In a year where the Knicks are looking to establish themselves as perennial Eastern Conference contenders, they must establish an identity that sets them apart from everyone else — a calling card that when all else fails, they can revert back to.
As this Knicks team is currently constructed, there is no other team in the East with as much consistent talent and depth that can be brought off the bench. While the stars are established, the depth on this roster is the key that can unlock a season full of success in New York.
“Our second unit has been terrific defensively,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said following the Knicks 109-91 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday. “I think the way our second unit is tied together, they had a number of good reads on pick and rolls. Situations in which they switched were very effective.”
Each team in the Eastern Conference that is widely regarded as a title contender this year has an identity. For the Bucks, it’s the dynamic duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard. For the Celtics, it’s stellar team defense around the star power of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kristaps Porzingis. For the Philadelphia 76ers, it was once reigning MVP Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey after the trade of James Harden. For the Miami Heat, it’s Jimmy Butler and the culture of excellence Pat Riley has built.
Which brings us to the Knicks. They don’t have the dynamic duo of an Antetokounmpo and Lillard. They don’t have the star power of Tatum and Brown, and they don’t have a reigning MVP or championship culture yet. What they have right now is one of the deepest and most dynamic benches in all of the NBA.
The Knicks starters currently have a 67.5 offensive rating, ranking 23rd in the early stages of the season. On the defensive side, there has been nobody better as they rank first in the league with a 64.9 rating. The second unit is able to compromise somewhere in the middle. They have the No. 9 ranked offensive unit off the bench, displaying how dynamic and deep their reserves are. They are also the top bench unit regarding defensive rebounding percentage.
Being able to bring talent off the bench like Immanuel Quickley, Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart, and Isaiah Hartenstein is a luxury that no other team in the league has. Although Thibodeau is notorious for the grueling minutes he often demands his top unit to play, having a more than capable bench unit can take some of the heavy regular season workloads off the starters.
Last season, the Knicks averaged 29.5 points per game from their bench unit, the second worst mark in the NBA. Through the first four games of this season, they are averaging nearly 38 points per game, good enough for 13 in the league.
While teams like the Bucks, Heat, Celtics, and 76ers rely on their top rotation guys to carry the load, the Knicks can rely on their second unit to win the minutes against the lesser bench units of these teams and compensate for talent at the top. If the Knicks are going to take the next step as a team, it begins and ends with their second unit.