The Long Two: Can Jordan Poole make the leap and can the Knicks run it back?

Golden State Warriors, NBA, New York Knicks

This week, The Long Two looks at how Jordan Poole could help fill in for Klay Thompson and whether the Knicks can replicate last year’s success.

Given the variables at play, it’s nearly impossible, and certainly exhausting, to confidently project a likely outcome for the Golden State Warriors this season. Uncertainty over how Klay Thompson will look more than two years removed from his last NBA game, as well as what the team will get from its rookies and veteran fliers, leaves the Warriors open to a wide range of outcomes.

Steph Curry and Draymond Green, now entering their 10th season together, are among the surest two-man foundations in recent NBA history; a team built around them can only fall so far in the standings. But for Golden State to earnestly contend for another championship, it will need someone outside of Curry, Green and Andrew Wiggins to become a dependable nightly contributor — at least until Thompson gets back up to speed.

Could Jordan Poole help fill in for the absence of Klay Thompson?

Third-year guard Jordan Poole currently stands as the best candidate to emerge in that role for his potential as both a floor-spacer and on-ball creator. A 30-point preseason outing against the Blazers, while not necessarily indicative of the season to come, showcased Poole as an offensive focal point, which gave the Warriors a much-needed complement to Curry and Green.

For Curry — the most devastating off-ball weapon in league history — to be fully unleashed requires another ball-handler to put pressure on defenses and facilitate his catch-and-shoot opportunities. Because Golden State lacked that player last season, Curry had to play with the ball in his hands more than ever before.

Poole might allow Curry to strike a healthier balance between on- and off-ball playmaking. Becoming a reliable catch-and-shoot marksman and capable pull-up shooter would give opponents another threat to mind while Curry sprints around the floor, as well as a passable backup point guard to assume control of the offense when the two-time MVP rests.

It’s unclear whether Poole has those kinds of on-ball chops yet, but he has flashed more in that role than any of Golden State’s other guards, and probably poses a greater threat off the dribble than even peak Thompson did. Poole is a clever driver who can get downhill in the pick-and-roll, and improved strength and craft should make him more effective finishing through contact. He shot just 37 percent on pull-up jumpers and 38 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season — marks that will need to improve — but became an important fixture in Steve Kerr’s rotation nonetheless.

The Warriors outscored opponents by over 18 points per 100 possessions when Poole shared the floor with Curry last season, and that mark swelled to over 24 points per 100 when Green joined them. Both of those figures are driven primarily by Curry and Green, and include too few possessions to be taken entirely at face value. But they also follow the trend of Curry, Green and at least one shooter being a devastating combination, and Poole becoming a trustworthy ball-handler and off-ball threat would make him a natural fit alongside the Warriors’ stars even after Thompson returns.

The amount of slack Poole picks up as a tertiary threat could also determine how frequently and effectively Golden State’s bench plays. James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody likely won’t be ready for more than spot minutes this season, while veterans Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica could be limited by age, past injuries or both. Even Curry and Green, for all their brilliance and consistency, will turn 34 and 32, respectively, this season. Balancing long-term player development with short-term urgency to win will require Poole’s timeline to coalesce with the veterans’, and for the players of the future to leap into the present.

Can the Knicks repeat last season’s success?

The New York Knicks, after taking the NBA by surprise last season, may be a victim of circumstance this year. As the rest of the Eastern Conference spent the summer adding star talent, extending MVP candidates, rounding out depth or simply getting healthy, New York made modest additions to a solid, but not championship-caliber roster. And with the water rising around them, the Knicks will need to overachieve again just to stay afloat.

Despite a breakout year from Julius Randle, the foundation of New York’s success last season was its defense, which ranked fourth in points allowed per possession and made most every trip down the floor a chore for opponents. Much of that defensive success was the result of stalwart rim protection, connected rotations and versatility at the point of attack. The Knicks led the NBA in opponent field goal percentage within four feet of the rim and harassed ball-handlers at the point of attack. They also benefited more than any other team from opponents simply missing shots. New York allowed the second-highest opponent shot quality and second-lowest opponent effective field goal percentage in the NBA, and defensive downgrades on the perimeter beg the question of whether this team can remain an elite defense in Tom Thibodeau’s second season.

With Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock in the backcourt, the task of tracking elite guards and wings will likely fall to RJ Barrett. That’s a heavy responsibility to place on a 21-year-old, and without another above-average on-ball defender in the starting five, the Knicks could be more vulnerable to dribble penetration than they were a year ago. The center platoon of Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson should mitigate the issue by barricading the rim, and New York should continue to play hard and connected team defense. But a flammable defensive backcourt, while helpful offensively, will place outsized weight on the other three players on the floor and leave more spots for opponents to attack.

Walker’s health may be the team’s biggest variable of the season. If healthy, he and Fournier comprise a far more dynamic backcourt than the Knicks had in Payton and Bullock, and should help boost what was the NBA’s 24th-ranked offense last year. Their ability to stretch defenses off the catch and off the dribble will afford teammates more space to get to the rim, and Walker’s shifty pick-and-roll game could serve as a handy failsafe when the offense stalls.

That could make Randle a more efficient, if slightly less productive scorer than he was a year ago — even if his 3-point shooting dips back toward his career average. He shot just 59 percent within four feet of the bucket last season, largely off of self-created attempts. Better spacing around him should allow Randle to get to the rim more consistently instead of barreling through defenders or settling for difficult jumpers.

Yet even if the Knicks climb to league-average on offense — an optimistic outlook based on their personnel —  defensive regression could still pull them down into the play-in fray in an improved Eastern Conference. Even treading water and holding onto last year’s fourth seed would require Walker staying healthy, Randle replicating an elite shooting season and the young core of Barrett, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley all making substantive progress.

That’s all within the realm of possibility — Barrett has steadily improved over his first two years in the league while Quickley looked the part of a rotation point guard as a rookie — but it’s unlikely that so many key variables go the Knicks’ way in the same season. One of Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Miami, Milwaukee and Philadelphia could disappoint, leaving the door open for New York to avoid the play-in. But that outcome may hinge on fortune as much as anything within Randle, Walker, Thibodeau or any other Knick’s control. This is a good basketball team; that just might mean something different this season than it did in the last one.

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