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The 2020 Knicks vs. the 2021 Knicks: by way of numbers & metaphors

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There’s a lot more smiling this season.

Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

ME: The 2021 Knicks are not like the 2020 Knicks. (gestures to crowd)

CROWD (in unison): How are the 2021 Knicks not like the 2020 Knicks?

ME: I’ll show you.

1) These Knicks are better.

BY THE NUMBERS: Last year after 37 games, David Fizdale’s Pearl Harbor plus Mike Miller’s Coral Sea were 10-27. At the All-Star break they stood 17-38. Tom Thibodeau’s Midway marauders are 19-18 as the league finally takes a breath — not so the players can take a much-needed break, but so a business that earns $4-9B annually can fly workers from all corners of the country to one centralized location during a pandemic for a glorified scrimmage the players clearly don’t care about. The 2020 Knicks didn’t win their 19th game until they’d lost 42. This year’s team is much better!

BY WAY OF METAPHOR: In 2000 I bought my first car, a 1988 white Chrysler LeBaron. I paid $20 for it.

It had cruise control, but half the time I used it the speed would just keep climbing on its own till I’d suddenly notice I was going 80 instead of 65. It also had a radio with preset stations I couldn’t adjust, all of which were random A.M. stations based in West Virginia and the Midwest. My second car cost a lot more and worked a lot better. The 2020 Knicks were a $20 car. The 2021 Knicks are your first dependable car. Dependable is luxury when all you’ve known is dysfunction. And ghost radio.

2) Those Knicks, while slow, were faster.

BY THE NUMBERS: The 2020 Knicks played at a bottom-five pace (98.6 possessions per 48 minutes). Pretty slothy, right? This year’s team is that same sloth after a six-pack of beer and a handful of Percocets. The Thibs’ Knicks are dead last at a pace of 96. And yet, the team is more successful? What do we make of that?

BY WAY OF METAPHOR: Whenever I struggle with a new challenge — a section of music when learning a new piano piece; a new level on a video game — my instinct is to go faster. I want to reassert my sense of control. The truth is it’s often better to slow down and remember that most successful actions are the product of many repetitions of smaller acts put together. Thibodeau’s team isn’t running — literally or figuratively — but they’re learning how to create and sustain momentum without stumbling over themselves. You can’t run until you can walk and it’s not walking until you’re able to stay upright. So far the Knicks are upright.

3) These Knicks get to the line less.

BY THE NUMBERS: The Knicks are taking 10.5% fewer free throws than they did a year ago. The slower pace doesn’t explain the drop: after ranking 12th in the league last year, they’re down to 18th. One fact that does: RJ Barrett is taking 25% fewer free throws than he did as a rookie. That may have less to do with RJ and more with the outside shooting around him. In 2020 Randle, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington took 19 3-pointers per 36 minutes and made 33% of them. This year Randle, Bullock and Alec Burks are attempting nearly as many (17.6), but making 39% of them. That means Barrett has more space to work. That means less cramming himself into tight traffic to try and force something and more free-range goodness.

It also means more threats opponents have to account for, leaving Barrett time and space that didn’t exist a year ago.

BY WAY OF METAPHOR: I was broke for years. I struggled to find work. Anytime a job offer came up, I took it. Who was I to say no? I needed money. There came a point where I was able to say no to an opportunity. That felt good! I didn’t need to always accept whatever I could get; I was able to hold out for better things because the situation around me improved. That’s RJ this season: better in part ‘cuz he’s freer to be better in part ‘cuz the people around him — his coaches and teammates — are better.

4) Those Knicks committed more fouls.

BY THE NUMBERS: The 2020 Knicks committed a little over 22 fouls per game. This year’s squad commits a little less than 21, a 6.5% drop. Pace may explain some of that, but a likelier explanation is their centers are less foul-prone. Last year Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson, who played the most at the pivot, combined for 9.2 fouls per 36 minutes. This year Mitch and Nerlens Noel have been the primary postmen and have only committed 7.8 fouls per 36, an 8.5% fall-off.

The Knicks don’t just have rim protection when both are healthy; they have rim protectors who are able to stay on the floor. Before fracturing his hand Robinson was playing a career-high 29 minutes a night. Filling in admirably with Mitch injured, Noel’s played 37+ minutes the past four games. Before that run he hadn’t played 37 minutes in any game since April 5, 2015, in a game for Philadelphia against New York. The leading scorers that night were Andrea Bargnani for the Knicks and Ish Smith and Hollis Thompson for the 76ers. His fouls per 36 are the lowest they’ve been since that 2015 season.

BY WAY OF METAPHOR: My daughter was bugging this morning. She’s in school remotely and today she had to do a math activity where a program timed how quickly she could get through a series of multiplication problems. She gets so anxious with that sort of thing it makes her nauseated. I tried to reassure her that what matters isn’t how she does with that activity, but that she takes this as an opportunity to test herself for how she responds to having to do something in school she doesn’t like, because that will happen throughout her life, too. She pointed out that it didn’t seem like the activity had anything to do with learning, which I told her was true. She took a few breaths, dove in, and not only finished it but had fun with it. I don’t know what Mitch and Noel figured out to persevere the way they have, but I’m grateful for it.

5) These Knicks defend really, really well.

BY THE NUMBERS: The 2020 Knicks led the NBA in but one defensive category — opponent FT%. That’s the Miss Congeniality of defensive honors. The 2021 Knicks lead the league in fewest points allowed, fewest field goals allowed, opponent FG% and opponent 3P% (all the numbers people say the Knicks should be giving up more 3s than they have so far, something to watch out for the rest of the season). Their ranking against opponents’ eFG% jumped from 20th a year ago to currently the best in the league. Their defensive rating’s climbed from 23rd to second. Last year they were 19th in opponents’ 3-pointers made; this year they’re 11th. In 2020 the Knicks were 23rd in opponents’ assists; now they’re 3rd. Opponent free throw attempts are down 10.5%.

BY WAY OF METAPHOR: The 2021 Knicks are the third little piggy, the one who made his house out of brick. The 2020 Knicks are the bacon in my fridge that I’m putting into the peanut butter and bacon banana bread my fiancee is convinced is a bad idea.

6) Those Knicks were awful on offense. These Knicks are a better brand of bad.

BY THE NUMBERS: The 2020 Knicks ranked 28th in offensive rating and 29th in eFG%. This year’s Knicks are 23rd and 25th, respectively.

BY WAY OF METAPHOR:

7) These Knicks are better.

BY WAY OF NUMBERS: We already went over this, but just to frame it in a new way: in 2020 only two Knicks — Mitch and Gibson — had a positive difference between their offensive and defensive ratings. Know how many have that this season? Seven: Mitch and Taj again, plus Randle, Noel, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and this son of a gun.

BY WAY OF METAPHOR: You know how the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with some standalone films and then slowly brought in more and more quality characters and intersecting storylines? The 2021 Knicks are like the first half of the first Avengers movie. They’re just coming together and beginning to figure out what they can do and who they can be.

There you have it: a numerical and metaphorical juxtaposition of last year’s latch-key kids and this year’s kumbaya. What’s next?