Questions Knicks Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 22, 2021

Questions Knicks Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks haven't reached the finish line yet, so any premature celebrating is not advised.

    But it seems almost certain postseason basketball awaits this franchise in one form or another. The Knicks could host a first-round series, get trapped in the play-in tournament or anything in between, but something is coming on the heels of this 72-game marathon.

    The Knicks need to clear a few things up before the second season starts, especially the following three unanswered questions.

Is RJ Barrett Ready for the Big Stage?

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    Sarah Stier/Associated Press

    RJ Barrett has enjoyed exponential growth from his rookie year to his sophomore season. He could get a not insignificant amount of support when the Most Improved Player award ballots are cast, that's how substantial his two-way improvement has been.

    "He's steady," Julius Randle told reporters. "He's never going to lack confidence after missed shots. ... That's just the growth from year one to year two for him. He's doing an amazing job for us, and we're going to need him to do more for us to keep winning."

    Randle is right; this is just the beginning for Barrett. The second-year scoring guard must take these improvements—better shooting, fewer turnovers, stingier defense—and carry them over to the high-stakes world of playoff basketball.

    This will be the debut postseason voyage for 2019's third overall pick, who won't turn 21 until June. He'll have to hoop beyond his years, because the Knicks need him at his absolute best if they hope to make any real playoff noise.

Can the Knicks Compete with This Offense?

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    Sarah Stier/Associated Press

    That the Knicks are winning with defense should surprise no one. Tom Thibodeau is the head coach after all.

    The good news is consistent defense typically translates from the regular season to the playoffs. The not so great news is that despite what you've probably heard a million times, defense doesn't actually win championships.

    It's part of the equation, obviously, but the real key is having two-way balance. That's something the Knicks have struggled to find all season. They have the Association's third-most efficient defense but rank a worrying 22nd in efficiency at the other end. That lack of execution looms as a potentially fatal flaw if it goes uncorrected.

    The Knicks can't afford regression from Randle or Barrett, and they have to find more reliable options around them. As a team, they need to take more three-pointers (29.7 per game, 28th) and make more two-pointers (49.0 percent, 29th). They'd also greatly help themselves by finding more playmaking sources not named Julius Randle.

What Can the Rookies Add?

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    New York likely knew it would have a rookie making regular contributions to this club. But the Knicks probably didn't predict who that would be.

    While lottery pick Obi Toppin—who was supposed to be one of the more NBA-ready prospects in the draft—has struggled to gain traction, fellow freshman Immanuel Quickley has obliterated even optimistic expectations.

    The 21-year-old is a frisky defender with a trusty three-ball (37.5 percent) and one of the best floaters in basketball. He is one of seven Knicks to have logged 1,000 minutes so far, and his 16.2 player efficiency rating ranks fourth among their regulars. He has earned his spot in the circle of trust, but he'll have to keep performing to maintain a critical role in the postseason.

    As for Toppin, he's still in search of the right role. The Knicks could help him out a bit by spotting him up less (he's only shooting 26.9 percent from range) and getting him rolling to the rim more. His game might not be as polished as advertised, but his explosive athleticism is. New York needs to find ways to use that, because it won't run into many other players with his combination of size and springs.