Knicks X-Factors That Will Decide NY's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2021

Knicks X-Factors That Will Decide NY's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

0 of 3

    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks have their swagger back.

    More importantly, they've locked up their first winning record since 2013 and will soon secure their first playoff ticket over the same stretch.

    With All-Star forward Julius Randle steering the offense, and skipper Tom Thibodeau demanding high energy and precise execution on defense, the 'Bockers present certain problems for opponents at both ends of the floor.

    For the Knicks to carry over their success into the postseason, though, they'll need other players to contribute to their winning formula. The following three X-Factors will help determine just how far this thrill ride can go.

RJ Barrett

1 of 3

    Sarah Stier/Associated Press

    Playoff defenses do everything in their power to take away their opponent's bread and butter. For teams facing the Knicks, that means throwing the kitchen sink, the water heater and every appliance within reach at Julius Randle, New York's leader—by a wide margin—in points, assists and usage percentage.

    When that attention comes Randle's way, the Knicks need RJ Barrett to be their counter-puncher.

    Yes, it's a lot to ask of a 20-year-old, but he's best equipped for the job on the team. The third overall pick in 2019 has improved across the board this season. Outside of Randle (and maybe Derrick Rose when he's dialed in), Barrett offers the best blend of scoring, shot-creation and distributing.

    The Knicks need him to be at his best, so they can be at theirs.

Nerlens Noel

2 of 3

    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Knicks should be preparing for a Mitchell Robinson-free postseason.

    That isn't set in stone, but he's more than a month removed from surgery on his broken foot and has yet to resume basketball activities. New York has no plans to rush its building block big man.

    "We don't want to take any chances with it," Thibodeau told reporters. "So we're going to be very patient and make sure he's completely healed before we get him going again."

    With Robinson potentially out of the picture, the Knicks need Nerlens Noel to dominate the interior. That means continuing to cause havoc on defense (2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals), but also becoming more of a weapon on offense. The vertical spacing from Robinson's lob threat played an underrated part of this attack, and that might be a way of better weaponizing Noel.

Immanuel Quickley

3 of 3

    Elsa/Associated Press

    Life comes at you quickly, especially in the Empire State.

    Back in November, Immanuel Quickley looked like one of the draft's biggest reaches as the 25th overall pick. But he proved to be a steal shortly thereafter, weaved his way into the long-term plans, went face-first into the rookie wall and has since steamrolled through it.

    It all makes the 6'3" combo guard one of the best stories in New York basketball this season, but this is no longer about exceeding expectations and having a great story to tell afterward.

    The Knicks are counting on Quickley now. They need his quick-strike scoring and long-range sniping. They need any and all freshman mistakes out of his system. If shots are falling for both Quickley and Barrett, Randle should have all the assistance he'll need to at least get this group out of the opening round.