Tom Thibodeau continues to keep his opening night starters and rotation close to his vest with two days to go before his confident, young New York Knicks face the Indiana Pacers to open the season on the road.
As it stands, the Knicks will have the first few weeks of the season as an extension of the training camp. Without the benefit of the Summer League and fall practices, Thibodeau and his coaching staff had to cram in the condensed training camp and four preseason games.
While there’s still no clarity, the little window gave away some clues.
“Every day after practice, we talk about the rotation. We have a pretty good idea but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Obviously, over the course of the season, we need everyone. And particular this year, under the circumstances, quality depth is important and I feel we have that,” Thibodeau said on his zoom call with reporters after Monday’s practice.
Bereft of quality depth for the past seasons, the Knicks have shown in the preseason that Thibodeau can extend his rotation beyond the regular 8-9 man-deep on some nights.
While it was a small sample size and against lousy teams that were also experimenting, the Knicks played with a sense of purpose and direction for the first time in years.
Knicks’ best players
Based on their preseason games, RJ Barrett is firmly entrenched at his spot in the starting lineup. So is the much-maligned Julius Randle with lottery pick Obi Toppin not showing enough so far to supplant him.
Barrett has played the most minutes among the Knicks in four games with 30.5, which ranked third behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ youngsters — Kyle Kuzma (34.0) and preseason revelation Talen Horton-Tucker (31.8).
Barrett averaged a team-high 17.8 points on 51 percent field goal shooting. What’s more impressive is that he shot 86.7 percent from the line, a big jump from his 61-percent clip last season. He also had a +/- 14.3. Though the three-point shot remains his weakness, his overall improvement has been a welcome development for a Knicks team lacking a bona fide star and firepower.
Randle was also solid in the preseason games, coming in seventh in most minutes around the league with 28.5 per game. The six-year veteran turned in 14.5 points on 50-percent field goal shooting on top of 5.0 rebounds and an astounding 5.5 assists against 2.8 turnovers. For the first time since his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Randle had a positive point differential, a +/- 9.0 in his preseason outings, which hopefully will spill over into the regular season.
It wasn’t just a coincidence that Kevin Knox has started to find his groove at the same time Immanuel Quickley was quickly climbing up the Knicks’ point guard ranks.
Knox has knocked in nine of his last 10 three-pointers while Quickley has quarterbacked the team like it’s never done since they have Jeremy Lin, Raymond Felton, and an old but still reliable Jason Kidd late in his career.
That begs the question of whether he should start or play behind presumed starter Elfrid Payton, who missed the last preseason game.
“Everything is based on merit,” Thibodeau emphasized again.
“So if you evaluate practices — who’s practicing well, what groups are playing well then you take that further to the games. And take that information. If someone is practicing well, that is important to us. And then when you have the preseason games, if they play well, the team is functioning well when they’re on the floor, that’s important as well,” Thibodeau said.
Note the buzz word “functioning well.” It was the same word he used to describe Quickley’s awe-inspiring run in the preseason.
Best chance to win
During his 18-month exile, Thibodeau said he’s learned a lot and reflected on how he can improve to become a better coach than his previous two stops in Chicago, Minnesota.
But while he is starting to embrace analytics and load management, some tenets will remain the same.
“I think you play the people that you feel can give you the best chance to win. But also you have the understanding that over the course of the season, everyone gets an opportunity,” Thibodeau added.
For the small sample size that Quickley ran the point, the Knicks were a joy to watch. His energy was infectious. His high basketball IQ was very obvious.
Even Payton, who should be worried about his starting role, was left impressed with Quickley and gave credit to where credit’s due.
“He (Quickley) played well. Coach [Tom Thibodeau] has done a good job preparing us. He knocked down a lot of shots. The ball was popping. It was good. I think our defense led to our offense as well. He played good defense,” said Payton.
Whether Quickley will start or not, his overall skill set, which trumps all the point guards the Knicks have had, will shine no matter what.
“I don’t think he surprised any of us. We know he’s talented. He put in a lot of work day in, day out. There’s no surprise,” Payton said.
How deep can Thibs go?
While Barrett and Randle are locked to start, Thibodeau will enjoy watching the rest of the team competing for their spots.
Knox and Toppin loom to be the de-facto backups of Barrett and Randle.
Thibodeau has the luxury of interchangeable rim protectors in Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel. Robinson had picked up the slack when Noel sat out with an injury. The Knicks will have rim protection whoever between them is on the floor.
Payton may win the starting job at the point for now. But Quickley should give him a run for his money.
Veteran Alec Burks was also solid in two games against Detroit before he skipped the last two preseason games to attend to his newborn baby as reported by Stefan Bondy of the Daily News.
Reggie Bullock can be serviceable when his shots are falling.
There’s still the mystery of how Austin Rivers will fit into the scheme of things. But his veteran leadership, having played meaningful basketball with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, will be counted upon when the going gets tough.
Odd men out?
But with depth comes hard decisions.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina could be the guys who will hit the most with the influx of quality depth to this retooled Knicks.
Smith Jr. started the preseason as Paytons’ backup, but with the emergence of Quickley, it’s going to be tough for him to carve a significant role. His newfound defensive grit was admirable, but his inconsistent outside shooting and lack of playmaking couldn’t trump Quickley’s overall talent.
Ntilikina has played more off the ball in the preseason. But he hasn’t shown quite enough to keep Thibodeau from leashing him ahead of Burks and Bullock.
Unless he can hit the outside shot consistently, or injuries struck their veterans, his playing time will be a roller coaster.
It was pretty clear from the preseason games that the Knicks enjoyed much success with their young guys — Quickley, Barrett, Knox, Toppin, Robinson. But as Thibodeau said, the regular-season game will be a lot different.
On Wednesday night, the Pacers will provide their first acid test.
“I think they’re a very talented team [Indiana Pacers]. They’ve built a great foundation over the last few years. They’re playing a bit differently now offensively in terms of their pace and the type of shots they’re taking. But they have a number of people who can go off the dribble,” Thibodeau said.
“And I think of course, with Victor missing a good chunk of last year, they were still a very good team. They have great depth and versatility to their lineup and you have Victor back into the mix, they are one of the best teams in the East for sure,” he added.
Thibodeau’s young Knicks will face a team that they hope to become in a couple of years to attract stars to come. Under normal circumstances, the opening game should set the tone for the season. But for the Knicks, it will provide more clarity on whether Thibodeau’s beliefs are standing on solid ground or just a shallow depth.
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