By: Dan Latto
As the New York Knicks season comes to a close, we take a look at all the things that went right, and wrong for the Knickerbockers.
Overall, it was a very up and down season for the Knicks, a team who came off an extremely overachieving 2020-21 season. The 2021 season ended in a very disappointing first round exit against the Atlanta Hawks. However, the Knicks ended the regular season at the four seed after finishing as the eleven seed the season before, which was a huge surprise to everyone in the NBA. As a result, expectations were quite high for the 2022 season for a team that had made relatively large offseason moves to try to improve an offense that clearly needed help to compete with the best teams in the East.
It didn’t take very long for this year’s squad to show that they were going to be fighting for a playoff spot once again. They got off to a red hot start, winning five of their first six games, and seemed to have fixed their lackluster offense by averaging 117 points per game over that span, ten points better than their previous season average. New York native and Knicks newcomer Kemba Walker seemed to be fitting seamlessly into the offense, shooting 50% from the field and 57% from three in those first six games, while tallying 15 points per game. The Knicks would eventually cool off. However, even though they had their struggles in the month of November, they would finish December strong, with Kemba returning from injury and having a season high 44-point game, followed by a Christmas day triple double in a statement win for the Knicks over the Hawks.
By that point, there wasn’t the same feel to the Knicks success as there was the season prior. Early in January, as the Knicks were mounting a 25-point comeback against the Boston Celtics, controversy was sparked by star Julius Randle. After making a layup to cut the lead to four with just over five minutes left, despite emphatic cheers from Knicks fans, Randle came down the court giving out a thumbs-down to the crowd. When asked about it after the game, he went on an explicit rant basically telling fans to be quiet, in layman’s terms. Though his frustrations were understandable by many, due to a hostile Knicks crowd earlier in that game and previous games before that, it was a sign that the Knicks were not carrying the same momentum as they had the previous season.
They would win three of their next four, but that would be the end of any progress for the Knicks playoffs hopes this season. They went on to lose 17 of 20 games, including only one win in the month of February. Even though their playoff hopes were lost at this point, the Knicks began to learn a few things about their future.
First, R.J. Barrett proved himself to be a legitimate threat as a scorer in the NBA. The month of January was his first month averaging above 20 points per game since he started in the NBA. Though the Knicks were hard to watch in February, R.J. Barrett was a considerable brightspot for a struggling team. He averaged just over 28 points per game in the month, including a career high 46 points against the Miami Heat, one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Though his shooting percentages remained inconsistent, R.J. started to display the confidence of a star player in New York. You can even look at the fact that there is still a lot of room for improvement in Barrett’s game as a positive. He still has to become a much more consistent shooter and has to become a better playmaker, but he demonstrated major strides in the last two months of play for the Knicks and will look to make the jump to an all-star player next season.
Another big positive that came out of this season was the Knicks young core development. Immanuel Quickley, who was a welcomed surprise off the bench last season, was struggling early on this season. In an offense that was dealing with the loss of Derrick Rose, there was a lot of inconsistency in scoring throughout the team, especially off the bench. The month of March proved to be a very important month for Quickley, as he began to show development in the point guard position. He went from averaging just below three assists a game to averaging four in the month of March, and an astounding 8.8 in the five games played in April.
The point guard position was a serious concern for the Knicks throughout the season. Their lack of having a true ball handler and creator is shown with their brutal fourth quarter statistics. They ranked in the bottom five in points per game in the fourth quarter in the NBA, along with being in the bottom three in field goal percentage. Quickley’s emergence late in the season will put the Knicks in an interesting situation coming into the off-season, where they will most likely have to either stick with Quickley or pursue a big free agent point guard to turn things around next season.
The last thing to note from the late success of the Knicks is the play of Obi Toppin. Toppin, the number eight pick in the 2020 draft, struggled considerably in his first season with the team. He looked tentative, not confident in his game, and struggled shooting the ball from the perimeter. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like he had made much progress in the first part of the season. He was shooting a brutal 22% from three, only scoring just over seven points per game by the all-star break. He did eventually start to heat up and after Randle injured his quad in a game against the Utah Jazz, Toppin got his chance to prove his worth.
In the final eleven games of the season, marking Randle’s first game out with said quad injury, Toppin went on to average just under 20 points per game, shooting 58% from the field and 44% from beyond the arc. He would go on to have his first ever back-to-back 20 point games, his first 30+ point game, followed by his new career high of 42 points in the final game of the season against the Toronto Raptors. Not only did his scoring and shooting go up, but also he and Quickley raised the energy and the pace of the Knicks. The duo had produced highlight plays in their first year together last season, but they were few and far between. In those last ten games of the season, they demonstrated true potential and possible flashes of stardom as their career’s progress.
A valuable point made by Knicks announcer Walt Frazier in their last game of the season was that people have been viewing Randle and Toppin as competitors as they play the same position. What people do not understand is that those two players are fully capable of not just sharing minutes, but also sharing the court as well. In my opinion, Randle will have to adjust his style of play and how he plays with this younger, up-and-coming Knicks team. There is no reason that he cannot be a big part of this team in the future and help them become true championship contenders. Tom Thibodeau will need to become much more flexible with his lineups in the following season, similar to his first season with the Knicks when he won coach of the year. I think the most important thing for the Knicks to do if they really want to compete in the East is get a star point guard, maybe Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz pending another early exit in the playoffs for them, and they have to let the young guys develop as much as possible. The Knicks can have a very bright future, they just need to make sure to focus on the development of their young core and reinstill faith in Julius Randle.
Also, shoutouts to Quentin Grimes, Jericho Sims, Evan Fournier (most threes in a season for a Knick), and Cam Reddish, who will hopefully be another piece of this young Knicks core.