The Knicks have been the surprise of the NBA season, but a second-half crash may be on the way

Scott Davis
·6 min read
julius randle
Julius Randle. Elsa/Pool Photo via AP Images
  • The Knicks' hot start to the season could crash if their defense regresses to even league-average.

  • The Knicks offense has also been buoyed by historically average shooters getting hot from three.

  • The Knicks have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the second half of the season.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

The New York Knicks have been perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the 2020-21 NBA season.

The Knicks were 19-18 going into the All-Star break. Julius Randle, a free-agency disappointment entering the season, has had an All-Star campaign. R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson have emerged as building blocks. Immanuel Quickley, the 25th pick in the draft, looks like he's headed toward the All-Rookie Team. New head coach Tim Thibodeau has constructed a defense ranked second in the league going into the break.

The unexpected winning has rejuvenated the Knicks fan base and national interest. With a talented young core, a surplus of draft picks, and cap space, finally, there is hope on the horizon.

It may not last.

The Knicks have 35 games remaining, and there may be pain on the road ahead. Here's why the Knicks hot start may not be a sign of things to come.

The Knicks are getting a bit lucky on the defensive end

After a 33-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, the Knicks' defensive rating fell to fifth in the NBA, allowing 108.8 points per 100 possessions.

It's not as if the Knicks' defense is a fluke. In a year of offensive explosion across the NBA, the Knicks allow their opponents just 105 points per game, the best mark in the league. The Knicks grind the game to a halt and force opponents to execute in the half-court against a team of average-to-good defenders who rotate and try hard.

But there is statistical evidence to suggest the Knicks are catching some big breaks.

tom thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau. Eric Gay/AP Images

The Knicks are allowing the sixth-most three-point attempts per game this season. That alone isn't the making of a bad defense - the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors allow a similarly high number of threes so they can wall off the rim.

But opponents are shooting 37% from three against the Bucks and Raptors - opponents are making them pay for the strategy.

Meanwhile, opponents shoot just 33% from three against the Knicks, the lowest mark in the league.

And it's not as if the Knicks are contesting three-pointers particularly well: according to NBA tracking data, the Knicks allow the sixth-most "wide open" threes - meaning a defender isn't within six feet of the shooter - per game in the NBA. Opponents are shooting just 33.9% on those wide-open looks, the lowest mark in the league.

The data isn't much better at the rim. The Knicks allow about a league-average number of attempts in the restricted area. Yet teams are shooting just 60% in the restricted area against the Knicks, the third-lowest mark in the league.

Taken as a whole, the Knicks have a defense that allows opponents the most efficient shots, yet opponents are converting those shots at near league-worst rates. A regression to the mean could spell trouble for the Knicks.

Some iffy shooters are on fire

The Knicks' offense has improved as the season has gone on, but they still only rank 23rd in the NBA in offensive rating.

The Knicks' offense is almost the inverse of their defense. They rank high in attempts per game in the paint and midrange but are making them at below-average rates: they're 11th in shots per game in the restricted area but 29th in field goal percentage and 11th in midrange attempts per game but 16th in percentage.

What's surprising is the Knicks rank 12th in three-point percentage at 37.1%. However, they take just 28 attempts per game, the second-lowest figure in the NBA.

And the Knicks are getting some hot shooting from players who historically haven't been great shooters:

  • Julius Randle is shooting 40.9% from three. He is a career 32.1% shooter.

  • Derrick Rose is shooting 45.5% from three since joining the Knicks. He is a career 30.7% shooter.

  • Alec Burks is shooting 39.8% from three. He is a career 36.7% shooter.

  • Frank Ntilikina is shooting 56.5% from three. He is a career 32.4% shooter (though he is young enough that his percentage may be a sign of progress).

  • R.J. Barrett is shooting 40.6% from three since January 1. He shot 32% last season. (Again, this could be a sign of development).

frank ntilikina knicks
Frank Ntilikina. Elsa/Pool Photo/AP Images

It's entirely possible that players like Ntilikina and Barrett have turned a corner as shooters and can become reliable weapons from downtown. Randle has said he focused on improving his shooting this past offseason. Burks has always been a good shooter and may continue to improve as he gets older.

However, the Knicks are getting 7.2 three-pointers per game - 21 points - from players who have historically not been great three-point shooters.

If any of those players - Randle and Barrett, in particular - go through slumps, the Knicks offense might be in trouble.

A tough schedule ahead

The Knicks have had impressive wins over good opponents this season, but eight of their 19 wins have also come against the Cavs, Wolves, Kings, Pistons, and Magic - five of the worst teams in record this season.

According to Tankathon, the Knicks have the sixth hardest schedule remaining, including a six-game Western Conference road trip in May in which they'll play the Grizzlies, Nuggets, Lakers, Suns, and Clippers, five playoff teams. That road trip could have a big impact if the Knicks are still in the playoff race.

The Knicks have also had good luck with the wild-card of the season: COVID-19. It's an ugly factor to consider, but a factor nonetheless.

Rose has missed the last three games because of the NBA's health and safety protocols. Ntilikina missed several games in February because of the health and safety protocols.

Otherwise, the Knicks haven't been affected by COVID-19-related absences.

As teams like the Heat, Grizzlies, and Mavericks all found out earlier this season, losing multiple players for multiple games could put teams into a hole that is tough to climb out.

This could, of course, change for the better as the season goes on. Stricter protocols have seemed to help the NBA get through the season without so many postponements. As national cases decline and more and more people receive vaccines (including some players), there may be fewer coronavirus-related absences.

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