For the first time in eight years, the New York Knicks will play in the postseason.1 After defeating the L.A. Clippers on Sunday afternoon, Coach of the Year contender Tom Thibodeau and the boys are 38-30 — good for a 55.9 winning percentage that will be the team’s third-best mark this millennium2 if it holds the rest of the way.
This particular New York renaissance has been led by a delightful star turn from Most Improved Player favorite Julius Randle, who simply will not stop knocking down contested jumpers and making the right pass, to the right teammate, at the right time. Randle has been supported by a breakout season from second-year wing RJ Barrett, who has gotten better at just about everything. Rookie guard Immanuel Quickley has been a dynamite shooter off the bench, who (sorry about this) quickly established himself as one of the steals of the 2020 NBA draft and has been a major contributor throughout the year.
The real surprise of the Knicks’ season, though, is how much of their success has been driven by midcareer veterans who could not have reasonably been expected to produce at a high level, yet have done so nonetheless: Thibodeau’s former Chicago Bulls compatriots Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, plus Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock and Nerlens Noel.
Bullock was one of the Knicks’ wave of signings after the team was spurned by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019. Bullock’s back injury, discovered during the signing process, led to the two sides negotiating a two-year, $21 million pact down to a two-year, $8.2 million deal, with the second year a partially guaranteed team option. And boy, has that worked out well for the Knicks.
Bullock played just 29 games last season and suffered through one of the worst prolonged shooting slumps of his NBA career, connecting on only 33.3 percent of his threes after making 40.4 percent of them over the previous four seasons. He’s been healthy throughout this season, though, playing 61 of 68 games and starting 60 of them. He’s back over the 40 percent mark from beyond the arc, and he’s been even better since the All-Star break: After a 5-of-12 performance against the Clippers, he’s knocked down 43.4 percent of his triples since mid-March.
Bullock has been given ample space to shoot throughout the year. According to Second Spectrum, the closest defender has been an average of 6.6 feet away from Bullock on his 3-point attempts — seventh-farthest among 44 players who have taken 350 treys or more. But his improved second-half shooting has actually seen those defenders a few inches closer to him (6.35 feet) than they were when he knocked down “just” 37.2 percent of his threes earlier in the year (6.98 feet).
Bullock is also routinely given the most difficult wing matchup among Knick defenders, giving him the 17th-most difficult slate of opponents among the 223 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season, according to Bball-Index’s Matchup Difficulty metric. He’s held his own quite well, and he ranks fifth in the NBA among wing players in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. For just $4.2 million this season, that’s a heck of a bargain.
Noel signed a one-year, $5 million deal with New York and was supposed to be the backup to third-year center Mitchell Robinson. Robinson broke his hand in February, though, and then broke his foot in his fourth game back after the previous injury. Noel has started 37 games as a result and has fit seamlessly in Thibodeau’s defense. His relentless desire to challenge damn near every shot has made things extraordinarily difficult for opponents who dare venture into the paint.
Among the 30 players who’ve played at least 30 games and have challenged at least five shots per game, per NBA Advanced Stats, the 51.9 percent conversion rate Noel has allowed when he’s within 5 feet of both the basket and the shooter ranks fifth-lowest, behind only Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, Jakob Poeltl and Rudy Gobert. New York’s defense is predicated on funneling players into Noel’s help, and that strategy has been a successful one: Per Second Spectrum, 39 players leaguewide have been the help defender on 500 or more drives this season, and Noel ranks as the third-most effective help defender among that group.
What’s interesting is that opponents rarely seem deterred by Noel’s presence in the paint. On the contrary, they take a greater share of their shots in the restricted area with Noel on the floor than off it. They just don’t shoot as well on those attempts — a 61.1 percent field-goal percentage with him playing versus 66.7 percent without him.
Nothing more perfectly exemplifies the dynamic than this: Noel has blocked an incredible 17 dunks this season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking. That’s tied for the third-most blocked dunks of the player-tracking era, and nobody else in the league has blocked more than 11 this year (Poeltl and Jarrett Allen, each of whom has played several hundred more minutes than Noel). Not that blocking any dunk is easy, but Noel’s challenges seem particularly audacious.
As starters, Noel and Bullock have given the Knicks plenty of value above their contracts, but New York’s trio of veteran bench players has provided even more. By calculating the dollar value of a win in the 2020-21 NBA season and using FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement, we can see that Rose, Gibson and Burks have joined Bullock and Noel in dramatically outperforming their contracts.
With NBA teams handing out approximately $3.84 billion in contracts this season and 1,080 wins up for grabs this year,3 a win in 2020-21 is worth about $3,554,959. After adjusting each NBA player’s RAPTOR WAR4 to account for the leaguewide shortfall in wins produced, we find that this quintet of players has produced more than twice as much value for the Knicks as it has been paid.
|Player||Adj RAPTOR WAR||RAPTOR Value||Salary||Surplus|
With the exception of a 10-game stretch immediately after he returned from a bout with COVID-19, Rose has been electric since arriving in a midseason trade from Detroit — a deal that was widely panned (including by me).
The Knicks are 22-10 in games Rose has played, outscoring opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — the best mark among the team’s rotation players. They’ve succeeded with him in the game almost no matter the context. The starting lineup with Rose subbed in for Elfrid Payton is plus-47 in 128 minutes this season, compared with minus-39 in 501 minutes with Payton. In the 456 minutes Rose has shared the floor with Quickley, they’ve demolished opponents by 145 points. Even the all-bench five-man unit featuring Rose, Quickley, Burks, Gibson and rookie lottery pick Obi Toppin (who is showing signs of life recently after a rough first few months) has a positive scoring margin across 124 minutes.
Rose’s first tenure with the Knicks didn’t work out nearly as well, as the team was better without him on the floor than when he was in the game. But he’s been a much headier player this time around. Rose’s 24 percent usage rate with New York this season is his lowest mark since his rookie year, and he’s seen a corresponding boost to his efficiency, with a 56.6 true shooting percentage that would mark a career best if it were his full-season average. His assist rate is also up about 4 percentage points since the last time he was a Knick, and he’s working on the second-lowest turnover rate of his career.
The biggest differentiator this time around, though, is his shooting. Rose has connected at a 49.4 percent clip on shots outside the restricted area and inside the 3-point line with the Knicks this season, per Second Spectrum, easily his best mark of the player-tracking era, which stretches back to the 2013-14 season. That’s more than 5 percentage points better than what he shot during his last tenure with the Knicks, and it’s the 18th-best mark among 109 players who have taken 200 or more such shots this season.
Burks — who is on his sixth team in three seasons — has been in and out of the lineup in recent weeks due to both COVID-19 and an ankle injury, but he’s shooting a career-high-tying 40.5 percent from three on a career-high 4.8 attempts per game. He had a fantastic midseason scoring run during a stretch when Barrett was struggling, and he even played some point guard when both Rose and Payton were out.
Nobody’s contributions have been more surprising than Gibson’s. He was hardly effective during his stint in New York last year, and he remained a free agent until a few weeks into this season. He was signed as veteran depth behind Robinson and Noel, but Robinson’s injuries thrust Gibson into full-time backup duty, and he has excelled in the role. Lower the minutes threshold to 850 so that Gibson qualifies, and he ranks fifth in the entire league in defensive RAPTOR out of 271 players. Throw in his 5.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 62.9 field-goal percentage in 20.8 minutes a night, and the Knicks have themselves a steal for the veteran’s minimum.
Collectively, this group accounts for around 25 percent of the Knicks’ 2020-21 payroll but 37 percent of the team’s minutes played. In certain situations, that can be incredibly damaging to a team’s prospects. Relying on players for far more minutes than you’d originally planned can easily go very, very wrong. It’s worked out marvelously for this group, though, and it’s a big reason they’re not only likely headed to the playoffs, but fighting for home court in the first round.
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