Win or lose, the Knicks knew who they were last season. They were going to outwork and outprepare their opponents. With a focus on defense and hard work, they would make up for what they lacked in talent.
It helped earn Tom Thibodeau Coach of the Year honors as his team exceeded expectations not just with its 41-31 record but on a nightly basis. And it’s what has made the start to this season so hard for even the team to explain.
Although the Knicks are 7-6, they have lost five of their last seven, are 2-4 at home and have decried a lack of energy and effort on most nights. And even when they have found that effort, there still has been a lack of chemistry, particularly in the revamped starting lineup.
The defense has been nothing like it was last season and the offense is mostly one-man efforts until the second unit comes into the game.
"Yeah, I definitely think there’s games where we’re being outworked, outrebounded," Julius Randle said. "Our identity’s not our defensive end, how it has been. But we know that. We know we gotta fix it. We just gotta keep working at it, just keep coming together and stay together."
Last season the offense was run through Randle; this season there are more options with the arrival of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. But the offensive production has been spotty as they try to acclimate to playing together, often deferring and hesitating rather than moving the ball. Fournier and Walker both spoke Friday about the ball movement being stagnant.
What’s also missing is the stifling defense that kept them in games last season even when the offense was off. The Knicks have surrendered a league-worst 15.2 three-point field goals per game, and after ranking fourth in defensive rating last season, they now are 25th.
On the other side of the ball, the Knicks rank fifth in offensive rating but 24th in assist ratio, a pretty good indication of the one-on-one play they have relied on. On Friday it was Walker who scored well with 17 of his 26 points in the first quarter. Randle is the team’s leading scorer, but there was a five-game stretch in which RJ Barrett carried the load. Fournier started well and has slumped of late. As a result, the Knicks are still searching for a way to have the first unit play together as a five-man group.
"Every night it’s going to be a different guy," Walker said Friday. "We have enough guys who can really score the basketball. We need to get some more movement together. I just think it’s still pretty new. Especially me and Ev. We’re the two new guys trying to find our way, trying to find our spots, trying to find our shots. We just have to figure it out and be more consistent.
"Can’t play a perfect game, but you try to get as close to it as possible," Derrick Rose told reporters after Sunday’s practice. "And like I said, we’re trying to figure things out with how we going to play. Are we going to run, be a tempo team or are we going to be a half-court team? It’s still early in the year, so we’ve got time to figure it out."