Julius Randle’s emergence, RJ Barrett’s development and the Knicks’ overall consistency and resolve under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau were the leading storylines of last year’s surprising playoff team.
But without the valuable second unit led by Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks, the Knicks likely wouldn’t have reached the postseason for the first time in eight years. The group frequently finished games and provided the impetus for significant victories.
“I thought it was one of our strengths,” Thibodeau said Wednesday. “I think the depth is important, particularly with all the stuff going on with guys being out, just the way the league is right now. So, I want to build off of that.”
The Knicks took a major step in that endeavor when they brought back Rose and Burks. Tuesday night in the preseason opener at the Garden, the key reserves certainly looked comfortable together, Rose, Quickley, Burks and Obi Toppin combining to score 36 points and grab 15 rebounds. Quickley notched seven assists and Rose had three. They committed just one turnover.
It was very similar to what Knicks fans saw so frequently a year ago after the acquisition of Rose in early February. Rose helped transform the unit, enabling Quickley to play more off the ball and helping Toppin eventually find his game late in the year by frequently looking for him and instilling confidence in the young forward.
Now, they are all back, and the chemistry appears to be there.
“I feel like our second unit, because we’re kind of the same as last year, I feel like we’re comfortable playing with each other and it’s just a matter of getting on the court, doing what we have to do to either keep the lead, improve the lead or [get] it back if we’re down a couple of points,” Toppin said. “We know when we get onto the court our job is to bring the energy and just fight as much as we can, so when the first unit comes back in, they know they just got to continue off of what we did.”
There is hope the group can be even better this year, since Quickley and Toppin know what to expect following their rookie seasons and could improve as players. Rose has shown no signs of losing steam at the age of 33 and Burks, 30, is coming off a stellar season in which he shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range and was a valuable two-way player. Once Mitchell Robinson returns from his foot injury, they will have a top rim-protector in either Nerlens Noel or Robinson.
“Our team, we have a lot of depth on the bench and our team can be really dangerous, and we’re going to work every single day,” Toppin said.
The big upgrades the Knicks made in the offseason were the addition of starters Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, skilled veterans who should improve the offense and ease the pressure on Randle and Barrett. The duo looked like it fit well on Tuesday, shining in a blowout victory. But the bench was just as impressive. There was no dropoff from the starters to the reserves.
“They have really good chemistry together,” Thibodeau said.