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Knicks Bench Key In Recent Surge

Deceptively deep bench solidifies Knicks’ star-studded starting five.

Despite a putrid 3-6 start to the 2016-17 campaign, the New York Knicks are beginning to find their groove in the wide-open Eastern Conference thanks to a surprisingly deep bench.

Following a disheartening loss to the lowly Washington Wizards on November 17th, the New York Knicks (13-10) held a closed-door meeting to determine the team’s direction. While one can never tell how effective these behind-the-scenes gut checks are, the proof is in the pudding for New York. Since the airing of grievances, the Knicks have gone 8-3 with statement wins over the Hawks, Trailblazers, and Hornets. Following a rare road win against the Sacramento Kings on December 9th, the ‘Bockers find themselves tied with the Celtics for fourth place in the East. 

If fans are surprised to be confronted by a competent NBA team out of New York, one should only look toward two statistics that account for their improved play: their dominating play in Madison Square Garden, and their especially energizing bench unit. Upon beginning the 2016-17 season, most NBA analysts and sports pundits conceded that the Knicks had an exciting and competitive starting five, including new additions Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, and Joakim Noah. 

These analysts, however, found the team to be lacking in bench depth, which accounted for many critics’ denouncement of the team Phil Jackson constructed. While the critique seemed well founded at the time, this ragtag group of youngsters and veterans ‘with something to prove’ has impressed even the most jaded of NBA fans and commentators. Leading the charge, of course, is the leader of the second unit: Brandon Jennings.

Image Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Following an up-and-down season last year while recuperating from an Achilles injury, Phil Jackson took a $5 million flier on Jennings and it appears to be paying off. While earning a reputation as a score-first guard with the Bucks, the seven-year vet has transformed his game, focusing on tenacious defense and dazzling (yet often erratic) playmaking. Through the first 21 games this season, Jennings is leading the team in assists, averaging 5.2, while chipping in 1.0 steal per game.

In addition to leading the Knicks in assists, Jennings also leads the team with 1.8 deflections per game, which indicates that he is playing engaged and active defense in the passing lanes. While these statistics do not necessarily jump off the page, the veteran floor general is also posting the lowest usage rate of his career at 17.6%, down nearly 10 percent from his 2014-15 campaign with the Pistons, indicating his willingness to move the ball. Jennings also provides a faster pace than the Knicks have seen in recent years, as he (100.02) gets the team almost five more offensive possessions when he is on the floor compared to last year’s starter Jose Calderon (95.17). He has found his shooting touch recently, scoring 13 points against the Kings when starting for the injured Derrick Rose.

Another surprise has been the electric play of Justin Holiday, who was once labeled as a “throw-in” in the Robin Lopez-Derrick Rose trade. He has been far from a throw-in thus far, emerging as the ‘3&D’ bench presence that Lance Thomas provided last season. While Thomas continues to find his footing after nagging injuries and inconsistent play, Holiday has risen to the challenge, averaging 6.3 points in just 19.1 minutes, while shooting above the league average (35.2%) from long range at a 37.9% clip. 

Image Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Nicknamed “The Fireman” for his ability to enter the game and cool off an opponent’s hot shooter, Holiday has posted 0.3 defensive win shares a game. Though not an incredibly impressive number, he is tied for third on the team in limited minutes. His defensive metrics are also lower, primarily because he is often tasked with shutting down opposing guards like C.J. McCollum and DeMar DeRozan. A solid bench piece, Holiday gives the Knicks continuity on both ends of the court when he replaces Courtney Lee.

Key in the team’s last three victories has been second-year Knick Kyle O’Quinn. A bruising rebounder, O’Quinn has provided the presence that was expected of Joakim Noah. When thrust into the starting lineup for an injured Noah on December 12th, O’Quinn held his ground against one of the league’s brightest stars in Karl-Anthony Towns. In a gritty, physical home win, the Queens native grabbed 13 boards and scored 20 points on 81.8% shooting, while holding Towns to eight rebounds and 27.8% shooting. The Knicks are not used to having a surplus of effective big men, which makes the prospect of a battle for starting center a refreshing notion for the organization.

Lest we forget the contributions of Euro League imports Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez. Kuzminskas has been held to just 11.4 minutes per game due to Jeff Hornacek’s staunch commitment to re-energizing Lance Thomas, but the young Lithuanian has distinguished himself early in his rookie campaign. 

Two of the Knicks bench players  are in the top six in the NBA in PER: Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas

Often hearing serenades of “Kuuuuuuz!” from an appreciative Garden crowd, Kuzminskas is shooting 40% from the field and 37.5% from deep, and is averaging 14.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. Kuz has to make adjustments on the defensive end, as it is clear that he gets bullied or beat in the post by more athletic players, while he transitions from the European game to the NBA.

Also making an impact has been second round draft pick Willy Hernangomez from Real Madrid. Sporting slick moves in the post (shooting 60.9% from the field) and an ability to rip down rebounds, Hernangomez has contributed to the Knicks’ ability to play center ‘by committee.’ Per 36 minutes, the Spanish center averages a double-double with 11.9 boards and 15.0 points.

While the season is still young and this group will need some tinkering, there are reasons to be happy with the group Phil Jackson has surrounded his stars with. The offensive numbers of this bench group don’t amaze, but they fit together well in a system that sees Anthony, Porzingis, and Rose as their primary shot takers. Given the organization’s reputation, competition for available rotation spots is a problem that Jeff Hornacek loves to have.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Jazmyn Brown.

Who was the last Knicks' player to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award?
Created 12/9/16
  1. John Starks
  2. J.R. Smith
  3. Anthony Mason
  4. Steve Novak

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