Short-handed Knicks are in a funk and have several issues to address

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When you cover Tom Thibodeau, you learn to stay away from certain phrases.

Whenever the obsessive New York Knicks head coach receives a question that begins with “Are you concerned with …” he interrupts with the same line.

“I’m concerned with everything,” Thibodeau quips.

It’s one of his many running bits. He never reveals his starters before a game. Ask if he’s sticking with the same lineup and he’ll drop his favorite conditional: “We could.” If another question to Thibodeau starts with “Are you happy with …” then the coach will interject with another one-liner: “I’m never happy.”

He knows his public persona, and he plays into it, but he’s also not lying — especially not about a never-ending concern for basketball minutiae. Thibodeau is a proud neurotic. And that means the recent Knicks’ struggles must trouble him.

Thursday’s 110-99 loss to the Golden State Warriors dropped New York to 2-7 over its last nine games. Of course, the group the Knicks deploy now isn’t the one they hope will lead it to a deep playoff run this spring.

Julius Randle is still out with a dislocated shoulder. OG Anunoby is recovering from surgery, as is Mitchell Robinson. Isaiah Hartenstein is dealing with Achilles pain. Jalen Brunson has missed a game during this stretch, as have Bojan Bogdanović and Donte DiVincenzo.

The Knicks shouldn’t be shaking in their boots, even with the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers next on the schedule. The idealized version of this team exists only in a fantasy land right now. But that doesn’t mean they can ignore three weeks of losses.

So with New York (35-25) hanging on as the No. 4-seeded team and with eighth place dangerously close, let’s take the Thibodeau approach.

Here are five concerns from the Knicks’ recent downturn:

Eastern Conference mashup

There was a time not long ago when conversations about the Knicks’ record centered around a battle for the No. 2 or 3 seed. Finishing in the top three would mean avoiding the Boston Celtics until the conference finals. But now, priorities have changed. The Knicks’ best chance at staying away from Boston could be dropping to sixth place instead of climbing into the Cavaliers’ or Milwaukee Bucks’ stratosphere.

But things change fast in the NBA. Heading into Friday’s action, they were only one game up on the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers and only one and a half up on the eighth-place Miami Heat. Lose in Cleveland on Sunday and New York could crater down the standings.

This may not be the group that the Knicks take into the playoffs. They’re hopeful Randle can return with time remaining in the regular season, according to league sources, and Anunoby has already begun on-court work following his elbow surgery, Thibodeau said Thursday. But the guys on the court today still affect the Knicks’ chances come spring.

A team with aspirations of a long postseason run can’t fall out of the top six, skidding into the Play-In Tournament, where luck takes over. One or two bad games and the season is over. Even a Play-In Tournament win wouldn’t be encouraging, giving the team a date with the league-best Celtics or whichever team finishes second. Home-court advantage would be gone, too.

The Knicks are no playoff threat without Randle and Anunoby. But they also will struggle to consider 2023-24 a success if they lose in the first round.

It’s a long season, but if a one-month slump in March makes April and May more difficult, the Knicks may think it’s not long enough.

The defense

Is New York’s defense too dependent on one person? The trend is as extreme as it gets.

During the three weeks between the ankle injury to their defensive anchor, Robinson, and the trade for Anunoby, New York sat 26th in the NBA in points allowed per possession. But Anunoby’s arrival changed the vibes — and the production.

From the day he joined the Knicks, the defense transformed. New York wasn’t just better defensively; it was the best. No one allowed fewer points per possession in January than the Knicks did. But after Anunoby got hurt at the end of the month, holes emerged once again.

In the 14 games since his injury, the Knicks are 24th in the league in points allowed per possession.

It appears simple. Plug Anunoby in, and all is well. Take him away, and the Knicks bleed.

The defense is 22.5 points per 100 possessions stingier when Anunoby is in the game, according to Cleaning the Glass. If he played enough with the Knicks to qualify for the league leaders, that would be the largest disparity in the NBA by far.

Eventually, Anunoby will return, but will leaning so heavily on one defender become a problem come the playoffs? Will a smart coach figure out how to exploit it?

It’s not like the Knicks are lacking quality defenders, even if the trade for Bogdanović and Alec Burks took a bite out of their fortress. But Anunoby’s absence means more on-ball responsibilities for Hart and DiVincenzo, who are both at their best roaming passing lanes. Maybe more importantly, Hartenstein, who seemed like he was blocking a dunk a night throughout January, is bouncing in and out of the lineup with Achilles tendinopathy.

The team is monitoring his playing time. And at the moment, he’s not guarding at his most intense level. Every once in a while, like during Tuesday’s back-to-back against the Pelicans, he has to sit out … which leads us to our next concern.

Staying healthy

Randle, Anunoby and Robinson are fighting their way back, but this team has goals beyond a little push into late April. And to accomplish them, it needs everyone — not just those three.

That brings us to the new guys: Burks and Bogdanović.

The trade with the Pistons, which sent Quentin Grimes and more to Detroit for Burks and Bogdanović, was supposed to bolster the offense, especially when Brunson was on the bench. But on top of that, it was supposed to provide the team with depth and veterans who could run for 20 or 25 minutes.

It hasn’t gone that way. The Knicks are short-handed, no question, but they’re also chopping off their fingers.

On Thursday, Hart played 47 minutes, 10 seconds against the Warriors. That’s a full 50 seconds of rest, a risky proposition. What a tease it would be if the Knicks welcomed back the injured players only for others’ production to drop from exhaustion.

Innings eaters exist for games like Thursday’s, in which Bogdanović and Burks combined to play 30 minutes.

No baseball team sits its No. 5 starter and starts its ace on short rest in July just because a feared team is coming to town. The purpose of the innings eater is to start that game and maybe lose it but help his team get through the regular season. And then when the playoffs begin, the rotation shrinks to three or four pitchers and others on the staff aren’t gassed or hurt.

It’s one thing to use Bogdanović and Burks situationally or to stick with someone like Hart when he’s having a great game, which he did Thursday, despite the poor shooting. But it’s another to play Hart for 47 minutes in a February match that the Knicks never even led.

Of course, neither new guy is helping his cause. Bogdanović missed all seven of his shots against Golden State and is not known for defending in space. After the Warriors game, Thibodeau said he probably should have played Burks more. But it’s not like the veteran guard is making the decision easy for his coach, either.

Burks’ passing

After eight cold games with the Knicks, Burks knows his shot is bound to come around.

“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of shots. I’m gonna make them again.”

And he’s not wrong. Burks is shooting only 32 percent from the field in eight games since the Knicks traded for him in February, but it’s likely he’ll make jumpers again. He got off to a slow start with the Pistons earlier this season, too. A fiery January raised his numbers to his usual level.

When Burks’ 3-point accuracy is off, the rest of his game doesn’t look as pretty. He shoots an abnormally low percentage around the rim. During his last full season with the Knicks, 2021-22, he shot a better percentage on 3s than he did on layups, according to NBA.com. He’s in danger of repeating the feat this season.

But eventually, Burks will put on a show. He’ll drain three or four 3s or go for 20 points off the bench. He’ll sink half of his triples over two weeks. But for now, even understanding that caveat, there is one element to be concerned about with Burks — and it has nothing to do with the shooting struggles.

The Knicks traded for Burks, bringing him back for a second stint with the team, not only because of how he could fill in until the injured players returned but also because of the role he could fill once everyone was back. The group had questions about how Miles McBride would run the second unit in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Burks was a veteran who could create his shot and stabilize the offense for the 10-ish minutes Brunson was on the bench.

But the problem is, the sans-Brunson offense remains unsteady.

The Knicks are scoring a paltry 97.2 points per 100 possessions when Burks is on the court and Brunson is off, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Too often, it takes emergencies for Burks to pass. Rarely are his dishes purposeful and rarely are they quick-minded swings around the perimeter or drive and kicks that draw the defense in and create open shots for teammates.

So far, the Burks dish looks like this one from Tuesday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. He ran a pick-and-roll to get Zion Williamson switched onto him with 17 seconds left on the shot clock, tried to square him up, drove one step into a help defender and then tossed the ball to DiVincenzo to run a frantic pick-and-roll to save the possession. It ended in an offensive foul.

The Knicks don’t hit the paint until 15 seconds into this possession. A team that’s lacking facilitators can’t move so leisurely.

Part of the justification for acquiring Burks was that he already knew the system. He’d played under Thibodeau from 2020 to 2022. But the roster has changed since then. Even the most important holdover, such as Randle, hasn’t played with Burks yet because of injury.

“I think it’s still a work in progress. That was two years ago,” Burks said. “It’ll work itself out.”

The Knicks are banking on the same. And the offense may run smoother after the return of Randle, who can run with the second unit, which gives the group its best passer and a top-notch scorer while also moving Burks into more of an off-ball role. If New York is fully healthy, the 10 or 12 minutes Brunson doesn’t play could be the only ones Burks receives. The Knicks are loaded with good players, so guys will have to sacrifice.

But if this style continues when he’s running the second unit in games that matter most, whether he’s hitting shots or not, the offense could go stagnant.

First-unit offense

The Knicks did not score a point Thursday until one starter was already out of the game. Golden State throttled to a 14-0 lead; New York eventually found a bucket after Jericho Sims had subbed in for Hartenstein. The final numbers on the starting lineup weren’t friendly:

In 11 minutes against the Warriors, the first unit got outscored 25-11 and shot just 4 of 21 from the field.

Even if the shooting isn’t there, the offense has rarely been an issue with the current starters: Brunson, DiVincenzo, Hart, Precious Achiuwa and Hartenstein. They haven’t turned the ball over, and they’re gobbling up enough offensive boards to prop up the scoring. But the Warriors may have exposed something.

With three non-spacers on the court, Golden State defenders blocked off lanes to the hoop. They veered from Hartenstein, Achiuwa and Hart.

Thibodeau mentioned an imperfection in how the Knicks attacked the Warriors’ strategy. When a defender is ignoring one of the big men, it’s Hartenstein’s or Achiuwa’s objective to go into some kind of screening action, preferably a dribble handoff, which is an effective way for the Knicks to get open 3s for their shooters. Place DiVincenzo’s man into an action where he has to guard both DiVincenzo and whoever is screening for him and you can create chaos.

The Knicks didn’t go into those kinds of actions as quickly as they could have Thursday. But there’s also a reason the Warriors went at them this way: They weren’t worried about anyone other than Brunson or DiVincenzo beating them.

Once Randle returns, the dynamic changes. The three-time All-Star is Brunson’s outlet. Send two defenders at the point guard, and Randle can punish you. Meanwhile, Anunoby will bring back more spacing.

But until either of those two play again (and a smattering of competent teams in the Knicks’ immediate future) it will be fascinating to see if defenses continue to take such an extreme strategy. If they do, how might the Knicks handle it?

Do they continue to roll with the same starting lineup? Does Bogdanović sneak in there somewhere, if only because of the 3-point shooting? Does Thibodeau shake up his rotations, bringing a shooter off the bench earlier?

The only answer we know for sure, as the coach says: They could.

(Photo of Jalen Brunson and Bojan Bogdanović: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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