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The Knicks’ bench has been their dark horse MVP

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This is where you’ll find most of the Big 15.

New York Knicks v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When one thinks of famous troikas to have graced Madison Square Garden over the years, certain names come to mind: Riordan/Russell/Stallworth. Hadfield/Ratelle/Gilbert. Graves/Messier/Kovalev. Crosby, Stills and Nash.

J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tim Hardaway Jr. are not generally thought of as residing in that rarefied air. But in the 2013-14 season, that trio pulled off a rare feat: they each averaged double-figure points off the bench. History remembers but in this case shrugs at the memory. That Knick team dropped from 54 wins the year before to 37 and kick-started seven straight years missing the playoffs, tying a franchise worst. When the forest catches fire, nobody’s stopping to admire individual trees.

This season the Knicks boast one of their strongest benches in...decades? Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley are all averaging double-figures scoring. Each has suffered an extended absence — Quickley missed four games after an opening-night hip pointer; COVID cost Rose 10 games and kept Burks out of the last nine — and yet the unit as a whole hasn’t really missed a beat all year, owing also to bench bigs Nerlens Noel (deputized as the starter after Mitchell Robinson went down), Taj Gibson and Obi Toppin.

Rose, Burks and Quickley have each brought shooting and playmaking to Knick lineups. Their ability to create for themselves and others introduces an element of uncertainty that doesn’t exist when your reserve guards are Wayne Ellington or Ron Baker. There used to be a pitcher named Kyle Farnsworth. Dude threw over 100 but there was no movement to misdirect; it was straight as an arrow. If you know what’s coming — or not — it’s a lot easier to be ready for it. The Knick guards this year are harder to deal with because they can all do things. Multiple things. And they’re a Hydra: even if one is having an off-night or out with an injury, the others rise to replace that productivity.

RBQ as a three-man lineup have a net rating of 16.4 in 250 minutes together. Four-man lineups featuring those three with any of the three bench bigs are all similarly positive: with Taj they’re 14.9, with Noel 16.5 and with Obi 18.3. A five-man lineup that includes the three guards, Gibson and Toppin has a rating over 20. The Knick bench works in all sorts of ways, whether working with a ground-bound wily veteran, a rim-running shot blocker or a high-flying rookie. The versatility of the big men is an asset because of the consistency of the guards.

Some players lose their game completely when they lose their athletic edge. Not Rose. He’s not the athletic marvel he broke into the league as, but muscle memory can take you a long way if its memories are of being MVP.

Rose’s dribble is as second-nature to him now as it was back in his Chicago days. Having the body control he does plus the ball-handling positions him to exploit momentary lapses with quick strikes. Randle pokes and probes the defense like a fencer testing their opponent with jabs and feints. Rose’s game is a switchblade at a knife fight: quick flashes carving you up.

Rose is second on the team in assist percentage, trailing only Randle. His assist percentage is nearly triple his turnover percentage, something he’s only pulled off once in his career. His role has shrunk from his heyday, but his impact remains critical.

In a Knicks season defined by pleasant surprises, few have been more pleasant or surprising than Burks.

The amalgamated rankings are big fans of AB, too.

Not only has Burks brought 3-point presence and off-the-dribble chops, his contributions are concentrated across the board. Despite ranking just sixth on the team in minutes per game, he’s third in 3-pointers made and attempted, fourth in free throws made and attempted and fifth in assists. Plus once the game gets late, Burks gets great.

Quickley doesn’t figure to suffer the same All-Rookie Teams freeze-out RJ Barrett did a year ago. Individual player ratings should be taken with a grain of salt, but sometimes it just be’s that way, papi.

He seems to have rediscovered his mojo just in time: after scoring double-figures in 62% of the Knicks’ first 42 games, Quickley slumped for almost a month, doing so only twice over the next 11. In the past six he has five times, showcasing the multiplex of moves that had fans so excited back in the season’s early days. The drive-and-scoop game.

The pick-and-roll mastery.

The bombardier-ing.

Noel has been starting since Mitchell Robinson went down with a fractured foot in mid-February, which has had two interesting and unforeseen consequences. Noel has been so good as a starter the Knicks not only haven’t stumbled while missing Mitch, they’ve taken off, going 24-13 in his absence. Noel leads the team in steals and blocks, ranking third in the NBA in the latter. And while the bench lost Noel it never lost the plot, thanks to Taj Gibson.

Per 36, the 35-year-old Brooklyn product is averaging nearly a double-double while making a career-best 63% of his shots, posting his highest steal rate ever and his best block rate since he was 27. Given that the Knicks are paying Taj, Noel and Mitch less than $8M guaranteed this season, it’s hard to imagine any teams outside of Denver and Philadelphia getting a better deal from the 5 spot this year than New York. It’s also hard to imagine what the center spot will look like a year from now. But that’s for then. Now is too nice to get ahead of.

Toppin’s season has been a slow but steady climb to the point that he’s now a nightly contributor. He doesn’t get a ton of run, but he’s playing with more confidence than he did a few months ago, particularly when paired with Rose. Toppin has improved his shooting, especially over the last five weeks. Before then, in the season’s first 35 games, Toppin shot 50% or better just under half of the time. Over the last 19 he’s done so nearly two-thirds of the time.

Even more incredible: the box scores say Toppin has blocked but a single shot in those 19 games. If you’ve watched him play, though, you know on the defensive end he’s become much more impactful as an impediment to shooters in or near the paint. He doesn’t block a lot of shots, but with a 7’2” wingspan he can be a bother on that end. Of late he has been.

It’ll be interesting to see how Tom Thibodeau uses the bench come playoff time. He’s referred to the Knicks’ depth as one of their strengths all season, but come the postseason rotations tend to shrink, as do minutes for some of the survivors. So far the bench has played a major role in New York advancing as far as they have. We’ll see how playoff opponents and their own coach’s instincts impact their signature on an exemplary campaign.

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