The Emmanuel Mudiay Conundrum

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David Fizdale has a soft spot for Emmanuel Mudiay. This much is obvious. Jonathan Macri decided to take a look at just how warranted, or unwarranted, that is, and just how worrisome his affection should be to fans moving forward.

You can’t drink out of it like the Stanley Cup.

You can’t wear it like the Heavyweight Championship Belt.

But make no mistake: the title of Knicks Punching Bag is as esteemed an honor as exists in the world of professional sports. John Starks is the first Knick I can remember holding the title, and he held it with the utmost dignity. He was followed by such luminaries as Chris Childs, Othella Harrington, Tim Thomas, Steve Francis, Jarred Jeffries, Iman Shumpert, Andrea Bargnani, JR Smith, Derrick Rose, and of course most recently by Enes Kanter.

How does one attain this most prestigious of honors?

For one, you can’t hold the title if you outright stink. There has to be at least a segment of the fan base that thinks you’re good, or at least that you hold the faintest potential to be good. Kicking a man when he’s down is only fun if there’s someone there making an effort to drag him out of the mud. Or so I’ve heard.

Second, and most importantly, you can only have one title-holder at a time…but there’s almost always someone wearing the crown. I wasn’t alive in the late 60’s, but I can imagine a young version of my dad watching number one overall pick Bill Bradley as a rookie and shouting obscenities at the television…

Rhodes Scholar my ass! Don’t they teach rebounding at Princeton? Holzman hates Cazzie Russell otherwise he’d be starting. They’re definitely tanking.

I’m not ashamed. We’re New Yorkers. If we’re not complaining about something, we’re either sleeping or dead.

As such, there’s been a bit of a void ever since Kanter moved on. With six weeks remaining in another losing season, it wasn’t going to be long before someone took the baton and ran with it. Following some early jostling for the gig, we have a winner:

Almost from the day he was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay has made his fair share of enemies. Now, with Kanter gone, he’s ascended to his rightful place on the throne.

On one hand, the hate seems a little unfair. Playing on an already terrible team, Emmanuel Mudiay has made the Knicks no more or less  terrible than they otherwise would be.

According to ESPN’s RPM calculation, Mudiay currently sits 59th out of 97 qualified point guards – a stark improvement after finishing dead last and fifth from the bottom the last two years. If we go by the Expected Wins formula on Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks would have two more wins over an 82-game season given Mudiay’s efficiency differential. NBA.com has his individual net rating at -7.9, which is almost identical to the team’s -7.8 overall number.

To Booty-ay Backers (they’re out there!), this is all evidence of a talented point guard trending in the right direction. They see a shooter who has finally crept above league average, a point guard who takes pretty good care of the ball1, and a unique athlete who can get into the paint using his size against smaller players or his speed against larger ones2. Still days away from his 23rd birthday, supporters see no reason to give up on him yet.

His detractors, well…his detractors see everything else. They see a player who has performed far better against backups than starters3. They see a reversion back to form around the rim 4. They see 3-point accuracy that is only a hair above his dreary career mark5. They see a playmaker who doesn’t make plays for others6. They see someone who gives back as much on one end as he might add on the other7.

In short, they see a player who, even if he continued to make incremental improvements at both ends of the court, probably tops out as a high end backup. Best case, he’s a spot starter who might win you a game every now and then, as he has a few times this year (see: home wins vs Milwaukee and New Orleans and road victories in Memphis and Charlotte stand out).

As a player who the organization has now invested over a year’s worth of development time in, there would seem to be some logic to continuing to play him, if not as a starter, then as a backup to the higher ceiling, cost-controlled Dennis Smith Jr. For others, every minute of court time given to Mudiay amounts to a minute not devoted to a worthier cause. Why is that the case?

The easy answer: “It’s the contract, stupid.”

Yes, as we all know, Emmanuel Mudiay is on an expiring pact – one that carries with it a cap hold that comically outsizes his real life value. What we don’t know is what is going to happen this summer. Once the Knicks renounce Mudiay’s hold (a certainty) and then attempt to sign two max players (less so), they will still have a roster to fill out. In the Knicks’ perfect world, those spots will be commanded by minimum salaried players hoping to go ring-chasing.

Are we positive Mudiay has played himself out of such a menial contract? Don’t be so sure. Last offseason, former sixth overall pick Nerlens Noel signed a minimum salary deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, while former 10th overall pick Elfrid Payton signed for just $3 million in New Orleans. Derrick “Once a Knick, Please God, Make it Stop” Rose had to settle for the minimum in Minnesota. Hell, Noah Vonleh – the ninth selection just four years ago – didn’t even get a fully guaranteed deal.

Of course, if the Knicks strike out, bringing some of the band back on one-year contracts for continuity’s sake wouldn’t be the worst idea either.

So yes, while the contract is one factor, by itself, it’s not the reason Mudiay’s continued playing time has everyone so up in arms. If that were the case, Kadeem Allen – who is four years older than Mudiay and also not signed past this year – would have caused the pitchforks to come out when he was averaging 22 minutes a night before being sent back to Westchester.

No, the fury goes much, much deeper than money. Over the course of this season, Mudiay and his playing time have become nothing short of a referendum on David Fizdale. That conversation inevitably turns into a discussion about what is and isn’t the purpose of this season. It’s all interconnected.

I’ve sung Fizdale’s praises more than is probably deserved and won’t add to them here. It is interesting to note, though, that while opinions on Mudiay really aren’t that divergent – he’s some shade of “meh” any way you cut it – opinions on Fizdale shone through the prism of Mudiay run all the colors of the rainbow.

When looking for reasons why the former Nugget is still playing, the common refrain skews towards the negative: David Fizdale plays Mudiay because he doesn’t care about defense…or analytics…or development. That he cut his teeth in an organization that has been at or near the forefront of all three is conveniently placed aside.

Sometimes, the accusations can get a little uglier than that. Some feel Emmanuel Mudiay has been Fizdale’s personal pet project ever since “we gonna get you right” and that it’s the coach’s ego driving his decision to stick with Mud. Others feel he’s Fiz’s personal tank commander and his PT is simply an easy way to rack up L after L. Some just think he hates Frank Ntilikina…or foreign players in general…or has been given a directive not to prioritize holdovers from the Phil Jackson regime. It’s all been floated.

There are other theories…less devious ones that coincide with Fizdale’s reputation as a coach who gets buy-in from players like no other. Could it be that he feels obliged to support Mudiay, someone who’s diligently if not aptly taken to coaching since the summer? Does he feel that casting off a 22-year old just because he doesn’t neatly fit into the organization’s future plans is not only inherently wrong, but a bad look for a team trying to rebrand itself as someplace players want to come? Does he want to maintain DSJ’s drive and kick style when he goes to his second unit? Might he simply want to stay with the hot hand when it’s warranted, as he did to positive results Tuesday night vs Orlando?

All of these glass-half-full options require looking at a basketball team as a living, breathing organism rather than a balance sheet or a collection of statistics. Is that wise? Or an inherently flawed approach?

As you ponder that, consider the coach’s words after New York’s recent home loss to the Timberwolves – the one that had many fans flummoxed over Emmanuel Mudiay playing the final 17 minutes of the game. Fizdale was asked about divvying up playing time between the kids and the vets. His response8 was instructive:

It depends on how the young guys are messing up. If their mistakes are mistakes that I have to show more discipline about, then the vets are going to play more in that situation.

The question came on the heels of a night where DeAndre Jordan saw 33 minutes to Mitchell Robinson’s 13 – something the coach attributed to Robinson’s lack of focus and inability to stay “locked in.” Did this tough love approach have anything to do with Robinson responding by playing perhaps his best game of the season vs the Spurs? Or was it merely a matter of opportunity thanks to Jordan being out with an injury?

Just like the Mudiay questions, we simply don’t know. In fact, none of the theories about Fizdale’s approach can be confirmed or denied, but their mere existence drives home a salient point: unlike a smoking gun, decision making in a tanking season isn’t definitive evidence of anything. This is “eye of the beholder” at it’s finest. Playing Emmanuel Mudiay proves David Fizdale is an idiot. Or that he’s a genius. Or somewhere in between. It’s up to you to pick which one is true.

In reality, on such a shitty team, there are arguments for and against playing any player, just as there are arguments for playing them four, 14 or 40 minutes a game. Just like the Mudiay discussion, opinions on those arguments are colored by one’s own personal views on development, culture, accountability, tanking, analytics, and a whole host of other team-building tenets that have yet to be settled one way or another.

The best part is that all of this talk is likely meaningless. Golden State is a dynasty neither because nor despite the fact that Dorell Wright averaged more minutes per game than Steph Curry during the future MVP’s sophomore season; they’re a dynasty because Steph Curry became Steph Curry. Nothing in anyone’s control was ever going to change that.

If this summer goes according to plan, the fretting about Emmanuel Mudiay will seem comical in retrospect. There will be no guesswork involved as to whether David Fizdale is doing a good job. The record will speak for itself.

In a season like this one, however, there are no answers, only questions…questions that aren’t likely to be answered until the dust settles in July and the season begin anew in October.

Until then, we’ll have Emmanuel Mudiay to argue about, because we’re New Yorkers, dammit. It’s what we do.

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