A Reason for Hope?

After reading an insightful (if depressing) piece on the Knicks offense, Jonathan Macri was inspired to take one more look back at whether this season gave us more of a reason to be hopeful than we thought.

When I was a sophomore in college, my older brother had just bought an ownership stake in a Manhattan bar called McFadden’s Saloon. If you’ve been drunk in New York City at some point in your life, you’ve probably been there (although it’s just a likely that you don’t remember it).

I figured this was a chance for me to fulfill every undergrad’s dream of serving alcohol before I was old enough to drink it, but my brother had other ideas. Never missing an opportunity to teach me a valuable life lesson, he gave me a job alright…as a bar back.

In the city, bar backs are often undocumented workers just happy to be getting paid. I soon found out why it wasn’t the most desirable of jobs, busting my ass until 6 a.m., lugging around cases of beer, wiping up vomit, emptying ashtrays1, all for no more than what amounted to minimum wage.

On my last day before mercifully being promoted to DJ six months after I started, the sewer system in the bar backed up and the kitchen started overflowing with literal poo. Despite my protestations, it would not return from whence it came, and needed to be disposed of manually. Thankfully I was afforded a pair of gloves and a bucket. It was an ignominious end to the toughest job I’d ever have, but one that toughened me up for the road ahead.

It also provided me with the perfect analogy for this Knicks season.

I’m pretty sure David Fizdale knows how I felt that final night. This Knicks season was six months worth of turds, except in the form of basketball games, or something vaguely resembling them. I’m not sure who had it tougher: the man brought aboard to coach a team full of rookies and retreads, or me for choosing to constantly come to his defense.

His job was difficult for obvious reasons. My job, on the other hand, was uniquely challenging for a different reason. Unlike that night at the bar, when I knew exactly where the filth was coming from, this season forced me, and every other Knick fan, to constantly ask whether Fiz was the cause of or solution to New York’s problems.

Thankfully, someone else recently tried to answer that very question. Over the last two weeks, @AmicoDallas presented a superb two-part Posting & Toasting series on the Knicks offense this year. He uses a ton of video to analyze it in painstaking detail and attempts to figure out what went wrong and who, if anyone, was to blame.

If you haven’t already, stop reading this and check out the pieces (don’t worry, I’ll wait). In short, Amico seems to arrive at the conclusion that contrary to popular belief, Coach Fiz actually did have an offensive system predicated on consistent yet basic principles of basketball. By the end, he draws two basic conclusions:

  • Fizdale’s offense was simple, but that was likely by design, and was perfectly capable of providing advantages that could and often did lead to positive scoring opportunities, but…
  • There wasn’t nearly as much improvement throughout the year as you’d have liked to see, and the team’s nominal point guards never got markedly better at either seeing the passing opportunities right before their eyes, being willing to make those passes, or both.

Amico posits some solid theories in regards to the latter point, and while he offers the perfectly valid notion that Fiz simply didn’t put enough emphasis on his point guards finding the open man, he seems to come down more on the side of the team’s ball handlers simply not improving as much as you’d expect.

I tended to agree but wasn’t sure, and wanted to see if there were any numbers that could help me. I started my digging by going to the NBA.com’s stats site and looking at the team’s on/off numbers. What I found was not altogether surprising:

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You’ll notice that Kadeem Allen is a clear outlier among point guards, not only in terms of team’s offensive rating when he was on the court, but also New York’s effective field goal percentage (52.7, far higher than their league-worst 49.0 figure, and worlds better than any other Knick point guard) and assist percentage (58.4, compared to 54.4 for DSJ, 52.5 for Frank, 52.4 for Mudiay, and a “that’s a typo, right?” 44.5 for the dearly departed Trey Burke).

This didn’t surprise me because I have eyes, and used them to watch the Knicks play basketball this year. Every time Allen was on the court, good things seemed to happen, at least in comparison to when he wasn’t.

Digging a little deeper, I took at look at all of the Knicks two-man lineup combinations that played at least 100 minutes this season. Of the 99 that qualified, the top two by offensive rating had one name in common:

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Yup, that’s right. The team’s best offense came from a couple of glorified G-Leaguers and a rookie second rounder. Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2018-19 New York Knicks!

For shits and giggles, I checked to see the offensive rating when Allen, Kornet and Robinson were all on the floor together. Sure enough, for 52 glorious minutes this season, the Knicks scored about nine more points per 100 possessions – 123.2 to be exact – than the top-rated offense in the league. And here you thought Jesus rising from the dead was the only miracle to celebrate this weekend.

So what should we take from this? That Kadeem Allen should be counted on as a significant contributor on next year’s roster? I mean…he should, just because every team needs a runt like that, to borrow his own coach’s terminology.

There’s a much bigger takeaway here though. Kadeem Allen is something that this year’s Knicks didn’t have a whole lot of: competent. As Amico’s two-part series details, this season was derailed first and foremost by a lack of talent, but just below that on the ledger, there was a lack of simply doing the the thing that was right there in front of you to be done. Making the obvious play, so to speak.

Unlike the Knicks’ other point guards, Allen is older (26, which made him a senior citizen on this squad) and came up from Westchester well-versed in the basics. In an offense like Fizdale’s that’s simple but effective when executed properly, Allen made it at least passable anytime he stepped on the court. When he was out there with another helpful component of a modern NBA offense – either a stretch big like Kornet or a lob threat like Robinson – Allen made it more than passable. When he had both, it was downright effective.

So if we do have proof that Fizdale’s offense was run effectively by a relative NBA has-been, does that make the ultimate failure of this season more or less blameworthy on his part? Asked another way, if Kadeem freaking Allen can come in and at least run this thing respectably, what does that say for the rest of these guys?

In the case of Dennis Smith Jr., maybe not much. At first glance, his 100.0 offensive rating in 600 minutes as a Knick is like throwing the flaming tires into the flaming dumpster. It’s four points worse than their already league-worst figure.

Upon closer inspection though, Smith’s was really a tale of three seasons. In the seven games before the All-Star break, when Smith was getting adjusted to his new surroundings on the fly, the Knicks scored a Comic Sans-ish 92.6 points per 100 possessions when he played. Then, in the 10 games post All-Star, that number rocketed up to 106.3 – the best on the team during that stretch. Sadly a back injury derailed his season from that point forward, and after missing over two weeks, the four games in which he tried to play through the injury were predictably poor.

Like Allen, certain combos worked well for DSJ during his strong pre-injury stretch: with Allonzo Trier (110.2 offensive rating in 98 minutes), Damyean Dotson (110.0 rating, 229 minutes) and of course, Mitch (109.5 rating, 86 minutes).

What about Frank? For as much as his season appeared to be a lost cause, in the eight January games he played prior to the groin injury that ultimately ended his year, he sported a 113.7 offensive rating – a team high amongst regulars. Better yet, the team had an assist percentage above 60 during those 151 minutes, which is a minor miracle. It’s a stretch, but perhaps after two and a half months in David Fizdale’s Fun House of Horrors, Ntilikina was finally ready to take a step forward.

That’s three point guards and three small signs of hope. And then there’s Dotson, whose post ASG assist percentage (12.7) dwarfed his pre-ASG number (8.9) as he improved noticeably on the pick and roll. So yeah…if you squint hard enough, there is some evidence that Fizdale was getting through to these guys, was emphasizing the right things, and progress was being made.

Of course, to counterbalance all these positives, we have Mud. Like what I saw emerging from the floor drains during my last night bar backing, what Emmanuel Mudiay brought to the table only got uglier as the season went on, and the smell more difficult to mask. Take a look at his progression throughout the year:

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Save for a four-game, post-All-Star blip, we saw a clear downward trend from November to April. The worst part is that is that when he was at his best – November and February – his passing was at it’s worst, as those months were when his personal AST% was at it’s lowest. The team’s assist percentage when he was on the court for that stellar February stretch was 40.7. When you compare that to Ntilikina’s on-court number for January (60.2), it’s no wonder some fans were up in arms every time Mudiay saw a minute of court time at Frank’s expense2.

Maybe that’s the ultimate answer is to this season’s offensive woes: Emmanuel Mudiay being unable to figure out the balance between looking for his own shot and creating good looks for his teammates. Maybe by the time Fiz realized as much, it was too late, and there were various late-season impediments – injuries to Ntilikina & Smith Jr., and a two-way service time limit for Allen – that stood in the way of making a change. Maybe I am the asshole for all that time I spend defending the decision to give Mudiay a fair shot.

Or maybe this offense was always going to be doomed with so little talent to make it go. Like Amico finally settles on in his piece, I’ll concur that the evidence is too murky to make any final judgment. We’ll add it to the list of things that should become far clearer next season, when there’s probably going to be a whole new host of issues, but I doubt lack of talent will be one of them.

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