If KD comes, it’s time to “skip steps” and start trading…even Zion.

Everyone is excited about the draft lottery, but what do the Knicks do with their pick if they land KD?

If Kevin Durant comes to the Knicks, he may not ask them to start “skipping steps.” He isn’t the same person as LeBron James who probably insisted the Cavs trade Andrew Wiggins and more upon his return to Cleveland in 2014. KD seems a bit unique. He went to the 72 win Warriors after they’d just beaten his Thunder. And remember when KD asked to be called “The Servant” instead of Slim Reaper?

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Bringing The Brow to Broadway: lottery, odds, Cap analysis and NFL weirdness

In order for Anthony Davis to don the blue and orange, it’s going to take some luck, some patience, and some navigation of the weird obstacles which may arise; hurdles like accidentally winning games, CBA quirks, salary cap restrictions, negotiations with NFL people (?!) or someone the team burned a bridge with…these are all possible challenges.

But Davis might very well be the best player in the NBA over the next four years so let’s try to figure out how likely they are to get him as of today.

Step 1: land the first pick in the draft (~14%) and prepare to negotiate with football people and potential rivals

First off, if the Knicks want AD they probably have to land the first pick in the draft. The Knicks (11-47) stink and don’t appear very interested in changing that. The chances of them winding up with the best possible odds for the top pick seem high. Nate Silver’s website, 538.com projects them to be the worst team.

Don’t be fooled. That’s great, partly because of Zion Williamson. As Kevin Durant recently said, “Zion Williamson is a once-in-a-generation athlete.” We can infer that the New Orleans Pelicans may have recently felt the same way. It was reported by Frank Isola that former Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps was interested in negotiating with the Knicks in a trade for AD, but not without knowing what pick they had.

Per The Athletic: 

“According to a source familiar with the talks, Demps was not prepared to trade Davis to New York before knowing where the Knicks will select in the 2019 NBA Draft….

Demps was intrigued by the idea of selecting first and possibly drafting Duke freshman Zion Williamson.”

Now that Dell Demps has been fired this may change things, but it’s unclear exactly how. The Pelicans have a very weird power structure. Not only does the President of Football Operations for the New Orleans Saints, Mickey Loomis, the cities’ football team, have the most significant voice in the Pelicans’ front office, but the team is now looking to replace Demps.

Two names that have come up are David Griffin and Mike Zarren, and Isola speculates both could have reason to prefer working with other teams besides New York; the Knicks considered hiring Griffin once before negotiations reportedly went south, and Zarren is currently Danny Ainge’s second in command in Boston and a life long Celtics fan.

Regardless of who New Orleans settles upon to steer their ship, no other projected player in this year’s draft besides Williamson has truly separated himself from the pack. So keeping in mind that the Celtics are prepared to make an “explosive offer” likely headlined by their 20-year-old phenom Jayson Tatum, New York would need all the fire-power it can muster in order to outbid Boston.

Believe it or not, another reason why it is important to land the top pick for a potential Anthony Davis trade are salary implications. Draft picks are paid on a rookie scale amount with the first pick capable of earning about $3 million more than the 5th pick. This is important (as explained in a bit) in trying to match Davis’ salary in trade (which will be over $27m come July 1st).

Step 2: CBA and salary cap hoops to leap through

Special thanks to resident cap expert Knicks Film School (aka Jeffrey Bellone)

Winning the top pick isn’t likely. Even if the Knicks tank as hard as they can, there is an 86% chance the worst team won’t wind up with the top pick because of the league’s lottery reforms designed to curb tanking.

But even if New York gets the 1st pick, there are still more hurdles to clear. Because of the Rose Rule in the CBA, the Celtics (who have the most trade assets in the league) are not allowed to officially make an offer to New Orleans until July 1st, since they already have Kyrie Irving who signed a particular type of extension. Because of this, it does not make sense for the Pelicans to trade Davis before Boston is allowed to join the fray which would force every team to raise their offers.

The Pelicans not trading Davis this February essentially ensured they will wait until Boston can jump into the bidding waters come July.

If the Knicks want to include their 2019 draft pick in a trade, they have their own timing restriction. A draft pick cannot be traded until 30 days after that player has officially signed. Some fans will remember when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the top pick in the draft in 2014 and selected Andrew Wiggins. Because it often takes several weeks to sort out the details of a player’s contract, which it did in Wiggins’ case, the official trade which sent Kevin Love to Cleveland and Wiggins to Minnesota wasn’t consummated until late August.

Now if the Knicks have a winning bid that the Pelicans love, this logistics of when the deal becomes official might not matter. But it won’t make Steve Mills or Scott Perry feel very comfortable if they agree in principle to a deal in late June or early July but have to wait until late August for it to become official.

It simply gives folks like Danny Ainge, Magic Johnson and the rest of the league more time to increase their bids and try to convince the Pelicans to put an end to a saga that will by then have dragged on for about eight months. Think: we can finish this today on July 2nd, instead of waiting until nearly training camp for the Knicks to get their ducks in a row!

If Anthony Davis is indeed a target for the Knicks in this scenario, it would give New York an incentive to get Williamson under contract as soon as possible. They can offer the max 120% salary eligible to a top overall pick (amounting ~$9.7m in year 1) which carries appeal.

But what if Williamson’s camp happens to prefer New York? After all, he did say it “would be dope” to play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He could wait to see what happens in free agency and then exercise what little leverage he has by putting off signing his contract. He could indicate to the Pelicans an unwillingness to play there.

For New Orleans, the specter of a lengthy summer-long trade process for a player who may be less than overjoyed to come could be a deterrent. Conversely, it has been rumored that Jayson Tatum, for example, would not mind being traded to the Pelicans.

Hypothetically though…

Acquiring Zion should carry tremendous appeal for New Orleans. Described by many experts as the top prospect since Davis himself, signing Zion would mitigate some of the sting of losing Davis. Being able to get a player of that caliber under team control for likely 7 years (perhaps two more than Tatum, who will be a 3rd year player next season) after extension, in addition to the slew of young Knicks’ prospects (who’d need to be kicked in just to make the contracts match) should be very tempting. The Knicks could legitimately contend with the best offers from around the league in this scenario, a marvel in itself.

OK hypothetically, if the Knicks win the draft lottery, and if they wanted to trade their pick and if New Orleans prefers their offer to that of 28 other teams how might this shake out?

Just for fun, let’s assume the Knicks will have spent all of their cap-space long before a deal actually takes place. That’s likely if the Knicks win the top pick and are open to trading it. Let’s say they can get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to join them.

(That’s obviously what’s being discussed here at the All-Star Game right?)

The timing of signing two max players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is important. The Knicks are projected to have just enough cap space to get a 10+ year veteran max and 7-9 year veteran max under contract. If they were to trade for Anthony Davis before signing these two max players, they would no longer have the requisite space to make the signings.

The reason the Knicks can entertain the idea of adding a player like Davis on top of two max players is because they can trade salary on their books to take back more salary (in this case, 125% of the outgoing salary).

So with Davis due to earn $27 million in 2019, New York would need to send out at least $21.6m in salary. Or another way to look at it: they only have to use $21.6 million in cap space instead of being required to have the full $27 million available if Davis were signing as a free agent or being absorbed into cap space in a trade.

The problem is that since the Knicks have cleared most of their roster to make space to sign two max players, the existing salary on the books available to trade is limited.

However, if they packaged Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox together, they would have $13.7 million in aggregate salary. This is where the lottery pick becomes important. The rookie salary for the top pick at 120% of scale is $9.7 million, or just enough to push the Knicks over the $21.6 million threshold needed to make the salaries work in acquiring Davis.

Mitchell Robinson’s salary isn’t quite high enough to swap in for any one of the other young players, although he has played well enough lately it seems likely the Pelicans would insist upon including him as well.

Future draft picks don’t count against the cap next season so you can’t substitute those in for a young player but you can include them as well. To top Boston or Los Angeles or a surprise bidder, the Knicks may also have to include a future draft asset or three, although New York could potentially enjoy more assurances they’d be able to re-sign Davis in 2020 than at least Boston, per reports of Davis’ preferences.

Then New York would be looking at minimum roster charges and a ~$5 million Room Exception to fill out the rest of the roster. They could decide to bring back Allonzo Trier using the Room Exception, and sign Damyean Dotson to a minimum deal similar to what he would be earning if the team just guarantees his contract.

The rest of the roster would be thin, although it wouldn’t be surprising if a core of Durant, Irving, and Davis attracted every cheap, savvy “ring-chasing” veteran in free agency or next winter’s buyout market to help flesh out the team’s depth.

What are the chances?

Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 1.14.41 PM

Let’s boil this down to a number.

There’s the great chance the Knicks won’t get the top pick. The slim chance they win the lottery but won’t want to trade it away (maybe Kevin Durant comes and would prefer to play with Zion and all the young guys or maybe he stays in Golden State and the Knicks refuse to part with Zion). There is the solid chance that another team simply blows the Knicks’ offer out of the water and the unknown chance that New Orleans wants a swift resolution that a deal with New York would preclude.

All in all, I’d ballpark the chances of the Knicks trading for Anthony Davis somewhere around 5 to 7 percent as of today.

The odds will probably rocket up towards 40 percent or more if they win the lottery come this May depending on things like how much the Pelicans’ future GM loves Zion, if any other college players step up, what happens in free agency, or a player potentially involved in the trade gets seriously hurt.

It really comes down to the lottery. If the Knicks don’t win the lottery, they probably don’t have the best offer to convince New Orleans to complete a deal. They also would struggle to meet the salary matching requirements if they fall out of the top 2 in the draft.

To win a title in the NBA, you need to hit on some long-shot odds more than once. Having a 14% chance at Zion Williamson, possibly landing guys like Kevin Durant, and then navigating CBA hurdles or negotiating on the phone with some folks who may be more interested in football than hoops… that could be the path to restoring the Knicks to glory.

Imagine? You get to tell your grandkids that Steve Mills made a trade with an NFL team President for Anthony Davis, future Finals MVP of the New York Knicks. 

Having a six or seven percent shot at Anthony Davis is a heck of a lot better odds than fans in say, Charlotte or Detroit will ever have. New York is still a cool city players truly seem to want to play in, and even with lottery reform, it still just might pay big to avoid winning games.

Now they’ll have to keep losing, get lucky, and be patient while jumping over some weird hurdles and parting with all of their young guys to bring The Brow to Broadway by August.

A midseason review of Allonzo Trier

Allonzo Trier is doing his thing.

The undrafted rookie, who had been struggling since returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for seven games, has found his scoring form again, breaking out in the Knicks loss to Houston. He became the first Knick rookie to post 31 points and 10 rebounds since Patrick Ewing in 1985.

It seems like a good time to do a midseason review of his game.

The Knicks roster is a bit fluid right now, as they balance player development, reclamation projects, and potentially creating cap space via trade to chase superstars in the summer. However, unlike a handful of his teammates, Trier can breathe easy that his roster spot is secure, at least until late June. Because of the contract he signed in December, the Knicks can’t trade him before the February 7th trade deadline. And the way he has played, they wouldn’t have wanted to trade him, anyway.

Let’s take a deeper look at how Trier has performed so far and try to identify a player of similar style and fast-rising story.

Some Stats

Let’s start with the former Arizona Wildcat’s shot chart to date, per Austin Clemens:

He’s averaging 10.5 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks over 39 games.

Per 36 minutes, that translates into 16.9 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.

He is fourth on the team with a 3-point percentage of 36.9 percent. Because of his big game against Houston, he passed Dallas Mavericks’ phenom Luka Doncic in true shooting percentage (TS%).1 Trier’s teammate Mitchell Robinson leads all rookies with a .672 percentage among players who have logged at least 15 minutes per game. (If Robinson is not swatting the ball, he’s probably dunking it).

Using advanced stats, Trier lives up to his nickname “Iso Zo.”

He is excellent in isolations (86th percentile, per Synergy Sports). He possesses a full arsenal of weapons to pick from in these situations, showing-off a variety of moves on drives in both directions, pull-ups, and jumpers without taking a dribble.

Per Synergy, he ranks in the 75th percentile in “spot up” plays. And he’s elite (87th percentile) with less than 4 seconds on the shot clock and is forced to create under duress.

These are often of the highlight variety:

Having so many offensive skills makes him very unpredictable; something that bodes well for a 23-year old. Try to guess what he’ll do the next time he has the rock in an iso-situation; it’s tricky, I’ve tried. Steer him left and he may start that way, then hop back, shot fake, and go right:

There’s room for him to grow as a Pick-n-Roll ball handler; he ranks in just the 44th percentile. Some argue this area will define whether or not he’s a long term solution for New York as a starting point guard in the modern NBA. If he wants to continue to prove his doubters wrong, this is the area he’d spend his upcoming summer on.

Something that surprises: his numbers suggest he’s better in catch-and-shoot situations (71st percentile) than he is off the bounce (46th percentile). But Knicks fans know well his fondness for putting the ball on the floor before pulling up. And while that appears to be his first instinct, it’s not necessarily more efficient. In the future, head coach David Fizdale might encourage him to shoot more off the catch.

He’s shooting 42.3% from beyond the arc on catch-and-shoot jump shots.

Defensively

The eye test would tell us that Trier isn’t the worst defender, but he isn’t the best at stopping people either. Per Synergy, the undrafted guard ranks a bit below average in overall defense. For a rookie, that’s not the end of the world. He’s made some really exciting plays on that end:

Funny enough, the area he’s been the best at defending is against isolations, where he receives a Synergy grade of “excellent” (for a limited 20 possessions).

Maybe he knows a thing or two after becoming a one-on-one wizard of his own? If this continues, the Knicks will really have something. I have an idea! We can call him “Iso Zo” when he scores in iso and “Iso Zone” whenever he gets a stop while being targeted.

He’s very good at the point-of-attack if he doesn’t have to figure out how to navigate screens and switches.

New York Jets legendary cornerback Darrelle Revis would be proud. Notice the fluid hips and quick feet here against John Wall:

He can use the most improvement in defending high screen-n-rolls. He’s a little better in side pick-n-rolls where the defense generally has less options, and he’s about average when chasing his man around screens.

Of course, struggling against a high pick-n-roll isn’t uncommon for rookies. Right Collin Sexton? 

Being able to catch and shoot, score in isolation, defend the pick and roll and defend in isolation are four skills Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey undoubtedly keeps an eye on when scouting. Zo is already quite good at three of those four.

Who does he remind me of?

When I study Trier’s game, I see a confident, aggressive, talented, but streaky player. I think his limitations are mostly in screen-n-roll situations, which he will improve upon as he gains more experience and understanding of NBA details. Certainly, he didn’t see these situations as much at Arizona. To reach his ceiling, he’ll need to improve significantly in this area.

I’m a biased Knicks fan who lived through Linsanity, but I often think of former Knicks’ guard Jeremy Lin when I watch Trier play. Lin made a name for himself in the NBA as a hyper-aggressive slasher who’d put relentless pressure on an opposing defense by getting into the paint and wreaking havoc.

During Linsanity, Lin was actually in the 95th percentile in the NBA in isolations. He was truly unstoppable for a stretch of time playing in former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. It would have been fun to see the coach/point guard duo get to work together more while surrounding Lin with shooters.

Knicks fans know he wasn’t afraid of the big moment:

We saw this same confidence when Trier delivered in crunch time against Houston.

Lin has had a tough road in the NBA. Almost like a child actor, Lin experienced the pinnacle of his career right at the very beginning. He openly struggled with having to start fresh and fight and claw just to maintain the role he has held in the league since.

But Lin is a fighter and capable of handling that pressure and has responded by learning the intricacies of the game that didn’t come naturally to him early on. He morphed into a pitbull on defense, before having to start from scratch again following the patellar tendon tear that cost him his age-29 season. Lin is roughly average from long range but offers more in the relentlessness of his game on both ends.

Lin is a great model for an undrafted and overlooked, but talented player with a chip on his shoulder. Trier isn’t shy. He once started a clothing line branded with his personal motto at the time: “When the lights come on, it’s time to perform.” He was in 6th grade at the time. Precocious, but that might be some of what’s needed to keep your head level when playing at The Mecca becomes your full-time job.

I’ve heard the Jamal Crawford comparisons as well. They’re both from Seattle, as is Nate Robinson. I think Trier has less offensive gifts than Crawford, but looks like he’ll be a better defender and rebounder.

Constant attack mode. That’s what I see in Trier so far. Unlike a few of our other favorite players, we can count on seeing more of him in the uniform the rest of this season and perhaps more.

And if there are any opposing team scouts reading, don’t bother testing “Iso Zone” if he’s alone on an island. He’ll be ready when the lights come on.

Is Frank Ntilikina the answer to all of David Fizdale’s lineup shuffling?

Let’s do a thought experiment for a moment.

Let’s say you’re David Fizdale, head coach of the New York Knicks (10-35), and you want to figure out a way to get your team to play better moving forward and you also want to get more out of struggling former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina.2

Maybe you pop in a simple 5-player lineup search on NBA.com and you see that for any Knicks lineup that has played together for at least 36 minutes this season, this has been your best one per net rating:

Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway, Mitchell Robinson, Damyean Dotson, and Noah Vonleh.

You might try it again at some point right?

That 5-man lineup was used for 94 minutes in the team’s first 15 games of the year. Leaned on, they won 3 of 7 and recorded one of the NBA’s best net ratings (+8.1) at the time.

But David Fizdale didn’t think they got off to a good enough start in the first quarter of games so he broke up the band. Here is what he said at the time per Newsday’s Steve Popper:

Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic wrote about the curious decision back in mid-November too.

Per The Athletic: 

“When Fizdale changed the starting lineup Wednesday, he went away from one of the few things that was objectively working for the Knicks.”

It was a head-scratcher then, but it’s really weird now. The quintet has not logged a single minute together since November 11th. It’s one thing to shake up the starting unit for better starts. But to literally not give a group that had one of the best net ratings in the entire NBA another minute as the team free-falls?

Talk about a baby-bath-water-tank situation.

Well OK Ok. Mitchell Robinson has been hurt, Frank was recently injured, and they needed to get Kevin Knox and others some run.

But much of all that has come at Ntilikina’s and the team’s expense and it feels at least a little unnecessary.

Have the changes helped?

Frank averaged 27.7 minutes per game over the team’s first 13 games. He has averaged 16 minutes since (counting his healthy yet inactive games, but not counting the games he missed with injury). Coach Fizdale lopped off more than about 10 minutes per game from Frank’s playing time following a stretch where Ntilikina was among almost all of the team’s best lineups. He played 30 minutes or more seven out of the team’s first nine games. He’s only played 30 minutes once ever since. Emmanuel Mudiay is the biggest beneficiary. But has that been good for New York?

The team to date now has a -3.5 net rating with Ntilikina as the primary ball handler (that means none of Trey Burke, Allonzo Trier or Mudiay for a total of 289 minutes per Fantasylabs.com).

When Emmanuel Mudiay is the primary ball handler (no Burke, no Frank, no Trier) the team’s net rating is -12.0. per FantasyLabs.com. But those Mudiay lineups have now been used for over 700 minutes. So the Mudiay-led lineup has received about 2.5 times more minutes as the Frank-led lineup while performing almost 3.5 times worse per net rating.2

And while Mudiay has certainly reached a bit of a turning point in his career, it has not necessarily made the Knicks better:

Since the change, Ntilikina has not only received fewer minutes overall but he has had limited opportunity to play with lineup combinations that were once effective.

For example:

  • A trio of Ntilikina, Vonleh, and Robinson logged 113 minutes with a net rating of +3.0 over the team’s first 15 games. But they only logged 17 minutes together total over the team’s next 30 games.
  • A four-player combo of Ntilikina, Dotson, Hardaway, and Vonleh logged 131 minutes with a net rating of -0.3 in the first 15 games, but they’ve only played 8 total minutes over the subsequent 30 games.
  • A four-player combo of Ntilikina, Dotson, Vonleh, and Robinson played 105 minutes (net rating +4.1) over the first 15 games, and didn’t log a single minute together over the next 30 games.

Fizdale was absolutely right that he didn’t have a winning unit. But he did have a much better unit than most of the seemingly infinite permutations he’s experimented with ever since.

New York is now tied for the third worst net rating per game of -9.2 per NBA.com. They have absolutely plummeted since trying other lineup combos. Since Fizdale abandoned his better lineup in early November, the team has won less (their winning percentage fell from 28.6% down to 19%).

The team previously held their own in first quarters (net rating -0.3 with the aforementioned 5-man unit, but now they just get smoked after jump balls with a net rating -10.8 ever since)3; and the team’s overall net rating went from bad to pathetic (from -5.1 down to -9.2).

Man did that backfire. Unless of course…

But even if the Knicks are tanking did Ntilikina really deserve less than 17 minutes per game over a two-month period? Ten minutes less than Mudiay?

In the team’s first 13 games of the year, Frank was not only starting and taking on the likes of Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving but the team had a respectable net rating of -3.6. The kid was showing the defensive brilliance Knicks fans learned to expect during his rookie season:

Ntilikina was in 8 out of 10 of the team’s best three and four-player lineup combinations. You can go back and swap Vonleh in for Dotson, or Hardaway in for Robinson. But that French kid was a constant.

Yet Frank was the one who was essentially demoted when a shakeup came. Did Fizdale sub out the right guy though?

How has the second-year guard from Ixelles, Belgium responded?

Frank took a backseat. He said the right things. And he has quietly rebuilt his resume back up from scratch with some new partners in crime. Per Synergy Sports, he’s a very good defender: elite when guarding isolations or handoffs, and good against pick-and-roll ball handlers. Offensively he’s been below average but performs his best out of isolations.

He’s had plenty of tests. Because coach Fizdale has essentially refused to allow any lineups the time to gel, Ntilikina has been forced to mesh with new faces on a near nightly basis.4

But Frank has made due. For any 3-player combination on the season, given at least 50 minutes, the third best net rating belongs to Ntilikina, Dotson, and newcomer to the rotation Luke Kornet.

Ntilikina paired with Dotson and Knox has a +5.9 net rating. Swap in Kornett for Dotson and that healthy rating doesn’t change.

Using net rating, for a minimum of 50 minutes played together, Ntilikina is in four of the team’s six best performing four-player lineups for the entire year. He’s adaptive and selfless.

Vonleh, Ntilikina, Dotson and Knox have only played 25 minutes together so far this year. Their net rating is +47.4. That number will regress but it’s a signal: there are plenty of combinations that will likely lead to improved play by incorporating more Frank. It’s really remarkable how many lineups he is in that have a slightly positive net rating given how poorly the team has played on the whole.

Somehow, someway, this kid who everyone is certain is underperforming, and whose confidence is shot, has consistently helped a 10-win team play some of its best basketball past the midway point of the season.

It could be because Frank makes plenty of plays that help the game score but not the boxscore: 

Ntilikina is in two of the team’s top three 5-player combinations for the entire season, for those that have logged 50 minutes. I’ve probably bored you with all of these combos but read this last one again. It was a surprise to me.

Even when Frank is not passing all of our fallible eye-tests or statistical measures of success, he plays a role within many of the team’s best lineups. We’re not seeing the type of offensive production we usually associate with NBA success. But whether he was playing with and against starters, or on bench units, (for any reasonably robust sum of minutes ) Frank’s name filters to the top.

He should challenge the way we evaluate NBA players the way Shane Battier once did; a player Fizdale knows quite well from their Miami Heat days.

Frank’s contributions are not lost on the Hall-of-Famer who once ran point for one of the most mesmerizing dynasties the sport has ever seen:

Is it fair to put this on the coach?

What’s perhaps most head-scratching about all of this is how putrid the team has been since Ntilikina’s role was reduced. It would make sense if the team was competing and the coach felt he wasn’t able to keep it up. But he IS contributing and they’re NOT competing.

What if Frank and some of the combos that have worked were allowed to log the type of 700-minute chunks we’ve seen Mudiay receive? Could they have been any worse?

Now I’ve picked on coach Fizdale here, but the team’s front office may have much more to do with everything we’ve seen. It’s entirely possible Fizdale is simply carrying out orders. And tons of losing is not on Mudiay, who has played some good ball in a tough situation.

If Ntilikina is traded, we will know he wasn’t in the front office’s long term plans. In that case, reducing his minutes to avoid injury is prudent.

If Mudiay is traded, we may learn the team was just showcasing him for an asset before turning the ship over to Ntilikina.

And of course, if the team plays so badly they wind up drafting Zion Williamson every single measure taken to make that happen will be seen as a stroke of brilliance in hindsight.

But, hypothetically, if the team wanted to win more games or wanted to develop Frank, they’d give him some more burn. The kid has been slowed down and the team has missed his presence, but he hasn’t been stopped. The advanced team stats prove the name Ntilikina just keeps filtering to the top.

Film Study: Analyzing Frank Ntilikina’s shooting form

Frank Ntilikina has struggled with his shot this season. It stands to reason that if he were hitting better than 28.9% from three, he might have avoided some of the benchings and trade rumors he has recently endured.

The margin between success and failure in the NBA can feel pretty slim. If Frank had hit ten more threes than the 28 he’s hit on the year, he’d be at an elite level of over 40 percent. If he’d hit just six more. he’d be at a very respectable 35 percent. Going from bad to good over the next 100 attempts may be a matter of subtle fine-tuning and not some dramatic overhaul.

Free Throws as a Petri Dish

If you want to predict three-point success at the NBA level, surprisingly, using college statistics, free throw percentage is a better indicator than three-point percentage. Part of this might be because it acts like a petri dish in a lab and allows scouts a way to put aside many variables inherent in the sport, like defense or footwork, and simply track a shooter’s form.

Frank shot 27/42 from the line in France (64 percent). So far in the NBA, he is shooting 74.5 percent from the line. But he’s trending up. This season he’s up to a career best mark of 80.8 percent. The video above will show you why he’s making more from the line this season. Hint: he’s more disciplined in his follow through.

When translating to three-pointers, Frank is a better shooter the more closely he uses his free throw form. If you’re skeptical, like me, you can watch the video and say “c’mon Dave, he’s wide open on a lot of the 3’s you included, everyone is better like that.”

And this is fair. But why would this be? Because the closer a defender is, the more it can cause a player to change his shot. Variance, the number one enemy of great shooters, increases as we try to gauge different levels of power, arm drift, or depth perception.

It’s important for Frank to practice using the same form he uses on his free throws, even when we introduce new elements like dribbling, footwork, and a contest from a defender.

The benefit to a good follow through is that it allows a shooter to seek consistency with respect to depth perception. Frank misses lots of shots short, which is not a coincidence since he often drops his follow through, sometimes swings his arms back, or begins heading backwards on defense before his shot even reaches the basket area. Frank doesn’t do any of these things on his free throws.

For a great look into Frank’s foot-work, here is an awesome breakdown by Steve Dagostino, an NBA development coach, who works with Atlanta’s rookie sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter. Frank is still very young and may not even know which of his footwork choices will wind up being the best for him, although it appears he’s more comfy stepping into a shot rather than waiting with a foot planted (except on corner threes, where this changes).

There are plenty of other principles to look at in examining Frank’s shot, including his guide-hand, a slight “tilt” in the positioning of his feet, which some longer armed shooters enjoy, but this video/post was meant to simply point out one area he may be able to improve upon right away.

Go ‘head and pose for us, Frank. You’re better when you’re a bit cocky anyway. Follow through and freeze through the entire shot and don’t go back on D until the ball is long gone from your hands. Give us a chance to take some photos.

Enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments or on twitter.

Happy 2019 folks. Here’s to better form on all of our jump shots.

Who should the Knicks call about a potential Courtney Lee trade?

Courtney Lee has recovered from his neck injury and for the first time in this young season saw game action, logging 16 minutes and shooting 1-4 from the field vs. the Wizards. It will be interesting to see how he is deployed in the near future. There may be some incentive to ease him back into the rotation, but also to showcase his health and talent for a possible upcoming trade.

He is a leader and a mentor as our own Michael DeStafano has written. But signing Kevin Durant is the master plan for the Knicks and they’re currently a bit short financially for that goal. As our Knicks Film School Founder, J.B., recently wrote: 

“Really, it all boils down to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.”

There are plenty of salary details in that last link, but the gist is they’re going to need around ~$6.4m more in order to create a max roster spot for Durant and that means someone on the books has to go.

A Refresher on the Lee Situation

If you know this well, feel free to skip ahead to trade scenarios. But here is some context:

As early as September, it seemed as if Lee was the most likely Knick to be traded for expiring contracts. Remember, Coach David Fizdale called Lance Thomas a “natural” leader but didn’t offer similar praise for Lee back in September and the team did not include him in their “Future of New York” promo and Lee appeared to reply to what the NY Post called a “slight” on his social media. 

With the stated focus on developing young players, and Lee’s apparent interest in playing again for a contender, it makes sense to reluctantly part with the 11 year guard out of Western Kentucky.

But…

What’s going on with his neck?

Then there was the mysterious injury which complicated things. On the third day of training camp, he took a hard foul from Ron Baker which sent him flying into the support beam under the hoop. Despite getting close to returning more than once, he was held out the lineup until this past week. There was even mention of nerve stuff and spasms at one point. He finally appears healthy again, or healthy enough to return to the lineup, so now it’s about revving the engine back up and finding a team where he fits.

Caught up? Good. Now one disclaimer: I researched this piece before Frank Ntilikina’s name popped up-a few times a day since Thanksgiving in trade rumors. I’m simply not emotionally ready to research much bigger trades that send out Lee with Frank.5 So for this piece, these are all trades of the “keep Frank a bit longer” variety.

Now let’s make some calls.

Click NEXT/SWIPE to view trades

Pelicans

The Pelicans have that clock in their heads. They may want to act boldly in order to retain their superstar, Anthony Davis, who might already have that wandering eye.

There are some players on the Pelicans who aren’t exactly indispensable.

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Wesley Johnson is on the books for $6.1m and his deal expires this summer. He makes an ideal candidate to build a trade around.

Wesley is shooting a blistering hot 42.5% from three and holds a more than respectable .572 true shooting percentage.  Not exactly the kind of play that gets you shipped out for someone coming off a spooky neck injury. However, Wesley has regressed to career averages recently and may continue to do so.

A player like Ian Clark (eligible for trade on Dec. 15th) or Tim Frazier could be strewn into the deal to make the contracts work.

The margins are slim and the Pelicans may have their sights set higher as teams like Washington or Miami consider major changes. But in the event they whiff there, or if the Knicks sweetened the pot somehow, this might become something they’d consider and would fully clear Lee’s salary.

Wolves

It has been rumored since the Jimmy Butler trade that the Timberwolves would waive Jerryd Bayless.

They have not done so yet, and it might be fair to speculate that they’re considering if Bayless has any value as an expiring contract before doing so. By trading for Lee, it would give Tom Thibodeau a player he has long had his eyes on, per the Minnesota beat (you remember the Lee for Ricky Rubio rumors).

Perhaps Thibs could extract an asset in addition to Lee. I wondered aloud if this exact deal, pending Lee’s health, is part of the reason Minny hasn’t waived Bayless and heard back from the top two members of the T-Wolves’ beat:2

So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!

Grizzlies

The narrative surrounding this one is too good, isn’t it?

If you looked up Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale’s track record, then you know that he helped JaMychal Green develop into a player who was instrumental to the Grizz’s gritty playoff run in 2016-2017. Green saw perhaps his most efficient season as a pro, and played the third most minutes behind Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol in their first round run.

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Green received that compliment, likening him to Udonis Haslem, known as a leader on the 3-championship Miami Heat teams, and where Coach Fiz was an assistant coach. Well, Green recently broke his jaw which gave the exhilarating rookie, Jaren Jackson Jr., an opportunity to flourish. It doesn’t appear that Jackson is going to relinquish his role anytime soon – dude just dropped 36 and 8 on Brooklyn and he turned 19 in September.

Reuniting Green with coach Fiz and letting Memphis welcome back Lee, who enjoyed a couple terrific years in Music City, makes lots of sense. The Grizz have some choices for who to kick in to make the salary match, like MarShon Brooks, Omri Casspi, and Wayne Selden; none of them are exactly tearing it up.

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For Memphis fans, they get this guy back:

I think this is my favorite one for both sides as of this writing.

Pacers

Rookie Aaron Holiday is coming on. The Pacers may not feel they need both of Darren Collison and Corey Joseph (each expiring). Parting with one for Lee could create more opportunity for Holiday, while assisting their off-ball perimeter play on each end of the floor with a touch more size. Collison is involved in lots of twitter trades by Pacer fans, often in a bundle for Kemba Walker. Indy has loads of upcoming cap-space, maybe more than they’d “need” given their situation. They could afford ~$12m-$13m for Lee’s talents if preferred deals for players like Terry Rozier or Walker fail to materialize. Indy is Lee’s hometown and they’re a good team so there could be some “do right by Lee good karma” there too. He’d be a really great fit here.

Kings

The idea that Lee would want out of New York to join a contender and the Kings name would come up is absurd. But amazingly the Kings aren’t a dumpster fire. They’re on a skid lately, losing 8 of 13, but with no draft pick, and therefore, no incentive to tank, they have reason to remain scrappy. They have cap-space, but not a ton of options to lure players to Sacramento. Lee could potentially provide an excellent replacement for Garrett Temple, a mentor to Buddy Hield, and be a key contributor in a push to make the playoffs, no matter how unlikely.

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The Kings are missing an athletic, experienced wing like they once had in former Knick Doug Christie, and they have an unbalanced roster, weighted towards lots of front-court players. Why not Courtney?

Jazz

The Jazz fall into the “non-expiring Plan B” section of my trade scenarios. Maybe finding someone else to pay all of next year’s salary is tricky, but at least the Knicks could reduce the cost of what they owe to Lee. Remember, they are only about $7 million shy of max space for Durant. Lee is owed north of $12 million, so they could technically take some money back and be ok.

Utah was really ailing, which is why they already pulled the trigger on sending Alec Burks and a couple second round picks to Cleveland for Kyle Korver. But that doesn’t mean they’re done making moves. Especially because Korver doesn’t address one of their biggest needs.

As that piece above suggests, the aggressiveness with which a team can defend high-screens has been limited with “freedom of movement” rule changes. This has hurt the Jazz especially, who had a stifling defense a year ago, and this change further increases their need for specialists on the perimeter.

Thabo Sefolosha was a solid perimeter defender and career 34 percent 3-point shooter, but he’s 34 years old now. He’s coming off knee surgery. And he’s played just 80 minutes this year.

Sefolosha’s expiring $5.2m and Ekpe Udoh’s (Knicks love former lottery picks!) $3.3m gets you the building blocks for this one. But you may need to involve trade exceptions (Utah possesses two, and NY one) or Raul Neto’s non-expiring but paltry $2.2m to make it all work which gets a bit complicated. But the need is there.

When healthy, Lee is a speedier version of Jae Crowder, enabling them some much needed depth. Tim Hardaway Jr. would have really infused life into an offense that now lives and dies with Donovan Mitchell’s creation. Another 3-level scoring counter punch might really have helped. But with Burks in Cleveland now, it’s less likely. All the more reason to talk about Lee.

Spurs

Gregg Popovich shoved his chips to the center of the table. Rumored to be contemplating retirement around 2020, he all but confirmed as much by seeking packages for talented All-Star DeMar DeRozan instead of asset bundles or developmental projects when he traded Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio has never been a place stars yearn to go, so $13m in 2019 cap space might not be as valuable to them as it would be to say, the Clippers.

Don’t you get the sense that Pop sometimes looks out at Davis Bertans heaving 3’s and thinks “two years of this for $7m per… or pay a little more for guy who can do that but also plays the other half of the game! Especially now that Dejounte Murray is hurt and Danny Green is gone. Man do I miss Timmy.

Here was what Pop offered last year on Bertans:

“It’s not his strong point, but it’s not for lack of effort,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about Bertans’ defense in February, via Orsborne.

And here is what Marilyn Dubinski of Pounding the Rock recently wrote: 

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You can’t not do whatever it takes to make the playoffs after going all in to win now in the Kawhi deal. They’re currently in a brutal conference and 538 hates their chances of making the playoffs as presently constructed.

Davis Bertans and Quincy Pondexter (expiring) for Lee. Who says no?

This is possible after January 15th since Bertans was recently extended. It would grant the Knicks very close to the amount they’d need to get KD, and offer a moveable contract in the form of a cheap stretch big, who just might rub off some Spurs-magic on Kevin Knox and the other young guns.

Pistons

Ahh the PuPu Platter. The east is open. The Pistons are currently 4th in the standings. Weird, I know. Because look:

How about Lee for Big Dog’s son, Glen Robinson III. Also everyone’s favorite NBA goon Zaza Pachulia and the best part of all…welcoming back José Calderón! That still leaves us a few million short. But man welcoming back Numero Ocho, the guy who you once thought was a solid centerpiece in a return for Tyson Chandler as a triangle point guard!

The trade that began the miserable march towards drafting King Kristaps Porziņģis.

Detroit has had almost impossible luck finding two-way wings who can space the floor and stay healthy3. They have even worse luck recruiting great free-agents. A healthy Lee could offer what they once loved about Avery Bradley, who they recently coveted before sending him to LA in the Blake Griffin deal.

As Detroit continues to involve promising rookies like Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown into their rotation, there are even more players on their roster who could become expendable like Ish Smith (expiring) or former Knick, Langston Galloway; although both of them are key members of the Piston’s rotation now. Worth a preliminary phone call to see what they’d be open to down the road.

What about Tax Teams and Title Contenders?

Finally, a team who reasoned that acquiring Lee could put them over the top might consider making a win-now move at the cost of future cap spending. These teams might include the Thunder, Rockets, Celtics, Sixers, Raptors, Bucks or Warriors.

It’s tricky. The Celtics, Warriors, and Sixers are all playing in two competitive time zones, now and in the future. Philly has shot down any rumors of interest in Lee in the past. Maybe a call to see if that’s changed now that Markelle Fultz and Ntilikina might be in play?

The Bucks don’t have much in terms of cap-relief (a deal involving Matthew Dellavedova would only save NY a few million dollars). The Thunder do have one fit in a move for Alex Abrines and Raymond Felton, but major tax issues to address. The Rockets are always creative enough to give a call to as one of the teams who value Lee’s skill-set the most. But because Brandon Knight has two years remaining on his contract, it’s hard to find deals that work.

Because many of the deals in this article cannot even happen before December 15th and January 15th, anyway, it gives Lee a chance to prove he is healthy and rehabilitate his trade value, while giving the laws of attrition a chance to thin out some rosters as injuries have a way of creating new market needs.