Where Frank Ntilikina’s struggles began and what the Knicks should consider before entertaining any trade ideas

2

What did Frank Ntilikina do to deserve this?

Is he experiencing a similar fate as Willy Hernangómez, who was once billed as the future of the Knicks, then quickly relegated to a bench role before being traded to make room for more experienced veterans? It seems every day we get a new report that makes a trade feel at least a little more likely. 

Then David Fizdale implied that his players have started to settle into who they are going to be, only 25 games into the season! And if this is in anyway a reflection of his views towards Frank, who has been awful lately, it may lend another waft of smoke to the grey plume recently hovering over the sophomore’s head. Here’s the full quote, see what you think:

“Some of it still gotta be fight,” Fizdale said, explaining why the Knicks’ young players have seen their minutes drop lately. “Some of it still gotta be take and grab it and earn it. I don’t want to just give it all to them, especially now that we’re getting closer to the 25-game mark. Guys have kind of settled into starting to see who guys are going to be.”

Is it possible Frank has already shown him who he is?


How did we get here?

Let’s start with what has happened on the court. Clearly, Frank is struggling. His numbers this year are worse than his rookie campaign with Jeff Hornacek. Yikes.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.44.51 AM.png

At times, watching him struggle recently has been cringe-worthy. It’s almost tempting to think: “Fiz has all the other young guys ballin’. Look at Allonzo Trier! It’s gotta be on Frank.”

To recap, Frank averaged ~30 minutes per game in October. Then he averaged a few less (23.8 minutes) when the calendar turned to November. Then came a home game vs Orlando. The team came out flat on both ends. Sure, Frank came out with his usual defensive acumen…but we already knew he could do that, we need offense now.

Both Frank and Tim Hardaway Jr. opened the game 0-3 with a turnover. Tim got plenty more chances but Frank was pulled for the night. A clear message was sent. Fizdale reduced his role significantly since this moment (he’s averaging about 16.9 minutes a contest since the benching) and his minutes have come sporadically, and not with the same units he enjoyed when he was last seen at all playing well. 

In case you’re curious, here were the 3 shots he missed. All pretty, with a similar flaw that a full-time shooting coach would be able to help. I’m not sure if the Knicks have one employed. But if they do, it’s one of the more fixable problems. It’s still a pretty shot, not like Josh Jackson’s or Markelle Fultz’s.

It’s condescending to use teaching or parenting metaphors for coaches because players aren’t children. I don’t mean it this way but it’s apt. Parents and teachers understand that rewarding effort can pay off more than rewarding results. Think: she got every problem wrong but she tried really hard. Offer praise for effort and teach proper technique. Avoid discouraging the student.

Frank can control his defense, but not whether or not he hits a couple of shots in just three tries. I disagreed with this extended benching and ensuing revocation of basically all lead-guard duties outside of garbage time. It’s possible this is still in the back of Frank’s mind, wondering if he plays good defense but misses a couple of jumpers, he could get a quick hook.

He hasn’t looked the same to me since this moment and has had almost no opportunities since to play with the lineups where he looks his best.

(For persuasive and compelling counterarguments on how less is sometimes more, or how Frank may have been benched because playing him could have done “more harm than good” read Jonathan Macri’s thoughts on this if you haven’t already. Great stuff.)

But Frank wasn’t nearly as bad just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, one of his best games came against the defending champs.

Two-way play like this has the attention of many teams, if not New York’s. It actually seemed as if the Knicks were onto something with a lineup of Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson. There was real chemistry there. But then the team got spanked in Oklahoma City and Fizdale has largely abandoned the project that seemed like the best course for developing Frank.

Why?

Fizdale was right the team was not winning. And since then he has gone to a lineup featuring more veterans and nearly doubled his win total since this date.

Trey Burke has shined. And Emmanuel Mudiay’s inspired play has earned Fizdale tons of praise for his ability to rehabilitate the career of guys who once appeared completely lost on a court. Frank’s partner in crime, Damyean Dotson, was weirdly benched altogether for four games.1 The Knicks rattled off three wins in four games with scrappy play by Burke, Mitchell Robinson, Mudiay, Enes Kanter, Vonleh, and undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier. All of this was really exciting. Fizdale has spread the minutes around to everyone on the roster and increased the trade value of some guys who may not stick around long term. Awesome!

But then the Frank trade rumors began and we started to realize maybe we were leaving someone out of all the fun.


Where Has Frank Thrived?

Let’s now dig into the lineups that have allowed Frank to play some of his best basketball. Below are the Knicks best 3-man combos to date. You’ll notice Frank is in three out of the team’s top 5, per Basketball-Reference Lineup Finder tool:

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 9.28.55 PM

So it’s interesting isn’t it? Not only was he personally playing better ball within these combos, they also comprise the Knicks best 3-man units to date, per that +/- measure. Wow.

For what it’s worth: this athletic trio of Dotson, Frank and Hardaway Jr. pass the eye test also. They were just developing a nice chemistry before the band was broken up. 

The idea that the Knicks could simultaneously develop their core players and also play some of their best basketball seems almost too good to be true. How serendipitous, as Clyde Frazier might say.

This trio, without any of the other ball-handlers, like Burke, Mudiay, or Trier, appear to embolden Frank with just enough responsibility in terms of initiation, but without forcing him to have to do too much or relegating him to harmless bystander. 

But ok, lineup data is noisy, maybe the net rating is only good because of other factors.

Well take a look at the following splits. They’re from a cool website called FantasyLabs, and show how Frank personally has performed (per 36 minutes) in various lineup combinations:

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 1.56.23 PM.png

(“Frank Primary ball handler” means lineups with Frank excluding Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and Allonzo Trier. FPTS is DraftKing’s fantasy points, a proprietary algorithm that’s similar to PER although adjusted for shooting efficiency).

You’ll notice certain things like:

  • Frank just hasn’t played as well with another on ball-guard in the lineup. Interesting for those obsessed with his “true position.”
  • He hasn’t played especially well with Enes Kanter.
  • His assists are pretty low when he’s the primary ball-handler, unless we put him in a lineup with Dotson and Hardaway, and then he sees some of his best numbers of all.
  • While he personally plays well with Dotson and Hardaway, the presence of others with them (like Mudiay, Burke or Kanter especially) sometimes thwarts progress.
  • You need to remove Mudiay, Burke, Kanter and Hezonja, and replace them with Vonleh and Robinson to unlock not only Frank’s potential, but the unit’s overall potential on both ends of the floor. There has existed a Frank + team synergy not long ago. And it came with his highest usage of this comparison.

My takeaways are this: 1) the net ratings for Frank are better with the lineups highlighted above, and the team is better, too; 2) if the team is truly “agonizing over whether he’s a point guard or wing,” as has been reported, the best way to find the answer is to play him in the situations he plays well in. Then let the answers come to you. Channel creativity and foster positivity.

Using whether or not the team actually won a game (where you’re literally pitting 19-year-olds against Paul George) as a barometer for a specific lineup is a mistake that’s so silly you just hope the reason given to us wasn’t true.

I understand the incentive to determine whether or not he can be a superstar before everyone else and get ahead of it. Having more information than the competition can be a major advantage whether you’re selling high on Anthony Bennett or Michael Carter Williams. And selling late, like in the case of Jahlil Okafor, can be disastrous. But if you’re at all open to a player being good and are still curious about his position, then the best way to learn is experimentation and the ultimate lab is an actual game.


Competing Goals

I might be a little hard on Fizdale in this post and that doesn’t sit well with me because I think he’s done a very good job in a very difficult environment, and like others, I refuse to judge him completely in a rebuilding year like this. He’s outmatched and has so many competing priorities. I get it.

Consider his competing goals:

  1. Develop his youngest players to see which ones are truly part of the long-term plan
  2. Develop and showcase some of the team’s one-year reclamation projects and trade candidates
  3. Keep most of the fans happy and compete and win as many games as possible
  4. Create the perception that the team is on the way up for potential free agents who are looking for a “win now” team, while realizing this team is anything but a win-now team, and might be best suited to “tank” for the highest possible lottery pick
  5. Keep lineups balanced and staggered so that every rookie or sophomore gets some reps with the vets
  6. Eventually find a few lineups, and keep them, so guys can develop cohesion, chemistry, confidence, rhythm. (Remember, Fiz’s former team, the championship Heat, even struggled acclimating to each other in their first 20 games) 
  7. Add ten other things I can’t even think of

It’s nuts. And we’ll forgive him if he can’t tackle each one of these each evening.

As fans continue to show their support for Ntilikina, it’s entirely possible this front office has (accurately) determined his ceiling isn’t high enough, the way Sam Hinkie once crushed swaths of Sixers fans’ spirits when he traded Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter Williams.

***Can you honestly even imagine if Frank won ROY and then was traded for a pick that might not convey for 4 years and that you’d also look back on it and think that was one of the most wonderful fleecings of the decade? That happened! And it was the right decision.

All of that being said, whether you want to keep Frank and develop him, or trade him, it would behoove the Knicks while he’s here to put him back in situations where he has recently played his best basketball. Some rebuilding teams aren’t as lucky. Their 20-year-olds aren’t part of any winning lineups. We’ve seen a couple with Frank that have worked.

Trading him now at an all-time low value standpoint (after cratering some of his value with benchings and frenetic lineup changes) without first exploring some of these lineups again would be a mistake unless you know you’re getting something really really special in return.