The Whiteboard: The New York Knicks vs. inflated expectations

New York Knicks, The Whiteboard

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Tom Thibodeau is fed up. Trailing by 16 points against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night, he benched his starters for the entire fourth quarter. After the game, he was incredibly blunt in clarifying his thinking:

“Yeah, just they didn’t play well. That’s it. We’ve gotta figure it out. And right now we’re playing well on the road and we’re not playing well at home, which is unusual. So we’ve gotta get that straightened out.”

As ESPN’s Tim Bontemps pointed out, the Knicks starting lineup has been a disaster all season long:

“What is indisputable is that New York’s starting lineup is, to this point, not working. The lineup — Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — has played more minutes than any other five-man unit in the NBA this season. But it has been outscored by 14.4 points per 100 possessions so far this season and has a defensive rating of 119.3 — more than seven points worse than the worst-ranked team defense in the NBA this season.”

For a team that fueled a surprising playoff run last season largely on the back of their defense, the Knicks cratering at that end has been worrisome. There has been a leaguewide drop in offensive efficiency so far this season but the Knicks’ defensive efficiency has jumped to 110.3 points per 100 possessions, 26th in the league, from 107.8 last season, a top-five mark.

However, things might not be as bad as they seem.

The New York Knicks are actually ahead of where they were last season

While their defense has cratered, the Knicks offense has been among the best in the league so far — averaging 111.1 points per 100 possessions. Their 7-5 record might look like a disappointment but they’ve already notched wins over the Bucks, 76ers (twice), Bulls and Raptors. They’re outscoring opponents by an average of 0.8 points per 100 possessions. But last year, through their first 12 games, they were 5-7 with a minus-5.2 point differential per 100 possessions.

The 2020-21 season really turned around for the Knicks with a 9-5 record in February. By the end of that month, they had moved up to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. A 17-7 record over April and May, is what built momentum heading into the playoffs and carried optimism and expectations so high.

The starting lineup clearly isn’t working for the Knicks but the bench (as a complete five-man unit) has been fantastic and some small lineup changes or rotation tweaks could pay dividends. The Knicks have played a whopping 45 percent of their minutes this season with either the all-starters or all-bench unit on the floor which leaves a lot of room for mixing and matching to find some alternative combinations that work.

In addition, they have to be really encouraged by their collective growth as an offense. Kemba Walker hasn’t given the Knicks as much as they were hoping, especially as a creator, but he’s still a massive offensive upgrade over Elfrid Payton. Evan Fournier has likewise been excellent as connective tissue with his shooting and playmaking and the offense just seems to have more options for creating good shots than they had last season.

A healthy Nerlens Noel could give them a big defensive boost, as could some regression to the mean from opposing shooters who are hitting 42.6 percent of their wide-open 3s (third-highest in the league) and 82.3 percent from the free-throw line (second-highest in the league). And on offense, there are plenty of levers for Thibs to pull, particularly in terms of mixing up his starting and bench units for the benefit of both.

And remember, the stakes for all of these data points feel a little bit different when weighed against expectations that were inflated by last year’s breakout playoff run. As of today, 538’s projection model gives the Knicks a 58 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s only slightly down from the 63 percent odds they had to before the season began and the 13 percent odds they had at roughly this same point last season.

Right now, the Knicks may not be quite as good as their fans or Tom Thibodeau were hoping. But they’re undoubtedly better and there’s every reason to think things could improve.

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