Can the Knicks survive with a mix of six players getting most of the minutes?

Can the Knicks survive with a mix of six players getting most of the minutes?

With three and a half minutes left in the third quarter, Jalen Brunson came off a tight game against the Toronto Raptors. Julius Randle he stayed on the ground. To start the quarter, Randle headed to the bench. Brunson re-entered.

This seems to be the new trend.

New York Knicks Head coach Tom Thibodeau has shaken up his rotation again. On Monday, either Randle or Brunson stayed in the game every second of the final two quarters and into overtime. This has been the goal ever since RJ Barrett returned from a finger injury four games ago.

Thibodeau is staggering his two best players in second halves, though he’s doing it in different ways. Brunson played until the fourth quarters of Friday and Sunday’s games before being substituted. Randle sat out early quarters in those.

The reasoning is clear: If the Knicks want to score, they need one of their potential All-Stars to make it happen.

The Knicks’ games had a predictable cadence over the past two seasons. The headlines dug a hole; the reserves scrambled to fill it until the incumbents returned with a bigger shovel. But especially during this recent hot stretch, which began with Thibodeau cutting the rotation down to nine players, the style has changed. The first unit is now gutted. The reserves struggle in defense but struggle to score.

The Knicks’ bench is averaging just 21 points per game since Thibodeau cut the rotation to nine on Dec. 4, a league-low. Beyond Immanuel Quickleywhich has contributed more than a third of these points, the nets do not touch.

Thibodeau has played regularly Miles McBrideQuickley, Obi Toppin (who just came back from an injury) i Isaiah Hartenstein together Include Barrett with them. But lately, he’s used McBride only as a first-half player.

As the season progresses, the responsibility shifts more and more to just six guys: the five regular starters, plus Quickley. And so, after a first half against the Raptors when the second unit once again didn’t score much, Thibodeau had to falter once again.

Randle played with the bench to close the third; Brunson ran with him early in the quarter.

“I think the thing right now is to get the second group back into rhythm,” Thibodeau said. “So the big thing was that RJ is a big part of it. He was out for an extended period, as was Obi, so now they’re back and now we’ve got to get this group going again. And I thought that gave us some good minutes. And Deuce is a big part of that as well.”

The Knicks had no choice but to get creative. They’re scoring just 102.9 points per 100 possessions when Randle and Brunson are off the floor this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Camels could barely survive these droughts. If that number belonged to a team, it would be last in the league by far.

New York may have faltered in overtime on Monday against Torontobut at least those crucial moments came with the team’s top talent.

Thibodeau has been flowing in that direction. As of Dec. 21, Randle and Brunson are first and third N.B.A, respectively, in minutes per game. Meanwhile, the six boys in his circle of trust are absorbing more and more responsibilities, especially since Barrett returned last week.

A mix of the six make up the closing lineups. Against the Raptors, Brunson, Quentin GrimesBarrett, Randle, Mitchell Robinson and Quickley combined to play 88 percent of the Knicks’ available minutes. During the previous game, a win at Detroit, they played 89 percent of them. In the previous one, the victory in Washington, they played 84 percent. In the previous one, the home win over the Indiana Pacersall six played 90 percent of the available minutes.

You may have noticed: Three of those four games were wins. The only thing that wasn’t was a hard-fought defeat in overtime on the second day of the back-to-back. Part of the reason the Knicks have won 15 of 22 is that they play their best players more than most other teams. Coincidentally, the Raptors, who have led New York two or three times this season, take a similar approach.

But the advantages of the minute distribution form a bell-shaped curve. Keep your top talent on the bench for too long and you won’t be as good. Use them too much and (even in the middle of earning) it can indicate that cracks are forming.

Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier i Cam reddish they are in waiting time. Hartenstein gets the backup center minutes and, barring Robinson’s foul trouble, no more. Jericho Sims is behind him, currently not playing. Toppin is still recovering from a broken leg, but something has been off since before the injury. He has failed to score in double figures for 17 consecutive games. McBride is a defensive pest, but has been one of the least efficient shooters in the NBA. Out of 332 ranked players, he ranks 330th in true shooting percentage.

So here they are, with just half a dozen players soaking up a disproportionate amount of minutes and the coach progressively placing an even greater load on those six. The Knicks, 25-20 on the season, are fighting to get past the Play-In Tournament. Come the postseason, relying on just six isn’t enough.

So what happens?

The trade deadline is only three weeks away. And like when they brought in Rose a couple of seasons ago, the Knicks could use another source of offense.

They might find someone to take McBride’s minutes, though front offices in contact with the Knicks say New York has expressed it doesn’t want to move the 22-year-old. The Knicks have great defensive ability, energy and work ethic. Those league sources also say the Knicks have become much more resistant to trading Quickley, who they were making calls about earlier in the season, before the team took off on that 15-7 streak and before for Quickley to establish himself as one of Thibodeau’s top six.

Perhaps a guard currently on the trade market could give New York’s offense a jolt. Maybe they go after a wing forward. Maybe it’s the Houston Rockets Eric Gordon, who has been on the trade block since Apollo 11. Word around the league is that the Rockets want a first-round pick for the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year. We’ll see if they succeed.

Or maybe the goal is Jae Crowderthe saga of exchange with the Phoenix Suns it has lasted for almost half a year. It may not be one of the mainstream names that keep popping up in the rumor mill. Maybe he’s a younger guy with several years left on his contract, so the Knicks have someone to grow with the rest of the team’s youth, something like what they tried with the redshirt trade (though they’d wait that this agreement was more successful).

The Knicks would also play a delicate game with any hypothetical trade. Yes, the reserves aren’t scoring, but someone like McBride has also been a key part of the robust identity the group has assumed during their 22-game warm-up. New York could add a talented scorer, but if he doesn’t save or run through every game like it’s his last, then the offense he carries may not matter.

Perhaps Toppin regains the relentless energy that guided him for the past few seasons. After all, he is coming back from a fracture. Giving him time to get his foot back is reasonable. But Thibodeau’s leash on him has always been short, even when Toppin is doing his best. Maybe one of the outcasts, Fournier or Rose, climbs out of the dugout before the deadline.

But that date is just 23 days away and the Knicks have decisions to make. This team is in the sweet spot of the unknown: above the Play-In Tournament, meaning it’s good enough to warrant a near-term upgrade, but still only sixth in the Eastern Conference, not high enough to rationalize a movement that compromises the future. in any significant way.

But if they continue to perform as they have of late, they need reinforcements. Confidence in six is ​​not enough.

(Photo by Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett: John Fisher/Getty Images)

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