A few hours before the Knicks tripped and face planted as they rounded third base against the Warriors on Friday night, David Fizdale made his first starting lineup change of the regular season.
It does not figure to be the last.
Fiz said after the game that “we’ll see how it goes” when asked about who would start moving forward. It begs the question: is anyone safe? And if not, who stands to benefit moving forward?
To answer these questions, the Committee of One at KFS has created the New York Knicks Starting Lineup Safety Rankings, where I’ll look at how likely it is that each player on the roster will start meaningful games for the team this season.
The percentages aren’t an exact science, but they essentially measure two things: the likelihood of a player starting and the importance of those starts. If a guy whose name may or may not rhyme with Bon Raker is likely to get a start but it probably won’t come until April, he’s not going to have a very high number. On the other hand, if Timmy’s a safe bet to stay in there until he develops a mysterious groin ailment in March, his number will be nearly 100%.
Without further ado, our rankings:
Luke Kornet, < 1.0%
When I was in eighth grade, after years of not trying out for the basketball team at my school, my friends convinced me to join. I knew I would make it because everyone who tried out made it. The previous coach actually got fired for not letting kids like me on the team, so the new coach didn’t have a choice. Lucky him.
We played something like 20 games, many of them blowouts because we weren’t half bad. As a result, I saw more time than I probably should have. Despite this fact, I was the only player on our team not to score a single point the entire season. Even my friend George, whose shooting form resembled an orangutan throwing a discuss, made a basket. I was that bad.
And yet, my chances of starting a game for that team were higher that Luke Kornett’s this season. Even if the Knicks engage in some Process-level tanking as we get closer to April, Mitchell Robinson is ready and waiting. Kornett is thus about as useful as a white crayon, which is funny because he kind of resembles a giant white crayon.
Isaiah Hicks, 1.2 %
Only higher then Kornet because the Knicks are so woefully short on natural power forwards. I could see them trotting out a Frank/Dotson/Knox/Hicks/Robinson starting lineup at some point towards the end of the season. Even if KP is back, he’ll be resting often, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Ron Baker, 5.0%
Would anything infuriate Knicks fans more than Ron Baker starting? I mean really piss people off? Short of the team bringing back Andrea Bargnani, it’s tough to imagine a move that would make people get in their feelings more.
It’s strange when you think about it. Knicks fans have spent the better part of the last 17 years watching players give questionable effort, and yet most of them can’t stand the guy who tries harder than anyone1.
Is he part of the future? No…but he’s smart, and he knows how to execute the systems at both ends of the court that David Fizdale is trying to put into place. Having a guy like that out there is valuable as you try to ingrain good habits throughout the rest of the roster.
Still, this isn’t a team that has had effort issues so far. As long as that continues, Sunshine figures to remain glued to the bench.
Emmanuel Mudiay, 7.5 %
I know, I know … just hear me out…
The funny thing about Mudiay is that even though he’s the butt of a thousand jokes2, there’s a universe in which an alternate version of him is really a nice fit on this team. If he played within himself, used his athleticism to break down the defense and deployed the elite passing chops we’ve seen on occasion, he could be a happy medium between Trey Burke and Frank Ntilikina. Defense for him has always been more about effort and technique than ability, so it’s not like that’s a lost cause either.
It’s all true, every word of it. And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon. Still, the talent is there, and if the Knicks are serious about becoming a place where high pedigree players can come to rehab their careers, it makes some sense to give Mudiay one more chance to show what he can do. Fiz seems to think so too, at least according to Stefan Bondy’s tweet on Sunday night.
Yes, we’ve all seen Mudiay and it hasn’t looked pretty. David Fizdale knows that. He also knows that a coach’s reputation in this league depends as much on how you treat the last guy on the roster as it does the first.
No, his leash won’t be long (nor should it be), and no matter what he does, Frank will continue to get the lion’s share of PG minutes … but if culture really is going to become more than a buzzword around these parts, giving the former Nugget a chance after a solid summer of work is the right thing to do.
Courtney Lee, 8%
I’ve been thinking about something for a while that I think I’ll name the Courtney Lee Paradox3.
It goes like this: on one hand, Lee isn’t good enough for another team to willingly take on his $12.7 million salary for next season without (apparently) the Knicks attaching a sweetener. On the other hand, whenever anyone got on them for not tanking hard enough last year, Lee was always the guy they point to as the culprit, as if his presence was the difference between them being in a position to draft Luka Doncic or not. It’s kind of annoying.
Ultimately, sweetener or no sweetener, if the Knicks are going to move Lee, they’re going to have to play him. It’s easy to see him getting the Kieth Bogans treatment4, starting a game or two but then getting pulled for good after a few minutes. So let’s call it the Bogans Bump.
Kristaps Porzingis, 10.5 %
It is obviously painful to have him this low.
At this point, it’s as likely Porzingis sits out the whole year as it is he returns by Christmas, especially with the Knicks not looking like they’ll have even a prayer of hanging around the playoff race. Should we split the difference and say he’ll be back after the All-Star break? That leaves 24 games, including four back-to-backs that we know he’s not getting into.
Given the apparently copacetic decision between the Knicks and KP’s people to delay his extension talks5, the team clearly has an interest in keeping him happy. If Kristaps wants to play, he’s going to play.
Will he want to though? On one hand, if Janis & Co are worried about the Knicks trying to sneak some injury protections into his next contract, coming out and looking all unicorny and whatnot will help quell those fears. On the other hand, if
the Knicks already agreed an under-the-table deal to give KP the max they’re confident Scott Perry and Steve Mills will do the right thing, why risk re-injury in meaningless games?
On the Knicks end, do they need to see Porzingis play a few games before giving him the deluxe sushi boat for two6? With medical technology being what it is, they probably don’t feel like it makes a difference.
It might though to a certain someone who just rolled through the Garden on Friday night. If we believe the fact that KP was fine with waiting to extend until next summer specifically so the team could have room to sign Kevin Durant, it follows that both sides might want to give their prized free agent target a look at his future teammate, post-ACL. Zach Lowe brought this up on his podcast Friday, saying that of the 30 or so execs he spoke to around the league, it was roughly 50/50 as to whether they thought KD would feel the need to see a healthy unicorn before considering New York.
Here’s betting they give him some run. Just not a lot.
Lance Thomas, 12 %
If you’d have asked me before the season which starter was tsafest for the duration of the season, I’d probably have said Thomas.
Save your insults7. Thomas is the one player on a team full of newbies and misfit toys who always knows where he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to be doing. His execution on both ends can leave a bit to be desired, but for a coach trying to remodel a house using only a screwdriver and duct tape, I figured the unsightly yet stable side room would remain as is.
But 26 percent shooting from a starting wing isn’t something any team can live with, even one that values Thomas’ stability as much as the Knicks do. That, plus Noah Vonleh’s inspired play and Kevin Knox’s impending return, mean that Lance has probably seen his last moment as a starter for this team. I wouldn’t rule out some spot starts here or there though, which is why he’s even this high on the list.
Allonzo Trier, 13.5%
This may seem low for a young player who has clearly butted himself into the team’s future plans, but this is more about role than anything else.
Trier pretty clearly profiles as a spark plug, isolation scorer off the bench in the classic Jamal Crawford mold (or Vinnie Johnson, for you old folks). Fiz has already used Lou Williams as a comp, and his nickname is Iso Zo for Christ’s sake. This is what he is as an NBA player, and it makes sense to continue getting him used to that role. If he ever starts, it won’t be until late.
Mario Hezonja, 15%
The early returns on Super Mario have been mixed. On one hand, he’s displayed the talent and skill that got him drafted one pick after Kristaps in 2015. On the other hand, he’s reminded everyone why the Magic declined the fourth year team option on his rookie contract – an extreme rarity for top-ten picks.
Hezonja’s inconsistency on defense has been the most troubling thing, and given David Fizdale’s stated desire to emphasize defense in the starting lineup, this doesn’t feel like a move he’d make.
The only caveat is that Mario is still just 23, and while it’s unlikely the light bulb goes on, it’s not out of the question. We’ve already seen him play stretches of solid defense. If it becomes a regular occurrence over a sustained period of time, would Fiz reward him for the effort?
Maybe … although of the other potential starters, Mario is among the least likely to be here next season8. Fiz isn’t stupid, and as we saw with Friday night’s moves, he may already be coaching for next season and beyond.
COMING TOMORROW: PART 2