In the last 14 months or so, we have seen some crazy ass shit. A nightmarish global pandemic. The American democracy teetering on the brink. The US government announcing that, yeah, there’s probably aliens out there. But to sports fans, those developments pale in comparison to perhaps the strangest development of all:
The New York Knicks are good again.
As of the time of writing the New York Knickerbockers are 34-28, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They had won nine games in a row (only one against a playoff team but who’s counting) before losing to the Suns on Monday night 118-110. Like the 13 year cicadas emerging from stasis, Knicks fans have set the NBA Extended Universe abuzz with the incessant, unrelenting hum proclaiming that the Knicks are in fact back.
But as a butthurt Celtics fan, who currently sit a game and a half behind, I can’t help but wonder:
“Are they really back?”
To be honest I’m of the opinion that anyone who didn’t see this mild resurgence coming probably hasn’t watched a lick of basketball in the last 10 years. Or they are profoundly ignorant of the body of work that first year head coach Tom Thibodeau has amassed in his NBA coaching career.
Because this precisely what Tom Thibodeau does. If you have watched any Tom Thibodeau team of the past 15 years, whether it’s the Derrick Rose-era Bulls or the Timberwolves after that, you will know that taking middling to bad teams and turning them into fringe contenders is kind of just what he does.
And remarkably, the way he does it is not rocket science. He’s doesn’t build a 2016 Warriors carbon copy (looking at you, Hawks GM Travis Schlenk). He doesn’t have an army of nerds in some back room humping calculators until they devise some space age offensive attack. There is no Process or pseudo-tanking or any sort of meta-game shenanigans.
In fact, the way he turns these teams around is almost the very antithesis of modern basketball. Philosophically Thibs’ is a throwback to a simpler time of basketball, before the revelation that three points are in fact better than two. Simply put, Thibs was able to transform a roster stuck in neutral into a team with some life by turning each and every game into an absolute rock fight.
The Thibs Method has three main tenets:
Play at an excruciatingly slow pace
The Knicks are last in the NBA in pace, and are the slowest team in terms of pace of the past three seasons. They like to grind out each and every possession. Much like how the pace slows down and the intensity turns up during playoff basketball. Except Thibs is doing it every single night. Whether it’s a meaningless Tuesday night affair in January or a crucial elimination game in May, the intensity is always turned up to a 10.
Strategically, this sort of flies in the face of conventional modern basketball. The dominant strategic paradigm of the moment, in it’s simplest terms, is to get as many possessions in a game as possible in order to shoot as many threes as possible using those possessions. Statistically speaking, as long as you can collectively shoot better than 33.3% from three (which all NBA teams do), taking a three pointer is a better shot than a two pointer.
(We are about to enter the Realm of Statistics for a moment so please bear with me.)
The Law of Large numbers is a statistical theorem which suggests that if you run an experiment a shitload of times, the average of all the results should resemble the expected value of each experiment as more and more trials are performed. For example if you keep flipping a coin over and over, eventually the distribution between heads and tails will approach 50%. Sure, you might flip 10 heads in a row at some point, but over time you will flip enough tails to compensate.
Put in layman’s terms: “water always finds its level.”
Here’s how that translates to NBA basketball. Most NBA teams will shoot about 35% from three over the course of the season (this season the league-wide rate is at 36.7%) on about 35 three point attempts per game. However there is no guarantee of that outcome game to game; some games a team might get hot and shoot 50%, other games they might have been out late partying and only shoot 20%.
So strategically the Knicks are kind of using statistics against their opponents. In theory, by reducing the amount of possessions in a game, they are essentially denying teams the requisite amount of possessions needed in order to hit that magic number of production. They are in theory able to keeping the numbers “small” so that they are subjected to more and more randomness.
Interestingly, the Knicks are allowing opponents to take basically the same amount of three pointers that they would in a normal, non-rockfight game. Essentially, teams are taking a higher proportion of three pointers against the Knicks than they otherwise would be taking. Since teams are taking less and less twos, and they can’t reach that threshold of production, they can’t rely on those high percentage two pointers buttress their scoring.
Put another way, because they are able to slow the pace down so dramatically, Knicks opponents are taking around 4 fewer field goals than league average. Knicks opponents shoot a mere 33.7% from three, the best rate in the league and a hair above the “magic threshold” of efficiency at 33.3%. And they shoot only 44.3% from two, also best in the league. The expected value of those four shots is only about two and a half points, which might seems like nothing. But the Knicks have had 13 games this season decided by three points or less (for reference my Celtics have had only 8 games decided by that margin).
To their credit the Knicks are a legitimately good defensive team, and have a variety of versatile defensive pieces that play well within Thibs’ system. They don’t force many turnovers, nor do they get many steals or blocks. But they are just a solid defensive unit that have long and quick wings players who play hard and close out well. In fact the Knicks lead the NBA in defended 3 point field goal percentage at 33.9% and are towards the top of the league in three point shots defended per game.
Play your best players as much as humanly possible
If you were to ask Tom Thibodeau about “load management”, he might refer you to the family planning aisle of your local drugstore. Thibs is old school through and though, and to him basketball players are meant to play, not sit on the bench. And perhaps to a fault, Thibs is going to play his guys. Julius Randle is currently leading the NBA in minutes per game, logging a whopping 37.5 minutes per game. RJ Barrett sits at 18th, playing about 34 minutes per game.
This is kind of just what Thibs does. In Chicago, Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah were regularly clocking in 35+ minutes per game. Some speculate that this incredible workload contributed to the precipitous breakdown of the three stars, none of who’s careers ever really recovered after their time under Thibs in Chicago.
In Minnesota, Zach LaVine, Karl Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins were all putting in 37 minutes per game night in and night out. Part of the reason things fell apart in Minnesota so dramatically is that players complained that Thibs just rode them too hard. He probably made matters worse when he traded Lavine away for Jimmy Butler, a legitimate psychopath who would play all 48 minutes if it were up to him. The failed Minnesota experiment was sort of the final nail in the coffin for coaches of the old school, and after that Thibs was in the wilderness for several years before reemerging with New York.
Modern medicine and athletic training practice suggests that this sort of workload approach is probably not conducive to players having long and healthy careers. In retrospect it’s painfully obvious why. Although the whole idea of load management has become somewhat controversial, the fact is that in the long run it’s just smart management. Being an NBA players is physically and mentally exhausting. Players who are tired are more likely to get injured, and injured players can’t play. The old saying goes “the best ability is availability”, and load management ensure that the best players are always available when most needed. And ultimately most stars on contending teams are content taking a couple nights off here and there in order to preserve their bodies for the grueling playoff run.
I’m not a doctor and I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so it’s not really for me to say whether this sort of workload is good or bad for the Knicks young players in terms of health. Randle and Barrett have held up remarkably well this season. And ourside losing Mitchell Robinson to a sort of freak injury earlier in the season, the Knicks have managed to stay relatively healthy. But just looking at the track record of players who have logged minutes like that, especially under Thibodeau, just makes me nervous.
That all being said this sort of anti-load management approach certainly works wonders in the short term, and is able to hide any sort of deficiencies in depth that might exist. Playing your best players as much as possible is one way to get the most out a less-than-talented roster. But I worry that Thibs and the Knicks are trading the long term health of their players to top out at a fourth place finish in the East and in the best case scenario a second round exit against Philadelphia or Brooklyn.
Acquire your binky
There are a couple of players that I will just call Thibs’ binky. And those players are Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson. Both of those players were the cornerstones of the Bulls when Thibs first broke into the league as a head coach, and they have followed him on all his stops in the NBA.
I am not really sure exactly what Thibs’ obsession is with these guys. Maybe he feels bad for blowing a hole in D-Rose’s career for leaving him in during a meaningless 4th quarter game in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, where he tore his ACL for the first time. Maybe he owes Taj Gibson some money. Maybe he thinks PJ Rose is the cutest kid ever. Whatever the case may be, no Tom Thibodeau team is complete without Derrick Rose running the second unit at point guard and Taj Gibson logging 8-14 minutes of pure hustle and intensity.
The Verdict: The Knicks are (Sorta) Back
So the question here still remains: are the Knicks for real?
In this analysts opinion, I am not so sure. The only real difference between this years team and last years 21 win dumpster fire, at least in terms of roster construction, is Thibodeau.
Julius Randle certainly took a leap in his first All Star seson, however I think at least some of that production is fools gold. He’s not only leading the NBA in minutes, he’s leading the NBA in isolation touches with 319 isolation posessions. Offensively the Knicks are basically just throwing it to Randle and letting him cook. It’s not quite Harden-esque, but it’s usage on par with the likes of Lebron James and Damian Lillard. And efficiency wise, Randle is rather pedestrian in terms of utilizing these iso opportunities, clockin in at a mere .93 points per iso posession. However come playoff time I hardly think he will be allowed to run hog wild the way he has. Also, Randle is shooting an otherworldly 41% from three. In his prior five seasons he only managed to crack 28% one time. I think that’s more of an outlier, and I’m just not convinced that’s any indication he’s somehow transformed into an elite perimeter shooter.
Also, let’s just dispel the notion that the Randle signing was at the time anything other that a cap-related maneuver and nothing more. The Knicks struck out on KD and Kyrie and Jimmy Butler, and as a consolation signed Randle and Bobby Portis and Mo Harkless to team-friendly short term deals that they could cut bait on should a better player make themselves available. The Knicks and their fans suffer from the delusion that they are in the mix for every big time free agent that hits the market, and the Randle deal was sort of a hedge against that possibility.
I think that the jump RJ Barrett has made in his second season is probably the most significant development for the Knicks this year. He has kind of blossomed into the type of player he was advertised as coming out of Duke; a versatile and reliable scorer with unlimited defensive upside. He’s improved upon his elite slashing and shotmaking instincts, and although he wasn’t projected as much of a shooter coming out of college he’s become at the very least league average from three and midrange.
Randle and Barrett are legit pieces, but I don’t think anyone would tell you that you could make a deep playoff run, let alone sniff a championship, with these two guys as your main dudes. And I would hardly say that their roster, as it’s currently constituted, can be considered deep. Quickley is looking like a nice spark of the bench, and Obi Toppin has had his moments. Kevin Knox looks a little less lost out there game to game but he’s treading dangerously close to “bust” territory. They are certainly some nice pieces, but I would hardly call them a murderers row of prospects. And the fact remains that you can’t win in the playoffs with young guys, unless they are otherworldly Hall of Fame caliber guys (see 2012 Thunder, 1995 Magic, 2016 Celtics).
But outside of those young guys, who can you really point to as building blocks of the future? D-Rose (32) and Gibson (36) are likely on their final rides. Alec Burks is 29 and probably looking for one more big deal, and I hardly think the Knicks will be the one to give it to them. As is Reggie Bullock, who has been something of a revelation this season. Nerlens Noel has been great, but it’s hard to envision his role going forward when Mitchell Robinson comes back from injury.
I guess that in the end, we can safely say that the Knicks are back. But being “back” is quite a low bar to hurdle. I think a more apt word to use here is “competent”. They are no longer a team that can be counted on to keep making the wrong decisions. They look like they have a plan. They look like they know what they are doing. The Eastern Conference is weak as ever, and the Knicks have enjoyed one of the easiest schedules in the NBA thus far. I think this all begs the question as to whether this run is sustainable long term. It’s one thing to be back for a season, maybe two. But it’s another thing altogether to put a sustained run of several years together.
That all being said, winning is sort of a panacea. And the relative success the Knicks have experience has sort of obscured the many personnel deficiencies. And thanks to Thibs’ track record and the way this roster is currently constituted, I just don’t see this working long-term unless they can make a splash in the trade market or free agency. And even then, the free agent market this summer isn’t necessarily ripe with top-end talent. Would Victor Oladipo or Kelly Oubre Jr or Dennis Schroeder really move the needle that much for this club? I’m not so sure. And a trade for a top-tier guy would surely cost them at least both Quickley and Toppin, not to mention a first round pick or two.
I don’t really blame Knicks fans for sort of jumping the gun in declaring that they are back. They have been perhaps the most tortured fanbase in the NBA, a fact made only more cringey considering how they still insist that NYC is still the mecca of basketball.
And before you start coming out of the woodwork taking about how disappointing my beloved Celtics have been, just stay tuned. There may or may not be a 5,000 word polemic on why the 2020-2021 Celtics are the most soulless, most revolting, most joyless iteration of Celtics basketball in franchise history.