Yesterday, we covered the nine players least likely to play meaningful minutes this season as a starter for the Knicks. Now we’ll get to the eight names who figure to show up on the lineup card most often moving forward.
Trey Burke, 17.5 %
Hold that thought. We’ll get back to Trey in a bit.
Enes Kanter, 30%
Let’s sort through some tea leaves here, shall we…
Both before and after the Warriors game, David Fizdale was clear that his starting lineup was a fluid organism, likely to change with the ebbs and flows of the season and to match up with particular opponents. Yet, when Kanter spoke at his locker after the game, he was peeved, parroting the company line that “coach wants to me lead the second unit, so I’m leading the second unit.”
What gives? Is Kanter such a prideful guy that even a temporary demotion would have him sounding like Bill Belichick after a bad loss? Or is it that despite Fizdale’s public comments, was he told that this was going to be a permanent move?
The on-court evidence would suggest the latter. We have years worth of evidence suggesting Kanter’s teams are better when he’s on the bench, and this season is no different. According to Cleaning the Glass, which weeds out garbage time, the Knicks are 13.7 points per 100 possessions worse when the big man is on the court. That’s…not great.
Is it all his fault? Of course not. The advanced stats actually suggest that Hardaway Jr. has been the more harmful presence on defense. The difference is that New York can’t get Timmy’s shot creation or volume 3-point shooting – both necessary evils – from anywhere else. Kanter is a beast on the block, but the only time those traits have led to his team scoring significantly better when he’s on the court has been when he came off the bench in Oklahoma City two years ago1. It’s not that his skills don’t translate to the modern NBA, it’s just that they’re better in small doses against worse competition.
So what do the Knicks do if Kanter remains upset? Should they cut him loose, as some have suggested on Twitter, like another former center we all know and love? They’re going to wind up renouncing his ginormous cap hold in eight months anyway2, so why not, right?
Here’s why: the most significant thing the Knicks have done over the last year is up their image around the NBA from the “Laughingstock” category all the way up to “Competent.” If they want to graduate to “Respectable” – and they’re well on their way to doing so – playing nicely with the players on the roster is step one.
Simply buying out disgruntled players is a bad look. Kanter might be looked at as a bit of a clown around the league, but he’s still a guy who’s been nothing but a good soldier since he’s arrived. Fiz has to make sure he continues to feel needed, even if it’s not in a starting role.
Damyean Dotson, 35%
I really, really, really wish this number was higher.
Fiz says he’s earned his spot in the starting rotation, and assuming the organization moves on from Courtney Lee sooner rather than later, he’s the closest thing they have to a true two-way player3.
Dotson has been great in making these threes in transition pic.twitter.com/UsKtQ9QPwG
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 30, 2018
So why not higher? I could say it’s because he’s so positionally versatile, and can be subbed in for whoever happens to be playing the two, three, or four at the moment4.
We all know that’s BS though. He’ll probably find himself on the bench for most of the rest of the year because of two numbers: 9 – where Kevin Knox was drafted – and 44 – where Dotson was drafted. While I think Fiz means every word of what he says about time and status being earned, as I’ll get to when we hit Knox, there are a lot of jobs tied up in the Knicks’ 2018 lottery pick looking the part of a future All-Star before season’s end. That’s a lot easier to pull off if Knox is starting, and although he’ll see time at the four here and there, Fiz isn’t going to start him there anytime soon.
Dotson will still get a ton of minutes though. He needs to. They don’t have many5 better options.
Mitchell Robinson & Noah Vonleh, 50% each
I was as shocked as anyone when Fiz essentially went with a double-center starting lineup, especially against the team that has exploited big men (see above) perhaps more than any in league history.
And wouldn’t you know it…they didn’t do half-bad.
True, the starting quintet was a minus eight overall in just over 19 minutes, but save for the last two and a half of those when the Kevin Durant snowball was already three quarters of the way down the hill, they outscored the Warriors by five points in nearly 16 minutes of action. That’s good.
So does this mean the big-big pairing is here to stay? It does make some sense.
On Vonleh’s side, he just seems to be a better fit with the rest of the group. He’s a decent passer, a brick house on screens, and his defense makes the absence of Lance Thomas more than palatable. His skill set is also more necessary alongside Timmy than what Kanter brings in the post and on the offensive glass.
OH MY VONLEH pic.twitter.com/iCUsZryYzg
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 29, 2018
As for Young Mitch Rob6, by starting him, you get the best of both world. If he’s effective, fantastic – you ride him until the wheels fall off, and showcase his skill set in the process. If he’s a foul-mongering jumping bean who can’t control himself, it’s all good – just pull him and let him soak up knowledge from the bench. Either way, starting him is a fantastic way for the kid to learn on the job.
The pairing won’t work against every team, but against most, it’s at least worth a shot.
Kevin Knox, 65%
It’s coming. You know it and I know it. David Fizdale knows it too, despite relegating Knox to the bench to start the year.
His initial placement in the starting lineup never meant that he was ready or deserving, but he looked so raw at times that Fiz knew he couldn’t keep him in there and still sell the whole “you keep what you kill” mantra to his young team.
Knox doesn’t have to be one of the five best players to make his way back into the starting five. He just needs to be good enough7 for David Fizdale to be able to make the move with a straight face. He knows that his long term job security rests largely on how the Knicks do next year and beyond. Getting Knox ready sooner rather than later only makes sense8.
Tim Hardaway Jr., 95%
As much as it pained me to put Kristaps Porzingis so low, it’s equally annoying that I have to put Timmy this high.
It’s not because he isn’t a good player. Tim Hardaway Jr. actually has it in him to be a very efficient player in this league, and maybe even a great one on some nights.
Tim Hardaway Jr with the block and then coast to coast finish pic.twitter.com/CrAOtx7RHG
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 30, 2018
Those nights won’t come, however, until he’s in the role that he’s destined for: a sixth man who plays starters minutes and only has to worry about scoring when he’s in the game. The problem is that scoring is all Tim worries about right now, and as the ill-suited first banana on a young, talent-depleted team, that’s both necessary and a problem. It also means he’s assured of starting until the blatant tanking begins in April.
The more interesting question will be what happens long term. Assuming Free Agent X and Draft Pick Y are indeed in uniform to start next season, the writing about Tim’s destiny as a fireplug off the bench will be on the wall. Something tells me he won’t want to read what’s written.
Throw in the fact that Allonzo Trier is a far cheaper option who might be better suited for the role, and it’s fair to ask if THJ might not be here this time next year. If he can keep his efficiency numbers at this level the entire season9, there will be some free agency loser willing to take on his contract.
For now though, he’s as safe as anyone.
Well, almost anyone…
Frank Ntilikina, 99.8%
Halloween is this week, so I think a Ghostbusters reference is in order. Let’s harken back to the scene inside the Mayor’s office, when the four heroes tried to give Hizzoner an image of what would happen if he didn’t act fast:
Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling…Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…The dead rising from the grave…Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
That’s nothing compared to how this city would react if Frank Ntilikina was taken out of the starting lineup. Gozer wouldn’t have shit on the hell New Yorkers would unleash if our French son was relegated to the bench.
More importantly though, the same point I made about Kanter applies here: the Knicks want to continue looking smart to the rest of the NBA. If they don’t fully flush out whether or not Frank can be a point guard10, it will not play well around the league.
Other than maybe a stretch five11 who can guard the perimeter12, there is no greater positional advantage in the NBA than a point guard who can shut down the opposing team’s best wing. This is still very much in the cards for Ntilikina, and Fiz is smart enough to realize that. Also, he has eyes, and saw this:
Durant can’t shake Frank pic.twitter.com/htT8Vizy7J
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) October 27, 2018
The rest of the NBA is watching. Could there be a few more games at the wing, maybe to ease the transition to full-time starting point guard, or possibly to advertise Trey Burke around the trade deadline? Of course…it’s why Burke’s percentage is as high as it is.
But make no mistake: the Knicks have found their point guard of the future.
The future just got here a lot sooner than we thought.