Knicks’ Mid-Season Report Card — 2020-21

The Knicks are 19-18 at the All Star break, in 4th place in the Eastern Conference. Time for the mid-season report card grades:

Coach Tom Thibodeau: A+

Who could have predicted 19-18 and 4th place? Vegas had the Knicks for 22 wins in total on the season. Well not for nothing but I had them for 35 wins in this 72 game season so they are on pace for that. Thibodeau has made that much of a difference.

As I regularly say, coaching is 65% of the NBA. A number picked out of thin air but something like that. To be fair I wanted the Knicks to keep Mike Miller as coach. These Knicks had started winning last year under Miller — they were 6-4 in December, 6-4 during a stretch in late January/early February, and 4-3 at the end of the season. I was a big fan of Thibodeau years ago (he was the secret sauce to Boston’s 2009 title) but became wary of what happened in Minnesota, where he was accused of overplaying players into injury, and there were reports of him going into tirades with the front office, and losing the support of his players on the court.

But Thibodeau has been tremendous as Knicks coach so far. The passion and intensity he brings is off the charts. The Knicks are playing beyond good defense — in fact they are now the #1 defensive team in the NBA in points allowed. The offense has been unexpectedly terrific too: Thibodeau has them playing a very unselfish pass-pass-pass the ball offense, ignited by penetrations by the point guard, mixed in with passes out of the post by the big man Julius Randle.

His interviews are intense, even when he is joking.

The schedule in the 2nd half is tougher than the 1st half — and remember the Knicks were 20-20 in 2015-16 under Derek Fisher, 16-13 in 2016-17 under Jeff Hornacek, and 17-14 in 2017-18 under Hornacek and in each of those seasons they titanic-ed in the 2nd half — in each case the sinking started with so many close losses in January, and a tougher 2nd-half schedule. And this year, everyone is saying the Knicks schedule in the 2nd half is tougher. But this team seems much better than those teams, and as a Knick fan on Twitter said the other day: the good teams the Knicks are scheduled to play in the 2nd half dread facing the Knicks!

Julius Randle: A+

Deserves an A++ but it’s not in our grading system. He is playing at not just Star level but Superstar level; as well as any Knick ever. As well as Patrick Ewing, Bernard King, Carmelo Anthony, Walt Frazier, or Willis Reed ever played. That’s the pantheon he is in. He is playing like he owns the court on offense — scoring with efficiency in so many ways; post ups, super quick spin moves, jumpers in traffic in the lane, or the left or right side; 3-pointers with nothing but net. And — “spraying the ball around” as Thibodeau puts it — hitting teammates with precision passes; the offense runs thru him. And the rebounding. And the Defense — excellent. In all ways dominating on the court and then by all reports providing tremendous leadership not only on the court but in the lockeroom — the team’s unofficial captain.

His play didn’t come out of nowhere — as was reported here many times he was terrific last season — after an initial part of the season where he was the Tazmanian Devil — trying too hard to live up to his big contract. We saw the spin moves and the beautiful inside jumpers and the rebounding and the surprisingly good Defense last season. But this year, according to Julius himself, he lost weight, came into the season in phenomenal shape, and also was dedicated to turning around the reputation he had somehow developed as a selfish player last season. He recently wrote an article in The Player’s Tribune — an article to the NY fans.

Randle is averaging 23.2 pts, 11.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 0.8 steals, .483 from the floor, .408 from 3, and .805 from the free throw line.

We give him an A++ or.. an AAAAA.

RJ Barrett: A

RJ Barrett was pulling a B then did great on the mid-term and is pulling an A at the half. He started off the season great, and was #2 in the NBA in minutes per game behind Randle, then went into a shooting slump in early February, before breaking out in a big way in late February and early March. He has been on fire from 3 lately, upping his season percentage to .350, and has been much improved from the free throw line this season, currently at .730. These are the final pieces needed for eventual Star status — Barrett is amazingly good at driving to the basket, against contact, with either his left or right hand.

Barrett is also a terrific rebounder for a guard, and plays excellent Defense. He has a high basketball IQ, is a good passer, and has shown since he was a rookie that he approaches the game with the confidence like he owns the court. He is a 6’6 (looks 6’7), big-time, 2-way ballplayer who looks like he will be the next Dwyane Wade. Or the first RJ Barrett.

Elfrid Payton: A

That’s right Elfrid Payton gets an A. He has done everything coach has asked — and been specifically called out by the coach in a good way numerous times — for leading the team on offense and on defense — setting the aggressive tone on both ends of the court. He is a just-turned-27-year-old, 6’4″ (listed 6’3) penetrating point guard who uses quick hands and quick feet to play excellent defense.

Payton can penetrate any defense (even good ones) at any time, and lives in the lane — adept at “keeping his dribble alive”, as Walt Frazier constantly mentions. Payton will penetrate and score at the rim, pass out to the corners, or give a perfect feed to the likes of Mitchell Robinson for an alley-oop slam. He was Defensive Player of the Year for the Sun Belt Conference in his junior (and last) year in college at Louisiana, before becoming a lottery pick (#10 overall by Philly in 2014). This season he has hounded the top-dog point guards in the game (Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, etc), chasing through the typical maze of screens to make their day difficult — always noted postgame by Thibodeau.

At times Payton plays with a rope-a-dope blasé attitude on the court, which seems to be him conserving his energy and perhaps playing a little bit of possum, as he’s apt to rip out of a lackadaisical jog to strip the other player of the ball. But that seeming nonchalance has caused half of Knicks Twitter to hate his guts — in a Lord of the Flies kind of thing where Payton is the Knicks’ fans whipping boy; every team has one and Payton has been Knicks Twitter’s Piggy this year; constantly derided by half the Knick fan base — unconvinced that Tom Thibodeau, one of the best basketball coaches in the world — had 5 point guards to pick from and made Elfrid Payton his starting point guard this year, and plays him 30 to 35 minutes a game while Frank Ntilikina, Austin Rivers, and Dennis Smith Jr (while he was still here) don’t play at all, and on top of that Thibs increases Payton’s minutes and decreases Immanuel Quickley‘s minutes when the Knicks are playing a superstar point guard like Steph Curry. Thibs has also mentioned numerous times he likes Payton’s height — again listed at 6’3 after the NBA’s stocking-feet measuring of 2019 although he looks 6’4 — to see over the top of defenses on offense and defend well on D.

The one thing Payton can’t do is shoot — or more specifically hit the 3 — another big reason why half of Knicks Twitter treats him like Piggy. This year he’s raised his 3-pt percentage to .250 so far after a dreadful .203 last year (.285 lifetime, p.s. just under Dwayne Wade’s lifetime .295 from 3). And his free throw percentage is .743 — much improved from last year’s abhorrent .570 — which was an aberration since Payton shot .743 the year before last.

Payton is only averaging 3.7 assists in 28 minutes, causing that Lord of the Flies portion of Knicks Twitter to call him selfish. But Payton’s assist average is down from 7.2 last year and a career average of 6.8 coming into this season. I attribute his lower average to Thibodeau’s system — where a Payton penetration and kick-out to the corner often results not in a shot being taken, but a pass-pass-pass around the perimeter before a shot is taken; thus losing Payton the assist. Payton is playing the same kind of ball he did last year as far as penetrating and passing.

So Payton gets an A.

Nerlens Noel: A

What a Great pickup by Scott Perry. While I, like most fans, were scouring the league to figure out who the Knicks should pick up during the off season — Perry picks up Nerlens Noel — a shot-blocking defensive center. The Knicks ALREADY HAD a shot-blocking defensive center in Mitchell Robinson why would they need two? Because having Noel means you always have an interior shot-blocker on the court, when Robinson is resting or out with injury like now.

Noel has played exceptional ball, especially in Robinson’s absence due to the hand injury. He defends the paint — and has an uncanny quickness and ability to block shots. He has played well on offense too. People make fun of the fact he can’t catch well; he often fumbles passes. But on Defense Noel has great hands; is an excellent rebounder. Recently in games where backup-to-the-backup center Taj Gibson has been out with an ankle injury, leaving Noel as the only center on the team — Noel has raised his game — playing Great ball and staying out of foul trouble; playing over 40 minutes regularly.

Noel gets a solid A.

Derrick Rose: A

Has been terrific joining the team in early February; upping the tempo of the NY offense when he comes in the game for Payton, and is always going North to South as Walt Frazier puts it — direct to the basket vs going side to side, or East to West. Still an elite penetrating point guard, distributes the basketball to high assist numbers, can hit the outside shot, hit his free throws, and play pretty good defense. Rose is a Thibs favorite who is now 32 but has shown he still has plenty of quickness and elite ability.

This is Rose’s second stint in NY, and its easy to forget Knicks Twitter ran him out of town the last time he was with the team in 2016-17 because of perceived poor defense — late in the season when we afterwards learned he had a partially torn meniscus. Rose was in the middle of his overall career comeback at the time, and cemented his comeback in Detroit. Rose has teamed well with Immanuel Quickley on the second team and played well for 30+ minutes a game when Elfrid Payton was out injured for a few games a week ago.

The Knicks grabbed Rose from Detroit in a trade where NY gave up Dennis Smith Jr, who is in process of his own comeback — getting playing time in Motown.

Mitchell Robinson: A-

We only gave Mitchell Robinson an A- because he hasn’t taken a single outside jump shot all season. Just like last year and the year before. Despite the fact that we keep seeing youtube videos of him popping 3’s in practice, and showing off his dribbling skills with crossover after crossover, and Thibs saying in a post-game interview that Robinson’s offensive skills were considerable and that they’d be taking the wraps off them at some time in the near future.

Robinson has played terrifically this year on Defense — he is not blocking as many shots because he is patrolling the middle more rather than racing out to block a 3. He has Significantly improved his ability to stay out of foul trouble while playing Great defense — enabling him to log many games of 35+ minutes. He’s been his usual efficient weapon on Offense (slam dunks, put-back slams, and alley oops).

So now he has to go to the teacher (coach Thibodeau) and complain that he got an A- because he hasn’t been allowed to take a jumper.

Robinson also has to work on his free throw percentage — currently at .468 despite the fact that he seems to be better at the line than when he was a rookie; more confident and apt to hit big free throws late in a game. Somebody else might give Mitch a B- for that free throw percentage alone; don’t take their class.

Immanuel Quickley: A-

Has been in the talk for Rookie of the Year. Scoring machine off the bench — an attack-attack-attack guard who is extremely accurate from 3 — we knew that coming in — and well versed in drawing fouls ala Trae Young. Exceptional at driving the lane and hitting the floater. Record-setting kind of free throw shooter (currently at .942). Relentless energy. Not a point guard.

We just lost half the audience writing that last line. But he isn’t. He’s a “scoring guard in a point guard body” — the immortal words of Larry Brown used for Stephon Marbury but apt here.

Quickley passes a lot but doesn’t especially pass off a penetration — in fact he rarely finishes at the rim he is almost always taking the floater and he doesn’t pass off the floater. Thibs has him playing alongside Rose (and before that Rivers) as the scoring guard on the 2nd team.

Quickley is 6’2 but looks 6′ — he may have benefitted from COVID in that the NBA in 2019 was famously measuring everyone in stocking feet — which resulted in people like Elfrid Payton being restated as 6’3″ tall instead of 6’4″. But the NBA seems to have relaxed the stocking-feet-measurement during the summer of COVID and appear to again be taking a player’s word for how tall they are. So Quickley is listed at 6’2. TJ McConnell (listed 6’0″ in stocking feet) seemed taller than Quickley when the two played against one another last week, and Payton seems 3 inches taller. The reason why this is important is defense — I’ve noticed other teams putting big guards in when Quickley is in, with one of them going right at Quickley, attempting to post him. The Knicks have to send help which disrupts their D which may be why Thibs continues to have Quickley coming off the bench for 13 minutes a game while more than half of Knicks Twitter scream that he start and get more minutes.

Still Quickley plays an intent Defense and his scoring has outweighed his deficiencies in that area. He has electrified the NY fan base (some young people will probably spell ‘quickly’ with an ‘e’ for years to come) and been a terrific late-first-round find (the pick they essentially got for Marcus Morris last year) — Quickley gets an A-. You can argue he should’ve gotten an A.

Alec Burks: B+

I almost gave everyone an A. Because everyone has played their role, and played it well. But the Knicks are 19-18 how can you give everyone an A? I have to give some players less than an A. Therefore Alec Burks gets a B+.

He has done everything asked: been a sharpshooter from 3 and from all over the court — this guy is an Elite scorer; he can score in all kinds of ways. He also plays good D. He’s a 6’5″, 29-yr-old (veteran on these Knicks) D and 3 guy. An Excellent pickup by the Knicks and Scott Perry.

Reggie Bullock: B+

Reggie Bullock misses more open 3‘s than any shooter ever. That’s what we tweeted on January 18, to much agreement from Knicks fans.

Yet I almost gave him an A. Because he’s done the role he was given to play, well — as well as he could play it. Yes he misses open 3’s a lot; but he goes on rolls, especially recently, where he does hit the 3 and gives the Knicks consistently good — very good — man-to-man DEFENSE. Bullock is 6’5 and somewhat muscular — a legit, athletic NBA body. You have to watch his game a while, always off the ball, to start to see why Thibodeau has him in there starting and playing 30 minutes. He’s a Tough, head’s up defender. A 3 and D guy. Shooting .372 from 3; .833 from the free throw line. Gets a B+. Can’t believe it myself.

Taj Gibson: B+

Deserves an A. Has done everything asked of him. Another Terrific pickup by the Knicks; we’d give Perry the credit but it is clearly Thibodeau’s. Provides gritty Defense, rebounding, scoring inside, can hit the occasional 3 and block key shots. Picking him up became even more important when Robinson went down with the hand injury and Gibson became the backup to Noel. But then Gibson sprained his ankle a week before the All Star game. Should be back after the break and provide Knicks with backup center until Robinson comes back. All that plus he’s supposed to be a Great locker room guy and mentor to Robinson.

Obi Toppin: B

Obi Toppin has been terrific as first man off the bench. It is difficult getting playing time as a rookie in Thibodeau’s system — he prefers to play veterans; yet Toppin has been making the most of his 12 or so minutes off the bench. He has a very, very strong post-up game — he will post on the left or right baseline and almost always efficiently scores. He is a top-notch slam dunker and is a high-IQ passer. He is athletic, runs the break, and looks like he will be a good defender, who can occasionally swat one away. The future is all green for Obi Toppin — son of famed NYC schoolyard legend Obadiah Toppin, who had nickname “Dunker’s Delight”. Obi was Naismith College Player of the Year in 2020.

Obi could have easily gotten an A as he’s done nothing wrong, but I give him a B. Let him work for an A. Get into the starting rotation.

Frank Ntilikina: B

Not a point guard. I think even Ntilikina Hive on Twitter admits to that now, as they have been calling for him to replace Bullock in the starting rotation after he has been on FIRE in the last few games, being almost perfect from 3. Ntilikina has always had good form and a soft touch on his 3-pt jumper and finally, in the last two or three games — he has shown he can be a top 3-pt shooter in the NBA. A 3 and D guy.

He’s been on the bench most of the season; landed there due to injury and didn’t come off even after he was healthy. The injury to Payton a week ago got him playing time off the bench. The injury to Rose a few days later made Frank the starting point guard for a game. He hit 3’s and played well, but got 0 assists. He’s not a point guard. But looks like he’s going to be a good ‘glue’ player in the NBA. He’s 6’6 with a long reach; plays passing lanes well; plays an excellent hounding defense that can quiet star scoring guards on some nights; at the same time not quick enough on his feet to stay in front of top-tier point guards on many nights (often ends up trailing them using his long arms to defend from behind); doesn’t go thru picks well but around them well; and perhaps not muscular enough (like Bullock) to be an effective starting NBA shooting guard — but he has talent. Remember how he led France to victory over the US and Kemba Walker just a year and a half ago?

Kevin Knox: B

Kevin Knox came into camp in Great shape (said Thibodeau and the press) and has done everything asked of him. His Defense and overall intensity is better than ever. He hits the 3 with precision — that high-arcing pretty shot. And when he’s not hitting a 3 he drives to the basket for an occasional rim-rocking slam. His approaches to the basket are better. But in Thibodeaus’ 9-man rotation, Knox has found himself out of the rotation after the Knicks acquired Taj Gibson. We can’t give Knox an A if he’s not playing so he gets a B. He’s 22 years old now and his NBA future is still in doubt but you get a feeling by the time he is 27 he will be an NBA regular known for his precision 3-pt shooting and good overall play; someone like Otto Porter.

Austin Rivers: B

Life is unfair. Said all the right things when he joined the Knicks; inspirational things that got the Knick fan base feeling great. Played well — a head’s up, penetrating point guard (one of 3 the Knicks have on their team; the others being Payton and Rose). Rivers defends well, makes the right pass at the right time, and had two unreal shooting games — both against the Indiana Pacers — that carried the Knicks to victory. When he did it the first time against Indiana, it looked like the Knicks had picked up some sort of Superman. Rivers couldn’t sustain that but was still playing good ball overall until the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, sending Rivers to the DNP Coaches Decision bench. He also supposedly has a sprained ankle issue. For now he is trade bait and insurance against injury.

Dennis Smith Jr: C-

Everyone on the Knicks has played well in their role except Dennis Smith Jr; and he isn’t on the team anymore (knock knock?). Dennis Smith Jr seems like a phenomenal guy with phenomenal skills and am happy to see him have a rejuvenation in Detroit. With the Knicks he seemed to be doubting himself, and his handle isn’t all its cracked up to be; he needs to improve that. Plus his outside shooting is iffy; needs to improve there too. He was at times a tremendous Defender in NY; he has quick feet and can hound and stay in front of even the quickest guards; he doesn’t do it all the time but when he does he is a top shelf defender.

Ignas Brazdeikis: I

Has gotten into 4 games in garbage time. Once he goes down to the G League he lights the place up for 35 points. He’s 6’6 and 22 years old. You wonder if it’s a matter of time before he gets a break and gets a role on an NBA roster where he can score, score, score; or it will never happen because he’s not quick enough on Defense. In any case he gets an I = Incomplete.

Jared Harper: I

Another one of those guys ‘on the bubble’ of the NBA. Plays well when in there but hardly plays. His height (5’10”) is his hurdle. He is 23.

Theo Pinson: I

Has several times come running off the bench to help a fallen Knick under the basket. This, Knicks Twitter points out, is why he is invaluable on the team. A real team player. He led the group of Knicks who went to an open microphone meant for a post-game interview with Julius Randle in a game at the beginning of March — to tell the arena that Randle deserved to be on the All Star team. He is a 6’5, 25 yr old shooting guard.

Scott Perry: A+

The GM gets an A+. A year and a half ago he was REAMED by the media and many fans for bombing out during the summer of 2019 — with all the salary cap he had cleared, he failed to sign Kevin Durant or any other elite free agent, and instead opted for Julius Randle and a host of other lower-cost players. Unknown to his naysayers and right in front of them he had performed a spectacular “Money Ball” free agency — signing all players to 1- and 2-year contracts with club option for an additional year, getting good players and also gaining flexibility to exchange players after a year if it wasn’t working out — like he did by letting Bobby Portis go and signing Nerlins Noel.

Perry and the Knicks are at the forefront of a trend in the NBA, with other teams now leaning towards giving 1- and 2-yr contracts with club option for an additional year (as long as the Player’s Union allows it why not) and second-guessing the massive 5-year, max-money contracts they have given to players who are not one of the handful of players who can lead you to a title (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant). This year you see teams like Chicago putting Zach LaVine on the trade rumor mill, Washington putting Bradley Beal on that mill, and Portland’s CJ McCollum in trade rumors. Not to mention Kristaps Porzingis , who has surfaced in rumors with a contract that is un-tradeable, along with other massive mistake contracts out there like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.


Agree with the grades above? Disagree? Have your own? Please post below.

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