There Have Been Encouraging Signs, But Road-Heavy Stretch Awaits

By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks have played 20 games, meaning about a quarter of the season is in the books. How has the team fared? How about the players? What have we learned, and what does it mean for the future?

Here are five things to keep an eye on at the 20-game mark:

The Record And Schedule

Brooklyn Nets v New York Knicks

The Knicks’ Enes Kanter celebrates a basket against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 27, 2017, at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The Knicks are 10-10 through 20 games, a good record for a team expected to be one of the five worst teams in the league before the season. If the playoffs started today, the Knicks would just miss the cut. The East is muddled right now. The Knicks are only three games behind Cleveland and Toronto in the loss column for the third seed, but also only three games in the loss column ahead of the Nets for the third-worst record in the East and fifth-worst record in the NBA. In other words, this season can go either way really fast.

MORE: Lillard Spoils Porzingis’ Return As Trail Blazers Cruise Past Knicks

The other thing slightly discouraging about the Knicks’ record is that they have already played 13 home games versus only seven on the road. They are 9-4 at home, with only one win in seven games on the road. The Knicks play five of their next seven, and eight of their next 13, at home before a stretch when they play 24 of 33 games on the road. If the Knicks stumble now, they might never be able to recover. Their three-game losing streak must end quickly.

The Defense

Despite poor performances against the Rockets and Trail Blazers, the Knicks are still ranked 20th in the league in defensive efficiency. It’s nothing to get too excited about, but it is not an embarrassing number for a team that many predicted would be the worst defense in the league. Coach Jeff Hornacek and his staff deserve credit for devising a scheme that his players can understand and execute every night.

Sometimes the effort isn’t where it needs to be (such as against Portland), but it has been far better than it was over the past few seasons. Kristaps Porzingis’ rim protection has been a factor, but improvement from historically poor defenders such as Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Doug McDermott have also played a role. The team seems to be buying in.

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. shoots against the Washington Wizards during a preseason game on Oct. 13, 2017, at Madison Square Garden. Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Hardaway is a far better player now than when he left the Knicks in 2015, but he is still a bit of a streak shooter. It is reflected in his .418/.318/.808 shooting numbers. The hope is that those stats eventually resembled what he did in Atlanta last year (.455/.357/.766), but it is also possible his efficiency will drop this year since the Knicks are relying on him to be their second option. Regardless of his shooting numbers, Hardaway’s improvement as a playmaker, passer and rebounder in the last eight games is very encouraging. His assist and rebound numbers, along with improved defense, show he is becoming a more complete player who contributes more than just points.

Injuries

The Knicks had been very healthy this season until the last three games, save an injury to Ron Baker. The last three games, however, have seen Kanter out with a back injury and Porzingis miss one game with back spasms. In the four games this year that either Kanter or Porzingis have missed, the Knicks are 0-4. Injuries will happen during the year, and the Knicks need to figure out how to survive them better than they have so far this season.

The Rotation

Before the recent injuries, Hornacek seemed to settle into a rotation featuring Jarrett Jack, Frank Ntlikina, Hardaway, Courtney Lee, McDermott, Lance Thomas, Porzingis, Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn. It’s a solid nine-man group, but there are signs that a shift might be coming.

After strong play to start the season, O’Quinn has started looking like his old self. With Joakim Noah healthy and Willy Hernangomez playing more (but not well) in Kanter’s absence, there could be a shift in the middle for the Knicks. Hornacek also gave Ramon Sessions and Damyean Dotson cameos against Portland. The latter has impressed when he has played and could fight his way into playing time. McDermott has slowed down in recent games (20 points in his last four), and Dotson could start stealing some of his minutes at small forward.

Michael Beasley has also impressed offensively, but he continues to show issues everywhere else — bad defense, laziness, poor shot selection, technical fouls — that make him unplayable. Hornacek knows Thomas is his energizer on defense, and I don’t see his role being reduced.

I’ll take a look at the Knicks’ young players at the quarter-season mark Wednesday.

For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk

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