Jalen Brunson is Knicks’ best point guard in decades, Julius Randle is back and more

The New York Knicks are outplaying expectations, sitting at 23-19 just barely past the halfway point of the 2022-23 NBA season.

Here are 10 things we’ve learned about them through the first 42 games:

Jalen Brunson is as good as Knicks could’ve hoped

Anyone who watched the Dallas Mavericks the last few seasons knew Brunson could score. He was crafty and efficient. He stepped up during last spring’s run to the Western Conference finals.

But there were reasonable questions about his fit with the Knicks. The Mavs consistently surrounded Brunson with at least three 3-point shooters, which gave him space for his cagey moves. The Knicks roster could not match that, and in fact, was loaded with players who function best inside the arc. So people wondered: Could Brunson, a 1990s power forward in a point guard’s body, replicate his efficiency in that environment?

It turns out the answer is a resounding yes. Brunson is not the product of a system. In New York, he is the system.

He’s the organization’s best point guard in decades. He’s averaging 21.9 points on impressive efficiency and is somehow getting better as the season goes on, averaging 33.2 points in his last five games. If the Knicks need a bucket late, he’s the guy. He’s scoring plentifully throughout games but is especially potent in crunchtime.

There was some noise at the time of the signing that $104 million over four years was too much for Brunson. But if his first half-season in New York is a preview of what’s to come over the next three-and-a-half, then the exact opposite is true. That contract is team-friendly.

If you defend, you play

This might as well be the mantra for the Knicks’ turnaround. On Dec. 4, head coach Tom Thibodeau narrowed his rotation to nine players. If he trusted a player to guard, that player had a chance to see the court. Otherwise, he’d remain at the end of the bench.

The Knicks were 10-13 before that date. They are 13-6 since.

They’re second in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions over the 19-game heater. The guards — especially Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride — swarm. Julius Randle has picked up his one-on-one defense. Mitchell Robinson is a barricade, whether he’s guarding the rim or cutting off pick-and-rolls. RJ Barrett is in a more appropriate defensive role than he was in the early season when Grimes was hurt. They communicate well. No one can question the group’s effort.

Throughout the poor start, it was difficult to decipher the Knicks’ identity. You could say the same about them during the entire 2021-22 season, in which they just lingered through 82 games.

Now, their personality is clear. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle recently called them “smashmouth.”

If you can defend, you can play.

Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley are two-way players

There is a reason NBA teams want players who can shoot, defend and make smart, quick decisions. It’s because none of the teams that have those guys want to give them away. The best way to find top-notch role players is through the draft.

It’s safe to say the Knicks have now done that at least twice.

Grimes, their 2021 first-round selection, has entered the starting lineup and taken a leap. He consistently mans the opposition’s best perimeter player and is shooting 38 percent from deep. He keeps the ball moving on offense, whether he’s swinging the ball side-to-side or flying into the paint when overzealous defenders close out on him too hard.

Quickley, drafted in 2020, has become the Knicks’ headiest off-ball defender. He’s the most reliable player on the team at guarding the opposite corner, a massive responsibility in Thibodeau’s defensive scheme, which calls for those defenders to cover lots of ground and be decisive about it. He’s a top-notch communicator on both ends and keeps the pace up when he enters the game. He’s been equally successful playing on the ball with the second unit and off it more with the starters.

Both of these guys were 25th picks. Grimes is 22 and Quickley is 23. It’s a strong development for this team.

Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes are young gems for the Knicks. (Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

Cam Reddish trade did not work out

Enough votes are in for The Athletic’s decision desk to call the race: The Reddish trade did not go well.

One year ago, the Knicks flipped a heavily-protected first-round pick and Kevin Knox to the Atlanta Hawks for Reddish. Now, they are seeking a new home for Reddish, as The Athletic previously reported. There’s no chance they recoup the value they gave up. New York was the only team willing to fork over a first-rounder for Reddish when it acquired him last January, and his fallout with the Knicks certainly has not improved his value.

Reddish hasn’t played since Dec. 3, the day before the Knicks cut the rotation to nine. The next time he gets into an NBA game could be with another team.

The basketball gods have handed Thibodeau every possible situation to play Reddish. Games with the Knicks winning big. Games with the Knicks losing big. Close games. Games in which they need a wing. Games when they’re shorthanded. Games when it feels like they could use a shakeup. Through it all, Reddish has remained glued to the bench. At one point, one-third of the Knicks’ healthy rotation was made up of centers, yet there was no thought to put in Reddish.

Maybe the Knicks can save face by attaching Reddish to other players or picks in a larger deal, but there’s no question the original deal did not work out well. Neither, by the way, did a tangential trade they made in 2021, turning the No. 19 selection in the NBA Draft into the future Charlotte Hornets first-rounder they then used to bring in Reddish.

They lack firepower

Earlier this week, I wrote a story about how the Knicks can’t hold onto leads, but neither can the rest of the NBA. At the time it was published, more than one in every four games across the league involved the losing team letting go of a double-digit lead. Big comebacks happen nearly every night leaguewide. The Knicks aren’t the worst in the NBA at relinquishing big leads, though they are close to the bottom.

Why does it feel so dire every time the Knicks’ opponent makes a run? As I thought about this, I realized the extreme isn’t that the Knicks are giving up big leads. It’s that they don’t even it out with long runs.

I asked The Athletic’s analytics expert, Seth Partnow, who provided research for the initial story, to run numbers on the exact opposite trend. Which teams had the most double-digit-point comebacks? Which teams had the fewest?

My hypothesis held up. The Knicks have come back from a double-digit deficit to win a game only twice this season, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the second-fewest times in the NBA. The only team behind both is the San Antonio Spurs, who have yet to make a 10-plus-point comeback all season. The Knicks have won only 12.5 percent of the games in which they’ve fallen down double-digits, the league’s third-worst winning percentage in those situations. Only the Spurs and Hornets are worse. The Victor Wembanyama chasers are not desired company.

It’s why the Knicks feel like an outlier when they blow leads, when they are emblematic of a larger leaguewide trend. They give up comebacks as everyone else does. (In fact, their 74 percent winning percentage when they have a double-digit lead at any point in a game is exactly league average.) But they don’t make them.

So, why is this occurring?

Comebacks are most common when a team gets hot from deep. Well, the Knicks are lacking that quality. They score efficiently, but they’re a slower, prodding offense without much long-range shooting.

And that takes us to our next item …

Knicks need another shooter

Look no further than the second half of Wednesday’s game against the Pacers. Indiana was double-teaming Randle, who often held onto the ball a smidgen too long. He couldn’t get comfortable. The rock kept swinging to Barrett, who was missing jumpers. That just made Indiana feel even more comfortable in its strategy.

Teams pack the paint against the Knicks, loading up on their best players. New York has enough offensive talent that it’s been able to overcome its shortcomings. Brunson can create his shot whenever he likes. Randle is bordering on an All-Star campaign.

But there are moments when the Knicks have to claw just a bit too much. They’re 25th in 3-point percentage and employ only three players shooting better than 34 percent from there. That won’t cut it in 2023’s NBA.

Maybe there’s room to add a stretch 5 behind Robinson, or they could try for another wing who can nail 3s. Either way, more shooting would help.

However the …

New York figures out ways to score without shooting

Inside a 3-point-addicted league, the Knicks are finding points elsewhere. In short, they limit the dumb stuff.

They have one of the most analytically-friendly shot profiles of any team in the league. They’ve dug into floaters, in part because even when they miss one, they still have a chance to score. Brunson can slither through tight spaces whenever he likes. Robinson has been the Eastern Conference’s best offensive rebounder and is particularly adept at recovering missed floaters. They’re winning the possession game, ranking third in the NBA in offensive rebound rate while owning the league’s fourth-lowest turnover rate in the league. They’ve taken the fourth-most free throws.

Sometimes, it looks ugly. But these measures have allowed the Knicks to scrap to 10th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions.

Julius Randle is back

And differently than he was during the All-NBA season, too.

He’s taking and making more 3s than ever while squeezing most of the midrange shooting out of his game. He’s playing off the ball more with Brunson initiating the offense. For some reason, he upped his defensive intensity at the 20-game mark of the season. He’s running the floor better. He’s been more relentless on the boards.

Overall, he’s done a 180 from his lackluster 2021-22.

There’s no obvious explanation for the turnaround. Randle won NBA Most Improved Player in 2020-21, plummeted the next season and now has skied back to a top-notch level. The counting numbers are similar to his 2020-21 campaign, though the assists are down. Meanwhile, the efficiency stats are even better.

He’s with Brunson in the All-Star conversation.

Knicks fans must be tired of Donovan Mitchell by now, so trust me, this will not be another relitigation of the trade that never happened. Instead, it’s a look back on the narrative that surrounded Mitchell throughout the summer.

The Knicks were weary about not having enough trade pieces left over to acquire a second star after Mitchell, a concern that remains valid. But we also have to realign what we once thought of Mitchell. There was a rhetorical question about Mitchell’s résumé that injected itself into any conversation about his trade market this past summer: “He’s an All-Star, but is he an All-NBA player?” (The answer, at the time, being no).

The question isn’t so rhetorical anymore. I’m not sure if I will be an awards voter this season, but I have been one three times before. I’ve scrolled through the numbers. I’ve studied an embarrassing amount of film to decide if I want to leave Jaxson Hayes off the 2019-20 NBA All-Rookie Second Team. The process eats at me. This is a tiny sliver of basketball history, and I get to decide one percent of it. How cool is that?

But if the season ended today, it wouldn’t take studying to know that Mitchell is deserving of All-NBA. He’s averaging darn near 30 points on darn near 50/40/90 shooting splits. He’s defending better than ever before. Cleveland is a two-way dynamo, and Mitchell has led the way.

This is not to say the Knicks made the wrong decision to pass on a Mitchell trade. The cupboard would’ve been too bare to load up the roster if they’d done it. Cleveland, meanwhile, was ready for a leap.

But the Knicks can be correct about standing pat even while the league at large underrated Mitchell on the court. The man is an All-NBA player. Full stop.

Mitchell Robinson is living up to his contract

The Robinson market seemed intuitive. Robert Williams III got four years, $52 million. Wendell Carter Jr. got four years, $50 million. The thought heading into the summer was that Robinson would receive something similar.

As the offseason went on, however, the market dried up. Not many teams entered July with cap space, and after a couple of days of free agency, it was clear the organizations with the flexibility to hand Robinson a big deal were not interested and the ones who could make a play for him were over the salary cap and not allowed to offer more than $45 million over four seasons.

Somehow, he still went back to the Knicks for $60 million over four years. And right now, that deal looks just fine.

Robinson has improved. He’s not taking dudes off the dribble or stepping away from the basket, but his offensive rebounding is one of the key factors propping up the Knicks’ scoring. He’s become one of the league’s top defensive centers in the process. He’s more consistent night to night. He’s a brick wall at the rim. He’s become the team’s plus-minus darling.

The Knicks need their center. They’re fortunate they have him back.

(Top photo of Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)

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