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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Knicks preview with Tom Piccolo

Getting a little insight about Sunday’s opponent.

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Tom Piccolo, who covers the New York Knicks for Talkin’ Knicks and Knicks Film School.

New York entered the year expected to compete for homecourt but finds itself well outside what the play-in. What’s gone wrong?

When a team disappoints to this degree, it’s rarely just one thing that goes wrong, but a confluence of many failings all compounding one another. When the Knicks fell apart in last season’s playoffs versus Atlanta, it signified to the front office and fans that the magic of the 2020-21 regular season was – maybe not fool’s gold – but at least unsustainable at the game’s highest levels.

The Knicks needed offensive creation and shot-making. Swapping Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock for Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier was an obvious risk, but with clear offensive upside. What we didn’t realize was the Faustian bargain we were making — trading the team’s defensive principles and gritty identity for a chance at a more offensively potent brand of basketball.

The moves backfired on all fronts. As anticipated, the defense fell from fourth overall to 16th (per Cleaning The Glass). Part of that has likely been three-point shooting luck (the Knicks allowed the lowest percentage in the league from behind the arc last season). But, there is also a softness to this team’s defense that simply didn’t exist last season, which is best exemplified in transition. Last year, the Knicks were top-five in transition defense; this year they rank 27th. Poor effort and communication have plagued New York all season.

But, the defensive slide was expected. What we didn’t expect was for the offense to remain just as inefficient and stagnant as the season before. The reasons for that have been manifold. Kemba was not the answer at point and he never gelled with Julius Randle. As a result, Randle struggled with his role, his confidence and ultimately his shooting stroke for much of the season. His poor play (until recently) impacted his effort on both ends and his teammates followed his lead. Derrick Rose’s injury was a devastating loss and threw the entire rotation out of whack. Nerlens Noel, a mainstay of last year’s team, has been a complete nonfactor.

The team took some gambles, lost those bets and continued to double down, making too few adjustments to a failed formula.

What’s the temperature on Tom Thibodeau in year two?

Thibs’ defenders will say that he didn’t all-of-a-sudden forget how to coach and that firing him would be a “Knicksy” overreaction. But, the growing faction of those calling for Thibs’ job is simply fed up with the coach’s unbending rigidity and inconsistent application of accountability. In a season that has felt lost for some time, fans understandably feel the best use of the remainder of this season is to develop and gather more information about the team’s young core. Can Obi Toppin play alongside Julius Randle without a traditional center? Can Immanuel Quickley improve as the lead ball-handler? What can Deuce McBride do?

The lack of imagination in both rotations and crunch-time offense has been frustrating. Simply put, we know for a fact that Thibs’ approach this season has not worked, and yet he has stuck with it. If we’re losing games anyway, why not try mixing it up? There’s some real “definition of insanity” vibes this year and fans are justifiably over it.

How do you think they’ll go about defending Joel Embiid?

The Knicks will start with Mitchell Robinson on Embiid and will likely have to send double teams. Embiid is so crafty and skilled at getting to the line; meanwhile, Mitch, for all his progress, can often be undisciplined and gullible in going for blocks. Robinson getting into early foul trouble would spell doom early.

We’ve seen the Knicks throw hard doubles at guys like Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Giannis. Unfortunately, this Knicks squad hasn’t operated on a string defensively and the double-teams have regularly led to missed rotations and open shots and layups. Especially with James Harden’s presence, I can see Embiid and the 76ers picking apart this scrambling Knicks defense.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

I’ll be interested to see the matchup between former Kentucky teammates Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey. I really liked Maxey as a prospect coming out of school and thought there was a chance New York would take him at eight! Quickley has struggled shooting the ball this season. He’s also had trouble staying in front of his man on defense without fouling. But he has made strides as a playmaker. Quickley’s production is so tied to his confidence, I wonder how his mentality will be affected by going against his old teammate.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

After struggling for much of the beginning of the season, RJ Barrett seems to have finally found a groove. He’s coming off a career-high 46 points versus Miami where he scored in a variety of ways and got to the line 22 times (!). He’s showing something almost every game that we haven’t seen before and his poise and professionalism has never waned. Not to mention, he’s been the team’s best crunch-time player. Impressive stuff from someone who doesn’t turn 22 until June.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

Please don’t make me choose. This has been hard enough for me already.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

How will the Knicks defend James Harden? Even as a rookie, Quentin Grimes has been the Knicks’ best perimeter defender this season. In the first game back from the All-Star Break, Grimes partially dislocated his right kneecap. With him out, there’s a serious question mark around who will guard Harden. Do you put RJ on him and risk tiring him out or losing him to foul trouble? Evan Fournier and Alec Burks would be toast. Does Deuce McBride finally get a shot to see what he can do? That dude is a mean on-ball defender and wouldn’t back down from the challenge. How the Knicks decide to defend Harden could set the tone for the game.