Depth is more important than ever in today’s NBA, with the rise of load management and soft-tissue injuries making teams’ second- and third-string options crucial to regular season and postseason success. Though the Knicks are only impacted by the latter, they still doled out a large part of their cap space this offseason on retaining their role players as much as acquiring new top talent.
They’ll be thankful they did. If a starter goes down to injury or is having an off shooting night, having a viable replacement is huge in maintaining a winning rotation. When taking on a much tougher team, winning the reserve minutes can put the starters in position to pull the upset.
New York is well equipped to benefit in these ways, returning last year’s bench unit with some key differences. Continuity will be strong, given the Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and Obi Toppin core remains intact.
However, Quickley and Toppin are likely to take big steps in their second years following a rushed rookie campaign. On top of that, if Mitchell Robinson can stay healthy, Nerlens Noel slides into that bench unit, bolstering their rim protection.
Rose finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season, despite spending much of his season toiling in Detroit or on the injury report. Entering a full season under the Tom Thibodeau-led Knicks with a stronger point guard rotation top-to-bottom should allow Rose to perform even better. That he’s starting-caliber and resigned to the bench immediately gives New York an edge over most of the league’s sixth men.
Even digging further down the list, the Knicks have reliable options down to their third string. Taj Gibson may be the league’s best third center. Kevin Knox can come in and knock down 40% of his catch-and-shoot threes. Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride are unproven rookies, but it would take quite the emergency to get them involved.
There’s no doubt the Knicks have a formidable bench unit and depth beyond it, but how do they stack up with the rest of the league?
The East’s two behemoths – Brooklyn and Milwaukee – boast a hodgepodge of journeymen that may compete with New York’s sophomores, but include no Rose or Noel level contributors. Boston’s bench is essentially first-to-third year guys, Josh Richardson and Al Horford – solid but inferior.
Chicago and Miami are paper thin having spent most of their cap space on their shiny new All-Stars. Indiana would be stacked if they weren’t so hurt, pushing their bench pieces into the starting five.
Potentially the biggest second unit challenge the Knicks will face will be against the Atlanta Hawks. They run extremely deep at the center position with Gorgui Dieng and Onyeka Okongwu backing up Clint Capela. Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter could start on many other teams.
Their backup point guard rotation will depend on how good Sharife Cooper is in year one, but they make up for it on the wings. Cam Reddish, Solomon Hill and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot all available as plug-and-play guys is a nice luxury.
Toronto has one of the most fun young benches in the league, with names like Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa, but how well that translates into actual performance will depend on their development.
The West remains more competitive and generally top-heavy, giving the Knicks advantages over Dallas, Denver, Golden State, both los Angeles teams, Phoenix and Portland. These teams have plenty of fine pieces, but collectively their backup units don’t measure up.
One outlier is the Utah Jazz, returning two of the players that beat out Rose for spots one and two in Sixth Man of the Year in Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles. Eric Paschall and Rudy Gay join the fray as useful dynamic forwards as well.
While it’s difficult to be certain on how the season plays out, saying the Knicks have a top-five bench in the league isn’t. They are banking on a couple of second-year players, but they fared better than the rest of the team during last year’s postseason.
New York will be able to compete in many of these trips out West even if their opponent has more talent up front by winning these backup minutes. When injuries strike, as they’re prone to do, the Knicks will be ready.
Putting together this elite bench will end up a major factor in how this team performs in 2021-22.