More than anything else, James Dolan and Leon Rose hired Tom Thibodeau to try to make the Knicks feel like the Knicks again. After a couple of mostly aimless decades flitting from one would-be savior and monorail sales pitch to the next, New York’s brain trust hired the least slick man on the planet because it didn’t want a dream anymore; it wanted a defense.
Between 2010 and 2020, the Knicks employed seven different head coaches and five different heads of basketball operations, but produced just one above-average defense. Enter Thibodeau, the hard-charging and ever-hoarse former defensive coordinator turned successful head coach of the Bulls (and somewhat less successful head coach of the Timberwolves), tapped by Knicks brass to restore the defensive commitment that defined the franchise throughout the title-contending Riley and Van Gundy eras, and that has only rarely been seen at Madison Square Garden this millennium.
The first season of the project went exceedingly well, as the Knicks finished fourth in defensive efficiency and made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. It wobbled in Year 2, as expected offensive upgrades Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier proved disastrous on the defensive end and New York slid down to 12th in points allowed per possession en route to a 37-45 finish. Through the first month of his third season on the bench, with the Knicks again below .500 and sputtering around the bottom five in a slew of defensive categories, it seemed like the wheels had fallen off, and that the Thibodeau coaching cycle was about to find a frustratingly familiar finish.
A funny thing happened on the way to the start of the Johnnie Bryant era, though: Thibodeau’s Knicks started getting stops and became one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
New York enters Tuesday’s matchup with the Warriors having won a league-best seven straight games and nine of 13 dating back to Nov. 21. The Knicks have outscored opponents by eight points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in that span, according to Cleaning the Glass — second-best in the NBA behind the resurgent and West-leading Grizzlies.
This recent run has propelled the Knicks to 13th in offensive efficiency for the season, despite still hanging around the middle of the pack in 3-point makes, attempts and accuracy. The secret weapon for Thibs’ crew? Offensive rebounding. When you’re not an elite shooting team, it helps to get more bites at the apple. Centers Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein both ranking in the top five in offensive rebounding rate for the season; only the Rockets have rebounded a higher share of their misses than the Knicks over the last month, and nobody’s averaging more second-chance points per game than New York.
The more notable leap, though, has come on the defensive end. Early in the season, the Knicks often looked disorganized and lethargic, frequently scrambled by simple actions; when they made mistakes, they rarely seemed interested in trying to make up for them with hustle and extra effort. Through its first 17 games, New York ranked 25th or worse in points allowed per possession, second-chance points allowed, fast-break points allowed, defensive rebounding rate and how often it let opponents get out in transition.
What a difference a month makes. Since Nov. 21, the Knicks rank third in points allowed per possession, second in defensive rebound rate, seventh in fast-break points allowed, fourth in opponent transition frequency and eighth in opponent transition efficiency. They’ve been better at preventing runouts, better at finishing possessions, better at the point of attack and cleaner off the ball — just, y’know, better.
So: What changed a month ago?
Well, for one thing, New York’s opponents hit one hell of a cold snap. After shooting 35.9% from 3-point range against the Knicks through 17 games, they’ve made just 31% of their long balls over the past 13 — the league’s lowest mark in that span. As we noted in discussing the Pelicans’ recent defensive improvement, studies have shown there’s only so much a defense can control regarding opponents hitting their 3-pointers; if they shoot 31.8% on lightly contested threes and 25.8% on uncontested threes, as New York’s opponents have in this stretch, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, that’s a pretty good place to start when you’re trying to figure out how a defense got better fast.
But while Thibodeau can’t control shooting luck, he can control playing time. About a month ago, he exerted that control, paring down to a nine-man rotation and finding a somewhat elegant solution to untangling New York’s crowded roster: He stopped playing his worst defensive players — or, at least, those who weren’t otherwise justifying minutes with their offensive play.
Fournier, whose value derived almost entirely from his ability to make jumpers but who’s shooting just 34.4% from the field, hasn’t played since Nov. 13. An injury-addled and steps-slow Derrick Rose (just 43% on 2-pointers) has been inactive for more games (eight) than he’s played non-garbage-time minutes (four games) in the last month.
Cam Reddish, the former lottery pick New York traded for in January, had struggled to sustain his occasional flashes, shooting just 30.4% from 3-point range; he hasn’t started in a month and is now firmly out of the rotation. When fellow former lottery pick Obi Toppin suffered a knee injury six games ago, it cost the Knicks a player whose electric work in transition has made him a cause célèbre for many fans; it also removed from the equation a player whose failings as a rim protector and defender in space have kept Thibodeau from ever fully trusting him. (To get a sense of just how frequently Reddish and Toppin falling asleep off the ball or missing rotations led to open shots for opponents, check out this great recent look at New York’s defense by Gibson Pyper of The Basketball Playbook.)
Shuffling those players out of the rotation made room for some new ones. Miles McBride stepped into Rose’s backup point guard spot off the bench, and the former West Virginia and G League standout has offered an injection of physicality tracking back on the defensive glass, on-time rotations and on-ball tenacity:
What does Deuce provide defensively?
The ability to switch the Spain PnR with a closeout recovery, force a shooter to put it on the floor, guard him one v one into a tough look, and dislodge Sabonis on the rebound.
Intelligence, talent, strength, toughness. pic.twitter.com/X2Fqx4edZE
— Rit Holtzman (@BenRitholtzNBA) December 12, 2022
Deuce’s shot hasn’t been falling — just 12-for-43 (27.9%) outside the restricted area — but the 22-year-old has more than made up for it with youthful exuberance and defensive disruption, averaging 2.4 steals and 3.4 deflections per 36 minutes of floor time. The new-look reserve backcourt of McBride and Immanuel Quickley — eligible for an extension of his rookie contract after the season and, in a perhaps-related story, the subject of trade rumors of late — has made life miserable on second-unit offenses: Opponents are scoring a microscopic 91.8 points per 100 possessions with Quickley and McBride on the floor.
As McBride has brought a defensive boost to the reserve corps, Quentin Grimes has given one to the starting five. When Grimes was on the shelf for most of the first month of the season with a left foot injury — a month that also saw Donovan Mitchell absolutely torch opposing defenses as he led the Cavaliers to the East’s upper echelon — it seemed ludicrous that Knicks brass might have ever considered him untouchable in trade talks with Utah. Maybe you still think that; after all, Mitchell’s averaging nearly 30 a game and making a bid for an All-NBA berth, while Grimes remains a role player who’s taken all of eight shots a game since returning to the starting lineup.
Watching Grimes since his return last month, though, it’s been clear why the Knicks — and perhaps Thibodeau in particular — prize him so highly. The second-year man out of Houston is a central-casting modern point-of-attack defender — an elite on-ball stopper with the size (6-foot-5 with a 6-8 wingspan, 205 pounds), quickness and smarts to body up opposing guards, stay connected around screens to avoid giving them daylight, mirror their footwork through every fake and feint, direct drivers into waiting help and force shooters to take tough looks with a hand in their faces.
Locking down the likes of Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, DeMar DeRozan and Tyrese Haliburton is an awfully tough job. Grimes makes it look … well, not easy, but possible, in a way that not many other perimeter defenders can manage:
According to The BBall Index’s game charting, no defender in the NBA has faced a more difficult matchup every night on average than Grimes. Even so, opponents are shooting just 38.3% when he’s the closest defender, according to Second Spectrum — the fifth-lowest mark among players to guard at least 150 shots. That ability to blanket top-flight scoring threats is incredibly valuable, both in and of itself — defensive estimated plus-minus pegs Grimes as the third-highest impact defender in the entire league thus far this season — and because of the knock-on effect it has across the Knicks’ rotation.
Before Thibs shuffled the deck, Knicks defenders were getting “blown by” 11.7 times per 100 drives, according to Second Spectrum — ninth-most in the NBA. Since slotting Grimes and McBride into the mix, that’s down to 9.9 blow-bys-per-100 — sixth-fewest. When you can stall dribble penetration up top, your bigs don’t have to step up to stop the ball as much, limiting the danger of them picking up cheap fouls, allowing them to stay in better defensive rebounding position and reducing the pressure on your wings to help out down low. In a related story, Robinson’s committing two fewer fouls per-36 over the last month and leading the league in box-outs, while Julius Randle and RJ Barrett have picked up their work on the defensive glass — all key factors in the Knicks’ newfound ability to hold opponents to one shot.
Another benefit: Sliding Grimes into the starting lineup to guard No. 1 options means Barrett doesn’t have to.
Last season, Barrett combined high-usage offense with defending opponents’ top perimeter scoring threats to a degree matched mostly by All-Stars; that workload, though, hampered his offensive efficiency, an issue dating back to his rookie season that persisted at the start of the 2022-23 campaign. Now, though, Barrett can check, for example, Lu Dort rather than SGA, or Dillon Brooks rather than Ja Morant, or Spencer Dinwiddie rather than Luka Doncic, or Buddy Hield rather than Haliburton.
That downshift in defensive responsibility, combined with the addition of Grimes as another above-average shooter to help decongest the Knicks’ half-court offense, seems to have given Barrett’s game an overall jolt. Through 17 games, he was averaging 17.9 points per game on dismal .488 true shooting; over the last 13, he’s up to 21.3 a night on .563 true shooting. That’s still below league-average, but it’s a significant improvement. Which, in turn, has helped open things up more for Randle, who is getting to the foul line and firing 3-pointers more often than he was earlier in the season, and who has seen his production spike accordingly: 25.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists per game in this stretch on .588 true shooting.
Randle’s defensive work still leaves a lot to be desired at times, especially off the ball. His effort and engagement on that end has ticked up of late, though, thanks partly to Thibodeau changing what he’s asking of the power forward — during this recent run, Randle’s switching ball screens twice as often as he was earlier in the season, according to Second Spectrum, rather than just hanging back in drop coverage — and the shift toward finishing and quicker decision-making prompted by the arrival of Jalen Brunson has (with, um, some exceptions) continued to pay dividends. On the whole, Randle’s been about as productive as he was two seasons ago — the breakout campaign that saw him make his first All-Star and All-NBA teams and earn Most Improved Player honors.
With Randle and Brunson (averaging a shade under 22 points and six assists on 46/45/90 shooting splits during this span) playing at or close to All-Star levels, Barrett warming up, and Robinson and Grimes contributing efficiently in their defense-first roles, a Knicks team that couldn’t field a positive starting lineup to save its life last season suddenly boasts one of the league’s best. With Quickley, McBride and backup center Hartenstein hounding opposing second units, the Knicks have had one of the best bench mobs in the business over the past month, too. Add it up, and you’ve got a team that — depending on your projection model of choice — appears to have north of a 75% shot of returning to the postseason, and even a pretty decent shot at staying out of the play-in tournament.
Questions remain: whether the Knicks would be better served trying to sell high on Randle now rather than suffer the downside of a dip in his production; whether packaging their surplus parts could get them another wing shooter who can defend; whether merely being a middle-of-the-pack team in the East is really good enough, in the grand scheme. For the moment, though, the Knicks are developing young talent, establishing a baseline of competence and competitiveness, and winning actual basketball games, all while still holding a ton of draft picks and some moveable contracts that can be packaged together if and when another mega-move becomes available. Maybe the Knicks aren’t truly on the ascent; their vibes, though, certainly appear to be, thanks to the kind of hard-nosed defense that even the hardest-hearted New Yorker can’t help but love.