offenses in the league shouldn’t be a hard task, and the goal should really be to find someone who could potentially be on future teams and have an NBA- or at least college-level jump shot.
What early-season trend are you happiest about?
MMiranda: The improvements on the defensive end. It speaks to greater discipline and execution from the coaching staff and the roster. It’s a welcome change to see this team kind of good at something.
Stingy: Wide and various as it may be, I’m happiest about the coaching situation. Thibodeau has had to play a tight rotation with injuries, but he is doing a great job putting everyone in a position to be successful and holding them accountable. He gives you the hook if you don’t got it and he rolls with you if you got the hot hand. Also who could have foreseen this Julius transformation if not for the braintrust on the bench?
Alex: The team tries every night (last two games maybe kinda excluded). It’s nice not always being an easy out. Gone are the days of the 40-point Fizdale blowouts.
BennyBuckets: The seriousness with which the team has been playing with on a nightly basis. No one wants to be the guy who makes Thibs unhappy. After dealing with Derek Fisher and David Fizdale in recent years, it’s actually astounding to watch a coach who seems to know what’s going on.
Bootum: The defense and lack of Mitch-fouling, which are probably correlated. To not get much out of some pretty low-level talent rosters is one thing, but it is honestly ridiculous it’s taken so long to simply start our defensive anomaly and build even a halfway defense around him for a few games. It’s nice to see, and what the Knicks have done through 10 on that end is extremely impressive.
What early-season trend most concerns you?
MMiranda: The lack of a point guard who can shoot. I worry about young Knicks falling into bad habits trying to compensate for this lacking. Also the combination of a COVID-condensed schedule and Thibodeau’s Bataan Death March approach to minutes seems like smoke meeting fire.
Stingy: Injuries! The schedule is compressed, and the injuries are driving minutes load way up. I can’t imagine it gets easier to stay healthy as you apply fatigue to the deal.
Alex: Nerlens Noel not providing the cumulative 48 minutes of rim protection I thought he would when Mitch was out of the game. Dude’s a twig. Suddenly I realize why he’s never made more than the $5 million the Knicks gave him in a season since his rookie contract.
BennyBuckets: The lack of an abililty to score for people not named Julius Randle. The Knicks are second to last in the league in three-point shooting. Barrett is shooting 20% from deep. Right now, only five players are averaging more than 10 points per contest, and one of them, Alec Burks, has only played in three games. The Knicks are far more cohesive than recent years, but in the end you have to get buckets, something they often struggle to do.
Bootum: We might be the worst offensive team in the league, and our only hope for significant improvement is that Burks and Frank shake the injury bug and continue to shoot 50+% from three like they had been. Or that Obi Toppin guy proves to be NBA-ready offensively as touted. But until that is shown, to only be 27th in Ortg with All-NBA Randle, 6MOY Rivers, and generally hot shooting is already concerning.
Do you think the Knicks can make the playoffs — at least the play-in games?
MMiranda: Can? Yes. Will? Hmmm......
Stingy: Absolutely. But something major has to go right.
Alex: Sure, I bet at least one, if not both of the 9-10 seed teams will be below .500. The Knicks would really need to play their asses off and play well in-division (already seems unlikely based on early-season results), but it’s not impossible.
BennyBuckets: Nothing is impossible, but don’t go getting your hopes up. The goal this year should be steady overall improvement. Don’t let the better-than-expected start to the season get you down when the Knick inevitably lose five in a row during a tough stretch. They are trying to build a foundation. They are playing the long game.
Bootum: The play-in games, definitely; the playoffs I can’t really see. But the play-in games are difficult to see as well. The Knicks have 62 games left, which is a time for a lot of movement, and as constructed still have some of the least talent in the league. The Heat, Nets, and Raptors likely will not remain with a worse record than us all year. Other teams expected to be bad have similarly been competitive to start in the Cavs, Hornets, and Bulls. Westbrook and Bradley Beal can’t be this bad for an entire season, right? Right?