On the surface, trading for someone averaging under 10 PPG while barely shooting above 30% from beyond the arc seems like the opposite of what the New York Knicks needed. At 30-26, the Knicks currently have a very real shot at making the postseason, and not just as a play-in team but potentially as high as the 5th seed. The departure of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant from the Nets could open the door for them to gain some ground, and so it was time to act swiftly. Leon Rose’s Knicks executed a trade for Trail Blazers wing Josh Hart, a deal that can greatly benefit this ballclub in a manner many wouldn’t anticipate.
This shouldn’t be a bench piece for the Knicks, instead, Hart fits exactly what the starting lineup needs.
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Providing Improved Defense at the 3
The Knicks have struggled a lot with their defense from the SF position, as RJ Barrett has been atrocious defensively for reasons that the Knicks just can’t keep speculating on. If we look at their starting lineup when Mitchell Robinson is healthy, we see that the biggest issue with the Knicks is RJ Barrett right now. While many would point to Grimes as the player to bench if Hart were to start (bars), Barrett is the much more logical candidate. A common counterpoint here would be to put Hart on the bench, but that also doesn’t make much sense. When we evaluate the Knicks’ 1st and 2nd units, it’s clear as day what their strengths and weaknesses are.
For the starting unit, it’s clear that they have enough offensive firepower from Brunson and Randle, who are some of the best offensive players not just on the team but in the NBA. Ball-dominant scorers who can space the floor, there’s no real reason for the Knicks to prioritize offense when that hasn’t been remotely the issue with the starting lineup.
It’s not too far of a stretch to say that the Knicks have 2 of the 20-25 best offensive players in the league this season, the problem is that both Randle and Brunson are net negatives on the defensive side of the ball. Now, this isn’t me saying that they’re not good, they’re both All-Star caliber players, but RJ Barrett’s poor defense and ball-dominant style of offense doesn’t bode well for what the Knicks should be trying to assemble around Randle and Brunson.
While Randle is just a bad defender, Brunson and Barrett are two of the league’s worst defensive players. That being said, this gets outweighed for Brunson by his offense, Barrett can’t say the same (although his offense isn’t below average). The Knicks have given Quentin Grimes the most difficult defensive assignments in the starting lineup, with RJ Barrett not too far behind. Grimes is a skilled defender, there’s no doubt about that, but when your only positive defender not named Mitchell Robinson (who’s hurt!) is Grimes, that puts a ton of pressure on him.
When we look at defensive value, Hart has proven to be one of the better defensive players in the NBA, and that’s precisely what this team needs.
Grimes isn’t here to say, “Hart is a better defender than Grimes because of Defensive LEBRON,” because at the end of the day, defensive metrics can be fickle, and Grimes takes on the most difficult defensive assignments in the NBA with little to no help. That being said, for Hart to grade slightly better than Grimes is pointed out to say that Hart has played good defense this season, and I think most fans of the Knicks are currently overlooking how important that is to this team.
Barrett clearly is getting overmatched on defensive assignments, and Grimes might be as well since there’s no real way to explain why he leads the league in Matchup Difficulty other than the lack of defensive help around him. Sure, you could push him to the bench with the 2nd Unit, but as we’ll get into in a bit, that wouldn’t make much sense at all. Hart takes on more difficult assignments while blowing Barrett out of the water defensively, all while doing this at the same exact position. Just like Brunson, Damian Lillard is also a smaller guard who struggles defensively, so this isn’t going to be a massive change for him defensively.
We see Hart assigned to Jimmy Butler, who’s one of the best wings in the NBA, and he plays this possession beautifully. While I’m not a fan of using individual possession sample sizes, I believe film provides us with visual evidence that can help us see the quickness to getting to his man after doubling Lowry and an excellent contest on what normally would’ve been a high-percentage look in the corner. Hart’s defensive IQ, ability to change coverages, and overall defensive production all point to him being a strong defensive wing that the Knicks could desperately use.
The Bench Needs Barrett More than Hart
When evaluating the bench unit offensively, it’s very clear that they’re lacking in terms of offensive production. Immanuel Quickley has been excellent this season, with the most efficient year of his career shooting-wise and his playmaking and ball movement remaining excellent. The issue is that the likes of Miles McBride, Obi Toppin, and Isiah Hartenstein are all limited offensively and can only score off of a shot created by Quickley himself. Josh Hart isn’t any different, as if we look at his shot creation and isolated offensive possessions, he’s no good.
- Total Isolations per 75 Possessions: F
- Self-Created Shot Making: D+
- Total Offensive Load Rate: F
He isn’t someone who takes on a large role in an offense, and while last year he put up a higher total of points per game, Hart wasn’t nearly the defender he is this year. It’s hard to sustain both at a high level, and when looking at what RJ Barrett can provide for the bench offensively, there’s no reason to force Hart out of a role he’s excelled in to create the ideal bench scorer for this team when, spoiler alert, RJ Barrett is the solution to the bench scoring issues.
When we look at the Knicks’ 2nd unit as currently constructed, we see that only Immanuel Quickley can create shots and be a net positive on the offensive side of the ball. We could argue about whether Toppin is being utilized properly or not, but at the end of the day, the production speaks for itself. Looking at RJ Barrett’s offensive numbers on the season, a TS% of 53.2% is the first thing that could stand out to someone trying to evaluate his true offensive talent level. This is a fair point to bring up; Barrett is not an efficient scoring option, but that does not mean he’s a bad offensive player or even below average.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that Immanuel Quickley is pretty good offensively? Well, would you look at that, RJ Barrett is pretty close to him! The problem with RJ in the starting lineup extends past the defensive misfit that is Barrett/Brunson but also the offensive misfit it creates. Brunson and Randle are better offensive players than Barrett. Thus, they get to be the ball-dominant starters, and Barrett has to figure out where to get touches from there. We usually see RJ Barrett get most of his points with the starters out, so why continue to play him with a group that doesn’t mesh well with him?
Instead, having Quickley and Barrett together would give the Knicks two primary ballhandlers in their 2nd unit to keep the pressure on an opposing team’s bench defense. This would also create less difficult defensive assignments for Barrett inherently since he’d face off against worse offensive players more often. Another factor here is that the Knicks’ bench unit is great on defense. Thus, Barrett doesn’t have to even take on a team’s best 2nd unit scorer.
If Barrett can give the Knicks the bench offense they’re looking for as we speak on the market, suddenly, this team is a lot deeper. You can see Barrett call for more isolations, drive to the basket more, and also show off his playmaking talents. This is an athletic young wing who doesn’t ever get to show off said abilities because he’s overshadowed by better options on the team. Is that the fault of Brunson and Randle? No, and I’m not making excuses for what has been an underwhelming season, but rather trying to position him in a better situation.
The same goes for Hart, who contrasts Barrett perfectly. He’s a below-average offensive player who can’t do a lot with the ball in his hands, but he can stop offenses with Grimes and perhaps allow Grimes to take on a bigger role with the offense. We’ve seen how Grimes can drive to the paint and blow by defenders with his speed and athleticism, and perhaps becoming the tertiary ballhandler in the starting lineup allows us to see a lot more of that explosive speed from the 22-year-old guard from the University of Houston.
With us establishing how the needs of the bench are on the offensive side of the ball and the needs of the starting lineup are on the defensive side of the ball, let’s get into how the Knicks can thrive with that starting 5.
The New-Look Knicks Lineup
New lineups mean new looks, and that’s always an exciting part of a trade. We get to see how the Knicks could potentially benefit from having a more defensive-oriented lineup that doesn’t lose too much offensively. With better synergy in that lineup, things should operate a lot more smoothly. When we evaluate the starters, we see that the Knicks would have one of the better starting lineups in the NBA, and that’s in spite of not having that superstar-caliber player we strongly covet.
- Jalen Brunson PG
- Quentin Grimes SG
- Josh Hart SF
- Julius Randle PF
- Mitchell Robinson C
As a Knicks fan, I’m prone to bias and being overly optimistic about the talent level of players on the roster. This article paints Josh Hart as a pretty good NBA player, but to many, that could seem like an exaggeration. Perhaps this is just post-trade optimism, but I think this is a data-based analysis that would show its merit in the win column, the team stat that ultimately we care about the most. Randle and Brunson are All-Star caliber players, while Josh Hart is an excellent role player for what the Knicks need, Grimes is a solid NBA starter who’s developing, and Mitch is the anchor at center he’s always been.
The NBA is more than just a game of trying to assemble the best players in the PPG category. It’s about synergy and getting the most out of your roster, and this is the type of trade that doesn’t change the Knicks from a backend playoff team to a Finals contender, but it changes them from a team that could be on the outside looking in on the 6th seed to one that could make a serious run at it and the 5th seed, as they’re just 3 GB of the Nets. When it comes to the 6th seed, they’re just 0.5 GB of Miami.
- 2nd Unit
- Miles McBride PG
- Immanuel Quickley SG
- RJ Barrett SF
- Obi Toppin PF
- Isiah Hartenstein
A huge change would be with the bench unit, as now we don’t have to watch a sluggish offense that sees Immanuel Quickley drawing all of the defensive attention. We could also see RJ Barrett finally become the offensive weapon he always had the potential to be. It’s a small move on paper, but if the Knicks use Josh Hart the way they should, he could have a large impact on the dynamic of a Knicks team that’s not just looking to have their best record in 10 years but also win their first playoff series in a decade as well.