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The encouraging early signs of a revamped Knicks offense

A refreshing and fun brand of passing and pushing the pace: Is it just a fluke or is it here to stay?

NBA: New York Knicks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks have only played three games so far this season, but one thing is evident; the offense has been playing at a faster pace and with more cohesion than we saw last season. Perhaps using an overtime game against a Memphis team that has the second lowest worst defensive rating in the league, a game against a young Pistons team lacking good defenders, and a game against a Magic team that also ranks in the bottom 10 defensively is far from a good measuring stick for a team’s offense. So far, however, fans have got to be pleasantly surprised.

A Knicks team that ranked 26th in the league in points scored per game last season at 106.5, currently has the sixth-highest scoring team with 119 points per game. Much of this is due to their newfound pace. While Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau alluded to wanting to play at a faster pace this season, it was hard for fans to buy in, as they’d heard similar comments in the past with very little actual results. But this time around, it seems like the effort to change is there more than ever. The Knicks were a very slow team last season ranking 27th in pace last season at 98.4 possessions per game, but now rank 12th at 101.9 possessions per game. With the rebounders and playmakers looking to push the pace, they’ve been able to find easy baskets, which in turn helps them set up the defense in an attempt to get a stop and push the pace again.

To the surprise of many, it’s not just the pace and transition offense that has improved. The Knicks currently rank ninth in passes per game with 294.3, a big improvement on their 2021-22 ranking of 20th with just 279. This increase in passing (mostly in the half court) has also lead to an improvement in their assist numbers as they have gone from having the fewest assists per game last season (21.9), to having the tenth-most assists per game (27) so far this season. Even more impressive is the fact that they have managed to up their assist numbers by a significant margin without committing more turnovers. In fact, they actually average fewer turnovers this year (12.7) than they did last season (13.2).

While this kind of philosophical and stylistic change takes commitment and sacrifice from the whole team, we have to shout out Randle, Brunson, and obviously coach Thibodeau for the part that they’ve played in turning around the offense.

After being criticized as a shot-hunting ball hog who makes slow decisions, Randle has come into the season ready to run and willing to give up the ball. It’s still too early to fully proclaim that Randle is back to being the type of player that Knicks fans can fall in love with once again, but through the four-game preseason and three early regular-season games, he’s looked like a completely different player. Randle is currently averaging 21.3 PPG, 9.7 RPG, and 3.3 APG while committing just 1.7 TPG, the fewest of his career. And to the delight of many, he’s doing all of this at an incredibly efficient clip. While his numbers will eventually come down to earth, he’s shooting 51.1% from the field and an unbelievable 62.1% from inside the arc.

And it isn’t just the the stats talking — so far, his improved play has unquestionably passed the eye test. No longer does he automatically default to isolation plays that end in contested step back jumpers or forced drives in to three defenders. Randle looks to be more alert and understanding of what the defense is doing even before he gets the ball resulting in the ability to make quicker decisions once he does receive it. Take the action below for example. Instead of catching the ball after the screen and facing up for an isolation play, he gets the ball and immediately goes up for a floater, something he very rarely did in the past. Whether it’s going up for a jump shot, using his strength to drive by guys and finish at the rim, or passing the ball around, his decisions so far have mostly been on time and on point.

While Randle and his willingness to trust his teammates and give up the ball more definitely deserves a lot of credit, the change in his playstyle may also be because of the change in his role. And that’s where Brunson comes in. With the newly acquired point guard taking the reins as the primary ballhandler and playmaker, Randle has been able to slide over as the secondary playmaker, something he seems more comfortable and well-equipped to do.

“He has a great understanding of the game, and I think that’s probably the most important thing,” Thibodeau said of his new point guard. And it has shown so far. The crafty Brunson has done a great job of getting guys in the right spots, and making the right reads and he does so with a level or precision that has led to an impressive 21:3 assist to turnover ratio (tied for tenth in the league) over the first three games of the season.

Thibodeau praised Brunson’s ability to know when to go and when to pass and it seems like that’s rubbed off on not just Randle but the team in general. We’ve now seen guys like RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Cam Reddish, and others make the extra pass more often and get rid of the ball more quickly.

Last but not least, there is Thibs: a coach we have all, at one point or another, criticized for his lack of offensive creativity. Yet here we are watching a team that looks completely different on that end of the floor. Randle buying in once again helps tremendously, as does the addition of Brunson. But without him continuously insisting on pushing the pace and preaching the need to move the ball and move without the ball, we probably wouldn’t see these kinds of results so quickly.

This is not the same team we saw Thibs coach the last few years, and we can only hope that is stays this way. If we are going to fire criticisms his way when the offense looks bad, he deserves credit when it looks good.

Again, it’s still very very early in the season. We have 79 more games to see if this is just a fluke or if Thibodeau, Brunson and Randle have found a way to completely turn around this offense. But if the team has bought in and can remain committed to this new style and guys like Barrett and Quickley can shoot the ball like they did in the second half of last season, then this Knicks team could find a way to become one of the deadlier offenses in the league.