30 Teams in 30 Days

2020-21 NBA Season Preview: Can Tom Thibodeau get the New York Knicks back on track?

The 2020-21 NBA season is set to tip-off on Dec. 22. To get you ready for the year to come, we're dedicating one day between now and the start of the season to each team in the league.

Today, the New York Knicks take the spotlight.

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2019-20 season record

21-45, 12th in the Eastern Conference

Notable additions

Obi Toppin, No. 8 pick in 2020 NBA Draft

Immanuel Quickley, No. 25 pick in 2020 NBA Draft

Omari Spellman, Trade

Alec Burks, Free agency

Nerlens Noel, Free agency

Austin Rivers, Free agency

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Free agency

Notable departures

Bobby Portis, Free agency

Maurice Harkless, Free agency

Damyean Dotson, Free agency

Ed Davis, Trade

Taj Gibson, Waived

Wayne Ellington, Waived

Depth chart

Starter Second Third
PG Elfrid Payton Austin Rivers Dennis Smith Jr.
SG Frank Ntilikina Alec Burks Immanuel Quickley
SF RJ Barrett Reggie Bullock Kevin Knox
PF Julius Randle Obi Toppin Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
C Mitchell Robinson Nerlens Noel Omari Spellman

3 key storylines

Can RJ Barrett pick up from where he left off?

Barrett had an up-and-down rookie season but ended it on a high.

In New York's final eight games before the season was suspended, Barrett posted averages of 18.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists on .482/.375/.683 shooting splits.

The Knicks were competitive in those eight games, splitting them with wins coming against the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks.

For Barrett to build on that success, there are two key areas he needs to improve.

The first? 3-point shooting. Over a fifth (22.1 percent) of Barrett's shot attempts last season were catch-and-shoot 3s, and he made 33.8 percent of those opportunities. That's a decent mark for a rookie but one that's going to have to improve considerably for defenders to respect him from the perimeter.

The second? Finishing around the rim. According to NBA.com, a total of 218 players took at least 100 shots in the restricted area last season. Of those 218 players, only 14 converted them at a lower rate than Barrett (53.4 percent).

If Barrett can make strides in both of those areas, it'll go a long way in him reaching his potential as the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

"I just want him to concentrate on improvement," Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Barrett ahead of his sophomore season. "He's a young player, just getting the work part down - I think that's the first step. The conditioning piece, continuing to work on his shooting. There's a lot of things that he can do well."

Will Obi Toppin hit the ground running?

The No. 8 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Toppin is one of the more NBA-ready players in his draft class.

In his sophomore season at Dayton, Toppin averaged 20.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. There are concerns about his defensive ability at the next level, but he should be able to make an immediate impact in the NBA as a 3-point shooter and a rim-runner.

As NBA.com's Eric Fawcett wrote about Toppin ahead of the NBA Draft:

"If he rolls to the hoop he's an extraordinary lob threat. At 6-foot-9 with an absurd 7-foot-2 wingspan, he's as long as a pterodactyl, and when he leaps in the air it looks as though he's flying like one. Toppin's mix of length, explosion and timing make for a massive catch radius on alley-oops and he'll provide elite 'vertical spacing,' a trendy term in today's coaching circles."

What will be interesting to see is how the Knicks use Toppin. Minutes won't be easy to come by at first, with Julius Randle pegged as the team's starting power forward on opening night. Randle played a decent amount of centre last season, but the Knicks aren't lacking at that position this season with Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel in their rotation.

Besides, a lineup with Randle at centre and Toppin at power forward would likely struggle defensively. Randle isn't much of a rim protector and Toppin lacks the size to guard opposing centres.

Randle says he isn't worried about the fit with Toppin heading into the season, but it's something the Knicks are going to have to figure out.

Can Thibs work his magic?

One of the biggest moves the Knicks made this offseason was hiring Tom Thibodeau to be the team's next head coach.

Thibodeau joins the Knicks following stints with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves. He compiled a 352-246 record with the two franchises, giving him the sixth-best winning percentage among active coaches.

It's going to take a while before the Knicks are playing winning basketball again, but Thibodeau is an established coach who should give them a much-needed identity, particularly on defence. The Knicks struggled on that end of the floor last season, ranking 23rd in defensive efficiency in giving up 112.4 points per 100 possessions.

As bad as the Knicks were defensively last season, Thibodeau has some interesting pieces to work with. Mitchell Robinson has quickly become one of the league's best shot blockers, Frank Ntilikina has developed into an elite multi-positional defender and Barrett has the tools to be a difference-maker defensively.

Time will tell if that'll serve as the foundation for Thibodeau's next great defensive team.

5 games to watch

vs. Philadelphia 76ers, Date: Dec. 26

Not only is it New York's home opener at Madison Square Garden, it's an opportunity to watch Mitchell Robinson play against Joel Embiid. Robinson and Embiid are very different players, but Robinson has said in the past that he models parts of his game after Embiid.

The last time Robinson and Embiid met, Embiid hung 27 points and 17 rebounds on the Knicks. Will Robinson have more success against the three-time All-Star this time?

at Atlanta Hawks, Date: Jan. 4

High-flying power forwards with a soft shooting touch, NBA.com's Kyle Irving compared Obi Toppin to John Collins heading into the NBA Draft. Expect some highlights the first time they play against each other.

vs. Brooklyn Nets, Date: Jan. 13

The only game in the first half of New York's schedule for the upcoming season that will be on national television. It should be a fun one as the Knicks take on their intra-city rivals, who have championship aspirations this season.

vs. New Orleans Pelicans, Date: TBD

Having been teammates together at Duke, it'll always be worth watching RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson go head-to-head.

Williamson was sidelined for the one and only matchup between New Orleans and New York last season, so the two have yet to play against each other in the NBA.

vs. Memphis Grizzlies, Date: TBD

Another battle between two of the top prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft in Ja Morant and Barrett.

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