Loss to Donovan Mitchell-led Cavs shows that Knicks are still one scorer away from where they need to be

Julius Randle is one of the New York Knicks' many scorers
New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

The Knicks have gotten off to a solid start this NBA season, using a new uptempo offense and a deep bench to get out to a 3-3 start. However, their recent losses to the Cavaliers and Bucks have shown that, despite the progress, the team remains one key piece away from being a true threat. 

The hard truth is that the Knicks need a proven go-to scorer. 

Every NBA champion since the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors has had a player who averaged at least 25 points per game. Last year’s Warriors squad had Stephen Curry and his 25.5 points per game, the 2020-21 Bucks had Giannis Antetokounmpo and his 28.1 points per game, and the 2019-2020 Lakers had both LeBron James and Anthony Davis averaging over 25 points per game, and the list goes on.

The nature of the NBA has changed drastically since that first Warriors title team. The more uptempo style of basketball, the added emphasis on the three-point shot, and the prevalence of one-on-one isolation sets have created an environment where offense has thrived and where elite scoring has become essential to being competitive.

Most NBA playoff teams last year had at least one scorer averaging 25 points per game: 76ers, Lakers, Bucks, Nets, Mavericks, Hawks, Bulls, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Celtics, Suns, Jazz, and Warriors. That’s 12 of the final 16 teams that were in the playoffs (plus the Lakers for good measure). 

The average points per game in the league last year was up 13.7 points per game per team from the 2013-14 season, and offensive efficiency has continued to improve every year since 2011-12. On average, NBA teams take seven more shots and 12 more three-point shots per game than during the 2013-14 season. That means that, on average, 24 more threes are taken in an NBA game now; that’s a pretty drastic change.

The NBA is no longer a league where a team like the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs can win a title. That team had six scorers average double-figures but didn’t have anybody who averaged over 16.7 points per game. They also held opponents to 97.6 points per game, which was just 6th-best in the league at the time but would have been the best in the NBA last year by almost seven points (Boston was the best at 104.5 points per game allowed). 

This current version of the Knicks is built similarly to that Spurs team. Well, minus the elite defense; although, they are trying. 

New York currently has four scorers scoring in double figures and six players averaging over nine points per game. They play a pretty consistent 10-man rotation with a clear first and second unit, which makes them one of the deepest teams in the NBA, but Julius Randle is their leading scorer with just 18.3 points per game. 

Jalen Brunson is right behind him at 18.2 points per game, but both players are well below the 25-points-per-game mark that has seemed to become the norm in today’s NBA. 

Could either one of Brunson or Randle realistically emerge as that primary scorer for the Knicks? It’s unlikely.

In Randle’s career year back in 2020-21, he averaged 24.1 points per game, but he was the clear first option for New York. He also shot a ridiculous 41.1% from beyond the arc, which easily topped his next-best season when he hit 34.4% in 2018-19. 

Brunson is finally the primary ballhandler on an offense after playing second fiddle to Luka Doncic in Dallas, but he’s not a bulk scorer. He has been tremendous for the Knicks as their floor general and point guard, also averaging 7.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game, but asking him to look for his own shot more would likely negatively impact his game and the impact he has on his teammates. 

The only other possibility on the roster is RJ Barrett, the former 3rd overall pick who the Knicks signed to an extension this offseason. The lefty-shooting forward is third on the team this year with 17.7 points per game, but he’s also struggled with his shot, shooting just 40% from the field and 21.9% from beyond the arc. He’s spent a lot of time working on his shot, and the season is still young, but Barrett would need to show major improvement from deep in order to even sniff that 25-point plateau. 

More likely, the answer for the Knicks will come from somebody not currently on the roster. 

That reality was made a bit more painful on Sunday night when New York saw Donovan Mitchell put up 38 points against them. Mitchell, who himself was convinced he was going to become a Knick this offseason, is averaging 32.2 points per game this season after averaging 25.9 last year for Utah. 

While it’s impossible to say New York would have been better off with Mitchell on this team rather than Brunson, it is clear that Mitchell brings a scoring punch that this team needs if it wants to continue to build itself into a contender. 

We covered last week that the Knicks seem to have found their point guard in Brunson, who could wind up being a steal at the contract he signed this offseason. They also have another potential building block in Barrett, a strong, young bench led by Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, and Isaiah Hartenstein, and elite rim protection from Mitchell Robinson. 

The pieces are beginning to come together but now they need to find that primary scorer. Will it be a shooting guard to take Evan Fournier’s place in the starting lineup? A big man to replace Randle or another wing player to pair with Barrett?

There are a number of different directions that New York could go in, but if they want to emerge as a real threat to make a run in the playoffs, it’s clear that all paths lead to finding a go-to scoring option. 

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Donovan Mitchell showed the Knicks what they were missing
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)