First half summary: Usually when the Knicks train pulls into the midseason station, the wheels are ready to fall off. Not so this time. Yes, New Yorkers, there’s hope. The Knicks have risen to be … middle-of-the-packers, and this qualifies as improvement. First-year coach Tom Thibodeau put a system in place to maximize the mostly thin talent on hand and is getting better-than-expected results.
Another sign of progress is the Knicks have an All-Star, their first since Carmelo Anthony. Julius Randle began the year as potential trade bait, then made himself a keeper with strong play near the rim and vastly improved shooting from behind the arc. Remember a season ago when the Knicks had a stable of power forwards? Well, they did something right for a change — they kept the right one.
Biggest question going into the second half: The Knicks need to prove that the first half wasn’t a mirage. They’ve spent the first few months either at or near the bottom in points per game. They need to find a consistent secondary option to Randle, which means RJ Barrett, the most likely candidate for that role, must improve his shooting (43.5% overall and 34.5% on 3-pointers). And they must continue to display an appetite for hard work and defense, which of course are trademarks of a Thibodeau-coached team.
They’re still unsettled at point guard — Randle actually leads the club in assists — and this is probably an issue that won’t be resolved this season. Derrick Rose arrived to lend a hand, while Elfrid Payton and rookie Immanuel Quickley had stretches where they performed well. Quickley is clearly the future and New York gushes over him whenever he delivers a solid performance but, as a rookie, he’s dealing with inconsistency right now.
Finally, the Knicks hope to welcome back Mitchell Robinson soon from a broken hand. The club placed a reasonable investment in Robinson, hoping for positive results as he navigates through the player development program. While Robinson is clearly an athletic big, his skill-set remains stagnant for the most part. His footwork and offensive moves are still under construction while he makes do with defense and rebounding.
Playoffs or lottery?: There’s a lot of company near the last two playoff spots in the East, with the Knicks staring at the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and maybe the Miami Heat. As much as the Knicks are putting forth the right energy and giving off lots of encouraging vibes, they’re probably headed for the lottery again.
This wouldn’t be a terrible place nor would it signify a step backward. If anything, the Knicks appear to be in good hands under new management and with Thibodeau on the bench. Put it this way: It’s been a while before those words were typed or believed by the masses.
Ultimately, the Knicks require an infusion of talent — in that sense, nothing has changed at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks need to fortify their rotation with more players like Quickley and Barrett, while finding a few more Randles. That’s when the city will suspect there’s playoff basketball ahead. Until then, New York will attach itself to the Brooklyn Nets, as much as Knicks fans will take issue with that.
— Shaun Powell