Earlier this week, ESPN released its annual NBA predictions, where they have the Knicks winning just 39 games. The Knicks are far from an elite team, or one you would label a serious contender. But let’s remember, they won 37 games last season, in a year where so many things went wrong. The Kemba Walker Project did not go well, Julius Randle had a very disappointing season in which his efficiency took a significant drop. Both RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley started off the year incredibly slow. Derrick Rose missed most of the season. And Tom Thibodeau managed to find a different reason every night to run Alec Burks out there at point guard.
Yet even with all of those things happening, they won 37 games. So while there is a world where Randle continues to struggle, Barrett and Quickley get out of the gate slowly again, Rose runs into more injuries and Jalen Brunson somehow regresses, it seems unlikely that the Knicks manage just two more wins then they did last season. For a few reasons.
We have to start with is the addition of Jalen Brunson. Walker and Burks both had their moments, but we know they were not the answer at point guard, which happens to be a very important position. The team performed way better with Walker on the bench, and Burks, although a solid player, was overused by Thibodeau. In Brunson, the Knicks got a starting caliber point guard, something neither Walker and Burks were last season. Brunson showed last season, especially during the playoffs, that he is capable of carrying a team. He averaged 16.3 points per game, higher than Burks’ 11.7, while shooting 50% from the field, way better than Burks’ 39%, and he managed to average more assists (4.8) than both Burks and Walker while having a better assist-to-turnover ratio.
And while Brunson will have to share the floor with Barrett and Randle, two players who like to have the ball in their hands, he should still have a bigger role and more opportunities than he did when sharing the ball and floor with Luka Dončić. That’s something Knicks fans should be excited about. Last season, in games without Dončić, Brunson averaged 20.4 and 7.5 assists on 49.3% from the floor. If he can continue to improve this offseason, we could see an All-Star caliber performance from Brunson, which would obviously be a huge upgrade and should already add a few wins.
Secondly, we have to look at Randle. Now, he may never get back to his 2020-21 self, and that is completely fine. It may be tough for Randle to take a lesser role and take fewer shots with fewer ball-handling duties, but if he can do that and be somewhere in between where he was last year and the year before, then the Knicks would take that. Because with the talent on this team, he doesn’t need to have insane eye-popping counting stats. An efficient Randle like the player we saw during his time in New Orleans — more of a slasher and roll man — could help the Knicks tremendously. It may be a big if, but if the Knicks can get Randle back to being focused, motivated, confident, and trusting in his teammates, that should go a long way.
Then there is Barrett. Barrett showed tremendous growth last season as a secondary scorer; while his stats may not take the same kind of jump this season with Brunson now in the picture, there is no reason the believe that he can’t take the next step as a player. If he can become an even better shooter, playmaker and finisher, the Knicks will have a very solid three man punch on offense with Brunson, Randle and Barrett.
It is important to note though that as much we’d like to see his offense continue to grow, it may be his defense that makes the difference for this team. Barrett isn’t a lockdown defender, at least not consistently. But we have seen over his first three years that he is capable of defending some of the better offensive players in the league. We’ve seen the former Blue Devil have really good stretches guarding the likes of Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard.
With a starting lineup consisting of an undersized guard in Brunson, Evan Fournier — a revolving door most nights — and Randle, whose defensive effort is often tied to how he is shooting, Barrett will be tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing on most nights. It won’t always be a fun or pretty task, but how many wins the Knicks can muster up during the regular season may depend heavily on how willing he is to do the dirty work on that side of the ball.
Having Derrick Rose back should help get even more out of the second unit. If Rose can stay healthy, they should have a very exciting and solid bench core that will fight on defense and try to get out in transition, something that should benefit Obi Toppin. Both Quickley and Toppin showed a lot of growth last season, and if they keep the momentum and confidence they finished the season with, they could be in for a big year when given the minutes and opportunity.
You also have sophomores like Quentin Grimes, who looked like one of the best players during this year’s Summer League. Deuce McBride should bring great intensity on defense when called upon. Jericho Sims also showed a lot of promise this summer. And let’s not forget about newcomer Isaiah Hartenstein, one of the best rim protectors in the league last season, who adds some shooting off the bench as well.
Overall, this team is just better than last year’s. Sure, the East is still good. Boston surrounded their core with more playmaking and talent and should have a better and stronger regular season that they did last season. Philadelphia should be good once again, especially with James Harden looking healthier. Milwaukee, with Khris Middleton back in the mix, should be a shoe-in for a top-4 seed. Miami, with a healthy Kyle Lowry and crew, will be dangerous. And we haven’t even gotten to Atlanta, who’ve gotten better with the addition of Dejounte Murray. Cleveland should be good once again, as well as Chicago, who were very good when healthy.
I’m not here to claim that the Knicks are going to be at the top of the conference, or even be in the playoffs. However, if even a few of the things mentioned above go according to plan, they should be able to hover around .500 and win more than two more games than they did last season.