It’s Getting Late Early

Over the summer, I wrote a newsletter going through all the ways that Dennis Smith Jr. needed to improve for him to be the productive player New York thought it was trading for last January.

Actually, that last part is a misnomer. Last January, New York thought it was trading Kristaps Porzingis for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Smith Jr. was the $2 scratch-off game you get after buying $100 worth of Mega Millions lottery tickets. If he hit, it would have been a happy accident, but hopefully not the main payoff.

The Knicks, as you may have heard, lost their big bet. People will debate for years whether it is a bet they should have made, and the answer probably won’t be fully revealed until at least as long (although I’ll continue to argue it was the right move at the time given the information available).

What isn’t up for debate is that they did indeed lose, first when Kevin Durant came down funny on his right leg, and then again three weeks later. The house has collected, the Knicks have gone back to their hotel room, ordered a turkey BLT, turned on Cinemax, and settled in for the night.

Which brings us back to Smith, who is all that remains of the trade. In mid-August, I wrote that “there is no greater swing player that figures to alter New York’s fortunes this season than Smith.” So far, sadly, that has come to fruition.

This isn’t really fair, of course. It’s not Smith’s fault that he is the only current flesh and blood representation of the return from the KP trade. We can’t know how much this fact has to do with the David Fizdale’s continued insistence on playing him, but it would seem incongruous to think otherwise.

I’d say DSJ is playing like he’s getting paid under the table to throw these games, but even a ringer wouldn’t be this obvious. In 26 regular season minutes, the team has been outscored by 26 points. Counting his two preseason outings, Smith Jr. is now 4-for-28 from the field. That’s…well, that’s hard to do.

He is simply not a basketball player at the moment, and that fact is affecting all around him. Any chance the Knicks had of remaining competitive Saturday night evaporated right around his three and a half minutes he was in during the second half. Was that a coincidence? Who knows, but the energy in the building completely changed the moment he walked to the scorer’s table. That’s probably because those in the crowd have eyes, and used them to watch Smith Jr’s performance in the first half.

David Fizdale also has eyes, and isn’t stupid. The question, then, is why put him in? Is it all about the aforementioned optics? Is it because the organization knows that even suggesting a stint in the G-League (which, to be fair, has not yet begun) would risk alienating the kid for good, akin to what happened after Dallas drafted Luka Doncic? Did it promise him continued playing time after convincing him to change his shot? Is Frank already a part of a trade that can’t be completed until December 15?

It’s all fair game, and we simply don’t know the answer. What we do know is that all this effort is being put into a player who had the following to say after opening night:

“I have a vision for myself that maybe no one else believes in, but I got it for myself. I can’t let anyone get in the way of that.”

H/t Ian Begley

On a team trying to foster a selfless identity, I’m not totally sure this is what you need from a guy whose main job is to get others involved. Could any of the above issues be related to the news revealed Sunday night that Smith Jr. lost his stepmother earlier in the day? We simply don’t know, and while our hearts go out to him (because, yes, some things are bigger than basketball), it doesn’t change the fact that his play will need to be continually assessed. At some point, you have to consider whether the juice is worth the squeeze.

Really though, this All Too Perfect New York Sports Story, complete with the underdog hero (“We want Frank!”) who has all the makings, is burying the lead, which is that this very new team is still in the very, very early stages of coming together.

As I wrote Saturday, there is an obvious lack of trust within this roster. That’s the only way you end up with 66 turnovers in three games, which have come either as a result of selfish play or players making an overt effort not to be selfish and end up making the wrong play. It’s why you have missed or late rotations, and why you have possessions with nearly no ball movement whatsoever.

At this point, you either believe the current coach is the right person to get this sorted out or you don’t. But regardless of how strongly you think the latter, three games into a season with this many new players isn’t the time to make that decision. Bad organizations make reactionary moves. Good ones trust their due diligence and stop hopping from plan to plan in the hope that one will stick.

More than anything – even more than time – what this coach needs is someone to lead and organize this team on the court. Elfrid Payton is fine, but “fine” probably isn’t going to cure what ails them, not yet at least. Maybe Frank finally gets a chance. Or maybe they turn the reins over to RJ Barrett before any of us expected.

Ah yes, RJ…God, what a talent:

I’ve written a few times that as long as he and Mitch (and to a lesser extent Kevin Knox) are here and playing well, everything else is gravy. Of course, we once said the same thing about Kristaps Porzingis, who looked at everything happening around him and said “no thanks,” which was the beginning of the end of that relationship.

Right now, we’re nowhere close to such a thing happening again, and to be sure, RJ seems like a different kind of cat. But Saturday night, the black clouds that occasionally form over this organization could officially be seen on the horizon. That’s why, one way or another, they need to figure a way out of this whole DSJ mess before too long so they can focus on the important stuff, like getting the players on this roster to buy in fully and stop acting like individual contractors all too frequently.

Luckily, they won’t have to wait long to get another crack at it. They’ll have a shot at redemption Monday night, at home, vs Chicago. It only takes one game to turn the narrative around. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later.

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