Unfiltered Thoughts on the Knicks Season, Part 1: the players

In the first of his three-part series assessing the Knicks season, Jonathan Macri takes a look at New York’s roster…and doesn’t hold back.

If someone asked me now to look back at my 23-year-old self, cut the bullshit, and honestly rank the reasons I decided to go to law school, they’d appear in the following order:

3: Helping people with their problems (7% of the reason)

2: I thought it would be a good place to meet girls (11.5%)

1: Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, the theme music from Law & Order, and like a dozen scenes from A Few Good Men, but this one more than any other (81.5 %):

The scene is flawless. It’s peak Cruise, and arguably Moore’s best moment in the movie1. When I watched it, all I wanted was to get a job where I could stand up and yell in someone’s face, preferably about my knowing the law and them not.

Fast forward 12 years and 2.5 careers later. It turns out being a lawyer isn’t actually that fun or cool, which should really be a disclaimer before this movie begins2. Luckily it wasn’t a total loss because I learned a valuable lesson – one that has single-handedly gotten me through this rectal exam of a season.

Like Lt. Kaffey says, what you believe doesn’t matter when you’re a lawyer; it’s all about what you can prove, or if you’re a defense lawyer, knowing which shit to throw against the wall and in what order to throw it.

After watching the Baby Knicks try to learn to walk all year, the wall3 is completely brown. I’ve trotted out a lot of arguments, mostly because I feel that a first year coach with the youngest roster in the NBA collectively deserves the benefit of the doubt, but also because I’m a fan, and as a fan, I just find it easier to think the best.

So all year, I’ve done what a good lawyer does: take the facts and make the best of them. This has often required me to bite my tongue in service of the greater good. When the ship is going down, the band must play on. And played I have, with enthusiasm, grace, and I’d like to think a little bit of dignity. It has been an honor.

But, well…I’ve watched every game of a 15-win season and the last lifeboat is leaving, so fuck it:

Here’s what I really think.

Mario Hezonja

Just an unbelievably maddening player.

Sometimes you watch a guy and can clearly tell he stinks. We had one here. His name was Andrea Bargnani. Sadly, the Knicks owner brass that traded for him thought watching film of a player before acquiring him was considered tampering.

Back to Hezonja: he doesn’t stink. We’ve seen enough on both ends to know as much…which is why he’s been perhaps the most frustrating player on the whole damn team. For every “Ooo!” there’s three head-scratchers and one head-slapper.

I continue to think he’ll have a relevant moment in the league at some point, likely on a smart team with shooting, which is why there’s a tiny part of me that wouldn’t have minded seeing him back. That ship seems to have sailed though, as he’s been a DNP-CD the last two games following a missed defensive assignment last Thursday vs the Raptors. It got him yanked from the game and seems to have been the final nail in his coffin as a Knick.

(just please don’t tell the Croatians I said anything)

Emmanuel Mudiay

My stance on Emmanuel Mudiay this season has made me feel like the friend in the middle of a breakup who tries to support both parties.

“Wait, you had lunch with him? Did you guys share a bag of dicks? I hope you shared a bag of dicks.”

It hasn’t been fun.

Has Mudiay been good? No…no, he has not. But he hasn’t been terrible either. You could even argue that he’s played a bigger part in more wins this season than anyone on the team4. He just turned 23, had a markedly better campaign than either of his last two, and as I’ve argued all season, if he takes one more leap, we’re talking about a useful player here.

And then you watch a game like Monday’s win against Chicago, where if you told me he had was being paid to throw the game, I legit would be like “Yeah, ok…that makes sense.” He was grizzly in all the ways that Bad Mud is usually grizzly, forgetting things like how to dribble, the dimensions of the court, the fact that there are four other players on his team that are also allowed to shoot, and that legs are best used to hold us upright instead of as display items sprawled across the floor. He had the worst plus/minus of anyone on either team except for Brandon Sampson. I could be Brandon Sampson and you wouldn’t know it.

For every game Mudiay has played a part in leading to wins, it feels like he’s had two or three of these types of affairs. When you add this to the fact that it’s almost impossible to be a helpful guard in this league without being either a solid defender or a reliable 3-point shooter – I don’t see him becoming either one – it makes you wonder what the benefit is to keep watering this plant.

You could talk me into giving him a near-minimum contract, because continuity is an undervalued asset in the NBA, but that’s about it.

Dennis Smith Jr.

A lot of the questions people have about Mudiay also come up when you’re talking about Dennis Smith Jr., but there’s four important differences between the two:

  1. Smith has at least shown the ability to be a really good defensive player. That he doesn’t display this ability more often leaves me 50% hopeful and 50% terrified.
  2. He can get to the rim (and above it) as well as all but a few guys in the league.
  3. His bad games don’t induce the need for Tums.
  4. He’s only in his second year.

So yeah, there’s reason to be hopeful. I really like the way he’s run the offense since he’s come over, and his decision making hasn’t been nearly as bad as advertised. Even the shot seems to be an above the neck issue, and I think he’ll be able to get it to league average eventually.

Still, something just seems a little…off about Smith, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. The back stuff is absolutely a concern to me. If the Knicks really did sign KD and got Kyrie or Kemba too, even if they dumped Smith for a middling return (Phoenix’s second rounder, for example) I don’t know that I’d be terribly heartbroken.

That would assume, of course, that they could re-sign…

Kadeem Allen

…on the cheap, which would be fantastic, because he rocks. Seriously. Name one reason this dude can’t be one of the best backup point guards in the league based on what we’ve seen this year.

You can’t, can you? If the shot is even semi-real5, he’s exactly what you want in a third or fourth ball handler. The collective urgency of the defense ratchets up a few levels whenever he’s in. Sign me up.

Lance Thomas

I love Lance Thomas, and there’s nothing you can say or do to change that.

Allonzo Trier

Yay! Someone we can all enjoy together!

Iso-ball gets a bad rap around these parts because a) Melo played here and b) we have eyes. Treir is a different kind of cat though – a homeless man’s Harden who gets to the line at will while hitting a robust 39% from deep. He’s also got some old-man craftiness to his game, bobbing and weaving until he gets a sliver of daylight.

As his lobs to Mitch have shown us, his passing isn’t a lost cause, and he’s quick and slithery enough on defense to make you think that he might not be a train wreck on that end as he gets older.

I don’t think the “Future 6MOY” stuff is outlandish. Of everyone on this roster outside of Robinson, he’s neck and neck with Knox as the guy I’m most confident is still here next season. Speaking of which…

Kevin Knox

After the second game of Summer League, I went live and said that in order to make the leap from bottom feeder to contender, a team needs to get lucky in the draft at least once and end up with a difference-maker from a spot where those types of players are usually gone. I felt like the Knicks had accomplished exactly that.

Little did I know that I was talking about the wrong guy.

We’ll get to Mitch in a bit, who is basketball caviar. Knox, on the other hand, is like bad Chinese food. You know it’s not good but you keep eating anyway, not because you’re hungry, but because you had a craving.

Knox satisfied a specific craving the Knicks had: a big wing who can score in a variety of ways, and we’ve already seen the vague outline of that player at 19 years old. His finishing will get better as he gets stronger, and I’d bet on him scoring over 20 a game with above average efficiency a few times in his career. He’ll be fine.

But it looked like we were getting something better than “fine” after Vegas. His abhorrent defensive awareness and lack of playmaking and shot creation make me think that was a bit presumptuous.

DeAndre Jordan

I’m totally cool keeping him if it means his buddy KD is coming with him. The Mitch Mentor stuff is nice too.

That said, maybe starting next year, when the games matter again, he could occasionally, you know…jump. Like, in someone’s way. When they’re rolling down the lane. Unimpeded. Repeatedly.

DJ’s minus 19.0 net rating in New York is a promising sign for the possibility that he’s a legit candidate for the room exception6. Other than the Lakers doing dumb shit, I’m not sure I can see any team paying him more than that to be their starting center.

Noah Vonleh

Between his midseason downturn and recent injury, it’s easy to forget Vonleh might have been the Knicks’ best player through the first half of the season. He felt like someone who had risen just above the “good stats, bad team” threshold, at least when he was locked in on defense over the early part of the year.

Then the trade deadline happened, and Vonleh fell off a cliff. It’s hard not to wonder whether a player who’s had team after team give up on him got in his feelings a bit after seeing his name pop up in trade rumors.

New York will put him on the free agency back burner, which is fine. He’s competent, and the shot might be real, but we’re not talking about someone who isn’t replaceable. That said, if he wants to be here, that has more value to the Knicks than it does for most other organizations. Room Exception Candidate # 2.

Luke Kornet

He is absolutely an NBA player, and I kinda think he can be a rotation guy on a good team.

It’s not an accident that of everyone on New York’s roster who’s played at least 500 minutes, he’s the easy leader in net rating. You probably can’t play him at the four long term, but he’s savvy enough on defense that you can survive minutes with him at the five. His shooting at the five is a legit problem that opposing defenses need to game plan around.

Frank Ntilikina

I just wrote 2000 words on the Ntilikina situation, and probably another 20,000 before that this season, and, well…I think I’m all out.

Maybe it’s like Carrie says, and you’re only allotted a certain amount of tears/words per man/player; and I’ve used mine up7. That’s probably it.

In short, I still believe in him, and probably always will.

Damyean Dotson

I love me some Dot. Like, love me love me some Dot.

He’s far from perfect. He’ll probably never be that upper echelon level shooter who defenses have to account for all the time, a’ la JJ Redick. If he doesn’t get there, just how much value he offers on offense is questionable. His off ball defense is low key some of the worst on the team, and there’s a real chance it won’t get much better.

I don’t really care. He’s the only guy on this team besides Allen that you can consistently depend on to navigate a screen. He’s shown some friskiness with the ball in his hands of late, and his 1.11 points per possession on 113 opportunities as a pick and roll ball handler is elite. He’s a monster rebounder for his position.

Best of all, if you break his career down not into two seasons but three – rookie year, pre-All-Star break and post-All-Star break– we’re looking at someone who has made leaps and bounds at each checkpoint.

  • Rookie: 44 games, 10.8 min., 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, .447/.324/.696
  • Pre-ASG: 49 games, 24.7 min., 9.3 pts, 3.5 rbs, 1.4 asts, .422/.366/.714
  • Post-ASG: 18 games, 32.9 min., 15.0 pts, 4.1 rbs, 2.7 asts, .424/.386/.800

I’m all in.

Mitchell Robinson

Speaking of all in…

Here’s the space where I’d usually include all kinds of stats that back up just how crazy Mitchell Robinson’s rookie season has been, but you’re smart and have seen all those, so we can skip that part.

(Ok, one stat: Mitchell Robinson is the first player in history – not rookie, player – to average four blocks per 36 minutes in a season where they played over 1000 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage as high as his .691. The next closest eFG% on the list is .606, from Hassan Whiteside in 2015-16)

Instead, I’m going right to the thing that I’d probably consider a hot take if it wasn’t already so blatantly apparent to me: Mitchell Robinson is a star

This fact would be apparent even if I hadn’t spent the past quarter century watching, studying, and generally obsessing over this sport, because you don’t need experience watching a sport to know when you’re seeing a star. You just know.

I don’t know exactly how to define “star,” in the same way that I don’t know how to define good team culture, or the perfect sandwich. But you know it when you taste it, are around it, or with Mitch, simply witnessing it.

In more games than not that he’s played this season, Mitch was the one player who stood about above the rest in a way that doesn’t require analysis. It just requires a working pair of eyes.

We have seen the light. And it blocks out the sun.

Check back later this week for Part 2: David Fizdale

 

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