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NYK101 with The Professor: The Knicks and NBA award season

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Which way will the honorifics bounce?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another session of NYK101. Let’s get right to it.

STATEMENT: It’s never too early to speculate on end-of-season NBA awards.

On the macro level, we live in a violent universe; last year scientists discovered an explosion in space that created a crater big enough to fit 15 Milky Way galaxies inside. On the micro level, an invisible virus continues to mutate and spread around the world, upending countless societies. We live in constant danger of death, from the cosmos without to the invisible worlds within. If you have the time and headspace to play make-believe with made-up basketball awards, you’re in the good place, friends.

QUESTION: Which Knicks are contenders for which awards?

Immanuel Quickley: All-Rookie First Team y Rookie of the Year

In light of Rookie of the Year frontrunner LaMelo Ball’s fractured right wrist likely ending his season prematurely, Quickley might be able to make a push for ROY.

Among Knicks, only Julius Randle averages more baskets per 36 than Quickley. The rookie leads the team in threes made and attempted per 36; same deal with free throws. Only Randle and RJ Barrett have scored more points this year than Quickley, and only those two have drawn more fouls. Quickley, while 11th among rookies in minutes played, is third in points scored behind Anthony Edwards and LaMelo and third in win shares, trailing only LaMelo and Tyrese Haliburton. His win shares per 48 are tops for all rookies to have played at least 150 minutes.

Quickley’s per game averages hold up respectably against his ROY competitors.

But he plays 10 fewer minutes a night than they do. Scale everyone to per 36 and now look at IQ’s fit.

With Ball out, there’s at least a case to be made for Quickley, particularly if he and the Knicks finish strong. Edwards and Haliburton are putting up numbers for lottery-bound teams. If Quickley and the Knicks have made their mark on the voters come playoff time, he could be New York’s first ROY since Mark Jackson in 1988.

And hey, here’s a weird stat to throw out against IQ’s case: when Quickley’s played 20+ minutes this year, the Knicks are 7-14. When he doesn’t, they’re 14-8. Weird, right?

Nerlens Noel: 6th Man of the Year

Only three 6MOY ever scored fewer than 10 points a night: Bobby Jones, the award’s first recipient in 1983; Bill Walton, who scored just 7.6 points per game in 1986; and Anthony Mason, who scored 9.9 in 1995. That we’ve gone 25 seasons without it happening since would not appear to bode well for Noel, especially with his competitors all averaging over 20 per 36 minutes.

But lest we forget, numbers were invented 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt by time-traveling NBA agents who knew quantifying offense would help their clients make that nfr-nb. The eye test attests to Noel’s testiness when flies nest in his airspace.

A dive into the advanced stats so clearly clarifies the Nerlens Wall’s impact on D it’s practically ghee. He leads the other top candidates in block percentage and steal percentage. The other four have a combined Defensive Box +/- of -1.5; Noel is +3.0. He’s the only one of the quintet whose win shares are predominantly the result of his defensive win shares. His DWS are only a tenth of a point behind Harrell, who’s played more than 200 more minutes than Noel. Finally, Noel’s defensive rating of 102 not only leads the 6MOY candidates — it leads the Knicks. On the team that’s given up the fewest points in the NBA, Noel is the stingiest defender. And while this award is for substitutes, it’s worth pointing out Noel’s performance when pressed into starting duty. He’s started nearly 40% of the Knicks’ games and they’re 9-7 when he does.

Clarkson will probably win the award, because the Utah Jazz have the best record in the league and we want that to mean something, damnit. I don’t know where the Jazz would be without him. I know the Knicks wouldn’t have come nearly as far and as fast as they have without Noel’s work as a sub and a starter.

RJ Barrett: Most Improved Player

Barrett’s rookie season saw him put up shooting numbers eerily similar to Antoine Walker. The Shamrock Shimmy was 41/33/63 over his career; RJ was 40/32/61 last season. I am happy to report Barrett’s current 45/35/73 suggests a higher upside than his critics thought possible after last year. And that’s no slander at Walker, who was a three-time All-Star. It’s just that a year ago, you had to squint to see RJ’s potential. Now you squint from the luminescence of his play.

Whether you prefer traditional counting stats or more advanced metrics, the numbers don’t lie: Barrett is better. His minutes are up, yes, because he’s stayed healthy (only he and Randle have played in every game) and also because he’s earned them. His per 36 stats are up across the board: points, rebounds and assists are up; turnovers are down. Last year he scored 20+ in 13 of 56 games (23% of the time); this year he’s done so in 18 of 43 (42%). In 2020 his offensive/defensive ratings were 95/114; this year they’re 106/111. I wasn’t sure that he and Randle were a great pairing after last year, but one of the keys to these Knicks’ thriving has been the fit between their two best players.

RJ has improved his finishing on shots 0-3 feet from the hoop, climbing from 57% last year to 64% now. Some of that is he’s stronger. Some is the game slowing down. Some is him learning when he should drive and dish versus drive and finish. Note the syncopation here to lose Khris Middleton and take it to the rack.

Barrett’s offensive growth has been a wonderful development. His defensive work has been equally encouraging.

As the season progresses, RJ’s play has picked up on both ends.

Last year Barrett failed to earn All-Rookie honors. This year he stacks up favorably next to last year’s ROY, Ja Morant.

This isn’t to suggest RJ > Ja. Not yet, it isn’t. It’s to show how far 19-20 years olds can vacillate, as well as to highlight that these numbers aren’t the result of a hot week or a good month. Barrett’s eFG% this season is equal to Jimmy Butler’s. If we begin by comparing you to Antoine Walker and end with comps to Morant and Butler, that’s some serious improvement right there. Speaking of serious improvement...

Julius Randle: Most Improved Player y All-NBA y MVP

The MIP category tends to denote one of two types of players for the award: randos who come out of nowhere to up their game, usually from an increase in minutes (think Alan Henderson, or if you’re not old enough to remember when the Simpsons was good, Pascal Siakam) or players who were expected to be stars, stumbled, then found their footing (Victor Oladipo). Luckily for Randle, he’s hit both those marks this season.

Randle is playing 37 minutes a game, the most in the NBA and the most by a Knick since Carmelo Anthony played just under 39 in 2014. That’s one reason he’s on pace to set career-highs in virtually every counting stat: field goals made and attempted, 3-pointers made and attempted, points, rebounds, assists and steals. But Randle’s rise isn’t a case of more of the same multiplied over more canvas. He’s also setting new highs in accuracy on 3-pointers and free throws while his assist percentage is nearly double his previous high. Interestingly, Randle’s win shares per 48 are also a career-best, while his usage rate is the same as it’s been the past two seasons. So he is playing more, mainly because he’s playing better. On both ends.

Randle was drafted seventh overall in 2014. He’s one of just 11 players from his draft class with over 10,000 career minutes. The only two ahead of him in career win shares are Nikola Jokić (currently having the greatest statistical season I’ve ever seen) and, by one tenth of a point, Jerami Grant. Remember that Randle lost his entire rookie year to a broken leg; if we compare him to the 2015 class, the only players with 10,000+ minutes and more win shares are Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner.

(For those who are curious, the player the Knicks selected fourth overall that year trails noted NBA luminaries Willie Cauley-Stein, Larry Nance Jr. and Richaun Holmes in win shares, demonstrating both the limits of the statistic’s usefulness and the player who’s missed nearly 40% of his career games, including 15 this season. From 2015 till now, Randle has missed 19 — total.)

A former top-10 pick leading a Manhattan roundball renaissance while leading his team in points, rebounds and assists — something no Knick has ever done — seems straight out of central casting for MIP. But will Randle fall victim to voter bias? The last time an American-born player Randle’s age or older won the award was Jalen Rose in 2000. Only two players that old have won it this century: Hedo Türkoğlu was 28 in 2008 and Goran Dragić 27 in 2014.

Also, no Knick has ever won the award. Vegas has Randle with the second-best odds, behind Grant and ahead of Christian Wood, Jaylen Brown and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Grant would certainly be a deserving winner — in any other year but this one. But he scores only a fraction of a point more than Julius, his rebounds and assists are half what Randle’s are, he shoots worse from the field and from 3-point land, and he’s doing it for a team that was lousy a year ago and is worse this season. Advantage: Julius.

Randle could find himself earning All-NBA honors, too, if the voters view the whole season as relevant. Pascal Siakam had a real rough stretch early in the year and Jimmy Butler, while his typically brilliant two-way self, has missed a third of Miami’s games. I don’t think Brandon Ingram has had a better year than Randle, but voters tend to fetishize 23-year-old former #2 picks who rain buckets. With the disappointing Raptors potentially about to waive the white flag by trading franchise icon Kyle Lowry, Siakam’s spot may be Randle’s best bet to be the Knicks’ first All-NBA honoree since Carmelo in 2013.

By no means is Randle deserving of the MVP award. But he is deserving of some down-ballot votes. Again I refer to last season to try and contextualize the landscape this year: in 2020 only two players — Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James — received first-place votes, but a dozen players earned at least one vote. The bottom three were Siakam, Butler and Jayson Tatum. Randle’s numbers this year more than measure up to what those three did last year.

Randle is without a doubt putting up one of the greatest seasons in Knicks’ history. Whether the voters recognize him for that is another question entirely.

Taj Gibson: Lifetime Achievement Award

You know how Alfred Hitchcock worked with Clare Greet, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart repeatedly? And Quentin Tarantino always seems to have roles for Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Madsen? Such is the bond between Tom Thibodeau and Taj Gibson. This is Gibson’s 12th season. In all but three, he’s played for Thibs. This year he didn’t play for the Knicks until their 20th game. Since then he’s been perfectly plug and play: nearly a double-double per 36 on an efficient 56% from the field and his lowest defensive rating since his OKC days, the only team he’s played for without Thibodeau. Take a bow, Taj. You’ll never win a major award, but gaffers are the lifeblood of the industry. And cool is cool.

Tom Thibodeau: Coach of the Year

Quin Snyder will get votes, deservedly, for leading a 2020 Jazz team on the verge of a COVID mutiny to the league’s best record this season. Monty Williams will too (OAKAAKUYOAK); the Suns have soared from a decade-long playoff drought to hot on Utah’s heels. Taylor Jenkins has helped guide a Memphis team without Jaren Jackson Jr. all year to a shot at their first .500 season since David Fizdale was not gonna get rook’d and taking that for data. All are deserving of recognition.

But the Jazz have been good for years — not this good, but good enough for three seasons of five at a pace of 50+ wins. The Suns didn’t have Chris Paul the past 10 years; even Monty would likely acknowledge CP3 is more of a factor in their turnaround than him. And Memphis has gone from ninth in the West last year to (checks notes) ninth this year. If you’re looking for a team that’s gone from a 26-win pace to 40 and from the sixth-worst record in the league to the seventh seed in the East, then vote for Thibodeau.

It’s not just the defense, though that’s certainly a good place to start. The Knicks are tops in the league in opponents’ FG% and 3P% and top-10 in opponents’ 2P% and FT% (maybe FT% allowed isn’t something you can credit to the defense, but it makes for a lovely bookend), all with mostly the same cast of characters. The offense has improved from rubberneck-worthy (third-worst offensive rating a year ago) to unremarkably sub-par (eighth-worst). This is thanks in large part to New York’s 3P% rising from .337 last year (bottom 10th percentile) to .374 now (top 40th).

There is defense. There is coherence. There are young players improving. There is the semblance of a homecourt advantage. There is the growing likelihood of the Knicks’ first postseason in eight years. There is no coach more deserving of COY this year than the man from New Britain.

Leon Rose: Executive of the Year

All that improvement mentioned above has come while the Knicks retain possession of one of the league’s more enviable collections of draft picks and cap room. The only trade the team’s made so far this year — Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round pick — was a low-risk affair that’s yielding big rewards. The Knicks have re-made their front office, coaching staff, image and performance, all for the better, and that’s while getting next-to-nothing out of lottery pick Obi Toppin (but plenty out of Quickley at #25). L. Rose may suffer from being too new in his position to win this award; if he were Sam Presti or Masai Ujiri and had the Knicks in the same place they are now, best believe the buzz would be bigger, and building. But like lasagna, real Gs work in silence. Keep on keeping on, Leon.

SUGGESTION: All the Knicks mentioned above should win awards.

How many actually will? Check back in a few months.