Early season Knicks trends to watch, including balancing depth while maximizing offensive talent

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Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin treated image, high fiving in white jerseys with grey background
Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin treated image, high fiving in white jerseys with grey background

The Knicks have lost two in a row. They’re 5-3 overall. And they play in Milwaukee on Friday night.

It’s still very early in the season, so it’s probably too early to make any big picture judgments on what the Knicks are – and what they aren’t.

But there are a few numbers/trends worth keeping an eye on after the first eight games:

1. HOW DO YOU UTILIZE YOUR DEPTH WHILE ALSO GETTING THE BEST OUT OF JULIUS RANDLE?

That, to me, is one of the bigger storylines after eight games. The Knicks have talked about their depth as a strength. And it is. Tom Thibodeau says, correctly, that the Knicks don’t have to rely on any one scorer to win games. There are a number of players who can lead the team in scoring on any given night.

In theory, it sounds perfect.

But in practice, it’s been a little bumpy. It looks like mainstays like Julius Randle and Derrick Rose are still getting accustomed to the egalitarian offense.

I want to stress again that it’s too early to glean much from stats at this point. But it’s interesting to note that Randle’s shot attempts per 100 possessions are down by 2.5 compared to last season. His field goal percentage is also down four percent from last season and his usage is down two percent.

There have been stretches where Randle seems to want to will his way to the basket, eschewing the team’s overarching ‘move the ball’ principle. And Thibodeau has said that he’d like Randle to take better advantage against double teams.

But Thibodeau also thinks the Knicks need to do a better job of getting Randle easy looks.

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) shoots the ball while Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) defends in the first half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) shoots the ball while Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) defends in the first half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“We have to continue to search him out,” Thibodeau said on Wednesday. “… If we keep moving and we move the ball and we search him out again, that’s the way I want us to play. I don’t want Julius to have to exert so much energy fighting double teams all the time. Just make the simple play and then we have to search him out to make sure we can keep him in rhythm too.”

The Knicks have ranked third in offensive efficiency thus far, so you’d think that scoring isn’t the issue. But scoring droughts in losses to Toronto and Indiana were crippling. So, the offensive adjustments made by Randle and his teammates bear watching.

Something else that’s worth keeping an eye on? Obi Toppin’s minutes. They aren’t going to increase at Randle’s expense, but you wonder if Toppin’s role will grow as the season progresses. He’s been effective as a roller off the bench for New York and although he’s had some defensive lapses, his speed seems to put consistent pressure on opposing defenses in transition.

2. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DEFENSE?

You probably expected the Knicks’ defense to take a hit early in the season. Mitchell Robinson is playing for the first time in seven months. Nerlens Noel missed the first seven games and the entire preseason due to a knee ailment and the club has had to adjust to life without Reggie Bullock, who was one of the driving forces behind their success last year.

But even if you expected some defensive regression, the results so far have been troubling. New York ranks bottom five in points allowed per 100 possessions and 17th in opponent three-point percentage.

The Knicks have been outscored during Robinson’s minutes. Same for Kemba Walker. Again, it’s too early to make any loud proclamations based on stats, but these numbers are worth keeping an eye on.

New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) and Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) fight for a rebound in the second half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse
New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) and Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) fight for a rebound in the second half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse

Some of the defensive issues are a natural byproduct of shooting more threes as the Knicks are 10th in three-point rate this season. By contrast, they were in the bottom five in three-point rate last season. Those missed threes will inevitably lead to some easy baskets for opponents.

But let’s see where the Knicks are a few weeks from now. Robinson should be in better shape and Noel will have knocked off some rust. If New York is still at the bottom of the defensive metrics in late December, then it will be a cause for concern.

3. RJ BARRETT’S BIG JUMP

One early season positive for New York? RJ Barrett. He’s taken an early season leap in Year 3. Last year, he showed the league that he can shoot consistently from the perimeter. Now, he seems to be showing the league a bit more.

Nov 3, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) shoots the ball while Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert (22) defends in the first quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Nov 3, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) shoots the ball while Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert (22) defends in the first quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

He’s averaging 19 points per game and shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. More impressively, he’s shooting a career-high 55 percent on two-point shots.

“He looks fabulous out there. Looks like he’s really got control of his tempo. He’s playing the game at his tempo,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who coached Barrett with Team Canada over the summer. “He’s really mature for his age. I think he understands what being a pro is. I think he puts in a workday and a work year. He’s pretty calculated. Certainly, all the work he’s put in this summer is paying off.”

Barrett’s strong play has overshadowed some early season struggles from Immanuel Quickley (21 percent three-point shooting) that have weakened the Knicks’ bench performance. Quickley should be fine over time, but it’s worth wondering if he, Rose and Alec Burks will have trouble gelling together over the course of the season. Last year, Burks was at his best with Rose out and Rose was at his best with Burks out. Just something to keep an eye on moving forward.