To middle or to tank? The question has divided fans for years. Thankfully the 2022-23 New York Knicks have had a pretty clear sense of their ambition since back-to-back December wins at Utah and Denver saved the season and possibly Tom Thibodeau’s neck. The goal is widely accepted: get to the playoffs and accord themselves honorably. Despite the likelihood that the Knicks will enter this postseason as a lower seed than they did in 2021, they’re a better bet to make some noise this time. The seeds of whatever success they achieve traces it roots back to that disastrous series against Atlanta.
History will remember that series as Derrick Rose’s swan song. Less fun for the hippocampus is being reminded how poorly the rest of the guards and wings shot. From the field and from deep, Immanuel Quickley was 30% and 36%, Reggie Bullock 39% and 35%, Alec Burks 43% and 33% and RJ Barrett 39% and 29%. The chicken to that egg was how poorly the Knicks’ offensive hub struggled: Julius Randle shot just 30% and 33% after dominating the Hawks during that regular season. What changed?
Over the course of that regular season, when Randle played at demigod level, most teams guarded him with bigs, usually 4s close to his size. The Hawks guarded him with smaller, quicker players, negating the advantage Randle enjoyed against most bigs. With Mitchell Robinson out injured for the series, Atlanta’s Clint Capela was free to roam, justifiably unconcerned with Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel. Randle was frequently guarded on the perimeter by the likes of Bogdan Bogdanović, Kevin Huerter and even Trae Young, with Capela monitoring from the paint. Randle didn’t know what him and there was no one there to help carry that load.
Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock can do some things, but not the things the Knicks needed to go from playoffs-in-name-only to leaving a higher seed bruised and remembering them. Kemba Walker’s offensive resume was the best this franchise has had since Starbury; Evan Fournier was at least in Bullock’s class as a shooter, with the added benefit of some off-the-dribble closeout-counter juice. It was the right idea, on one side of the ball: give defenses other guys to worry about and Randle won’t face the same smothering attention he did in the playoffs; that way Randle will play better, in turn making those other guys’ jobs easier, making them even more worrisome. Picture a wave.
But injuries robbed Walker of his hometown Hollywood ending, while Fournier was nowhere near Bullock’s class as a defender. The Knicks’ experiment didn’t pan out. But just because the lessons of 2021 weren’t applied in 2022 didn’t mean they couldn’t be re-tooled for 2023. It’s why pencils have erasers, keyboards have backspace buttons and memory is mutable: the editing is where the magic happens.
In my day job I see essays all the time whose first draft is a failing paper and whose final gets an A. One of the surest signs that someone’s on that trajectory: their first edited draft. If there’s significant improvement there, it usually indicates someone driven enough and capable enough to take it as far as they want. Leon Rose and Co. got right to work revising their original plan. In retrospect it looks obvious. The best writing looks effortless. It isn’t.
How do you improve on the Kemba plan? By signing Brunson, another offensively gifted point guard who’s six years younger, who came to the Knicks with 2500 fewer minutes on his legs than Kemba had at the same age and half as many free throw attempts (which, given that Brunson is top-20 this season in free throw attempts, goes to show just how much less of a beating he’s taken than Kemba had when he pulled up). Instead of hoping for whatever fading light a dying star has left, the Knicks signed a new one, one that’s turned out brilliantly.
What kind of player do you replace Fournier with? Somebody eight years younger who defends like it’s his job (which it is, but not everybody acts that way) who’s faster, more athletic and has upside off the bounce and at the rim. Grimes has slipped a bit this year from deep, but has also increased his attempts and efficiency while tripling his attempts from 0-3 feet, to where his true shooting and effective field-goal percentages of both higher than last year. Whatever he ends up being, there’s a good chance he’s more than just a 3-and-Der.
These are two enormous upgrades over the past few years. What will it mean come playoff time? Their opponent will help determine that, as will their health. There is real reason to think this Knicks team could be ready for an upset. Randle is succeeding in a far more sustainable fashion. The more Brunson shows out, the more he seems to have something to prove. RJ is historically a better player as the season progresses. The backcourt is legitimate. The last two playoff series the Knicks have had saw them bossed in the paint by Roy Hibbert and Capela. A healthy Mitchell Robinson puts a stop to that; even if he were injured again this spring, Isaiah Hartenstein and Jericho Sims seem up for a fight.
There’s been more joy than not in Mudville here the past few years, which is a joy in and of itself. Much of the credit goes to those who’ve received most of it. But don’t forget history’s hidden figures, the marble that over time becomes the masterpiece. From Soundview to Saint-Maurice and beyond, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier: we salute thee.