The Knicks have something special brewing after landing dynamic forward

NBA: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the season, the lack of a huge move in the offseason meant that the Knicks wouldn’t be seen as meaningfully improved over the team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.

After dominating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, they’d lose in six games to the Miami Heat, who would end up representing the East in the NBA Finals. At the end of 2023, the Knicks were 17-15, and it looked like they had maxed out as a team, not having a higher ceiling than a fun first-round playoff team that would get outclassed by any serious contenders.

The Knicks would pull off one of the most stunning deals right before the new year, acquiring OG Anunoby and sending off RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley in the process. A deal that was met with a lot of criticism, New York has soared since the controversial trade, and their 10-2 record with the two-way wing has displayed a new ceiling for this exciting group.

How OG Anunoby Has Transformed the Knicks’ Lineup

New York Knicks forward OG Anunoby (8) hangs on the rim after a dunk against Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet (5) and forward Jeff Green (32) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden
Jan 17, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward OG Anunoby (8) hangs on the rim after a dunk against Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet (5) and forward Jeff Green (32) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Knicks acquired OG Anunoby, some concerns about the roster would prove to be true, but they were massively overblown and ignored the obvious upgrade they made in the starting lineup. Losing Quickley, who is arguably the best sixth man in the NBA, has hurt this bench a lot, and the team is still searching for a shot creator for that second unit in his place, but the importance of having a great starting lineup far exceeds the importance of having a great bench, and the last 12 games have proved that.

Going from RJ Barrett to OG Anunoby has been a revelation for the Knicks, who needed a primary defender to anchor the team’s defense. When it comes to scoring and shot creation, there’s no doubt that Barrett is a cut above Anunoby, but we have to paint a broader picture of how players generate value in the NBA. Defense and efficiency are two of the most important components of player value, and Barrett struggled with both during his time with the Knicks.

Players are either stars or role players; the range of in-between is where the primary options on sub-.500 teams lie, and a team can only have so many primary ballhandlers on the court at once. Making RJ Barrett the first or second option in the offense will lead to a team that has a capped ceiling, but he doesn’t have the three-point shot or defensive value to succeed as a compliment to other stars on the court, and the Knicks likely moved off of him for that reason.

The Knicks made a meaningful upgrade in their starting lineup, not just in terms of player value but with the fit as well, as they desperately needed that point-of-attack defender and someone who would be more of a facilitator than a slasher on offense. Jalen Brunson has exploded since the addition of Anunoby, as he has more space to operate and can drive to the basket more often, and the same rings true for Julius Randle as well.

Anunoby has taken the pressure off of other players on the team on the defensive side of the ball. The 26-year-old ranks in the 100th Percentile in Matchup Difficulty, and his ability to switch onto other scorers and generate turnovers or contest shots with his large wingspan has created a nightmare for opposing scorers. In their 10-2 run, the Knicks have allowed just 101.1 points per game, the best mark in the NBA over that timespan, and they’ve shut down some quality offenses.

Defense has been the team’s calling card, they’ve stifled opposing units, something that has guided them not only to winning games but in most cases dominating their opponent entirely. As the Knicks continue to stop teams at the basket, they’ll continue to win games, and they’re playing at a level that could allow them to punch up at some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference with the right moves.

Leon Rose still has some work to do ahead of the NBA Trade Deadline, and a bench scorer is something they could sorely use, as it might be the missing piece for this Knicks’ team to make some noise in the postseason.

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What’s Next for the Knicks This Deadline?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks
Jan 3, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon (11) drives to the basket past Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II (2) during the second quarter at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Adding a bench scorer, specifically a point guard, is a necessity for the Knicks, who lack a shot creator and scorer when Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle are off the court. Malcolm Brogdon brings in exactly what they need on offense, providing excellent playmaking skills and a steady shot from three, and he was the Sixth Man of the Year last season, edging out former Knick Immanuel Quickley.

The 31-year-old guard is shooting 42.2% from three, averaging 15.6 points per game coming off the bench and starting for the Trail Blazers, and he could galvanize New York’s bench unit. What the Knicks can offer is enticing as well since they have a young player like Quentin Grimes and plenty of draft capital, but it wouldn’t take too much to land the proficient shooter.

Josh Hart and Miles McBride provide the defensive value and spot-up shooting on the bench, with the aforementioned McBride having a breakout year from downtown, but the lack of a facilitator to create these looks has slowed their offense to a crawl when the bench is deployed. If the Knicks wanted to make a second addition, they could also target Gordon Hayward, a player that the Knicks have had an affinity for.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers
Dec 26, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward (20) moves the ball against Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George (13) during the first half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If the Knicks added Hayward as well to the equation, the Knicks would add a versatile defender who can bring size on the court and also space the floor, and while in the postseason, teams often shrink to eight-man rotations, adding extra depth may prove crucial in the case of injury. Miles McBride could be a capable ninth man, but he fills a guard role that Brogdon already fits, and there isn’t a set replacement for Julius Randle if he were to get hurt.

Perhaps the Knicks slide Josh Hart into the starting lineup, but it leaves you without some rebounding off the bench, and Hayward will likely be a buyout candidate that the Knicks could pick up for nothing. If the team could add the scoring and ballhandling that the 33-year-old veteran possesses to their rotation, they could run some interesting rotations that keep the offense going and also make up for some of the defense they’ll lose if they were to deal Quentin Grimes.

Sure, the Knicks lack a player like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid, who can compete year in and year out for MVPs, but they have about as good of a team as you can get without that kind of player. This isn’t based on a 12-game sample size either; when the Knicks had RJ Barrett on the court last year, they had a -0.6 Net Rating, but with him off the court, they had a +9.4 Net Rating.

The Knicks had a Net Rating above +13 since the trade isn’t surprising, as the data has told us that there’s a 1,517-minute sample size of them playing like the best team in the NBA when he wasn’t on the court. OG Anunoby has allowed the Brunson-Randle pairing to maximize their potential, and with the addition of a bench creator, the Knicks could ascend to brand-new heights.