The Knicks' Winning Streak Is Over. The Reasons It Happened Are Here To Stay.
Before losing to the Charlotte Hornets in somewhat embarrassing fashion on Tuesday night, the New York Knicks had been the hottest team in professional basketball. If you’ve paid any attention to the NBA over the past two decades or so, you know that this is not the kind of thing that happens very often. With that in mind, even though the run is over, let’s take a look at the myriad factors that drove New York’s longest winning streak since 2013 — because the nine-game streak’s end doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the team’s run as an Eastern Conference playoff threat.
We have to start with the blistering pace at which the Knicks scored. During the streak, New York singed the nets to the tune of 124.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Advanced Stats.1 For the season, the Knicks still boast the league’s fifth-best offense and are mere decimal points away from ranking inside the top three.
For the most part, the Knicks have built their offense on everything but shooting. They’re just 21st in effective field goal percentage but rank inside the top nine in each of the three other Four Factors: free-throw rate (ninth), turnover rate (fifth) and offensive rebound rate (second). During the streak, the Knicks connected on better than 51 percent of their field goals and 40 percent of their threes. (Notably, they went just 11-of-40 from deep on Tuesday.)
The streak started with the arrival of versatile swingman Josh Hart, whom the Knicks acquired in a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers at the deadline, and the flourishing of a Hart-led bench lineup. In the 141 minutes that Hart, Immanuel Quickley and Isaiah Hartenstein shared the floor during that run, New York outscored its opponents by an utterly preposterous 97 points. That’s the equivalent of beating your opponent by 33 points per game, by the way. Hart is the league’s best small-man rebounder, and he’s made an immediate impact on his new team. The Knicks ranked 21st in defensive rebound rate before Hart made his New York debut; the team ranks sixth since he entered the lineup.
Hart and Quickley (who followed up his demolition of the reeling Boston Celtics in a performance that may have made him the favorite to take home the Sixth Man of the Year trophy, with a much more muted game against the Hornets) are playing at such a high level that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau is routinely using them — rather than starters RJ Barrett and Quentin Grimes — to close games. The four-man unit with Quickley and Hart flanking Jalen Brunson2 and Julius Randle has been dynamite: It’s plus-40 in 84 minutes, shooting just south of 54 percent from the field and a few ticks better than 39 percent from deep.3 The group makes a lot of sense. Along with giving the unit a third player who can create shots off the dribble, Quickley can team up with Hart to smother opposing wings while Mitchell Robinson patrols the paint.
Robinson, by the way, has been a big factor in New York’s overall improvement this season. This is probably the best defensive season of his career, and that’s reflected in both the eye test and his numbers. Head over to the RAPTOR leaderboard and you’ll find that this is the first time in his career where Robinson ranks plus-2.0 or better in both Box Score and On/Off defensive RAPTOR. His blocks and overall rim-protection numbers are actually down, but that’s come with a trade-off the Knicks will surely make: Robinson’s foul rate has plummeted from a high of 5.7 per 36 minutes during his rookie season to just 3.8 per 36, allowing him to play nearly 7 more minutes per game. (The same was true two years ago, but he appeared in only 31 games that season.)
Robinson is dominating both the box score and impact stats
Selected advanced and traditional metrics for Mitchell Robinson, by season
|Season||Box Score D RAPTOR||On/Off D RAPTOR||BLK/36||PF/36||MPG|
Speaking of both defense and RAPTOR numbers, let’s explain one of the stranger quirks in that data right now: the divergence between Brunson’s Box Score RAPTOR (plus-5.3, 18th-best among 278 players who have been on the court for 750 minutes or more) and his On/Off RAPTOR (minus-1.5, 190th among the same group of players). The 6.8-point difference between those two poles is fifth-largest in the league. A deeper dive into the numbers, though, shows that it’s unlikely Brunson’s doing. Instead, it’s just about how the Knicks have divided minutes between him and Quickley.
Brunson and Quickley go together like PB and J
On/off numbers for lineups with Jalen Brunson and Immanuel Quickley, 2022-23 season
As you can see, the Knicks have scored just as efficiently in Brunson-only minutes as they have in the Brunson-Quickley minutes, and quite a bit more efficiently than in the Quickley-only minutes. That’s a sign that no matter with whom Brunson has shared the floor, he’s been able to drive an incredibly efficient offense.4
It’s been a different story on the other side of the ball, though. New York’s defense in the Brunson-only minutes has been worst-of-all-time-level disastrous, while it’s been fantastic (nearly 2 points per 100 possessions better than the league’s best defense this season) in the Quickley-only minutes. However, the same unit has been very good (the equivalent of a top-five defense) in the Brunson-Quickley minutes, which seems to point toward the culprit being the Knicks’ non-Quickley wings (Barrett and Grimes), rather than Brunson.
It feels strange to have dug this deep into the Knicks without really mentioning Randle, but there’s not much more to say beyond the fact that he is playing at the highest level of his career. He’s on track to become just the 18th player in history to average at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists per game, and his improved outside shooting (35.5 percent on more than eight attempts per game) has opened up all kinds of things for both him and everyone else on the floor.
Randle’s Knicks career is, without a doubt, one of the strangest things I have ever seen in my 35 years on this planet. He was pretty awful in his first year, then won Most Improved Player and made Second Team All-NBA in his second year. Last season, he was somehow even worse than he had been in his debut with the Knicks, and he threw in a feud with the fans for good measure. And now this year, he’s been better than ever, getting M-V-P chants on a near-nightly basis and draining ridiculous stepback threes to win games on the road. It makes no sense on almost any level.
Then again, neither do the Knicks. As recently as early December, there were rampant calls for the Knicks to show Thibodeau the door. A rotation tweak seemed to save the season in the form of an eight-game winning streak, but then New York turned around and dropped five straight. Then the Knicks reeled off seven of eight, lost four in a row and alternated wins and losses for a couple of weeks before the trade deadline — since when they’ve now lost just two games, although the latest was to one of the league’s worst teams. Only time will tell if the Knicks have figured it out for good — or if the loss to Charlotte is the beginning of another valley aboard New York’s roller coaster. Right now, though, this still looks like a damn good basketball team. And that’s a nice change of pace.
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