Mario Hezonja has started the last three games at point guard. Two were double-digit losses to playoff teams, and one was a feel-good win on the heels of having clinched the league’s best ping-pong odds. The season has long been over. There are no healthy point guards left on the roster. Hezonja has a habit of playing during meaningless springs.
I’m aware of all of this.
About a month ago when I was being unreasonably optimistic about the Knicks’ young talent, mentioning Hezonja never occurred to me. He hadn’t done much, save a dunk and step over the league’s MVP runner-up. I assumed he’d get that last paycheck from the guy who drafted him and find a new temporary home come July. I even gave Mudiay some love 1, but Mario? Nothing.
I was wrong. He’s shown me enough in this new emergency role that I am now convinced he should be re-signed. Let Mudiay walk. Trade Dennis Smith, Jr. (whose potential I still believe in). Move forward with Frank’s conversion, I guess.
Mario Hezonja is the backup point guard of the future.
Now before I go further, a warning: if you are superstitious, you might want to think twice about reading on. I am operating under the assumption that KD and Kyrie are coming. There is too much smoke to ignore.
And if there is no fire – if come July 1st we are preparing for another lost season – feel free to blame this jinx.
It’s not the averages – 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists over his last three – that led me to this conclusion. It’s not any particular highlight, whether a lob to Knox or a taunt after a big jumper. It’s simple, really: his skill set is perfect for what Fiz wants to do.
The starting “point guard” in Miami during the Big 3 Era was Mario Chalmers. That Mario rarely initiated offense. LeBron and D-Wade created, and Chalmers just played defense and stuck his open jumpers. But when called upon to play with reserves, he had the skills to slide back to a normal point guard’s role.
This Mario could be the 6’8 version of that Mario.
If Fizdale is serious about positionless-ness, this is the most logical move. Leading the reserves, Hezonja would be a mismatch every night. His combination of size and athleticism would cause problems for the opposition and help make up for some of his deficiencies on either end. He plays with pace, he’s unselfish, he moves and cuts when he doesn’t have the ball, he’s a capable shooter, and at the very least he’s active defensively2.
And THEN, he can fit in seamlessly with the stars / starters when called upon. You want to play small-ball around Mitch? Slide Mario in next to KD for interchangeable forwards. KD’s resting? Plug Mario in and let him play off of Kyrie. Irving’s injured and KD’s taken up primary ball-handling responsibility? Let him play off KD. Fiz wants to go BIG, or Dotson’s having a bad game? Mario can play the 2.
When you look at the situation off the court, his fit makes even more sense. The Knicks’ have no money after shelling out their maxes. Strapped for cash, why not re-sign a guy that can fill multiple voids, that can be your backup 1-4 depending on matchups and injuries? It’s this sort of flexibility that makes him more appealing than anyone else, especially when you consider his personality and potential price tag.
Listen. it’s indisputable that he did not have a good year. He came nowhere close to what optimists expected. He was jerked in an out of the lineup and often balanced flashes of brilliance with, to put it harshly, flashes of idiocy. But:
He’s been an awesome teammate.
He took the DNPs in stride.
He’s selfless, or at least pretends really well (either is fine with me).
And he LOVES being a Knick and being in New York (So did Enes, but this feels more genuine).3
In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if Mario’s weird season was by design. It’s worth contemplating: with the revolving door at point guard and Fiz’s previously stated desire to go positionless, why did this take until April? If it’s really just a happy accident, the entire staff should be fired immediately, but I don’t believe they’re that incompetent.
Here’s my theory: members of the front office and staff have pre-existing relationships with him. They did him a favor by signing him for more than he was probably worth. They rebuffed suitors despite all logic and common sense suggesting they should have absolutely traded him. Have they been hiding him? Did they have an inkling he was capable of this? Do they have information – the same sort of information that justifies a KP deal and allows Dolan to be super-confident on the radio – that he’s willing to take a significant discount to return?
Assuming the Exception is earmarked for Jordan, a minimum offer would be something like 2 years, $3.5M. Does he love Scott Perry and NY enough to accept that?
I get the sense the answer to many of those questions is YES. I think, no matter what happens with the roster this summer, you will see him back next year. If they strike out on the big fish, why not? If they snag KD and Kyrie, see above. If they end up trading the rest of the young core to add AD to a Big 3, see above x 10. He fits and fits well in every scenario.
You may see this article as reactionary, idealistic, delusional. I get that. I respect that opinion. But know that this isn’t just me falling in love with a three-game statistical outburst. I’m thinking about the skills. I’m thinking about the natural ability. I’m thinking about what that ability looks like with another year of maturity and the best teammates he’s every played with. I’m also thinking about the riots in NYC if Mudiay returns instead, about the assets that DSJ could fetch if moved, about the other alternatives once the money dries up.
I wouldn’t have thought this a month ago, or even a week ago, but now it makes sense.
I guess these games aren’t so meaningless after all.