- Tyler Kruse
Knicks Finding Identity
One thing sorely missing from the New York Knicks over the past decade or so has been a defined identity. Tom Thibodeau, known for his defense, has certainly done his part to begin laying the groundwork for a defensive force in the NBA. While teams seem to struggle shooting the ball against the Knicks, the defense has certainly played a significant role in that.
Last year, through the season's duration, the Knicks were 18th in points allowed at 112.3. Through 15 games in this young and abbreviated season, the Knicks are allowing 102.7 points per game, good enough for 1st in the league. While I wouldn't compare them to the Lakers or other top teams that will remain at the top, they certainly have a chance to hang around.
Against Boston this past Sunday, New York clamped down on defense, holding the Celtics to a measly 75 points. Against the Magic, on the day celebrating the great Martin Luther King Jr., the Knicks allowed only 84 points. Incredible stuff from a team that has struggled in the recent past on the defensive side of the ball.
Mitchell Robinson is a big part of the team's defensive identity along with newcomer Nerlens Noel, but others have stepped up as well. RJ Barrett has been much improved on defense, not only with effort but making the right reads and plays. Julius Randle may never win any defensive awards in the NBA, but the action is there.
Mitch is, once again, incredible on defense. He's second in the NBA in total blocks and steals with 48 behind only Myles Turner of Indiana (68). Nerlens Noel isn't far behind them with 34 combined blocks and steals, creating a dangerous pair of defensive centers for the Knicks. Both guys are relatively athletic and long bigs that can swat away shots at the rim with ease. The length they have also allows them to create turnovers by getting their hands on passes inside the paint.
Even with Robinson continuing his defensive prowess, he's playing more minutes while fouling less. During his rookie campaign, Robinson averaged 3.3 fouls per game. Through 15 games this season, he's down to 2.7 per contest while jumping up 9.6 minutes per game since his first year in the league. While it's not a massive drop-off in fouls, Thibs has just started his work with the 3rd year Center.
Dare I say it? Robinson has DPOY potential and, with time and the right coach, could easily reach that potential. A crucial part of Robinson's success this year has to be big-man whisperer Kenny Payne from Kentucky. One of Thibodeau's assistants and first-time NBA coach, Payne, has helped Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, Nerlens Noel, and many others achieve significant success as big-men in the NBA.
You can see Payne on the sidelines during games in the ears of Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, Julius Rande, and Obi Toppin. The same can be said for Donovan Mitchells former coach and guard guru Johnnie Bryant. Watch close and you'll see Bryant pull RJ Barrett aside countless times to ensure he saw the critical aspects of a play. All this to help the 2nd year guard/wing learn, grow, and develop.
It's fair to question what these early struggles for other teams stem from. Is it a lack of rest from the bubble? A lack of focus for playing a team that's been down in the dumps for years? Possibly, but it could also be that the team is flying around more on defense and getting to the right spots. The rotations aren't always pretty, but they're certainly a work in progress and trending in the right direction, thanks to this new coaching staff and team.
As long as coach Thibs has the trust of his team and they keep buying in, I don't see why they can't continue this growth for the remainder of the season. Are they playoffs bound? That may be a stretch for this young squad but don't count them out just yet. There's far too much grit.