Knicks’ potential weaknesses highlighted by absence of Jalen Brunson

Jalen Brunson Knicks
New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) goes up for a shot against Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent (2) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 3, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Despite not being the first choice of additions for many Knicks’ fans this offseason, Jalen Brunson has quickly turned into not only a fan favorite but arguably the team’s MVP. That has become even more apparent over the last four games. 

Over the Knicks’ recent four-game stretch, Brunson has missed three games and had to leave one early due to a foot injury. With Woj reporting that Brunson might also miss Tuesday’s game against Portland as well, New York is learning just what kind of team they are without their starting point guard. 

The answer is, unfortunately, still a relatively flawed one. 


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While the team did just enough on Sunday night to leave Los Angeles with a 112-108 victory over the Lakers and end a 3-game losing streak, problems remained even in the win. 

Over the last four games, the Knicks are 1-3 and have really seen their offense take a step back. They rank 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

In addition to struggling on offense as a team without Brunson, the point guard’s absence has had a clear impact on Julius Randle, who, as demonstrated last year, struggles with the mental component of being “the guy” on a team. Randle needs somebody else to try attention away from him because he is too easily frustrated. 

Which we saw on Saturday against the Clippers when Randle lost his composure with the refs after he disagreed with some calls. The consequence was a technical foul and a near-flagrant foul in a display that was vintage 2021-22 Randle.

However, the infractions caused the Knicks to trail heading into the fourth quarter, and also gave Los Angeles a spark of life. 

It’s no surprise that Brunson’s absence has ramifications on the mental side of Randle’s game since the forward has spoken openly about his offseason quest to get right mentally. The pressure of being “the guy” again without Brunson is likely a main cause of the mental relapse for Randle, who perhaps put too much on his shoulders to carry the team in a difficult road contest. 

The mental regression also showed itself on the offensive end where we saw more ISO-Julius than we have in weeks, with Randle trying to score statement baskets against Kawhi Leonard that resulted in poor, low-percentage shots. Shots that he is almost never taking anymore with Brunson around. 

Randle finished that Clippers game with 19 points on 5-for-24 shooting from the field for one of his worst games of the year. Without Brunson around, it’s clear that New York not only misses arguably their best player but also gets a much worse version of their only current All-Star. That’s a significant double whammy.

Julius Randle Knicks
New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) shoots over Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt (2) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, March 12, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The loss of Brunson also makes the Knicks dangerously thin on their best since Immanuel Quickley has been thrust into a bigger role. 

While Quickley has delivered more often than not, the performance of the bench has been inconsistent over the last four games. Without IQ to push the pace and be the main bench scorer, it’s harder for the reserves to come in and bring the same high energy and ball movement that has been their staples.

While they have shown it in flashes, it’s on head coach Tom Thibodeau to put his bench in a position to succeed.

In a few of the games without Brunson, we’ve seen rigid Thibodeau keep his bench minutes exceptionally low for everybody other than Josh Hart, and sometimes Isaiah Hartenstein, which meant that the Knicks were essentially playing with six or seven players. 

Miles McBride, who took Brunson’s spot in the rotation, played just minutes against the Clippers and wasn’t able to make an impact. The next game out, Thibodeau gave him more of a leash, allowing McBride to play 17 minutes, and the guard rewarded his team with eight points, two rebounds, one assist, three steals, and a +15 plus/minus. 

In fact, on Sunday the bench of McBride, Josh Hart, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Obi Toppin played 85 total minutes and were a combined plus-42 in the game. 

Obi Toppin has also slowly emerged in those two games in Los Angeles, posting 19 points over the two games, which is his best back-to-back performance since January because he has become a bit of an afterthought in Thibodeau’s rotations. Perhaps his success and the inconsistency of the Knicks without Brunson is a lesson to their head coach that the bench players need to chance to consistently be active members of the game plan and get into the flow of the offense so the team can more effectively replace missing pieces. 

In the modern NBA, we’ve seen time and time again just how much of an impact one player can have on a team. Jalen Brunson may not be Kevin Durant or LeBron James, but his impact on the Knicks is monumental.

While the Knicks will almost assuredly have their point guard back for the playoff run, his absence these few games have been a strong reminder that the Knicks are still very much a work in progress. They are moving in the right direction, but it’s imperative that they keep taking steps, even small ones, forward.

They’re simply not good enough to regress and make any kind of noise in the playoffs. 

For more Knicks coverage, visit amNY Sports


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