Who would've expected this rag-tag group of veterans, cast-offs and European rookies to be this good?
You could be forgiven for thinking the New York Knicks had some issues with depth at the start of this NBA season. Sarcastic giggling at Derrick Rose's "super-team" comments aside, most commenters subscribed to the opinion that while the Knicks certainly had a new and exciting starting five with the additions of Rose, Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah that could certainly, knock on wood, compete in the playoffs, the injury-prone history of Rose and Noah would mean that neither of them are expected to play all 82 games in the regular season.
Which at the time, was a pretty fair appraisal. No one knew that much about European rookies Mindaugas Kuzminskas or Willy Hernangomez (apart from the fact he played with Porzingis in the Spanish league), Justin Holiday was just kind of chucked in the bag additionally when we traded for Rose (and hadn't seen a great deal of minutes in the league at that point anyway), people liked Brandon Jennings' contract but still had reservations about Jennings the player, and Kyle O'Quinn was... okay as a bench player last season, but certainly nothing mind-blowing. The only other player from last season to come back to the Knicks bench this year was Sasha Vujacic, who is best played as a human victory cigar during the waning minutes of a blowout.
On paper, this looks to be a disappointingly impotent bench. Even the most talented and experienced player on there, Brandon Jennings, had to be treated with a little side-eye, as he was coming off an ACL surgery.
So it's such a good, god-damn rush to see this group of leftovers to play in sync with each other, hit clutch shots and generally set on fire all expectations assumed of them.
We'll start with Jennings, who has re-invented himself under bright lights and vitriolic crowd of Madison Square Garden. A player who had very much earned his reputation as a score-first chucker, Jennings has never met a shooting opportunity he didn't like. Even now, despite the praise I'm about to heap on him, it still can be a sticking issue for him. With that being said, Jennings has clearly recognized this behavior within him and has made steps to improve it. His shot-selection can still be occasionally baffling, but he attempts fewer shots in total in order to get his teammates involved. A quick look at his stats reveal that despite having a big decrease in minutes played due to his bench role, Jennings is averaging just one less assist than when he was playing as a starter in Detroit.
Another powerful, though less quantifiable reason to love Jennings on the bench is his attitude. Not so much his humility and desire to prove himself as a former starter (though that can definitely be thrown in too), but his capacity to be an absolute prick while on the floor.
Whether it's Jennings maniacally clapping in the face of an opponent after a missed shot, or Jennings burning Ricky Rubio before he even attempts to shoot, his ability to be an annoying, enraging, fly in the ointment for other teams is something the Knicks have lacked since the 90's heyday of Ewing, Mason and Starks. And as the "BRAN-DON JENN-INGS" chants in the above video will attest to, the Knicks crowd love him for it.
On the topic of players going through a second wind, let's talk about Kyle O'Quinn. The second-year backup C was serviceable for the Knicks in last year's dismal campaign, but this year's model is nothing like the first edition. O'Quinn dropped some weight around his stomach in the off-season, and while he's always been known as a hustling, grind-it-out player, in this season he's been playing like a man possessed. Compared to what he averaged last season, O'Quinn has improved in his rebounding, scoring at the rim and blocks per game, all while posting the highest effective field goal percentage of his career.
Not only that, but the occasions where O'Quinn has started in lieu of Noah (which will probably become more frequent as this season progresses) have provided enough cause to consider whether the career backup center should be starting in a full-time position. In recent games against Phoenix and Orlando where O'Quinn has played starters minutes, he respectively recorded 22 point/14 rebound and 14 point/16 rebound (along with 5 blocks) stat lines. So far, he has done everything that was expected of Noah when he was signed to that absurd 4-year, $72 million contract. Only he gets paid just under $4 million a year.
Justin Holiday is another player most teams passed on who has been making small, but measurable waves from the Knicks bench. Some people were bright enough to recognize that Holiday brings more to a team than being a throw-in for Rose, even drawing comparisons to former Knick Iman Shumpert. Holiday might not be the perfect 3 & D prototype; his wingspan isn't quite as lengthy to put him on the Ariza/Green tier, but he is absolutely cut from the same mold. He doesn't demand the ball, hits three's when you ask him to, plays focused, intense perimeter defense and does these things at a pretty damn good level.
It's important to have these defined player roles in any offensive system, so no one tries to exceed their limitations at the cost of team-focused basketball. It's one of the reasons why Courtney Lee has proven to be such an effective pickup so far for the Knicks. Not so coincidentally, it's also why Holiday is such a great back-up for Lee: they both have very similar strengths and weaknesses, and are aware of them enough to never do anything outside of their capacity. It must frustrate the hell out of opponents who normally make their money on the wing to have Courtney Lee live inside their jersey all night, thinking at least they get a quick respite when he goes to the bench, only to have a younger facsimile of Lee come out and continue the pestering.
And to finally round out this over-performing second unit, we have the European rookies Willy Hernangomez and Mindaugas Kuzminskas. I'll admit, there's nothing particularly noteworthy about Kuzminskas' game, apart from him shooting a not-bad field goal percentage (39%) and a pretty decent clip from deep (37%). At 27 years of age, it's likely that what we're seeing right now with Kuz is probably what we're ever gonna see. He's just too old for his play to be described as "potential", rather than "ceiling".
Hernangomez, at 22 years, is the inverse of that statement. A ground-bound center who gets his points with deft post moves and bully-ball, Hernangomez has shocked many pundits who had written him off as a second-round draftee who'll be back in Europe before Trump claims the White House.
On less than 14 minutes played per outing, Hernangomez is averaging 5.8 points per game while securing 4.7 rebounds. Per 36 minutes, that's roughly 15 points and 12 rebounds with 1 block. The cherry on top of this advanced stats cake is his Player Efficiency Rating, 17.6, which is second in the league for NBA rookies and just behind the shoo-in Rookie of the Year, Joel "The Process" Embiid. This kid can only improve from what is already a surprising start, so here's to hoping the Knicks keep him around.
It's difficult to determine what these players would be averaging on separate teams, as they all seem stronger than the sum of their parts and have that beautiful balance of wanting to prove themselves while simultaneously seem to genuinely enjoy playing with each other. It makes for a new and exciting element to come out of New York this year amidst dozens of news stories arguing whether Anthony or Porzingis is the true Knicks alpha dog. But for now, the problem of having unexpectedly-good bench players who need to be appropriately portioned out meaningful playing time is a pretty good problem to have, and serves as a reminder of how much better New York has been under Phil Jackson.