Knicks midseason report card: What a difference a year makes
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The Knicks entered the All-Star break at 17-38 in mid-February 2020. They were 55 games into a season that ended prematurely less than a month later.
The highest grade in the annual 2019-20 midterms was a “B-minus” — for interim coach Mike Miller.
Almost 13 months later, Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks have already surpassed 17 wins. They are 19-18, in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, at the virtual midpoint of the 2020-21 pandemic schedule.
The A and B-plus-grades are ready to flow.
PF Julius Randle
The first-time All-Star wrecking ball should be the top candidate for the league’s most improved player award. Ironically, the numbers aren’t drastically different other than 3-point percentage (27.7 percent to 42 percent). But the point forward — as Thibodeau says — “impacts winning.” Ironman Randle has become the consummate, durable leader who hasn’t missed a game this season while leading the NBA in minutes. Last season’s grade was a “C.”
PG-SG Immanuel Quickley
The Knicks had the perfect Kentucky intel in place in assistant Kenny Payne and vice president William Wesley to reach for Quickley with the 25th pick. The franchise still doesn’t regard him as a full-time starting point guard because he’s a below-average playmaker, but he has dazzled with 3-point shooting (38.1), free-throw shooting (94.2), his floater and cleverness drawing fouls. A volume scorer, Quickley could be a top-three rookie of the year candidate despite some brutal shooting droughts.
SG-SF Reggie Bullock
Give team president Leon Rose credit for having the foresight to re-up with the “3-and-D” swingman for the $4.2 million team option, knowing what his defensive-oriented coach likes. Thibodeau has kept Bullock in the starting lineup all season and he provides 3-point flair (37.2 percent), and always brings gritty perimeter defense and professionalism.
SF-SG RJ Barrett
The 2019 No. 3 pick from Duke had early rough patches in his sophomore campaign but has really glided forward as the Knicks’ No. 2 option to Randle, averaging 16.5 points. His free-throw shooting (73 percent) is much sounder, he’s still a crafty, oxen-like driver and has been respectable from the 3-point line (35 percent). Can there be an All-Star berth in his future? Why not?
PG Derrick Rose
Leon Rose’s Super Bowl Sunday gift to Thibodeau has panned out and not hurt chemistry. The veteran point guard dynamo is averaging 24.6 minutes, which should be his limit at age 32 with a history of knee issues. The most wonderful part of his second Knicks stint is his confidence from 3-point land (45.5 percent). Despite former coach Jeff Hornacek’s urgings, Rose refused to shoot 3s in 2016-17. He’s also been energetic on defense and a willing distributor.
C Nerlens Noel
He’s excelled as Mitchell Robinson’s starting replacement as a rim-protector extraordinaire. Noel ranks second in blocks per 36 minutes (3.3). Since becoming a starter, the defensive pivot is shooting 71 percent and averaging eight points and eight rebounds in 32 minutes.
PG Elfrid Payton
The fan base was disappointed when forever-underrated Payton was re-signed. But he’s been a steadying force as a starter. He’s a defender with size at the position who craftily wiggles into the paint for his touch shots. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 3.7 assists in 28 minutes.
C Mitchell Robinson
A broken hand stopped his momentum as an interior shot-altering defensive force who still throws down alley-oops and putbacks with ease, even if they won’t let him shoot a jumper. Robinson missed the last 10 games but could be back within two weeks.
SG Alec Burks
The free-agent signee got sidetracked by a 12-game absence with an ankle sprain but returned as a valuable role player off the bench. Burks doesn’t force anything and provides occasional offensive spark as part of a stout bench unit. He’s had six games of 18-plus points and owns the team’s healthiest plus-minus rating.
SF-PF Kevin Knox
With Payne on board, the Kentucky product’s development figured to be a priority. However, Thibodeau yanked the 2018 lottery pick from the rotation in late January despite an uptick in his 3-point shooting. Knox isn’t a stout two-way player which his minus-7.6 net rating shows. Plus, he’s a Scott Perry pick.
SG Austin Rivers
Doc Rivers’ loquacious son began his Knicks stint with panache as a closer off the bench. But when the Knicks added Rose, Rivers, who had slumped, was pulled from the rotation and didn’t take it well. The ever-proud Rivers admitted he was bracing for a trade and The Post reported he wasn’t on the bench during a recent home game. All signs point to Rivers being either traded at the deadline or released.
C Taj Gibson
Thibodeau’s favorite role player started his second Knicks season by not playing in eight straight games, but stayed ready and became a decent lunch-pail backup once Robinson went down. But then he sprained his ankle and is out indefinitely.
PF Obi Toppin
The rookie lottery pick’s adjustment to the next level has been difficult, even at age 23. Toppin looks lost at times on both ends and isn’t creating his own shot inside like he did against St. Bonaventure and Fordham. With his 3-point shot spotty, the Dayton dunk-man has averaged just 12.2 minutes and 4.6 points. His grade gets a slight bump up by not having had a summer league to play in.
PG Frank Ntilikina
He’s back in good graces for the moment and has made his last six 3-point shots, but it’s been another roller-coaster journey for the impending free agent. He went from late December to late February without appearing in a game after knee and COVID-19 issues. With the club at full strength, he still might be back out of the rotation.
Ignas Brazdeikis, Jared Harper, Theo Pinson
Brazdeikis, their 2019 second-rounder, did the G-League thing again, putting up nice scoring numbers in the bubble. (20.8 ppg). The two-way Harper also racked it up for Westchester (21.3 ppg, 6.9 assists). Meanwhile, Pinson, Leon Rose’s favorite player, remains as the NBA’s most theatrical bench cheerleader.
Coach Tom Thibodeau
Novels have been written already about the first-year veteran coach’s effect on roughly the same roster as last season, changing the team’s losing culture, and its sense of urgency to win, defend and share the ball. He’s the midseason coach of the year.
President Leon Rose
As a first-year president, Leon Rose has not tried to do too much, been patient and listened to his advisers. The best thing he’s done was hire Thibodeau, and his real test will be not hurting the flow at the March 25 trade deadline.
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