It's only been five games and less than two weeks of play but it's never too early to overreact in the NBA!
Here are five takeaways from the first five matchups played by the New York Knicks (2-3) this season before they open the In-Season Tournament on Friday against Milwaukee.
RJ Barrett has been the best player on the team
Last season, the Knicks were led by Julius Randle, who made his second All-Star game, and Jalen Brunson, who had a breakout season. For much of the year, it was those two who helped propel New York to the best season the franchise has had in a decade. But this season, it has been RJ Barrett, not Randle or Brunson, who has been the best and most consistent player.
The former number three pick has been notorious for starting out seasons slow but he’s surprised many so far by averaging 21 PPG on an efficient 45.3% from the field and 42.9% from three. And it’s not just the counting stats either. The process on offense overall looks noticeably better as he’s been more decisive and willing to give the ball up, and on top of that, the defense looks better than it did for most of last season.
Now, we’ve seen Barrett put together solid stretches before and this is a very small sample size so we still have to wait and see if he can keep this up, but amidst what has been a very inconspicuous start to the season for the Knicks, he’s been one of the lone bright spots.
NBA Defensive FG% Leaders among Guards— KnicksMuse (@KnicksMuse) October 31, 2023
(Min. 30 FG Defended)
1. Jrue Holiday
2. RJ Barrett
3. DeMar Derozan
4. Jamal Murray
5. Terry Rozier pic.twitter.com/5KFgSN5nQG
Mitchell Robinson continues to impress
Another player that has been incredibly impressive is Mitchell Robinson. He may not always have the most eye-popping stats but Robinsons’ impact on both sides of the ball this season has been incredible.
Like Barrett, Robinson has always shown flashes of brilliance but between injury problems, foul troubles, and some inconsistency, he’s failed to be the kind of force we saw him be in the playoffs last year for a full season. Well, this season, he’s picked up right where he left off.
Robinson has started the 2023-24 campaign incredibly strong, looking spry and in shape, setting screens harder than ever, and being the rim protecting rebound machine we know he’s capable of being. He may be averaging a career-low 6.2 PPG but he’s currently also averaging a career-high 11.4 RPG and a career-low 1.8 fouls per game despite getting the most minutes per game.
Again, it’s a small sample size, but fans have got to like the way Robinson has been playing early on in the season.
NBA Offensive Rebounding Leaders this Season— KnicksMuse (@KnicksMuse) November 2, 2023
30 — Mitchell Robinson
21 — Jalen Duren
20 — Ausar Thompson
19 — Clint Capela
18 — John Collins pic.twitter.com/JZRCX0SA9s
Need to improve from outside the arc
Remember the last playoffs when we saw this team brick three after three? Remember how that came back to bite them in the butt? Remember how we went into the offseason knowing that was an area of concern? Well, the problem is still there.
Despite having six players average more than three 3-point attempts per game from downtown, the team only has two rotation players (Brunson and, surprisingly, Barrett) shooting them at a clip higher than 40%. This is is technically the same as last season which saw Brunson and Hart (who only attempted 2.1 threes per game) shoot over 40%, but this season’s struggles are worse because it is the high volume guys who are not shooting so great.
Randle, who shot 34.3% from three on 8.3 attempts per game, is shooting an abysmal 25.8% on 6.2 attempts per game thus far. There’s also Immanuel Quickley, who shot 37% from three on 5.6 attempts per game last season, but is shooting just 32.1% on 5.6 attempts per game this season. We also can’t forget about starting shooting guard Quentin Grimes, who finished last season shooting 38.6% from three on 5.7 attempts per game, but is shooting just 30.8% on 5.2 attempts per game this season.
It’s only been five games so there’s a solid chance that guys like Randle, Quickley, and Grimes see some positive regression, and the fact that the team still ranks 11th in 3-point makes is a positive takeaway. However, they are currently 19th in 3-point percentage. If New York wants to be taken seriously, this is certainly an area they’ll need to improve on going forward.
The bench can and should be better
Going into the season, many believed that the bench unit for the Knicks would be a strong point for the team. They had a reigning Sixth Man of the Year finalist in Immanuel Quickley to go along with a pair of veteran players capable of starting in Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein, and they also added a very solid guard in Donte DiVincenzo. And so far, the bench has been solid.
The backups have been playing with a good pace and are making good decisions as they rank 12th in bench points per game, fourth in bench rebounds per game, and tenth in bench assists per game. However, the bench unit is also just 17th in bench +/-.
Given the talent they have, the backups could be better and if the starters continue to struggle the way they have, they’ll likely need to be better as well.
It can be difficult to have a team be too reliant on the bench, but given the construction of this team, New York’s success, at least in the regular season, may fall on just how good this second unit can be.
What is going on with Julius Randle?
At this point, every fan has gone through the full Julius Randle experience. It includes amazement, frustration, excitement, anger, and just about any other emotion you can think of.
Thankfully for us Knicks fans, Randle gave us mostly positive emotions last season. The veteran forward made his second All-Star appearance and lead the team averaging 25.1 PPG adding 10 RPG and 4.1 APG to that thanks to a revamped jump shot and what seemed like a more calm and mature outlook. But this season... we’ve gotten mostly the bad versions of Randle.
The emotional breakouts and the frustrations don’t seem nearly as bad nowadays as they were two seasons ago when Randle was public enemy number one, but production wise, this may be the worst five-game stretch we’ve ever seen Randle play in a Knicks uniform. To begin the season, Randle is averaging just 13.2 PPG, 10.2 RPG, and 5.2 APG on 27.6% shooting from the field and 25.8% shooting from three.
To his credit, Randle had been somewhat patient in picking his moments on offense and being defensively engaged, but that was until last night’s ugly loss to the Cavaliers. It’s still too early to say if this is just Randle being rusty after rehabbing his ankle for much of the offseason or if Randle is just incapable of putting together two good seasons in a row.
It may be too early to hit the panic button on someone who is coming off a season as strong as his was, but fans may have to at least start looking for the panic button if this continues for another week or two.