Last season the New York Knicks shattered most people’s expectations and finished 41-31, entering the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Even after losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, it seemed like the Knicks were finally making some forward progress after a prolonged period of mediocrity. Knicks fans should have known what was coming next.
Fast forward to March 2022 and it’s as though last season never happened. New York is set to legalize sports betting this year, but Knicks fans may not be rushing to find the best bars to watch and bet on NY teams. Right now, their team is 12th in the Eastern Conference, with a 25-38 record and looking about as likely to make the playoffs as Kyrie Irving is to get vaccinated.
It would be wrong to say that they have been poor all season. Back in the middle of January, they had an okay 22-21 record and a three-game winning streak that had taken them over .500. Since then, they have failed to win consecutive games and have had multiple losing streaks of three, four, and even five games. And with the playoffs out of the picture, they seem to be getting worse. So what is going on?
Tom Thibodeau has a certain style of coaching and likes to use the same core of players that he trusts. This can be a strength, as it was last year, or a weakness, as we’ve seen in 2021-22. He rarely varies his starting lineups and always goes back to his first unit, even if things are plainly not working.
In February, the Knicks gave up a 21-point lead against the struggling Lakers and then lost a 23-point lead against the Trail Blazers. The nadir came against the Brooklyn Nets. Taking on a Nets lineup that didn’t feature Irving, Kevin Durant, or Ben Simmons, the Knicks built up a 28-point lead and were still 18 points up in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t get the job done. Much of that is down to game management, and the responsibility for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the coach.
We can’t avoid talking about the bewildering decline of Julius Randle. He was one of the stars of the 2020-21 season, when he earned his first All-Star selection and led the Knicks to a top-four spot. But he has fallen from those heights in spectacular fashion.
He has had spells of top form, but overall his figures this season are way down. His two-point shooting has dropped to the very low 40s, and his three-point percentage is down alarmingly from an elite 41.1 to around 30. Some of that drop-off may be attributed to opposing teams taking him more seriously and limiting his opportunities, a game plan made easier by the fact that Randle has not upgraded his left-hand dominant game. Worst of all, the decline seems to be affecting his attitude.
This could just be a temporary downturn, but there must be a horrible sinking feeling on the part of the Knicks organization that the man they’ve just given a $117 million contract is regressing to the mean.
Tom Thibodeau’s success last year was built on a strong defense. The Knicks finished the season with the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA. This season, they’re around 16th. Looking at the figures in more detail it seems the biggest decline has been in the team’s inability to guard the three-point shot.
It is pretty much the same lineup as last season ‒ in fact, it is arguably a stronger defensive unit, as they now have Mitchell Robinson available. Given that Thibodeau’s style of coaching is all about defense, it is alarming that last year’s defensive titans have apparently forgotten how to defend.
Knicks Front Office
The Knicks have an unfortunate reputation of being the franchise that offers veterans their last big payday. On the surface, the deals that they gave to Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker last year were not too bad. But although Walker has shown glimpses of his ability, he has spent most of the season injured, while the Knicks even tried to trade Fournier four months after giving him a $78 million four-year deal.
They also tried to trade Walker, Nerlens Noel, and Alec Burks at the trade deadline, but failed to do so, which means they haven’t been able to strengthen a losing team, much to the anger of home fans.
Can the Knicks turn things around? It’s too late for the playoffs but there is still time to salvage something from the season. At the moment, however, it looks more likely that we will see a further decline than a miraculous transformation.