2021 has been an encouraging year for the New York Knicks. On pace to surpass 35 wins, the first time since the 2013-14 season, the Knicks have produced a formula of success that has led their team to a stout 29-27 record, with a playoff berth looking more and more inevitable as the season progresses.
At the forefront of this progress has been a lights-out, defensive regiment implemented and directed by first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau. Currently sitting in first in points allowed (104.3) and opposing field goal percentage (44.2%), the Knicks have the best defense in the league and have upheld that exceptional defensive fortitude over the vast majority of the year (ESPN).
But despite such, the Knicks have struggled to keep their losses at bay this season, an issue that has been amplified over the last two weeks. To give you an idea, the Knicks lost five of their previous six games prior to their four-game winning streak, illustrating a level of inconsistency that needs to be straightened out (ESPN). There’s a handful of different reasons why the Knicks have as many losses as they do. But one thing that’s for sure is that the defense is actually not to blame here. If anything, despite the presence of All-Star Julius Randle and young sophomore stud RJ Barrett, the Knicks actually post not only one of the lowest scoring outputs in the league (27th with 105.6 points per game) but also muster one of the lowest field goal attempt averages with only 86.5 per game (ESPN). On top of that, the Knicks are just not shooting that well from the field either (45%), which doesn’t help their cause when they don’t put up a lot of shots to begin with (ESPN).
Ultimately, the Knicks have shown up defensively but have fallen short offensively all too often this season. And with the losses they have accumulated, this scoring concern is something that will need to change as the season slowly comes to a close. Moreover, with the trade deadline already long gone, the Knicks will have to utilize the offensive strengths they have on hand and need to find a way to ramp up their shooting output and efficiency as a whole.
Though it might be tricky to change this significantly over the remaining stretch of the season, the best bet for the Knicks offensive woes would be to increase the minutes of their first-round pick, Obi Toppin. Currently, Toppin plays an average of 11.4 minutes per game, which for the 8th overall pick is pretty low (ESPN). Yes, he’s young, he’s a rookie, and still has plenty to learn, so it’s important to keep in mind that this adjustment by no means would alleviate the Knicks offensive struggles wholeheartedly. But believe it or not, increasing Toppin’s minutes would greatly benefit the Knicks offensively and grant them a big boost off the bench for a variety of reasons.
To begin with, Toppin was an excellent scorer in college and brought tremendous athleticism for his position. Attending the University of Dayton for two years, Toppin played really well both seasons and took grand strides with his development moving into his sophomore year. In his second year alone, Toppin was dropping 20 ppg, grabbing 7.5 rpg, and was shooting a stellar 39% from 3-PT range and over 60% from the field (ESPN). This kind of scoring efficiency and production is precisely what the Knicks need right now, and Toppin brings that both inside and out.
In addition, if you take a look at the list of Top 10 picks in the 2020 NBA Draft, every single rookie outside of Toppin, Onyeka Okongwu (Atlanta Hawks), and Jalen Smith (Phoenix Suns), are averaging 20+ minutes per game for their respective teams this season. Naturally, every team has specific and uniquely different needs, and for the Knicks, their greater priority this season has been revitalizing the guard position play on both sides of the ball. But when you have a first-round pick (8th overall) that brings so much versatility offensively, it’s essential that they receive more playing time, be it as a starter or not. And for Toppin, that has not been the case.
Moreover, even as productive as Toppin has been considering the minutes he’s received, playing him for only 11.4 minutes won’t allow him to develop at the rate he could be. Just take the month of April, for example: In 8 games, Toppin is playing 10.3 minutes per game, scores about 4.6 ppg on 51.7% shooting from the field, and grabs 2.1 rebounds in the process as well (ESPN). If Thibodeau were to remotely lift his minutes to even just 18-20 per game, his scoring output and rebound production would rise significantly. The reason why the Knicks drafted Toppin and not a guard at 8th overall was because he was arguably the most talented overall player left on the draft board, and the Knicks have to put that to the test by increasing his minutes and actually giving him a chance to show why he was the right investment.
However, the biggest question that comes along with this decision is which players sacrifice minutes in order for Toppin to play more? Obviously, Randle and Barrett both need to maintain their hefty dose of minutes and the amount that has been granted to Nerlens Noel, Mitchell Robinson (when healthy), Reggie Bullock, and Elfrid Payton are all fair and justifiable considering their roles on the team. But outside of this core group, the Knicks have plenty of leeway to adjust the minutes of some players that haven’t been necessarily producing at the rate that’s needed of them with the minutes that they are being given. And the two players whose minutes need to be reduced the most are Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley. For starters, the number of minutes that Toppin should ideally receive is 20 minutes per game, which would be just a little over an 8-minute deduction in total from Burks and Quickly. In short, that’s really not a whole lot between the two of them and would improve the Knicks shooting efficiency from the field significantly. Although both players bring great 3-PT shooting, with Burks making 40.8% of his shots from deep and Quickley making 37.5% of his, they’re also shooting quite poorly from the field, with Burks posting a field goal percentage of only 41.4% in 25.8 minutes per game and Quickley posting an even worse field goal percentage of 38.5% in 19.5 minutes per game (ESPN).
Whether the Knicks take off 6 minutes from Quickly and 2 from Burks or keep it even and take off 4 minutes from each, allocating a full 20 minutes per game towards a more efficient, high-percentage scorer in Toppin, would improve this inconsistent Knicks offense when they need it most. The Knicks could be playoff bound this year, and although that would be a nice feat as is, it’s in their best interest to try to make the most out of their first potential playoff run in nearly a decade. But if they want to make that happen, their offensive production has to improve. And that starts by giving more minutes to Obi Toppin.