Knicks’ depth will be key for final 11-game stretch run

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Immanuel Quickley Knicks
New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) drives toward the basket as Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) defends in double overtime of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The New York Knicks are in the middle of a much-needed three-day break after a brutal west coast road trip that saw them go 2-2 while dealing with an injury to point guard Jalen Brunson. However, the respite will be short-lived as the Knicks are back on the court on Saturday, continuing their dogged climb up the Eastern Conference standings. 

With just 11 games to go in the NBA regular season, the Knicks sit one game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets for fifth place in the East and just 2.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth place and a chance to be the home team in a first-round playoff series. 

It sets up a stretch run where every game carries elevated significance and any potential loss feels like a gut punch; however, with so much still in front of this team, the Knicks need to make sure their final 11 games are as much about securing wins as they are about ensuring the team heads into the playoffs healthy. 

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The recent stretch without Brunson has been an eye-opening one for the Knicks in a few ways. 

Early on, the team struggled to adapt to life without their floor general. They started 1-3 and saw their offense take a step back, ranking 29th in the NBA in points per game, 29th in assists per game, 22nd in plus/minus, dead last in three-point shooting percentage, and dead last in effective field goal percentage over that four-game span. 

What’s more, the absence of Brunson put even more pressure on the shoulders of Julius Randle and head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Randle devolved into more of the ISO-centric, quick-tempered player Knicks fans saw last year and Thibodeau, who was forced into making lineup adjustments early in the year that kick-started the team’s hot stretch, was stubbornly rigid with his rotations again. He refused to give more minutes to players who had been out of the rotation and played essentially six or seven players a night as the Knicks continued to wear down late in games. 

But over the last two games on the road trip things seemed to change, and they changed because of the play of the Knicks’ bench. 

Miles McBride, who took Brunson’s spot in the rotation, was finally allowed to see the floor more, playing 17 minutes against the Lakers and 25 minutes against the Trail Blazers. He responded by scoring 26 points with three rebounds, four assists, four steals, two blocks, and a +33 plus/minus over the last two games of the road trip.

His defensive energy led to transition opportunities for New York and his floor spacing, shooting 6-of-9 from three over those two games, allowed space for Josh Hart and Obi Toppin to attack the rim. 

McBride’s impact on the defensive end is no surprise for anybody who follows the Knicks. According to Cleaning the Glass, the team allows 7.6 fewer points per possession, creates 1.4% more turnovers, and holds opponents to a 3.1% worse effective field goal percentage when McBride is on the court. All of those numbers are in the top 80th percentile in the NBA in terms of a player’s defensive impact. 

Miles McBride Knicks
New York Knicks guard Miles McBride, right, prepares to shoot past Portland Trail Blazers forward Cam Reddish during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Yet, when the Knicks traded for Josh Hart, McBride was banished from the rotation so Thibodeau could keep to a rigid nine-man bench. 

If the coach wants to keep that for the playoffs that’s fine since the postseason is where you need your best players to shine, but the Knicks need to think long and hard about expanding their rotation for the final 11 games. 

Since Thibodeau switched up the rotations on December 4th, Randle averages the third-most minutes per game of any player in the NBA at 37.3 per game, while Brunson comes in 10th-most with 36.6 minutes. They are one of only four pairs of teammates to rank in the top 20 in minutes played per game, and Boston’s duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the only two from a non-play-in team. 

However, Boston also has eight players who average at least 24 minutes per game. The Knicks have six.

That type of short rotation makes them extra vulnerable to even the smallest injury, and this recent stretch without Brunson has made it perfectly clear how much of an uphill climb it will be for the Knicks to win a playoff series if one of their key scorers is out. It’s imperative that Thibodeau ensures the health of players like Brunson, Randle, Immanuel Quickley, and Mitchell Robinson, which means relying on the bench more down the stretch. 

It’s not like the bench hasn’t come through for the Knicks either. 

In Sunday’s win over the Lakers the bench of McBride, Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Obi Toppin played 85 total minutes and were a combined plus-42 in the game. Over the last two games, Hartenstein has flat out-played Robinson, with Hartenstein notching 0 points, 22 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two blocks in 51 minutes for a plus/minus of +39 while Robinson had four points, nine rebounds, two blocks, and two steals in 45 combined minutes for a plus/minus of -19. 

Thibodeau has rewarded Hartenstein with more minutes and needs to do the same with McBride. He can enter the rotation as the 10th player, seeing 10-15 minutes a game to help give Brunson, Grimes, and Quickley a breather and ramp up the defensive intensity when he’s on the court. He’s already proven he can be an asset in that role, and the protection he’ll provide for the team’s top scorers is just an added benefit. 

The Knicks are a team that is assembled to be deep, so it’s time for their coach to let that depth shine.  

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