Knicks' ups, and downs, in 2020-21 boil down to one word: shooting

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What’s the difference between the Knicks team that started 5-3 and the one that has lost four in a row? The answer is simple: shooting.

The problem is multi-faceted. The first one is simply good luck fading away. Some basic numbers: in wins, Knicks opponents are shooting 29 percent from three, but in losses, they’re shooting 35 percent. Right now, the Knicks have the third best three-point defense, holding opponents to 32.7 percent shooting from behind the arc overall.

The problem is that those misses seem to have a lot more to do with good luck than anything the Knicks are doing defensively. The Knicks are allowing the third most wide-open (nearest defender is 6+ feet away) threes in the NBA. They had been lucky those shots had not been falling, with opponents shooting just 34 percent on those shots, the fourth-lowest mark in the league.

During the Knicks’ recent four-game losing streak, their luck seems to have run out. Their opponents are shooting a much more realistic 39 percent from behind the three-point line, versus only 30 percent in the team’s first eight games. This was always going to happen and was going to turn wins into losses.

At the same time, a regression has happened for the Knicks. In Knick wins, they have shot a completely unrealistic 47 percent from the three-point line, while in losses they’ve shot 28 percent. Their 35 percent shooting from behind the three-point line is still ranked 20th in the NBA, but the number is dipping with them only shooting 31 percent in their last four games.

Given the Knicks’ roster and injuries, the issues with their three-point shooting were somewhat inevitable. But there is a way for Tom Thibodeau to alter his lineups to either improve the team’s shooting or limit the impact it has on the team’s overall offense.

Thibodeau needs to start with his starting lineup. The Knicks’ primary starting lineup this year features Elfrid Payton (33% 3PT), RJ Barrett (19% 3PT), Reggie Bullock (33% 3PT), Julius Randle (34% 3PT), and Mitchell Robinson, who doesn’t shoot threes at all. The lack of shooters makes running an efficient offense impossible.

Lineups that feature Robinson, Randle, Barrett, and Payton are the team’s most frequent combination, but they are only managing a 101.7 offensive rating, which would be the second-worst scoring rating in the entire NBA. It is also three points fewer than the team’s overall rating. They are being outscored by more than two points per 100 possessions.

Julius Randle is playing the best basketball of his career, but in the team’s last four games, only 14 of his shots have come from inside the restricted area. He has been forced into becoming a perimeter player as opponents have collapsed into the paint due to their lack of respect for Knicks shooters. He has taken 15 shots in the paint, but outside the restricted area during that time, he has 21 shots from mid-range, and 15 shots from three.

Only 36 percent of Randle’s shots this season are coming at the rim, which is 10 percent below last year, and at least 20 percent fewer than every other season since his rookie year. So far, 43 percent of his shots are coming from mid-range, which is in the 88th percentile in the NBA. Randle has improved his jump shot, but it is a formula for an inefficient shooting season.

It may also impact his passing. Randle is averaging nearly seven assists per game, but once the paint becomes walled off, it will become very hard for him to drive and dish to find open teammates. His efficiency and impact is going to drop and it won’t be his fault.

Tom Thibodeau needs to make a lineup change. With RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson unlikely to be removed given their importance to the team’s future and abilities in other areas, the change has to happen at point guard. Even though Immanuel Quickley is shooting worse than Payton according to the numbers (29 percent), he is a far better shooter that would demand teams respect.

The other wing position needs to be filled by whomever is shooting best. Austin Rivers is shooting 44 percent and Kevin Knox is up to 42 percent after his recent hot streak. Even when Reggie Bullock returns from injury, either Rivers or Knox should remain in the starting lineup. A time may arrive when RJ Barrett and Randle can’t be paired together, but that time is not here…yet.

Thibodeau also needs his injured players back. Obi Toppin can stretch the floor if he plays center next to Randle. Whenever Frank Ntilikina returns from his knee injury, he could also be an option if he continues his hot shooting (56 percent from three). Alec Burks was shooting 67 percent from behind the arc before he suffered his injury and was the Knicks’ most consistent shooter. They would all help.

The Knicks are going to keep losing games until they have enough real threats from behind the three-point line around Julius Randle. Until they make some of those shots, the offense will not only fail to score enough points to win with any consistency, but Randle will also struggle to play his best style of basketball. None of that is going to happen unless the players in the game change, and that’s up to Tom Thibodeau.

Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk

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