For the first two decades of the 21st century, the New York Knicks were the worst team in the NBA. No, really. From 2000-01 to 2019-20, they were dead last in both winning percentage and simple rating system (which combines point differential and strength of schedule).
Then, a season-long out-of-body experience for Julius Randle (more on that later) helped New York finish fourth in the Eastern Conference in 2020-21. And after replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier this past offseason, it seemed like the Knicks almost had to be better.
But it took a scratch-and-claw effort to beat the sub-.500 Los Angeles Lakers, 106-100, without LeBron James on Tuesday. And without 38 points from Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Alec Burks off the bench, it's hard to imagine New York improving to 10-8.
Early in the fourth quarter, and in the middle of a protracted run in which the Lakers went from down 25 to tied, Randle picked up his fifth foul. He left the game with 9:18 to go. And after he picked up a technical from the bench a couple possessions later, Wayne Ellington hit a free throw to pull the Lakers within three.
From that point on, Quickley, Toppin and Burks scored the Knicks' next 15 points. Kemba Walker was out for that entire run too. Randle returned with just over a minute left and made one free throw, but that was it. Fifteen of the team's final 16 points from a trio of reserves to put the game on ice.
All three had positive plus-minuses by the final buzzer. Fournier was the only starter in the black.
This, of course, isn't a new phenomenon. New York's bench has been a driving factor in almost every win this season. Derrick Rose, who missed Tuesday's game with an ankle injury, was a plus in seven of the nine wins in which he appeared.
On the season, The Knicks are plus-13.5 points per 100 possessions with Rose on the floor and minus-9.6 with him off. The net rating swings for Toppin and Quickley are around the same range.
Of course, reserves tend to spend more time against reserves. And this early in the season, numbers like net rating are still prone to dramatic shifts. A few bad games for Toppin, for example, could drive his mark down. He's still under 300 minutes on the year, which isn't a great buffer for a slump.
But nearly a quarter of the way into the season, and off a strong campaign for the bench in 2020-21, we can probably put a little faith in this team trend. Rose, Quickley, Burks and Taj Gibson, all bench players, made up New York's top four in net rating swing last season.
And the way the second unit plays is more conducive to winning basketball, especially as ball and player movement has made a comeback in the post-heliocentric NBA.
Rule changes have limited the number of shamelessly drawn fouls out of isolations, which has, in turn, made ball-movers like the Golden State Warriors more valuable.
Quickley certainly has a tendency to play like a gunner or ball-stopper, which was a good thing Tuesday, when he made three game-sealing threes in the fourth quarter. But the rest of the second unit plays for the extra pass. The ball-mover to ball-stopper ratio is fine.
That's a harder take to sell for the starters. Kemba Walker leads the whole team in passes per 36 minutes, but Mitchell Robinson, Fournier and RJ Barrett make up the bottom three (among rotation players). And Randle, who's third here, often offsets valuable passing and playmaking with possessions that end in drives to nowhere or long twos.
This season, 13.8 percent of Randle's attempts have been two-pointers from 16 feet and out. That mark ranks 24th among 275 qualified players in the league. His 27.5 field-goal percentage on those shots, meanwhile, ranks 159th. And that's not the only range in which Randle is struggling. In fact, he's down everywhere. If you adjust for pace and playing time, his numbers are arguably lagging behind Toppin's.
And there's an argument that this version of Randle is closer to the real thing than 2020-21 Randle.
From 2017-18 to 2019-20, Randle had a plus-0.6 box plus/minus (BPM "...is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference).
Then, last season, he posted career highs in BPM, threes per game and three-point percentage. When you look at the entire arc, it's easy to see 2020-21 as the outlier. Or, again, as the out-of-body experience.
So far this season, Randle's closer-to-career-norms shooting percentages and a plus-1.0 BPM suggest he's come back down to earth. And with several other East squads headed in the right direction—including the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets, to name a few—New York's bench might be even more important.
Randle deserved his All-NBA nod last season, but lineups with him are getting demolished in 2021-22.
Over the course of the season, he can turn those numbers around. A return to the playoffs might even require that. In the meantime, slashing from Rose, timely shooting from Quickley and Burks, Toppin's baseline-stalking dunks and ball and player movement from all of the above is keeping the Knicks afloat.