What’s the Point (Guard)?

Once Kevin Durant tore his Achilles, this year was going to be one of two things: 1) A potential playoff team, carried by another star, with a roster catered towards those two big name players or 2) A 17-win squad with a few starting-caliber players. If you don’t already know, it’s now the latter.

It’s only been three games – three games – and yet the season already feels like it’s slipping away from the Knicks. I truly, truly wish I was being overdramatic. And hell, maybe I am, but the near future feels incredibly daunting.

You can look at the recent contests – at San Antonio, at Brooklyn, and versus Boston – and understand why the team with a rotation consisting of so many new faces would be 0-3. You can appreciate that the first two games were winnable, one of which came down to the final 30 seconds, and chalk it up to a lack of cohesion. If you had told me a week ago that you could see into the future, and that you knew the Knicks would lose their first three games, I would have believed you. 

Through three games, the Knicks’ defense ranks 25th in effective field goal percentage, 28th in shots at the rim, 21st in corner threes, 20th in non-corner threes, and 21st in all threes. Now compare that with last year: 23rd in effective field goal percentage, 12th in shots at the rim, 23rd in corner threes, 21st in non-corner threes, and 25th in all threes. Three games isn’t a large enough sample size to compare it with 82 yet the concerns are apparent. This team has too much talent to have a repeat performance of last year. It’s not a good team but it’s better than a 17-win season.

What troubles me the most? The fragile state of New York’s point guard battle. After that, it’s knowing that the Knicks are 30th in turnovers per game and 29th in both opponent fast break points per game and per 100. If you can’t hold on to the ball, if you can’t defend it in transition, if your point of attack defense isn’t going to improve, and if your rim protection is struggling, you’re going to have a bad time.

This team’s best player thus far is 19 years old and I’m really not sure if that’s a reflection on how good RJ Barrett is already or how bad this team truly is as constructed and/or coached. We’re seeing significant improvement from Kevin Knox in terms of his shooting, passing, slashing, and decision-making. His defense leaves plenty to be desired but Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Mitchell Robinson is Mitchell Robinson.

If anything, we’re seeing two positives: 1) The Knicks have shown signs of drafting well under Scott Perry and 2) Positive development is occurring with said players. Now what about two other young players, neither of whom were drafted by Perry?

It kills me to see Dennis Smith Jr. out there. When he passed up an open three to take a midrange two off the dribble, it truly broke my heart. Or when he pulled up on a fastbreak against the Celtics, took a three, and then the Celtics got the and-1 in transition? Then to hear him get booed? 1-of-11 is just… brutal. 

I’m conflicted with Smith. On one hand, I see a player who could use reps because the Knicks are so thin at the point guard position that Smith should see minutes. On the other hand, we’re seeing an offense with limited spacing and porous defense. Given his archetype, I don’t believe he’s capable of being a starter for a winning team.

The Knicks have handled their young players with kid gloves, refusing to send them to the G-League for extra reps. My question is, well, why? Is Smith bricking almost every shot he’s taken less humiliating and more beneficial than him honing his game away from the public eye? Granted, Smith can’t go to the G-League right now anyway, as the league won’t start until November.

For full disclosure, this article was written before news broke that Smith lost a family member and will be away from the team indefinitely. It’s easy to see how one’s mental state could negatively impact their performance. Perhaps Smith is checked out because of personal issues. However, this wouldn’t be the first time Smith has seemed checked out in some capacity.

The ball-handler who makes his teammates better has eluded the Knicks for eons. Only a trade for an elite guard who can facilitate and shoot will convince me that the Knicks aren’t looking to find their point guard of the future in this year’s draft. Spoiler alert: That won’t happen. Fortunately, the 2020 draft class is loaded with guards, but it’s so shitty that after three games, I’m becoming more focused on a draft eight months from now versus the team’s remaining 79 games.

So if the Knicks are going to play Smith once he returns, so be it. Yet what has Fizdale seen from him that warrants playing time over Frank Ntilikina? That’s what I wondered this weekend and am still curious about:

Marc Berman of the New York Post asked Fizdale why Ntilikina wasn’t playing. Fizdale said there’s no issue with the Frenchman, the team has three point guards, and he’s looking for the right rotations. For starters, let’s rejoice at the fact that Fizdale believes Ntilikina is a point guard. Given how he deployed Ntilikina last year, that in itself feels like an improvement. Kudos, David! And yet, James is 100% correct: 

Yes, it’s game four on Monday, but what on Earth could warrant Smith getting Ntilikina’s minutes when Ntilikina outplayed Smith during preseason, can certainly shoot better than 9.1/12.5/50.0, and wouldn’t make transition defense, a major Achilles heel with this team, any worse? I’m scratching my head looking for answers. And here’s the crazy thing: As much as I want to rule out the narrative that Fizdale hates Europeans, the mounting evidence seems to suggest otherwise. A hot take? Perhaps. The three situations couldn’t be more different but Fizdale has not had successful relationships with Marc Gasol, Kristaps Porzingis, and now Frank Ntilikina. Correlation does not equal causation but perhaps it at least raises the question. (Side note: This paragraph was written prior to Berman’s article mentioning Fizdale’s history with Europeans.).

If there was ever truly a preseason point guard battle, Smith wouldn’t be playing heavy minutes. If Smith’s back is an issue, he shouldn’t be playing right now. And if Smith continues to perform like he is, personal issues or not, he can’t be playing right now. 

And what about Elfrid Payton? What happens to him if he goes down? Payton played 42 games last season and 63 the season prior. Payton didn’t have a high trade value to begin with but now he’s virtually untradeable, should the Knicks sell before the deadline. We’re living in a world where New York’s point guard talent is so bare and so improperly used that we’re a Payton injury from things getting drastically worse. He’s becoming too valuable to this team. Yes, Elfrid Payton is quite possibly too integral to this team’s success to be dealt.

This season is too precious to squander before we reach the quarter-way mark. Eight of the next 11 games are against teams that were in the lottery last season. 11 games after that are all against teams that made the playoffs, then there’s a game against the Sacramento Kings, and after that it’s December 15th, the first day all free agents are eligible to be traded. And similar to looking towards the draft already, it’s infuriating that I have that date circled on my calendar, but c’est la vie. This season should be a building block but the only thing that seems set to build is our frustration.

David Fizdale was brought in as a head coach who was expected to change the culture, develop players, and win ball games. We’re seeing the first two slowly change but the team must start winning, or at the very least form an identity. Fizdale isn’t going anywhere in-season but that doesn’t mean things can’t still get ugly quickly. Life gets easier if he can get better play from his point guards, and if he can dole out minutes accordingly.

Leave a Reply