Let’s face it. Most fans of the New York Knicks were hoping for improvement this year. Even with not being successful in landing a star player in free agency, the arrival of Tom Thibodeau as the new head coach, draft picks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, along with a few free agent pick ups suggested the team may improve. Knicks loyalists who have suffered through losing season after losing season were at least thinking that an eighth seed or finishing tenth and trying to play their way into the NBA playoffs were a possibility. At this point they would take it.
However, with New York off to an 8-9 start, I believe that with a couple of roster tweaks, they could be a top four team in the Eastern Conference. Thiboeau’s squad needs to play gritty and use tough defense every night to compensate for their lack of star power. The Knicks are currently ranked No. 1 in the league defensively. In losses to struggling Oklahoma City and Sacramento the defense was good enough to win, but the inability to score proved costly.
It seems to be obvious that Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the cream of the crop in the East. Besides those three, the Knicks are close to being as good as the others. They have wins over Boston, Indiana, Cleveland and Atlanta, and with a slight improvement could be better than any of them. Their defense is better that any of these opponents. New York’s front-court of potential all-star Julius Randle, rising star RJ Barrett and elite defender Mitchell Robinson is solid. So what do the Knicks need to rise to the upper echelon of the conference? Improved guard play offensively.
Thibodeau has used a starting backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock every night that the duo has been healthy. The offensive futility of the pair has been frustrating to watch at times. Friday night at Sacramento, Payton and Bullock combined for just seven points. The Knicks were just 5-of-22 for 22.7% from behind the arc. None of the treys came from the starting guards. You simply cannot win with that lack of production. Bullock has connected on just 34% of his three-point attempts. Payton is successful from long range only 29% of the time. Granted, they both are very good defenders, but at some point the backcourt needs to be more effective scoring the ball.
When you compare Payton and Bullock with the starting guards of the teams they could be battling for a playoff spot, there is no contest. The Celtics have Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. Cleveland features Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Atlanta has the prolific Trae Young alongside sniper Kevin Huerter. Malcolm Brogdon is a star for the Pacers. Chicago has high-scoring Zach LaVine and Coby White. Toronto may have the best combo in the East with Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. Who in that group are the Knicks guards better than? I think you know the answer.
As I see it, there are a few solutions. First, place Alec Burks in the lineup now that he is healthy. Burks averaged 15 points a game while with Golden State last year. Those numbers could increase with the Knicks. He is averaging 16.4 points a game currently and shoots 52% from behind the arc.
Secondly, as I have said previously, it is time for Thibodeau to insert Quickley as the starting point guard. The youngster from Kentucky was once called “as good a shooter as there is in the league” by Thibodeau. He only is hitting at a 32% clip right now, but has shown glimpses of being lethal. Throw in his signature runner in the lane and more minutes and Quickley could make a huge contribution.
Lastly, New York should look to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster their perimeter shooting. In my opinion Randle has become untouchable. He is approaching all-star status. Guys like Payton, Bullock, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. coupled with a draft picks or two could yield the Knicks a shooter who could help take them to the next level.
Certainly, replacing Payton and Bullock with Burks and Quickley may risk hampering the defensive chemistry that the Knicks currently enjoy. That being said, what good does it do to hold an opponent to 102 points if your own team struggles to get out of the 80s or 90s many nights? Defense does win championships, but offense wins games. And if the Knicks expect to win more games in the NBA, it is imperative to have guards who are more productive.
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens, Pool)