Knicks All-Star Break Notes: Josh Hart's start, analyzing the front office, and inconsistent RJ Barrett
A few notes thoughts on the Knicks as they head into the All-Star Break:
HART-WARMING EARLY RETURNS
Josh Hart has played 77 minutes as a Knick. The Knicks have outscored their opponents by a combined 41 points in those minutes.
Not a bad first impression.
“He’s a great fit for (Tom Thibodeau),” an opposing assistant coach said of Hart. “The perfect Thibs guy.”
You don’t judge a trade after six days. But the early returns on the Hart deal are promising.
Hart gives the Knicks’ second unit – and their closing lineups – defensive versatility. Hart has matched up against lead guards, guards playing off the ball and wings in his first thee Knick games.
That versatility is one of several elements that make Hart ‘the perfect Thibs guy.’
“The thing I love about what Josh does for the team is, it’s for the team. Everything,” Thibodeau said earlier this week. “There’s a lot of guys who score points in this league, and they really don’t impact winning the way Josh impacts winning. It’s just tough plays, a hustle play, kill yourself to get back (on defense). We turn it over, sprint back, steal the ball back.
“Plays like that give your team a lot of confidence. It’s a lot of dirty work, but it’s also the glue of your team. It helps you stick together. There’s going to be ups and downs during a game, a season, and those types of guys are the type that help you build a winning culture.”
You know Thibodeau likes Hart because he’s played him heavy fourth-quarter minutes. Hart is averaging 10 fourth-quarter minutes in his first three Knick games. New York is +20 in those fourth-quarter minutes, per NBA.com.
Again, it’s early. So any of Hart’s Knicks statistics should be viewed with proper perspective. But Hart also seems to enjoy the role he’s playing for Thibodeau thus far.
Look at his shot profile: Hart has taken 14 threes in the past three games. Forty-eight percent of his attempts as a Knick have come from beyond the arc. Thirty-two percent of Hart’s attempts this season with the Blazers were from beyond the arc. Hart credits Thibodeau for putting him in position to take and make those shots.
“He’s giving me the ability to make plays, to do ball screens, get dribble handoffs and just have the ultimate green light,” Hart said of Thibodeau earlier this week. “So it gives me that confidence, so now those catch-and-shoot shots are more in rhythm.”
Hart has already expressed optimism about staying in New York long-term. He has a player option for the 2023-24 season. But those are conversations for late June.
At the moment, Hart seems focused on finding his footing in New York. So far, so good.
“I’m just a blue collar guy; I think that’s really going to work well here,” he says.
TOUGH TEST AHEAD
The Knicks enter the break in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. They are two games behind Brooklyn and a half-game ahead of Miami. New York has the eighth-toughest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com. The Knicks’ remaining opponents have a winning percentage of .512. Remaining opponents for the Nets and Heat actually have the same winning percentage. New York has one game left against Brooklyn (March 1) and three against the Heat (two road games).
One positive for the Knicks? They have three games in March where they’re at a rest advantage (facing a team that is playing a second game of a back-to-back). And they have two games where they’re at a rest disadvantage. March is one of just two months this season where New York has a net-positive in rest advantage games.
NYK = COMPETENT?
Team president Leon Rose and his group are trying to do something that no one in pro sports has accomplished in the last 20-plus years: Build a winning NBA team at Madison Square Garden. They’ve been at it for roughly three years. In that time, Rose & Co. have had some hits (strong drafts; Jalen Brunson signing) and misses (most of their 2021 free agent decisions; the Cam Reddish trade). Ultimately, I think the group will be judged mostly on moves yet to come; namely, the trade they make – or don’t make – for a star player. But if you look at their decisions over the past three years, even the harshest Knicks critic would agree that they’ve proved to be competent.
That may seem like a low bar or back-handed compliment. It isn’t. Rose & Co. have a foundation to build off of. That’s not something you could say about the Knicks very often over the past two-plus decades.
They saw something in Brunson that several other teams around the league didn’t see. The Hartenstein signing looks solid. And, as noted above, the early returns on the Hart trade have been strong.
Obviously, the signings in the 2021 offseason backfired. The Reddish trade didn’t work on the court and revealed fissures in the organization. Not every draft pick has been a home run (the Knicks’ thought process behind taking Obi Toppin remains questionable, at best).
But the Knicks have the assets in place to trade for a star player. And they’ve been able to (mostly) maintain those assets while winning games. That’s a level of competency that you haven’t seen often at 2 Penn Plaza over the past two decades.
WHAT ABOUT RJ?
RJ Barrett has had an up-and-down season so far. Over the last five weeks, he’s shooting 43 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc. The Knicks’ plus-minus with Barrett on the floor in that span is -88, per Basketball-reference. How can the Knicks get Barrett trending in the right direction over the next seven weeks?
Before his finger dislocation, Barrett seemed to have a good rhythm with the starters and the second unit. The numbers indicate that something has been different since he returned from injury. Based on his career in New York, I wouldn’t bet against Barrett bouncing back and figuring it out. He’s battled through poor shooting stretches in the past and come out on the other side of them just fine. I don’t think this stretch is any different. But the Knicks need to get more from Barrett on both ends of the floor after the All-Star break.
KEEP AN EYE ON CAM?
Reddish’s Knicks tenure ended with 38 consecutive DNPs. He’s been eligible to play in three games since being traded to Portland. And he’s played in all of them, averaging 11.3 points on 48 percent shooting in 23 minutes per game. Reddish hit 41 percent of his three-point shots in his first three games as a Blazer. He’s also averaged two rebounds, 1.7 assists and one steal per game.
Three games is too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions from. But it will be interesting to see how Reddish plays for the Blazers the rest of the way.
If all goes according to the Knicks’ plan, Hart bolsters their rotation, helps them get back to the playoffs and the Reddish trade is an afterthought. But if Reddish continues to play well and the Knicks stumble, the Reddish transaction will draw added scrutiny. New York traded a protected first-round pick and Kevin Knox to Atlanta for Reddish in January 2022. They traded Reddish and a lottery protected first-round pick for Hart in February 2023.
It’s not clear why things went so poorly for Reddish and the Knicks during his tenure. We took a look at it in a recent reader mailbag, noting that Reddish had expressed displeasure with his role under Thibodeau to a Knicks assistant coach. One additional note on that: in his conversations with that assistant coach about his role, Reddish said that he’d like the assistant to relay the message to Thibodeau. So the assistant was not breaking the trust of Reddish by relaying the player’s thoughts to the head coach.
KNICKS SEEM TO HAVE A GOOD LOCKER ROOM
Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers has great perspective on team chemistry. HE says you don’t know how to define it, but you know when you have it. And you know when you don’t have it. Based on our observations so far this year, the Knicks seem to have good cohesion in the locker room.
One piece of evidence to support the theory that they like each other? Every Knick player and coach showed up to Brunson’s jersey retirement at Villanova earlier this month.
“Just seeing them there, that was special,” Brunson said.
This isn’t something you can quantify, but it seems like a sign that the Knicks have a good locker room. Does that matter? Who knows? In 2012-2013, almost every Knick showed up to an event organized by Tyson Chandler. That team seemed to like each other. They won 54 games and a playoff series. The next year, there weren’t many teammates on hand at one of Carmelo Anthony’s events. That team went a disappointing 37-45.
All of this is anecdotal. It can’t be tracked by an advanced statistic. But it seems to me that the Knicks’ attendance for Brunson’s jersey retirement is a sign of team cohesion.