Julius Randle Credit: Bill Moor photo

The Knicks entered their final game before the All-Star break last night (Wednesday) facing the new look Nets at Madison Square Garden, a broken and seemingly self-doubting group. The contrast between the two teams is stark. The
Knicks were 25-33 before taking the court, having experienced a distressing loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who came into the Garden at 17-39, the fourth worst record in the NBA.

But the Knicks were in more dire circumstances when they hosted the Nets, as the expectations for the Thunder aren’t being measured in wins and losses, but the development of a promising young nucleus. The Knicks, 12th in the Eastern Conference, were 3-9 since Jan. 23 and had just one win this month, steadily sinking in the standings. Although the Nets had lost 11 consecutive games before defeating the Sacramento Kings 109-85 at the Barclays Center on
Monday, they were still three games over .500 at 30-27 before facing the Knicks.

The Nets’ spot as the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference is by and large unconcerning for their coaches, players and fans as the imminent return of Kevin Durant from a MCL sprain in his left knee, and the arrival of Ben Simmons, Andre Drummond and Seth Curry in a swap with the Philadelphia 76ers for James Harden at last week’s trade deadline, make them potentially as dangerous as any team in the league.

If—a big if—the Nets’ core is collectively healthy when the playoffs begin in a little under two months and New York City vaccine mandates eased, permitting Kyrie Irving to play home games, they will be a leading championship contender going into the postseason. Conversely, there is close to a zero percent likelihood the Knicks will contend for a title.

They have a crisis of confidence and evidently head coach Tom Thibodeau, and team president Leon Rose with input from his staff, cannot come to a consensus on personnel. One could surmise the ostensible divide in philosophy and roster construction goes back to last summer when the Knicks signed guards Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker to free-agent contracts. The pair was then installed as the Knicks’ starting backcourt when the season began.
Conventional basketball wisdom says they weren’t head coach Tom Thibodeau’s ideal acquisitions, given he’s built his strong resume as a defensive minded coach. The Knicks were 41-31, the No. 4 seed in the East last season, because they were the No. 1 defensive rated team in the league, consistently playing with intensity, physicality and execution. They were allowing opponents a hard-to-come-by 104.7.

Offensively, the Knicks were on the opposite end of the metrics. Playing at a deliberately slow pace, they ranked 23rd (1.068) in efficiency and 26th in points per game at 107. So Rose added what he envisioned would be increased three-point shooting and overall point production in the persons of Fournier and Walker. Instead the Knicks, still playing at a relative crawl, are worst in both categories this season, ranking 25th in efficiency (1.054) and 27th in points per game (105.1).

Moreover, the eye test—they were a solid 8th in opponents’ points (106.5) as of Tuesday—more than the numbers tell the story of a team not as connected defensively this season as they were a season ago. With Thibodeau reluctant to allocate substantial minutes to some of the team’s young, athletic players, notably Obi Toppin and Cam Reddish, and with rookie point guard Miles McBride anchored to the bench, the look and results of the team are unlikely to change over the final 23 games.

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