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Comparing this season’s Knicks rotation to 2020-21

Big improvements in just 24 months

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With a playoff birth finally clinched, now seemed like a perfect time to take a look at the last Knicks team to make the playoffs and see what has changed.

First and foremost, is the point guard position, which has undergone the biggest change. In 2021, the Knicks entered the postseason with Elfrid Payton as their starting point guard. Coming off of an incredibly mediocre regular season in which he averaged 10.1 PPG, 3.2 APG, and 3.4 RPG on 43.2% shooting, Payton was the source of a lot of frustration for fans. Payton was a player who had some nice flashes with some above-average defense, playmaking potential, and ability to get into the lane. But his lack of three-point shooting, inability to finish around the rim consistently, and struggles against the elite point guards in the league left the Knicks incredibly weak at a point guard position that is incredibly important.

This season, the Knicks will have the luxury of trotting out Jalen Brunson as their starting point guard. The former Maverick is currently averaging 24 PPG, 6.2 APG and 3.5 RPG on 49.1% from the field, 41.6% from three, and 82.9% from the free throw line. Brunson is a significantly worse defender than Payton but he more than makes up for it by being better than Payton at pretty much every aspect on offense. Brunson is a better playmaker, finisher, and shooter, and unlike Payton, has the ability to completely take over games, both in the regular season, and in the playoffs. Brunson over Payton is an incredibly clear and large upgrade for New York.

Next up is the intriguing move from Reggie Bullock to Quentin Grimes. That season, Bullock averaged 10.9 PPG on 44.2% from the field and 41% from three with 2.5 threes per game, which is incredibly similar to the 11.1 PPG on 46.5% from the field and 38.1% from three with 2.1 threes per game that Grimes is currently posting. Despite their roles on their perspective teams being similar, Grimes should still get the nod here as an upgrade. While Bullock has the advantage of having way more experience, Grimes is a better playmaker and driver, while being just as lethal from three. In his 2020-21 campaign, Bullock’s season high in points and assists were 24 and 4 respectively, while Grimes’ are 33 and 8 respectively. And it isn’t just on the offensive end either. Bullock is certainly a capable defender who had some nice defensive games for the Knicks that season but Grimes’ youth, athleticism, and instincts put him over the top on that end of the floor as well. This was a close one but Grimes, so long as he plays the way he has in the regular season, should be an upgrade over Bullock, who struggled mightily in his lone playoff series as a Knick, averaging just 8.8 PPG on 38.5% from the field and 34.5% from three.

Starting at small forward should be RJ Barrett, who is just one of two starters remaining from that team. This one is a pretty difficult discussion because Barrett, despite struggling with consistency this season, is probably still a better player than he was two seasons ago, but that version of Barrett may actually be a better fit on this current squad. In the 2020-21 season, Barrett, who was in just his second season, averaged 17.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG, and 3 APG on 44.1% from the field and 40.1% from three. This season, the former Blue Devil averaged 19.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 2.7 APG on 43.3% from the field and a career-worst 31.7% from three. The current iteration of Barrett is an improved ball-handler, and finisher, but clearly inferior as a defender and shooter, two things that the Knicks could use more of right now. Because he has improved and his shot as well as his defense, while unrealistic, could come back for the playoffs, this can be marked as a very optimistic and hopeful upgrade but should realistically be marked as a side grade.

Likely the biggest X-factor for both the Hawks series and the upcoming playoffs, is Julius Randle. Two seasons ago, Randle had himself a career-year averaging 24.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG, and 6APG on 45.6% from the field and 41.1% from three, but came up short in the playoffs. The All-Star forward badly underperformed and averaged just 18 PPG on an abysmal 29.8% from the field. And despite the fact that Randle one upped himself by going out and averaging a career-high 25.1 PPG to go along with 10 RPG and 4.1 APG on 45.9% shooting, there are concerns about how he’ll perform in the playoffs. If Randle had showcased other playoff runs where he was good, then it would be easy to write off that Hawks series as a fluke or as a one-time thing, but because that was Randle’s only playoff appearance, it does make us question if Randle can step up in the playoffs this time around. And we can’t forget that he’ll be coming off an injury as well. That being said, Randle has changed his game a bit, and he’ll have the help of Brunson as well. While he may experience a bit of a drop off in what should be a physical and closely contested series against a good Cleveland Cavaliers defense, it should be safe to say that Randle has learned from his previous playoff experience and will be better than he was two season ago. Mark this as a clear upgrade.

While Mitchell Robinson was on the team two seasons ago, some forget that he wasn’t available for the playoffs. It hurt the team noticeably. While Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson tried their hardest, neither had the vertical finishing ability of Robinson, allowing the Hawks to load up in the paint and make things even more difficult for a struggling Randle. This time around, Robinson will hopefully go into the playoffs healthy and be the dominant rebounding and paint-protecting force the team will need. Robinson does so much for the Knicks and impacts the game in so many ways and should be a clear upgrade over Noel.

Then there is the bench unit, which both teams relied on heavily throughout the season. We can start off with Immanuel Quickley since he is one of the couple bench players who was on the 2020-21 team. This goes without saying but the current version of Quickley is a significantly better player than the one we saw in the playoffs two seasons ago. That year, Quickley, who was still a rookie, averaged 11.4 PPG and 2 APG on 39.5% from the field. The neophyte showed some really nice flashes of being a game changer who could instantly heat up from beyond the arc but never fully developed the consistency to match his confidence. Fast-forward two seasons and Quickley had turned himself into a leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award. A large part of that is because of the overall improvements Quickley had made. He’s a better and more well-rounded scorer, a much improved passer and decision maker, and his ability to be a defensive hound, had turned him into one of the most valuable players for the current Knicks. Easy win for this year’s Quickley.

Next up is a tough one because we’ll be comparing two completely different types of players who impact the game at a very high level. There’s Derrick Rose, who came to the Knicks midseason and ended up being such an important part of what the Knicks were able to accomplish that season. And when Randle ended up underperforming, it was Rose that stepped up and became the best Knicks player during that Hawks series. Throughout the five game series, the veteran point guard averaged 19.4 PPG, 5 APG, and 4 RPG on 47.6% from the field.

Then there’s Josh Hart, who should get a lot of minutes, like Rose did, but will never post those kinds of numbers. Since becoming a Knicks, Hart is averaging 10.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, and 3.7 APG on an incredibly efficient 61.4% from the field. Those numbers don’t really compare to what Rose did individually, at least not on the stat sheet. But Hart does so many things that can’t really be quantified. The extra passes that often end up being hockey assists, the hustle plays, setting good screens, pushing the tempo, cutting just to open up lanes for other guys, Hart does all this and more. These winning plays make him a truly unique yet important part of the team’s strategy and strength. That being said, it’s hard to outdo what Rose did during the Hawks series and the advantage will go to the veteran point guard. Side note, there is also Alec Burks, who quietly averaged 14 PPG, 5 RPG and 2.6 APG during that series and a comparison between he and Hart may be a more fair and closer one. One in which I would give the advantage to Hart.

Last but not least, are the backup bigs. The incredibly random showdown of Taj Gibson vs. Isaiah Hartenstein that nobody ever thought would take place. The former averaged 5 PPG, 7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, and 1 BPG. Uncle Taj ended up starting three games that series because of Nerlens Noel’s injuries and ineffectiveness against Atlanta. Gibson gave New York all that he could and provided them with some key rebounds but ultimately, was not too much of a factor. While Hartenstein may not be dominant or win games on his own, there is a higher chance of him being more impactful given his skillset. Hartenstein is averaging 5 PPG, 6.6 RPG, and 1.2 APG this season, but in his four games against the Cavaliers this season, Hartenstein is averaging 7.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1 SPG, and 1.3 BPG. Gibson may have the physicality and experience advantage but given Hartenstein’s passing ability and recent effectiveness against the Cavaliers, he gets the slight nod.

Obviously there are guys that are missing here. Obi Toppin, Deuce McBride, Evan Fournier, and Jericho Sims could all get increased minutes or larger roles during the series if there are injuries or foul trouble, but the rotation tends to shorten up in the playoffs and outside of Toppin potentially getting an opportunity to win back some minutes, it isn’t really worth contemplating the what-ifs of the other bench players who likely won’t see any real significant action.

And overall, it’s clear that this version of the Knicks are better. Sure the 2020-21 team finished as a higher seed but this year’s roster, is just way better all around. The starting point guard went from Payton to a borderline All-Star in Brunson, Grimes given his play of late and his defensive abilities, should be an upgrade over Bullock, Randle should be better than he was last playoffs, Robinson is better than Noel at pretty much everything, Quickley is a way better player than he was two seasons ago and Hartenstein should provide more versatility, value, and impact than Gibson. They will be playing a very different and very good Cavaliers team but strictly looking at New York’s roster, we should see a better performance this time around regardless of what the end result ends up being.