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Four Stats Explaining The Knicks' Win Streak
How sustainable are the drivers of New York's recent success?
*Editor’s Note: Basketball Poetry is off next week for the holidays, although I plan to get a short hodgepodge article out for paying subscribers either Thursday or Friday. I hope everyone has a great holiday season and end of the year, and thank you so much for reading this!*
The Knicks’ eight-game win streak finally gave up the ghost against the reeling Toronto Raptors, but it may have saved some jobs.
On December 3rd, 2022, the Knicks lost to the Dallas Mavericks in an old-fashioned tushy-whooping, 121-100. Rumors ran rampant that Coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office were on the hot seat. A number of rotation players were being shopped in trades. The Knicks seemed dangerously close to imploding.
The very next night, they had another game, against the fearsome Cleveland Cavaliers. Coach Thibs decided he had one last card to play, sending malcontent wing Cam Reddish and ineffectual point guard Derrick Rose to the pine (next to already-benched former starter Evan Fournier) and reducing the minutes of fan-favorite forward Obi Toppin (who subsequently got hurt the next game). Instead, Thibs asked for more from second-year guards Miles “Deuce” McBride and Quentin Grimes and third-year guard Immanuel Quickley.
Essentially, Thibodeau traded offense for defense, and the results were splendid.
The Knicks held the Cavs (missing All-Star Darius Garland, to be fair) to a pathetic 81 points, one of the lowest totals in a game this season, in an encouraging win. This was the start of a rip-roaring run that brought the Bong back to the Bing.
After that fateful loss to Dallas, the Knicks were 10-13, ranking a misleading 12th on offense (it was entirely offensive-rebound-driven) and a pathetic 27th on defense.
During the eight-game win streak that followed, the Knicks looked like a different team. They improved to third in offense and first in defense, giving up exactly 100 points per 100 possessions in a jaw-dropping display against admittedly inferior competition.
We’ll dive into those sixteen days, look at what went right for the Knicks, and determine how sustainable it might be throughout the season. Of course, no winning streak is sustainable forever. To win eight in a row, a team has to combine good fortune and skill in ways that aren’t perfectly replicable night-in and night-out. Statistics, naturally, will be inflated.
But some trends are more tenable in the long run than others. So let’s dig in and see what we can uncover.
Note: stats from Cleaning the Glass, Basketball-Reference, or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
Anytime you see a defense make a remarkable rise or shocking fall, the absolute first thing you need to check is opponent three-point percentage. Roughly 40% of shots in the NBA are long balls now, and opponent three-point percentage is less controllable and more luck-driven than two-point percentage. So if a defense randomly vacillates between rankings over time, you can bet a significant driver is often simple shooting luck.
And, wow, have the Knicks had some luck. Their eight opponents (seven, technically, since they played Chicago twice) turned into a collective Russell Westbrook from beyond the arc. Opposing squads were canning an anemic 27.9% of their threes; the second-worst percentage was 30.4% from Orlando, who, not coincidentally, also played their best ball during this stretch. For reference, Westbrook is shooting 27.1% from deep, and teams BEG him to launch threes.
Is it sustainable? Hahahahah no. Reversion to the mean doesn’t suggest teams will start shooting 50% from three, but if teams shoot just league-average from deep over the remaining season, the Knicks will look much more vulnerable. The league average three-point shooting was 36.3%, so if teams shoot at that level instead, it’ll bump up the Knicks’ average points-against by nearly nine points per game!
The good news: even if that happens, NY still would be a top-ten defense, all else being equal. See the rebounding section below for a big reason why.
Verdict: Extremely, super-duper unsustainable.
The Knicks’ offensive rebounding has been dominant all season; at this point, we can safely say that will always be a strength. But the defensive rebounding is what shined over the win streak, as the Knicks gobbled up 79.1% of available defensive rebounds. Those were some hungry hippos!
The average team shoots 88 FGA per game. The league-average defensive rebounding for this period was 73.7%, so the Knicks were essentially withholding almost five extra possessions from opposing teams than a standard defense would have allowed. That’s a massive difference.
Until Dec 3rd, after their loss to the Mavs, the Knicks had been the fourth-worst defensive rebounding team in the league. So this improvement was a huge driver of their new success.
Is it sustainable? I don’t think the Knicks will be the best glass cleaners in the country, but they can be top-10 going forward. For one thing, the Knicks always have at least one solid rebounder in Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson manning the middle (Robinson led the league in box-outs with 4.8 per game; second-place Larry Nance Jr. was only performing 3.7 box-outs), and Julius Randle has always been a tough rebounder when he wants to be — he actually leads the Knicks in defensive rebounding rate.
Excising Cam Reddish from the rotation makes a huge difference, as he is one of the worst defensive rebounders in the league. The Knicks have also explored two-big lineups a little more often, pairing springy giant Jericho Sims with Hartenstein in jumbo-sized lineups to replace Toppin, a pseudo-big who is a poor defensive rebounder.
Mostly, though, it comes down to effort, and like the defense as a whole, the Knicks have been much more willing to put a body on someone and attack the ball rather than hoping the leather bounces their way. I don’t think they’re the best rebounding team in the league, but an engaged Randle should keep them above-average.
2.8 is how many more free throws Julius Randle made per game during the hot stretch than in the rest of the season. He averaged 7.3 in those eight games compared to 4.5 beforehand, while the rest of the team was roughly at the same level in both time frames.
7.3 is a lot of made free throws. That’s more than DeMar DeRozan, Jayson Tatum, or Kevin Durant are making on the season, and Randle’s previous season high was 4.9.
Is it sustainable? I doubt he keeps up this blistering pace; the team has faced some rough, foul-prone defenses during their win streak (another contributing factor to their success), and better teams will be able to handle him without hacking as much.
But Randle has always been someone who feeds off success; he may emphasize the successful blueprint he’s discovered. Just last year, we saw RJ Barrett decide to go full-on rim howitzer for the entire second half of the year, so it’s something we’ve seen happen for New York in the recent past.
Verdict: Eh, probably not sustainable, but maybe a little bit.
3.5 is the total number of minutes played by Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier, and Cam Reddish combined over this eight-game stretch. They barely got 20 from Obi Toppin before his injury.
It turns out that trading several offense-first rotation players (who, despite their reputations, have been horrible on offense) for defensive-minded replacements (who have been better than their counterparts at scoring the ball, too!) was a good call. The team’s identity is clearer, and the rotations are cleaner. Roles are defined in a way that is productive and complementary to team success, and the team is noticeably more connected, particularly on defense. We shouldn’t overthink this too much: the Knicks have allocated more minutes to smarter, better, younger, and more athletic players. It’s only natural they’re a better team because of it.
Is it sustainable? Rose, Fournier, and Reddish are out, barring injury and garbage time, and good riddance to them all. Toppin is a little trickier. As I mentioned, fans love Toppin for his high-energy style, and in theory, he makes sense as a floor-stretching four backing up Randle and occasionally playing with him in small-ball lineups. He’s a one-man fast-break who injects energy and verve into a sometimes stodgy offense.
But he’s still only shooting 35% from three, below league-average, and he’s one of the worst off-ball defenders I’ve ever seen: constantly missing rotations and overhelping (a common complaint about Thibodeau defenses, but one that’s largely been addressed for the last month).
If you have a cat, you’re familiar with the zoomies — when your cat freaks out and starts scrambling all over the place for no evident reason. Obi Toppin has the human zoomies. I’ve seen Toppin sprint at guys who are already double-teamed one minute and then run away from the ball to guard absolutely nobody the next (say one thing for Toppin, he’s always in a hurry).
Watching him almost distracts me from the rest of the game; I never know what he’s going to do, but it’s going to be awesome, hilarious or both.
Verdict: Easily sustainable, unless Thibs gets Toppin fever. And he’s proven quite resilient to that strain in the past.
In summary: the Knicks are not and never planned on being contenders this year. But recent rotation changes have led to a more engaged group (particularly Randle), and this team should be aiming to avoid the play-in tournament. If the goal entering the season was to establish New York as a legitimate, improving, stable franchise, their recent stretch outlines some foundational building blocks to push that narrative further.
Most importantly, the Knicks have fun, young players getting meaningful developmental opportunities! McBride, Grimes, and Quickley are still relative babies (technically, so are Reddish and Toppin, but shhhh). However, the Knicks have discovered that all three are solid rotation players who can contribute to winning. As a fan, besides a championship, there’s nothing as rewarding as watching homegrown talents blossom into genuine contributors. It’s been a long time since the New York Knicks had a youth movement this exciting, and they should enjoy the ride.