Remembering Allan Houston and “The Shot,” 20 Years Later

I remember the basement well.

We moved into the house in the summer of 1998. It was right after the Knicks ended what was probably the most memorable 6-year playoff run any NBA team ever had without winning it all.

1993 had the Dunk, and Charles Smith.

1994 had everything.

1995 had the finger roll.

In 1996, we took a game (a game!) off the 72-win Bulls.

In 1997, PJ Brown flipped, and the league flopped.

Then, in ’98, Jeff Van Gundy became a rag doll.

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What if the Knicks don’t get the first pick?

Oh, hello there. Welcome to 6th grade math! Please put away the headphones. Now.

I can still see them.

We can do this all day, really.

Thank you. Now class, on each of your desks is a quarter. No, you don’t get to keep the quarter. On the count of three, I want all 28 of you to flip it. 1…2…3…flip!

Now raise your hand if you got heads.

(15 hands go up. Wait…scratch that…14. One kid was picking his nose.)

That’s half of you. Now everyone who got heads gets to flip again. Everyone else, keep my money where I can see it. Ok…1…2…3.

Raise your hand if you got heads again.

(Seven hands)

OK, last time…flip.

Who got heads a third time?

(Four hands go up)

That’s it? Only four of you managed to get heads three times in a row? Out of 28?

You all suck.

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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:

Screen-Shot-2019-04-20-at-2.56.04-PM

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:

Screen-Shot-2019-04-21-at-12.59.51-PM

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:

Screen-Shot-2019-04-22-at-12.02.30-PM

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.

Should Knicks fans be jealous of the cultures in Brooklyn and LA?

For most of the second half of the season, if you scrolled NBA Twitter or hit up one of the dozens of websites that cover the sport, odds are you’ve seen an article about the Nets or Clippers.

It probably touched on how these two franchises, neither of which had much business being in the playoffs this season, let along making noise once they got there, had developed two of the best cultures in the league. Yesterday, each had their first home game of the postseason on the same night, a fitting culmination to their shared success this year. They lost by a combined 43 points.

Is this a bitter piece of commentary from a petty, jealous Knicks fan? Well…maybe a little bit. But not really. Truth be told, I’d give anything to root for a team that so clearly “gets it,” which Brooklyn and LA obviously do. Fact is, every one of those articles is not only deserved, but warranted. The Nets and Clippers are the best stories this NBA season has had to offer. Neither should have won a game in either of these series, and they both did. They’ll probably each win again.

But last night was a good reminder that a pristine culture only gets you so far in a league that was, is, and always will be dominated by stars. It’s not clear that any of the Sixers big guns even like each other, but that didn’t prevent Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris from combining for 60 points on 32 shots. Kevin Durant may already have one foot out the door, but his 38 points counted all the same.

In the end, to win it all, you need talent to do it. Many champions have a strong culture too, but it’s no substitute for a game changer, or three.

What’s the point here? Simple: most of the media commentary we’ve seen regarding New York putting itself in position to acquire star players, either this July or soon thereafter, has been with a wink and a nod towards the fact that they aren’t a team like the Nets or Clippers, and likely never will be. This, frankly, is bullshit.

For one, the Knicks have seemed to improve their culture a great deal, but I’m not about to sit here and make that argument. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen how this team has fought this year, albeit feebly. It felt different than in years past, to me at least. Also, when culture does start to set in, it’s usually hard to see in year one, which this Knicks regime of Scott, Steve & Fiz is barely through.

Here’s the bigger point: What the Knicks have done in opening up $74 million in cap space in the same summer when so many of the NBA’s elite will enter free agency may reek of arrogance, but in a league where stars still move the needle more than anything else, their actions deserve respect. That’s doubly true given how the knock on this team for 20 years has been that they’ve continuously failed to put themselves in a position to take advantage of the fact that they play home games in the Mecca of Basketball. They’ve finally changed that. Yet, instead of the type of praise their crosstown rivals have received, it’s been more of the same derision. It’s annoying.

So you’ll forgive me for experiencing the slightest bit of schadenfreude as I watched last night’s games. The downtrodden can only take so much, after all.

With the bittersweet end comes a new beginning

Miss this season? Are you nuts? Yeah…a little bit.

Prior to walking into the Garden for the final game of the season on Wednesday, if you’d asked me what my prevailing emotion of the night would end up being when I left, the best guess would have been relief.

It’s the only logical response in the season we just experienced, one where I’d visit NBA.com/stats on a near daily basis, scrolling through different categories, filtering by various date ranges, mining for data, any data, that would indicate things were trending in the right direction. During the month of February when the team was bordering on a top ten defense, it felt like they’d won a damn playoff series. Seeing them never fall to the very bottom of the barrel in net rating was an actual, honest-to-goodness source of pride for me on more than one occasion.

It’s been that kind of a year.

Oddly enough though, as the last game devolved into a blowout and the finish line drew closer, relief was the last thing I was feeling. I wasn’t thankful the year was ending. I wasn’t happy about the fact that (knocks head on wood) it would only get better from here.

Instead, I was, ever so slightly, unfathomably, inconceivably…

Sad.

No, it doesn’t make any sense. The purpose of being a fan is to root for a team that wins games. It’s kind of the point.

I’m sure that, for this very reason, there’s a healthy segment of the city that hasn’t tuned in much this year, or for that matter, most of the last several years. I think about these people sometimes and there’s a small part of me that admires them. They probably spend their winter nights doing all kinds of cool shit. Like going out to dinner, playing Risk or having orgies. Do people still have orgies? I wouldn’t know because I’m busy watching Emmanuel Mudiay shoot mid range fadeaway jumpers by the dozen.

Whose loss is that, really?

No, I don’t have that choice because I long ago crossed that threshold of fandom where I was all the way in. The Knicks were so exciting for so long during so many of my formative years that I never stood a chance at being anything other than what I am. That’s probably the case with you, if you’re reading this, the day after the end of the season that any sane person would have wanted to leave in the past the second it concluded, or started for that matter.

Not me. Despite the fact that I’d strongly consider giving an appendage (or at least a toe) for the Knicks to be competitive again, there is another part of me that will miss this year.

It’s simple, really. Since Patrick Ewing’s last game as a Knick, this was as rudderless an organization as existed in the sport. Even before I became an attorney, I was always great at selling myself on bullshit when it helped me get through the day, but even I couldn’t convince myself that there was anything much to look forward to. It’s what made those years so hard; it wasn’t just losing – it was pointless losing.

This year felt different. Kevin Knox might have been the worst heavy-minutes player in the league, but every travel, step out of bounds or wild foray into the paint bizarrely felt like a step in the right direction. He was the most raw example of a roster full of players who carried with them at least the promise of improvement, and in the case of Knox and Mitch and maybe one or two other guys, really significant improvement if everything breaks right.

People often ask how I had it in me to sit and watch every game of the worst season in franchise history, and the honest answer is that it was pretty easy, at least in comparison to years past. For as much as I’ve yearned for a winner, all I’ve ever really wanted as a fan since Ewing left was to regain the ability to hope. This season provided it.

It also played out with the lowest stakes imaginable. Every time one of these kids had a breakthrough, it felt like a pleasant surprise. Every Mitch block, every Knox three, every Trier iso…it was like found money. Most people see a penny on the sidewalk and keep moving. Knick fans know better.

Is this a product of subsisting on bread and water for too long? Of course. These good vibes are the ultimate result of Knicks fan PTSD. For a competent franchise, a year like this is a necessary evil stuck in between high times. For the Knicks I’ve known most of my life, a 17-win season played mostly by relative children has been a cause for celebration.

So yeah…there’s a part of me that will miss it, especially because of what’s likely coming around the corner. The stakes, it would seem, are about to be increased tenfold. Losses will matter again, and there will be real consequences when stuff goes wrong. Things are, by any reasonable definition, about to get better, but also a lot more complicated.

Winning is hard, and when you’re expected to win, it can get even harder, especially in this town. Ask any Laker fan how much fun this season was. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll be exploited by a league getting smarter by the day. And the Knicks track record is against everyone else is, umm…not the best.

So yeah, while I’m excited, I’m also nervous as all hell. I want to believe they have enough intelligent decision makers in place to avoid a similar fate as LA, but really, I have no idea. For as much as I’m looking forward to finding out the answer, I’d be lying if I said a small part of me won’t miss this. It’s crazy, but then again, not much about following this team has ever been sane.

On that note, here’s to the lovable bunch of losers who made this year more bearable than it had any right to be. I’m not sure this was a season to remember even for those involved, but for reasons I still can’t fully explain, it’s not one I’m likely to forget anytime soon.

Now let the real fun begin. Giddy up.

 

Part III: Leadership

As the season draws to a close, Jonathan Macri completes his assessment of the 2018-19 campaign by grading the highest levels of the organization. In case you missed it, be sure to check out Parts I (the players) and II (the coach) as well.

As we approach the two week mark for Avengers: Endgame – sure to be the coolest three hours of my summer3 – I’m reminded of the moment that got us to this movie in the first place, when a misbegotten Star Lord cost half the universe its lives.

About two thirds of the way through Infinity War (Spoiler alert for the seven people who haven’t seen it), the delightful Chris Pratt, playing an intergalactic hoodlum turned hero, had himself a moment he’d like to forget. The Avengers, or at least the half of them that had been jettisoned into space, had come up with a kick-ass plan to remove the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos’ big purple mitt. It involved loads of CGI wizardry that stuck the Mad Titan in a compromising position where he no longer had control of his bodily functions. Pretty freaking ingenious.

To finish him off, all the Avengers needed to do was remove the damn glove. They were thisclose to doing exactly that, until Pratt lost his shit because he realized Thanos had killed his girlfriend (who also happened to be Thonos’ daughter – long story). After repeatedly punching him in the face, the big guy snapped out of his trance, retained the gauntlet, and kicked everyone’s ass. You know the rest.

If your theater-going experience was anything like mine, the crowd reacted like the city of Cleveland as JR grabbed his rebound at the end of Game 1 of the 2018 Finals and immediately started running for a shot of Henny. It may have been the ultimate Nononononowhatareyoudoingnoooooo moment in cinematic history.

Here’s the crazy thing though: we knew it was coming. Marvel had announced the sequel to this film long before A:IW even came out. We knew Thanos wasn’t going to lose…and yet every person who saw the film was devastated when it didn’t happen. Not only did we buy into the fantasy, but we bought into the fantasy within the fantasy.

All Pratt needed to do was keep walking, and boom: universe saved.

Except he couldn’t help himself.

As those punches were landing, I was reminded of a feeling that has become all too familiar in my lifetime, one deep inside my core.

It’s the feeling I get any time I take out my phone (or, back in the old days, turned on the television or radio) and instantly know that the franchise I’ve rooted for since I was nine has done something stupid. It’s the feeling Lakers fans got a taste of on Tuesday night, when Magic Johnson decided to quit his job without telling anybody. I reacted to the Shams Bomb like every other Knick fan alive: Thank God it’s not us.

Because it has been us, so very, very often. We’ve seen those Tweets too many times. The feeling we get when we open them is what’s at the heart of #LOLKnicks. It’s the one responsible for all of our insecurity complexes, the reason we take every good happening with several grains of salt. It’s why I do what I do on this site – it’s cheaper than therapy, and healthier than scotch.

The first time I remember the feeling, I was 17. I was at the house of my first serious girlfriend, opened up a copy of the NY Post that was on the table when I walked in, and saw the news: Patrick Ewing had been traded. I tried for a bit to pretend like I didn’t care about this team far more than I ever would for the girl, but she saw through that pretty quickly. She was pissed; I was distraught.

It’s not the fact that he was traded that had me bummed – a possible move had been discussed for weeks, and the team badly needed a reboot. No, it was the return they got that had me perplexed. Even as a teenager, I knew that trading Ewing’s expiring contract for Glen Rice – a 33-year-old who played the same position as the team’s two best players – was odd.

It was a directionless move if there ever was one. It’s like someone told the team to shit or get off the pot and they couldn’t make up their mind, so they got up and lost their bowels all over the bathroom floor. We’ve seemingly been cleaning up the mess for 19 years.

Perhaps not coincidentally, James Dolan had taken over the running of the team the previous season. The messy missteps that have come during his tenure have been well documented, whether they be on the court, via trades or signings, or having nothing to do with actual basketball altogether. I’d go through them in more detail, but I’m writing this at 8:30 on a Sunday morning and it’s too early for a drink.

Point is, there have been enough of these moves since the Ewing trade that we should not only know an LOL Knicks moment when we see one, but expect it before it hits. Like the inevitable plot device that got us to the next Avengers, it shouldn’t be a matter of whether they’ll fuck up, but simply when, and how soul-seething will it be.

And yet, inexplicably, I entered this season with hope. Hope that we could pull off the glove, and somehow make it from October to July without adding another moment to the list. More than anything – more than developing the youth, clearing cap space, instituting an offense, or anything else – whether the organization could soberly walk that nine-month tightrope while touching its nose and not falling flat on its face would come to define this season.

Why? Because the fate of the Knicks’ universe depended on it.

For reasons only slightly less explicable than the Avengers nearly defeating Thanos, one of maybe the best dozen players ever seems to want to spend the second half of his prime playing basketball in New York. The rumors have been swirling since before training camp began. While nothing in this league is ever certain, for once, all the Knicks needed to do was not fuck things up and they might come out on top.

Did they do it? It depends on how you look at it, but as we assess how the organization as a whole did this season, one thing is for certain: Scott Perry did his part.

The basketball lifer from Detroit brought with him a reputation of professionalism and basic competence, two things often sorely lacking at MSG. His appointment had me hopeful, as did the fact that James Dolan had stayed out of basketball operations since vetoing a Kyle Lowry/Iman Shumpert trade because his backside still hurt from the Bargnani deal. #WhateverItTakes

Over his first year on the job, the closest thing to an LOL Knicks moment we had was when Joakim Noah and Jeff Hornacek got into it at practice one day. That’s small potatoes around these parts. On the plus side, he navigated the Carmelo Anthony trade saga about as well as could be expected, bringing back the pick that would become Mitchell Robinson. Most significantly, he added no future salary and finished his first year with more picks in the cupboard than he started with – the Robinson pick plus two more for Willy Hernangomez, and then one dealt for Emmanuel Mudiay.

(BTW, for all the hand wringing over the Hernangomez trade, Oh-Billy finished this year in Charlotte averaging seven points and five boards in 14 minutes a game and had the lowest net rating on the team of anyone who played more than 800 minutes.)

It’s way too early to judge the basketball decisions Perry made this season, but so far, so good. Knox is what we should have thought he would be. Mitch is a revelation. Allonzo Trier is an NBA player, ceiling TBD. Ditto for Kadeem Allen, who is signed through next year.

I just wrote a whole bunch of words about the coach Perry hired, who, if nothing else, has the team feeling like their best selves despite all the loses.

And then there’s the KP trade. It’ll likely take years before we can fully evaluate it, but the return was praised by most objective observers.

More importantly, the deal was very un-LOL Knicks in two very important ways. Primarily, it saved the organization from a bevy of distractions this summer in more ways than one. Less obvious but perhaps more importantly, it seemed to represent a tacit attempt to add to the culture through subtraction.

Ah, yes…there’s that “C” word again.

I feel the same way about team culture that my 17-year-old self did about getting laid: it seemed like everyone else was getting in on the action except me, and I was fairly certain that would never change. It seems like everywhere you turn, there are articles and anecdotes about the outstanding culture of Team X or Team Y, and I’m convinced that I’ll never read such an article about the Knicks.

It’s tough to argue that the juju on a team with the worst record in the league is on the up and up, but for as much as they stink, there does seem to be a different vibe around this particular group:

So Perry gets a small but shining gold star for his efforts. Steve Mills? When Howard Beck summarized the feelings of anonymous execs around the league that “[t]he front office leadership also draws skepticism from rivals,” it was a polite way of saying that people question why Mills still has a job.

While it’s not necessarily an unfair critique, whatever system the Knicks front office duo has put in place since Perry came aboard seems to be working. For the first time in a long time, all the decision makers are on the same page. Whether Mills has been involved in every move or no moves, it’s all been under his watch as much as Perry’s. If one gets a passing grade, so should the other.

Which brings us to the man in charge.

The feeling I had the moment I opened Twitter and saw that March 9 TMZ clip was the exact one I had hoped to avoid this season. It was Star Lord and Ewing and Isiah and Bargs and Oakley and every other moment I’d like to forget all wrapped into one. It was why, when Beck noted in the aforementioned piece that those same anonymous execs had doubts about the “generally poor reputation of owner James L. Dolan,” there was nothing I could do but nod silently.

What we can’t know, at least not until roughly 80 days from now, is whether Dolan’s inability to just keep walking will make one iota of difference to the Knicks summer plans. The effect that his general presence has on the franchise is something I’ve pondered more than any other topic this season. It’s why I’m not holding my breath for that positive article about the Knicks culture, and why for all the KD talk, I remain unwilling to allow myself to fully believe in the fairy tale.

If you go by the opinions of players and execs around the league, it won’t matter, at least not where Durant is concerned. Maybe we’ve hit the turning point. Maybe this is the start of an era when people will want to come here, and one occasionally curmudgeonly owner really doesn’t have the effect some would have us believe. It bears repeating: just because certain people clearly want Dolan’s existence to make more of a difference doesn’t mean it actually will.

It also doesn’t mean it won’t. There’s simply no way to know for sure.

Here’s what I do know: if July doesn’t go the Knicks way and the entire basketball world is once again laughing at our expense, a part of me will always wonder just how much a ten second interaction with a fan had to do with it.

And another part of me will be mad at the first part for ever believing there was another ending to a movie that’s been 18 years in the making.

Either way, the show must go on.

Unfiltered Thoughts on the Knicks Season, Part II: David Fizdale

Continuing with his end of season recaps, Jonathan Macri tries to take an objective look at someone he’s supported all year: Head Coach David Fizdale.

In case you missed Part I: The Players, find it here.

When I was in 8th grade, my best friend asked me for a favor.

There was this girl he liked, and she agreed to go on a date with him, but her parents couldn’t know about it so she had to go out with a friend. The girl’s friend didn’t want to feel like a third wheel, so my friend needed me to ride shotgun.

Being 12 years old with a bowl cut, I would have gone on a date with an English Mastiff, and didn’t put up much of a fight. I was curious, though, about what I was getting myself into.

“All I know is that she’s really nice.”

Even as a pre-teen, I knew what this was code for, so I mentally prepared myself as best I could.

I did not do a good enough job.

We live in an increasingly PC world, so rather than give an explicit description of my companion for the evening, I’ll just say she was soup that ate like a meal and we’ll leave it at that. I did, however, learn a valuable life lesson that evening: no matter how bad you think it’s going to be, it can always, always be worse.

Which brings us to this Knicks season. As I wrote last week, this year was always going to be ugly. But was it supposed to be this ugly? Um, no.

I fully believe that, internally, the Knicks thought they could have a Hawks-type campaign – one that started rough but smoothed out into a team playing .500-ish ball towards April. If that’s the case, then shouldn’t wins and losses factor into judging this season?

Let’s consider Kevin Knox as we try to answer. When the Knicks lottery pick has been off the court, New York has a negative 3.2 net rating during those 1718 minutes. That’s quite a bit better than the negative 13.1 rating in the 1998 minutes he’s played, and is smack dab in the middle of the 32-win Pelicans (-1.2) and 28-win Hawks (-5.3) in points outscored per 100 possessions.

It’s not an exact science, but here’s betting that if the Knicks had their top draft pick slumming it in the G-league, I wouldn’t have needed to expend nearly as much lipstick this season, and Wilbur would be few pounds lighter and a tad less stinky.

That, of course, would have been useless, not only because there still is a very real incentive to tank, but because Knox’s minutes at this level will theoretically pay off in the long run. As my personal Yoda reminded me this week when we were having a discussion about Mitchell Robinson, the only way to get better is to play:

Should Fizdale & Co. be held accountable for Knox’s struggles? Of course they should to some extent, and we’ll get to that in a second. Regardless, it seems silly to judge a coach (or a front office, for that matter) on the win total when over 70% of the minutes have been played by dudes who couldn’t get into some Manhattan clubs (because they’re under 25).

So if we’re not judging the season on the team’s record, let’s instead hold the Knicks to task and assess them on the two things they themselves proclaimed this year would be about: development and culture.

Deveopment

The Big D isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds.

Is it enough that certain young players have improved as the season has gone along, or does the fact that the collective product is still tough to watch matter more? They say a rising tide lifts all ships. In the Knicks case, the opposite has happened…a few individual ships are looking strong, but the tide is often barely above the ocean floor.

It’s also tough to pinpoint who gets credit for what, which is what Mr. Gaines and I were really trying to get to the bottom of. Are the coaches the reason that Mitchell Robinson no longer jumps at the sight of every shiny object? Or for Allonzo Trier getting to the line 7.2 times per 36 minutes since the All-Star break, as opposed to 5.0 before? Or for Damyean Dotson being one of the most efficient pick and roll players in the league and nearly doubling his assist rate since the calendar flipped to 2019?

On the contrary, how much blame should Fiz get for Frank Ntilikina being the worst shooter in the league this season? Has playing Luke Kornet, a net ratings darling, so infrequently this year hinder his potential growth? Do the one or two comically bad turnovers Kevin Knox still gets every game fall on Fizdale’s shoulders?

Even putting aside these issues, assessing the developmental success of this season is difficult for one major reason:

The key young players on the roster who either vastly exceeded (Mitch & Zo) or comfortably exceeded expectations (Dot, Kornet and Kadeem Allen) all kind of feel like house money. That’s great…as long as the bank isn’t about to default on your mortgage. There’s something unsettling about the sure things being anything but sure, even if you’ve picked up some nice surprises along the way.

That’s where Knox, Frank, and to a lesser extent, Smith Jr. come in.

Consider that when New York made the KP deal, those three were still considered the best young assets on the Knicks, as Zach Lowe noted in his post-trade deadline piece. Since then, Smith Jr. was inconsistent and is now hurt, Knox followed an abhorrent January with an even worse February, and Frank played 32 minutes total.

Injuries obviously aren’t the coach’s fault, and to his credit, DSJ did show some improvement in the short time he was here, cutting his turnover percentage this season from 20.3 in Dallas to just 13.5 in New York while upping his assist percentage from 24.2 to 32.2. Knox has even rebounded to somewhere close to his Rookie of the Month form, putting up a .413/.422/.739 slash line since March 1 (he was at .403/.384/.640 in December) to go with a 6.8 assist percentage (same as December). He’s also creating more on his own, as 57.1 percent of his March field goals were assisted, as opposed to 67.8 in December and January.

And then there’s Frank. I recently argued that his struggles are not primarily the fault of the head coach, but it has come under Fizdale’s watch, and that fact can’t be denied. There must be a modicum of blame, and maybe more than that.

All in all, even if the results didn’t exactly come from where we thought they would, this team will have somewhere between four and six young guys it feels good about heading into the offseason. As the head coach and team brass have said, part of development is figuring out who’s going to stick around and who isn’t. It’s incredibly rare that everyone gets to come along for the ride.

So let’s give a tentative “check” in faint, green pencil under the development column. Which brings us to the dreaded “C” word…

Culture

Why do I think New York’s brass wanted to end up in the neighborhood of 30 wins this season? Because there was one absolute, drop-dead necessity that had to take place this year: the Knicks as a franchise needed to be able to go into the offseason with their head held high, and not limp into July, hat in hand, begging for someone to take their money. They needed to feel good about their players, their program, and their progress. In other words, arguably the worst culture in the NBA needed a reboot.

If you’ve listen to the players themselves, that much has already happened. The one guy who seemed not to be on board is now gone (although there may be more to it than him simply not believing in the team’s progress) and the ones that are left seem to have bought in.

Is this simply youthful naivete? Does it even matter? As a wise man once said, it’s not a lie if you believe it. Fizdale wears his version of the truth across his chest like a badge of honor, and he has those around him believing it wholeheartedly as well.

While it isn’t always clear from the outside what Fiz emphasizes and what he doesn’t (more on that in a sec), the fact that we haven’t heard a peep about playing time from anyone outside of Slappy McGoo is telling. It indicates that players know what it takes to get minutes, and if they’re not getting them, they either agree with the decision or are simply accepting it for the greater good. The team also plays hard, and while the final score often doesn’t indicate it, the Knicks are almost always in games either early or late.

He’s also won over the media, which is important in this market whether we like it or not. As Chris Iseman reminded me on the podcast last week, David Fizdale hasn’t snapped at reporters once throughout this entire soul-seething campaign, which is kind of amazing.

This is all good stuff. It’s also necessary evidence for Fiz supporters like myself, because the health of the basketball culture he’s instituting on the court is far less clear.

On the Court

While there are certain things the Knicks head coach this year was never going to be able to improve – shooting, for one, which goes hand in hand with assists to some extent – certain numbers are inescapable.

For one, Fiz has unfortunately channeled his inner Patrick Swayze for much of this year. The corner three is the most efficient shot in basketball and the Knicks have taken proportionally fewer of them than all but two teams in the NBA. Meanwhile, on defense, teams get away with taking the lowest percentage of midrange shots in the league when they play New York. There is an urgency lacking on parts of many nights that one would expect to be present more consistently under a new coach. As we saw on full display many times this season – most recently against the Raptors – if you move the ball against the Knicks, you’re going to score, probably pretty easily.

It all goes on Fizdale’s docket. Every bit of it. They haven’t been as good as Atlanta this season, and the shot profile on either end isn’t as clean as Brooklyn’s was when Kenny Atkinson took over.

Here’s an important question that hasn’t been asked enough though: Would Atkinson, Pierce or anyone else have been able to do better in a similar spot, with this roster and these requirements to get minutes to the youngest members of it?

I’m dubious for the same reason we don’t know whether Fizdale’s X’s and O’s are any good: he was handed a roster almost completely bereft of shooting and shot creation in a league predicated on shooting and shot-creation. It’s why the low assist numbers have never been of much concern to me. With the youngest roster in the league, anyone who expected to see some Spurs-style, “beautiful game” offense this season was always dreaming.

Did you enjoy watching guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox play this year? Guess what? That comes with a price: a simple offense without a lot of moving parts. To some, this is maddening, and it certainly isn’t very pretty to watch, but it’s also an offense that has generated a higher frequency of open looks than any team outside of the Warriors, Spurs or Celtics. Sadly, the Knicks are the worst shooting team in the league this year by a country mile.

As I wrote earlier this season, even though their simplistic offense opens up some good looks, they miss out on the best looks – corner threes as noted above, as well as “wide open” shots2 and easy looks at the basket2 – but again, that’s the price of youth. It’s also the cost that comes with running a system built for a premier shot creator/ball handler and instead having Moe, Larry & Curly at your disposal3.

It’s also a system that has yielded some analytics-friendly numbers.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are 10th in the league in frequency of shots taken at the rim. They’ve also gone from taking the 3rd most mid-rangers in the league last year to the 14th most this season – tied with Denver, and less than the Celtics, Sixers and Warriors. They’ve also gone from the 29th to 23rd in attempted threes. Perhaps most impressively, after finishing bottom-five in free throw rate over the last five seasons, they’re 12th this year.

They’ve also gotten better since the trade. They went from dead last in corner 3’s before January 30 to 18th since, and from 13th in frequency of shots at the rim to 8th. On defense, they moved from the least midrangers forced to 9th from the bottom.

Small signs, but signs nonetheless. In the end, even after a year that at times made my pre-teen trip to the movies feel pleasant in comparison, Coach Fiz comes out arguably unscathed. If nothing else, his profile around the league doesn’t seem to have taken a hit.

(And yes, despite everything I’ve just written, there will be people who continue to kill Fizdale for the mere fact that he refused to quit Emmanuel Mudiay. I get it, as shown by my thoughts from Part I. He’s also one of 11 guards to be averaging over 19 and 5 per 36 minutes on at least 45% shooting4. It’s not a bad list. The Knicks are also 3 points per 100 possessions better when he sit. IDK. Kill the loyalty if you want, but it’s not enough for me to downgrade Fizdale’s performance by itself)

Will what he’s done be enough to help the Knicks land someone special in July? I’m sure that while their targets will certainly consider Fizdale’s Year 1 performance, their perception of the organization as a whole will be a far greater determining factor.

That’s what we’ll tackle in Part III of my end of season series…next week.

All stats through Tuesday, April 2

Unfiltered Thoughts on the Knicks Season, Part 1: the players

In the first of his three-part series assessing the Knicks season, Jonathan Macri takes a look at New York’s roster…and doesn’t hold back.

If someone asked me now to look back at my 23-year-old self, cut the bullshit, and honestly rank the reasons I decided to go to law school, they’d appear in the following order:

3: Helping people with their problems (7% of the reason)

2: I thought it would be a good place to meet girls (11.5%)

1: Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, the theme music from Law & Order, and like a dozen scenes from A Few Good Men, but this one more than any other (81.5 %):

The scene is flawless. It’s peak Cruise, and arguably Moore’s best moment in the movie5. When I watched it, all I wanted was to get a job where I could stand up and yell in someone’s face, preferably about my knowing the law and them not.

Fast forward 12 years and 2.5 careers later. It turns out being a lawyer isn’t actually that fun or cool, which should really be a disclaimer before this movie begins2. Luckily it wasn’t a total loss because I learned a valuable lesson – one that has single-handedly gotten me through this rectal exam of a season.

Like Lt. Kaffey says, what you believe doesn’t matter when you’re a lawyer; it’s all about what you can prove, or if you’re a defense lawyer, knowing which shit to throw against the wall and in what order to throw it.

After watching the Baby Knicks try to learn to walk all year, the wall3 is completely brown. I’ve trotted out a lot of arguments, mostly because I feel that a first year coach with the youngest roster in the NBA collectively deserves the benefit of the doubt, but also because I’m a fan, and as a fan, I just find it easier to think the best.

So all year, I’ve done what a good lawyer does: take the facts and make the best of them. This has often required me to bite my tongue in service of the greater good. When the ship is going down, the band must play on. And played I have, with enthusiasm, grace, and I’d like to think a little bit of dignity. It has been an honor.

But, well…I’ve watched every game of a 15-win season and the last lifeboat is leaving, so fuck it:

Here’s what I really think.

Mario Hezonja

Just an unbelievably maddening player.

Sometimes you watch a guy and can clearly tell he stinks. We had one here. His name was Andrea Bargnani. Sadly, the Knicks owner brass that traded for him thought watching film of a player before acquiring him was considered tampering.

Back to Hezonja: he doesn’t stink. We’ve seen enough on both ends to know as much…which is why he’s been perhaps the most frustrating player on the whole damn team. For every “Ooo!” there’s three head-scratchers and one head-slapper.

I continue to think he’ll have a relevant moment in the league at some point, likely on a smart team with shooting, which is why there’s a tiny part of me that wouldn’t have minded seeing him back. That ship seems to have sailed though, as he’s been a DNP-CD the last two games following a missed defensive assignment last Thursday vs the Raptors. It got him yanked from the game and seems to have been the final nail in his coffin as a Knick.

(just please don’t tell the Croatians I said anything)

Emmanuel Mudiay

My stance on Emmanuel Mudiay this season has made me feel like the friend in the middle of a breakup who tries to support both parties.

“Wait, you had lunch with him? Did you guys share a bag of dicks? I hope you shared a bag of dicks.”

It hasn’t been fun.

Has Mudiay been good? No…no, he has not. But he hasn’t been terrible either. You could even argue that he’s played a bigger part in more wins this season than anyone on the team4. He just turned 23, had a markedly better campaign than either of his last two, and as I’ve argued all season, if he takes one more leap, we’re talking about a useful player here.

And then you watch a game like Monday’s win against Chicago, where if you told me he had was being paid to throw the game, I legit would be like “Yeah, ok…that makes sense.” He was grizzly in all the ways that Bad Mud is usually grizzly, forgetting things like how to dribble, the dimensions of the court, the fact that there are four other players on his team that are also allowed to shoot, and that legs are best used to hold us upright instead of as display items sprawled across the floor. He had the worst plus/minus of anyone on either team except for Brandon Sampson. I could be Brandon Sampson and you wouldn’t know it.

For every game Mudiay has played a part in leading to wins, it feels like he’s had two or three of these types of affairs. When you add this to the fact that it’s almost impossible to be a helpful guard in this league without being either a solid defender or a reliable 3-point shooter – I don’t see him becoming either one – it makes you wonder what the benefit is to keep watering this plant.

You could talk me into giving him a near-minimum contract, because continuity is an undervalued asset in the NBA, but that’s about it.

Dennis Smith Jr.

A lot of the questions people have about Mudiay also come up when you’re talking about Dennis Smith Jr., but there’s four important differences between the two:

  1. Smith has at least shown the ability to be a really good defensive player. That he doesn’t display this ability more often leaves me 50% hopeful and 50% terrified.
  2. He can get to the rim (and above it) as well as all but a few guys in the league.
  3. His bad games don’t induce the need for Tums.
  4. He’s only in his second year.

So yeah, there’s reason to be hopeful. I really like the way he’s run the offense since he’s come over, and his decision making hasn’t been nearly as bad as advertised. Even the shot seems to be an above the neck issue, and I think he’ll be able to get it to league average eventually.

Still, something just seems a little…off about Smith, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. The back stuff is absolutely a concern to me. If the Knicks really did sign KD and got Kyrie or Kemba too, even if they dumped Smith for a middling return (Phoenix’s second rounder, for example) I don’t know that I’d be terribly heartbroken.

That would assume, of course, that they could re-sign…

Kadeem Allen

…on the cheap, which would be fantastic, because he rocks. Seriously. Name one reason this dude can’t be one of the best backup point guards in the league based on what we’ve seen this year.

You can’t, can you? If the shot is even semi-real5, he’s exactly what you want in a third or fourth ball handler. The collective urgency of the defense ratchets up a few levels whenever he’s in. Sign me up.

Lance Thomas

I love Lance Thomas, and there’s nothing you can say or do to change that.

Allonzo Trier

Yay! Someone we can all enjoy together!

Iso-ball gets a bad rap around these parts because a) Melo played here and b) we have eyes. Treir is a different kind of cat though – a homeless man’s Harden who gets to the line at will while hitting a robust 39% from deep. He’s also got some old-man craftiness to his game, bobbing and weaving until he gets a sliver of daylight.

As his lobs to Mitch have shown us, his passing isn’t a lost cause, and he’s quick and slithery enough on defense to make you think that he might not be a train wreck on that end as he gets older.

I don’t think the “Future 6MOY” stuff is outlandish. Of everyone on this roster outside of Robinson, he’s neck and neck with Knox as the guy I’m most confident is still here next season. Speaking of which…

Kevin Knox

After the second game of Summer League, I went live and said that in order to make the leap from bottom feeder to contender, a team needs to get lucky in the draft at least once and end up with a difference-maker from a spot where those types of players are usually gone. I felt like the Knicks had accomplished exactly that.

Little did I know that I was talking about the wrong guy.

We’ll get to Mitch in a bit, who is basketball caviar. Knox, on the other hand, is like bad Chinese food. You know it’s not good but you keep eating anyway, not because you’re hungry, but because you had a craving.

Knox satisfied a specific craving the Knicks had: a big wing who can score in a variety of ways, and we’ve already seen the vague outline of that player at 19 years old. His finishing will get better as he gets stronger, and I’d bet on him scoring over 20 a game with above average efficiency a few times in his career. He’ll be fine.

But it looked like we were getting something better than “fine” after Vegas. His abhorrent defensive awareness and lack of playmaking and shot creation make me think that was a bit presumptuous.

DeAndre Jordan

I’m totally cool keeping him if it means his buddy KD is coming with him. The Mitch Mentor stuff is nice too.

That said, maybe starting next year, when the games matter again, he could occasionally, you know…jump. Like, in someone’s way. When they’re rolling down the lane. Unimpeded. Repeatedly.

DJ’s minus 19.0 net rating in New York is a promising sign for the possibility that he’s a legit candidate for the room exception6. Other than the Lakers doing dumb shit, I’m not sure I can see any team paying him more than that to be their starting center.

Noah Vonleh

Between his midseason downturn and recent injury, it’s easy to forget Vonleh might have been the Knicks’ best player through the first half of the season. He felt like someone who had risen just above the “good stats, bad team” threshold, at least when he was locked in on defense over the early part of the year.

Then the trade deadline happened, and Vonleh fell off a cliff. It’s hard not to wonder whether a player who’s had team after team give up on him got in his feelings a bit after seeing his name pop up in trade rumors.

New York will put him on the free agency back burner, which is fine. He’s competent, and the shot might be real, but we’re not talking about someone who isn’t replaceable. That said, if he wants to be here, that has more value to the Knicks than it does for most other organizations. Room Exception Candidate # 2.

Luke Kornet

He is absolutely an NBA player, and I kinda think he can be a rotation guy on a good team.

It’s not an accident that of everyone on New York’s roster who’s played at least 500 minutes, he’s the easy leader in net rating. You probably can’t play him at the four long term, but he’s savvy enough on defense that you can survive minutes with him at the five. His shooting at the five is a legit problem that opposing defenses need to game plan around.

Frank Ntilikina

I just wrote 2000 words on the Ntilikina situation, and probably another 20,000 before that this season, and, well…I think I’m all out.

Maybe it’s like Carrie says, and you’re only allotted a certain amount of tears/words per man/player; and I’ve used mine up7. That’s probably it.

In short, I still believe in him, and probably always will.

Damyean Dotson

I love me some Dot. Like, love me love me some Dot.

He’s far from perfect. He’ll probably never be that upper echelon level shooter who defenses have to account for all the time, a’ la JJ Redick. If he doesn’t get there, just how much value he offers on offense is questionable. His off ball defense is low key some of the worst on the team, and there’s a real chance it won’t get much better.

I don’t really care. He’s the only guy on this team besides Allen that you can consistently depend on to navigate a screen. He’s shown some friskiness with the ball in his hands of late, and his 1.11 points per possession on 113 opportunities as a pick and roll ball handler is elite. He’s a monster rebounder for his position.

Best of all, if you break his career down not into two seasons but three – rookie year, pre-All-Star break and post-All-Star break– we’re looking at someone who has made leaps and bounds at each checkpoint.

  • Rookie: 44 games, 10.8 min., 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, .447/.324/.696
  • Pre-ASG: 49 games, 24.7 min., 9.3 pts, 3.5 rbs, 1.4 asts, .422/.366/.714
  • Post-ASG: 18 games, 32.9 min., 15.0 pts, 4.1 rbs, 2.7 asts, .424/.386/.800

I’m all in.

Mitchell Robinson

Speaking of all in…

Here’s the space where I’d usually include all kinds of stats that back up just how crazy Mitchell Robinson’s rookie season has been, but you’re smart and have seen all those, so we can skip that part.

(Ok, one stat: Mitchell Robinson is the first player in history – not rookie, player – to average four blocks per 36 minutes in a season where they played over 1000 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage as high as his .691. The next closest eFG% on the list is .606, from Hassan Whiteside in 2015-16)

Instead, I’m going right to the thing that I’d probably consider a hot take if it wasn’t already so blatantly apparent to me: Mitchell Robinson is a star

This fact would be apparent even if I hadn’t spent the past quarter century watching, studying, and generally obsessing over this sport, because you don’t need experience watching a sport to know when you’re seeing a star. You just know.

I don’t know exactly how to define “star,” in the same way that I don’t know how to define good team culture, or the perfect sandwich. But you know it when you taste it, are around it, or with Mitch, simply witnessing it.

In more games than not that he’s played this season, Mitch was the one player who stood about above the rest in a way that doesn’t require analysis. It just requires a working pair of eyes.

We have seen the light. And it blocks out the sun.

Check back later this week for Part 2: David Fizdale

 

The Blame Game: On David Fizdale and his role in Frank Ntilikina’s lost season

With the unsurprising news dropping today that Frank Ntilikina is done for the year, it’s a good time to reflect on just how responsible he is for a season gone awry for the Knicks young guard.

Let’s start here, because starting anywhere else would be disingenuous:

I like David Fizdale.

I like him for a lot of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with basketball. He just seems like someone I’d enjoy grabbing a beer with. This probably shouldn’t matter as much as it does in my assessment of his coaching. Or maybe it doesn’t matter enough. More on that in a bit.

More than anything, I like David Fizdale because I’ve watched this team lose a lot of games over a lot of years, and I’ve seen coach after coach look like they’re out on their guys, the season and their job before the All-Star break. Larry Brown looked like he was out before camp broke. Don Chaney looked and sounded so miserable that I’m convinced he and that prick principal from Dangerous Minds are the same person. Jeff Hornacek made the color beige seem exciting in comparison.

When you’re a fan hanging on by a thread, searching for reasons to believe in bigfoot things might get better, if the guy in charge doesn’t even believe it, well…that’s pretty fucking depressing.

David Fizdale has been the opposite of that. He is the best type of salesman – the one who won’t only sell you the blue ray player that’s been sitting in the corner of his stock room since last Christmas, but who’ll make you think you got a great deal in the process. God bless a man who can walk in front of a group of reporters and say, with a straight face, that a team mired in a stretch of 7 wins and 46 losses just had its best practice of the season, as he did last weekend.

That doesn’t just take charisma. It takes balls. The Knicks needed a man with more than a bit of both to head up the operation this season, because it was always going to be ugly.

But even in an acknowledged tank job, a) it wasn’t supposed to be this ugly (more on that next week) and b) everyone was supposed to come out in one piece on the other end.

With today’s news that Frank Ntilikina is done for the year, that is officially not going to be the case.

One thing I can say for certain after this season is that having one foot on Frank Island and another in Fizdale’s bandwagon is a lonely combination, filled with more self-loathing than is usually associated with Knicks fandom. It is not recommended.

Other than obvious stars, I don’t know that I’ve ever believed in a Knick as much as Ntilikina. He represents all the things we’ve wanted so badly through the years – prototypical size, unselfishness, defense, intelligence, boyish good looks8 – and at a position that’s been filled with ineptitude, imposters or Pablo Prigioni since Clyde was traded to Cleveland.

Because of the offense he wants to run, Ntilikina was quite decidedly not what David Fizdale sought in a point guard. That much is pretty clear at this point. But hiring Fiz to run a particular style of ball was the intention of Scott Perry and Steve Mills from jump street. They knew exactly what they were signing up for, and telegraphed as much when they told an anecdote before this season about attending a Laker game last year and deciding they needed to get more athletic.

This was always going to be an offense predicated on ball handlers being able to break down a defense and opening up shots less with finesse and more by brute force.

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay.

There have been many critiques levied at Fiz, but most come back to the same place: his dogged insistence on playing Mudiay through thick and thin, seemingly at Ntilikina’s expense. To many people, after all the preseason talk of defense and ball movement, it proves he’s either clueless or full of shit.

Doesn’t it?

Of all the questions that have been asked about Fizdale this season, this is the fairest. It calls into question the very essence of teambuilding: is it better to set a tone by employing players who are already good at the trait you want to emphasize, or do you give weaker guys repeated opportunities to fail as long as they’re trying their best?

On one hand, I want to give Fiz the benefit of the doubt here. If he prioritized playing his better defenders, Mitchell Robinson never would have gotten an opportunity to learn on the fly, and Kevin Knox probably sees the floor for all of 13 minutes this season (and Trier ain’t far behind).

On the other hand, sometimes enough is enough. Mudiay may be a reasonable facsimile of the type of guard Fiz envisions running his offense, but there comes a point where you know what you have in a guy, and we reached that point with Mudiay a while ago. Yet the leash on him continues to stretch the length of the court, as it has for all of the young Knicks.

All but one, that is.

And that, more than anything, is what has so many in the fan base annoyed. Why the double standard? Why the seemingly harsher treatment for the only guy consistently doing the things Fiz himself professed were important to the development of this team? And to benefit someone with a very limited, not particularly high ceiling?

Fizdale told us why, again, and again, and again.

This was never about Frank vs Mudiay…or Frank vs Trey Burke…or Frank vs Dennis Smith Jr…or Frank vs anyone. It was always about Frank vs Frank, or more specifically, Frank vs the version of Frank Fiz so desperately sought.

Repeatedly, Ntilikina committed the one sin Fiz absolutely would not tolerate: he was hesitant. Frank knew that to play, he needed to shoot. He started to force it, his shooting got worse, and a vicious cycle began.

Next, Fizdale tried tough love, and it worked…for a hot second. The three-game stretch Frank had after his three-game benching was the best of his young career. The next game, vs Charlotte, he left early with an injury, and watched from the bench as Emmanuel Mudiay had perhaps the best night of his career in leading the Knicks to victory. Is it a coincidence that another downward spiral started from that point forward?

Ntilikina shot 28% from the field over the Knicks next nine games, which included another benching, this one on Christmas day. Then, after Frank missed three games with an injury, he bounced back with a six-game stretch where he was the head-and-shoulders leader in net rating amongst Knick regulars, the last two of which were starts. It looked like he had turned a corner. Maybe, after everything that happened, Ntilikina had gotten to a place where he could toe the line between being true to himself and being the guy Fiz wanted.

That was over two months ago. He’s played 32 minutes since then thanks to the groin injury he suffered in that final start vs Miami. They ended up being his last minutes of the season. And we are, of course, left with questions.

Was it Fizdale’s initial demotion from the starting lineup way back in November that hastened Frank’s shooting woes? Maybe, although he was 29% from the field and 17% from deep in the five games prior to his demotion.

Should Fizdale have known that the change would further shake up Ntilikina’s confidence? Maybe, although the results following the later, week-long benching would seem to indicate the opposite.

Was it wrong for the coach to prioritize playing a highly imperfect guard who happened to be better suited to run his offense of choice, even if it torpedoed the team’s defensive ceiling in the process? My guess is that Fizdale would have loved nothing more than to keep playing Frank and eek out a few more wins, but swallowed his pride and did otherwise because he thought it was more important to get his players used to playing in his offensive system – a system where there is zero room for hesitancy.

This has led many to claim that Fiz doesn’t care about defense, which never made any sense to me and still doesn’t. Anyone who’s coached on a championship staff knows the value of defense…when you’re trying to win games. That was never the goal of this season, or at least not above development. Does playing a better defender over a worse one impact the culture in such a way as to inspire poorer defenders to up their game? This would seem to be the philosophy of many, but I’d just as soon argue that giving bad defenders the chance to improve is an equally valid path, especially when they’re trying hard, as the Knicks have largely done this season.

The bottom line is that Frank’s increased presence on the defensive end would have been great for the bottom line this year, but the long-term gains would be uncertain at best.

So what should Fiz have done? Benched Tim Hardaway Jr. instead of Frank back in November? Try selling that to the locker room. Move Knox to the four? We’ve seen him get manhandled in that spot all year. Insert Frank back as the starting point guard when it became apparent Mudiay was who we thought he was, offensive preferences be damned? That’s exactly Fizdale did back in January, albeit due to Mud’s injury.

Then Frank got hurt. And now we’re here.

It’s our instinct to keep asking these questions because it’s impossible not to look at Ntilkina’s season and try to find someone to blame. Fiz became a natural target because he’s the guy trotting out the turnstile who makes a half-dozen head scratching decisions every game. I get it, especially when the alternative is to look at the delightful kid who does nothing but try his ass off and play the right way and say “it’s your fault.”

The sad fact is that Frank Ntilikina is quite literally the worst shooter in the NBA who didn’t come out of the gate like we would have hoped. Some of that has to go on his shoulders.

I still believe in him, of course. How could you not? I mean, look at that smile…

I just don’t know if it’s going to happen for him in New York.

The reality is that Ntilikina was drafted to play in an offense very different than this one. That the man who drafted him was fired 10 days later is an unfortunate part of that reality.

He can function in this system, in a role slightly different than the one originally envisioned, as Fizdale talks about in the clip above. As the coach has alluded to repeatedly, Frank and DSJ should theoretically make beautiful music together…if our French son can hit is shots. Maybe that can happen here. Maybe his confidence isn’t so shot that it requires a change of scenery to resuscitate. Maybe surviving the summer and starting next season on the Knicks roster will restore Frank’s faith that, yes, the organization who drafted him does still want him around.

Or maybe not.

A lot will depend on what happens in July, or, better yet, what the Knicks’ brass thinks will happen in July, and whether they’ll need every ounce of cap room available. The best chance to trade Ntilikina might be on draft night. That’s over a week before free agency begins.

And just how confident should they be? I’ll have more thoughts on that soon.

In the meantime, I will probably be the only one who remains neither in the “Fire Fiz” camp, nor the “Frank stinks” one. It’s a lonely place to be.

But hey, at least I got a kickass blue ray player to keep me company.

A Knick Fan’s Spiritual Guide to the Offseason

These are tense times for supporters of the Knicks. With arguably the most pivotal offseason in franchise history now three weeks away from getting underway, fans may be tempted to turn to a higher power to help guide them through the difficult months ahead. Our own Jonathan Macri offers some spiritual guidance in an easy to use Q&A format…

I’m not a very religious person. Can I still use this guide?

Yes, although you are probably going to hell.

What if I don’t believe in hell?

You’re a Knicks fan. Hell exists whether you believe in it or not.

It seems like God hates us. How else can you explain what we’ve had to deal with for the last two decades?

Contrary to popular belief, God is actually a Knicks fan, He’s just been taking some time off for load management.

Is there a benefit to watching any more games this year?

Many religions believe that acts of sacrifice are necessary for a positive experience in the afterlife. Some of these sacrifices, like Muslims fasting during Ramadan or alter boys assisting a priest in the rectory, can often be quite painful. Certain sects of Buddhism have practiced self-immolation – arguably the ultimate in painful sacrifice – for centuries. So yes, watching games may indeed have some benefit.

Is repeatedly watching Emmanuel Mudiay dribble into traffic and put up contested 15-foot fall-away jumpers more or less painful than lighting oneself on fire?

What a horrible thing to say. Did you see the Laker game? Mud has been a revelation this year.

Wait…Fiz, is that you?

Sorry, new phone…who dis?

Is a future with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson the closest I will get to heaven?

Almost certainly.

Which possibility is more likely to exist?

Let’s start with the 14% chance that the Knicks get the first pick. From there, we can add in a few percentage points to account for the possibility that a team in some undesirable destination wins the lottery, the Knicks get the 2nd spot, and Zion’s people strong-arm him to New York2. So let’s up it to 18%. If we put KD’s odds of coming at 50/50 – more than fair – that takes us down to 9%. Then it’s on Kyrie, who is a literal crazy person. I’ll give it a one in three chance he wants in at that point. That leaves us at 3%. Getting back to the original question, I guess we’ll call it even.

What if I can’t endure any more Knicks games in their totality…does watching highlights of the games count as “church,” and might this have some benefit?

It depends on the highlights. Simply watching Mitchell Robinson highlights is akin to walking into church during the Eucharist, chugging the wine, grabbing the contents of the collection basket and then leaving. God would frown upon this. Highlights must include at least four Noah Vonleh post-ups, three Allonzo Trier isolations, two Hail Mary’s and one Our Father to receive credit.

If I show up to Madison Square Garden or a JD & the Straight Shots concert and start chanting “Sell the team,” is this heresy, and will I be smote for my evildoing?

Possibly. Turning your back on Dolan might very well be akin to turning your back on Jesus Christ himself.

The parallels are there. Most obviously, they each got to where they are in life by pure genealogical chance. Jesus didn’t “earn” the right to be anyone’s Lord & Savior any more than Dolan “earned” the Knicks. There’s a reason that, in Psalms 2:13, Jesus states “No, no, no, no…the guy with the hammer is my stepdad. Get it right.”

Second, like Jesus is one person but actually three people (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), Dolan is the owner of the Knicks, Rangers and MSG all at the same time. As Sister Thomasine and her wooden ruler made quite clear to me in 3rd grade, no, you cannot cut up Jesus into three pieces, like a Jesus pie. Similarly, you cannot differentiate Dolan into three different owners. He is all of them, all at once, all the time.

Finally, JD is only one letter off from JC. This can’t be a coincidence

Wow, you’ve really lost your mind this season.

That wasn’t a question.

I’m starting to get concerned for the draft lottery. On the 86% chance all of this losing is for not, I don’t think I’ll be able to get through the evening without drinking to excess, and gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. I feel like my lack of self-control might be frowned upon by the man upstairs when free agency rolls around. Will I be punished in July for the sins of May?

No. Aside from the fact that Jesus turned water into wine, there are nearly 250 references to wine or “strong drink” in the Bible. Of these, alcohol is seen as an accepted part of normal culture 58 times, 27 times it is called it a blessing from God, and the loss of wine is referred to a curse from God 19 times. Conversely, there are only 13 warnings of the abuse of alcohol and 16 instances of actual abuse. This is Word of the Lord. Bottoms up.

I’m Jewish, and have been kvetching about Zion all year. Am I a schmuck for thinking that we have a chance at getting him, especially since I’ve been not-so-subtly taught since birth to always expect the worst?

Mishagas. You have every right to believe Zion is coming to the Knicks. In fact, it might as well be written in scripture. As I’m sure you remember from Temple, Zion is synonymous with the Jewish homeland, which is New York. He is destined to be a Knick.

It’s a little late in the game, but I want to give up something for lent that will help our chances of winning the lottery. Do you have any suggestions?

Pride. You can give up pride in any number of ways that tie in directly with your Knicks fandom. Simply being a Knicks fan is a good first step. Some additional suggestions include2:

  • Wearing an Andrea Bargnani jersey outside of the home
  • Defending Lance Thomas on Twitter.
  • Purchasing this, pop it in your ride, put the top down and blast the smooth sounds of a classic blues band steeped in the quiet fire of Americana3.
  • Letting Tim Thomas call you fugazi
  • Getting the pipe.
  • Continuing your workout even after you know Phil has fallen asleep.
  • Reading everything Frank Isola writes.
  • Siding with an Enes Kanter burner account in an argument.
  • Growing a Lou Amundson man bun
  • Becoming a Nets season ticket holder.

That last one seems harsh; the Nets are actually good.

You should get season tickets then. There are plenty available.

I understand the concept of having “faith,” but trading away the best young player the team has had in over three decades for the mere chance at a successful July seems like equal parts greed, lust, pride and sloth all wrapped into one. Is this a bad sign?

You’re getting really close to having your head end up in a box in the middle of nowhere.

July 1 is a Monday. I’m a Catholic, but not normally a church-going person. On one hand, I feel like if I don’t go to mass on the day before free agency officially begins, I’m basically sealing the deal on four years of Boogie Cousins and Jimmy Butler. On the other hand, this would be pretty blatant and shameless pandering. What should I do?

When’s the last time you’ve been to church?

My daughter’s baptism. She’s now a sophomore in college.

Yeah, don’t go to church. Instead, you should go to confession, but in addition to confessing your own sins, you should confess all of the Knicks’ sins as well, starting with the trade of Patrick Ewing, continuing through the Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson eras, and concluding with the Tim Hardaway Jr. contract.

I don’t want Kevin Durant that badly. Can I just convert to Latvian Orthodox and call it a day?

Sure.

 

 

What to watch for from the young Knicks down the stretch

The games stopped having meaning a long time ago, but what happens on the court still has some importance to a select group of players. Jonathan Macri takes a closer look.

After the Knicks play their Tuesday night game against the Pacers in Indianapolis, they’ll have completed over 80 percent of their schedule. This long, arduous, soul-crushing siege of a death march will almost be over, possibly with fewer wins than the franchise has ever accumulated in a single season.

We’re in the endgame now.

Thankfully, even though the basketball is often unwatchable for quarters, halves and occasionally games at a time, this season is a bit different than many of the losing campaigns that came before it. As has been pointed out by every pollyannish Knicks fan this year4, there is a vague outline of a young core here that could make for an interesting future regardless of what transpires this July.

Would that core look a lot better surrounding a 7’3” Latvian? You betcha. Are we positive that the development of these kids has been executed to perfection across the board? Not in the slightest. Is it possible that they, along with the incoming draft pick, will all be sent packing for Anthony Davis quicker than you can say “We’re going to build things the right way?” Don’t count it out.

But I’ve written about all those possibilities already this year and my brain might slowly start to seep out through my ears if I try to do so again. Instead, let’s go on the assumption that these young’ns will be here and this staff does know what it’s doing – which, in fairness, we have seen ample evidence of despite what could be argued are some glaring miscues.

As such, if you’re one of the 18 people who plan to take in this last fifth of vodka season in all its glory, here’s something to look for from each of the guys that figure to stick around for a bit.

Allonzo Trier

Problem: He’s not shooting enough threes

Solution: Shoot more threes

Save for the ugly nine-game stretch after his December injury, during which his effective field goal percentage dropped all the way down to 33 percent, Trier has been the model of efficiency this year. He is one of only four rookies averaging 20 minutes a game with a usage rate over 20 that has an effective field goal percentage above 50. The other four are the first four picks in the draft.

The problem is that he should be even better. On the season, Trier is putting up two 3-point attempts per game despite hitting over 41 percent from deep. If that number doubled? We might see…well, we might see the guy we’ve seen over the Knicks last eight games.

Over that stretch, Trier is averaging 3.8 long range shots per contest, and it’s resulted in a scoring average over 16. The best part? His deep ball percentage has actually improved to a certainly-unsustainable-but-still-nice-to-see 46.7 percent. If he can simply take around four threes a game for the rest of the year and hit somewhere around his yearlong average, the narrative surrounding his perceived ceiling might really begin to change.

Oh, and his passing? Obviously that’s Trier’s main issue, but getting him to be more of a playmaker is too hefty a task for right now, and figures to be offseason homework. For now, just let the bombs fly.

Frank Ntilikina

Problem: He’s not on the damn court

Solution: Get on the damn court

Can you blame a guy for getting injured?

I mean…no. No, you can’t…

Right?

For a lot of fans, not having to look at Ntilikina put up brick after brick is probably a relief. For those of us who had staked our claims on Frank Island and are now feeling the water between our toes, having him miss what will wind up being over a quarter of the season is like a final punch to the gut in what has been a brutal year.

On one hand, there was a sense before the injury that maybe he could finish strong. If you take away the month of November – when he looked like someone playing basketball for the first time – Ntilikina was a 36.6 percent 3-point shooter on the year. Putting all of his other issues aside, anyone with his defensive profile that hits outside shots at an above-average rate is a useful player.

On the other hand, save for the three-game stretch that followed his three-game benching, there was never a sense that Frank was on the verge of really putting it all together.

There are a lot of complicating factors at play here, not the least of which is that the Knicks may need to choose between Ntilikina and the combination of Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier for salary cap purposes, assuming they’re able to ink two max players this July. If that’s the choice, it’s easy to see which way they’ll go.

That said, if the Knicks sign Kyrie Irving and they can get something for Dennis Smith Jr, maybe he’s the one to depart, especially considering the fact that Ntilikina might not even be worth a late first-round pick based on his play thus far.

Of course if he does come back and play well, that might only hasten his exit out of town. Might that be for the best, as it’s now quite clear David Fizdale favors a particular type of guard to run his offense? Wouldn’t Frank’s skill set would be far better suited running more complex offensive sets in a Warriors or Spurs style system? Does it even matter if his offensive struggles continue? Which team might take the risk of finding out?

These are all questions that will likely remain unanswered unless Frank can get back on the court. And he better hurry…we don’t have enough life-jackets in the boathouse for everyone.

Damyean Dotson

Problem: Getting lost off-ball

Solution: Purchase a map

This one’s simple.

Dotson has arguably been the Knicks best perimeter player since Tim Hardaway Jr. got traded away. So he’s been their best perimeter player all year.

Over his last 11 games, Dotson is averaging 15 points while shooting 38.4 percent from downtown on over six attempts per game. Those sure seem like the numbers of a starting shooting guard. His on-ball defense, though…that’s where it’s at.

His activity level makes you feel annoyed on behalf of the guy he’s guarding. He gets around picks better than anyone on the team, and his defensive rebounding – he’s over three a game – is more than solid.

That said, his off-ball defense needs a lot of work. We’ve routinely seen Dotson lose track of his man and get caught ball-watching this year, often resulting in cuts to the basket or wide-open threes. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be an offseason thing; he should be able to up his engagement and attention levels as the year finishes up. It just hasn’t really happened yet.

If that changes, it’s not hard to see him slotting in as the starting two-guard on this team next season, regardless of who New York signs in July.

Mitchell Robinson & Dennis Smith Jr.

Problem: Lack of playing time together

Solution: Paging David Fizdale…

In the 15 games they’ve been teammates2, Mitchell Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr. have played a total of 145 minutes together, or just under 10 minutes a game. For a pick and roll combo that could be devastating and needs as much time as possible to develop, that’s…not ok.

Obviously, it’s tough to play a pairing much more than that if one guy is starting and the other is coming off then bench, as Robinson still is. Here were David Fizdale’s most recent words on the topic from about a week ago, courtesy of NorthJersey.com’s Chris Iseman:

“I just like his rhythm right now. Why mess with it? If you do throw him in there I’d be pretty [mad] off at myself the first game I throw him in there, he gets two and I’ve got to sit him for a bunch of minutes…I want to keep the kid feeling good and in a good rhythm. It allows me to do some different stuff with him in the second half. When he’s playing well I can play him more minutes. I can even start him in the second half like I did one game at home.”

I get all of that. Robinson himself has even spoken of feeling less pressure and more comfortable with coming off the bench.

At some point though, maybe just throw caution to the wind and say “fuck it.” I’m sure DeAndre Jordan wouldn’t mind getting an early start on his planning for Cancun, perhaps over the season’s last ten games. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Kevin Knox

Problem: He hit the rookie wall

Solution: Break on through to the other side

There are some out there who look at how the last two months have gone for Kevin Knox and are ready to proclaim him a bust.

In fairness, he has looked bad. Like, “Emmanuel Mudiay is my spirit animal” bad. This clip from Sunday night’s Wolves game pretty much encapsulates how the last several weeks has gone for him:

Here’s the thing though: Kevin Knox can make a layup at this level. We know this because we’ve already seen him do it many times, along with a lot of the things he’s seemingly been incapable of doing for a while now, when the Monstars stole his powers he hit the rookie wall.

Is that just a convenient excuse? Maybe…but there are some numbers to back it up.

I noted on the podcast recently that if you stopped Knox’s rookie season after his 44th game – the exact point where he exceeded his minute total from last year at Kentucky – he’d have finished with a .422 eFG%, including 34 percent from deep, and a 9.3 TOV% on a 22.3 usage rate. Over the next 15 games – the ones that have everybody jumping out of open windows – those numbers dipped to .366/.299/12.2 on the exact same usage.

Keep in mind that this is the same dude who was voted rookie of the month in December and was the coaches’ injury replacement for the Rising Stars Game on February 63. For a guy to go from “top ten rookie” to “bust” in the span of a month feels like more than a bit of recency bias.

All this being said, it would still be nice to signs of life. We kind of did on Sunday, in a game where Knox finished 5-of-11 for 13 points and four (four!) assists. It was the first time this year Knox has had that many dimes in a game where he scored more points than shots he took. His best stretch came late in the first half when he had a drive with a nice finish, a triple, a cross-court assist to an open Damyean Dotson for three, and a dish to DeAndre Jordan for what should have been an easy two.

If he just had a few minutes like this during every game from here on in, everyone would feel a lot less anxiety heading into the summer. The Knicks needed to get this pick right. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, maybe they actually did.

Ranking the Top 10 Potential Knicks Lottery Representatives

It’s March. In New York, that means three things:

  • We start to lie to ourselves that it is almost warm
  • We all pretend we know something about college basketball
  • We’re officially two months away from the seventh most important draft lottery in the 35 years we’ve been doing this.

Why seventh?

Right now, the top six are pretty unassailable. They are, in receding date order, the Davis lottery, the LeBron lottery, the Duncan lottery, the Shaq lottery, the Admiral lottery, and of course, the Ewing lottery.

All were sure things, all are Hall of Famers4, and all became part of the fabric of the league to some extent.

Zion, for all of his shoe-shattering glory, is not the fait accompli any of them were, but you could argue that there’s been no greater drop-off between the first and second pick than Williamson’s perceived value and the value of the next best guy.

That’s why this one slots in ahead of the Yao lottery (Jay Williams went second), the Wall lottery (Evan Turner) and the Towns lottery (Okafor/Russell). In most people’s minds before each draft, the downgrade in talent for those years wasn’t as severe even though the eventual results said otherwise. You could convince me that the Webber and Blake lotteries should be in the conversation with Zion, but as of now, I’m giving the edge to the dude who did this.

Regardless, May 14 is still a really, really, really freaking important night. It’s why a site like Tankathon.com, with its daily Single Sims, has become the guiltiest of pleasures. I have to admit, I took a bite of the forbidden fruit myself earlier this week:

The farcical nature of my question didn’t stop a flood of responses. Nor should it have. It’s been 35 years since the Knicks got one of these right, and the Knicks will have no shortage of options to send to Chicago for the unveiling.

So let’s lend a hand. Below are several candidates suggested by you, my Twitter followers, that we’ll assess from 1 to 5 on four criteria: karma, absurdity/comedy, fan endorsement/approval, and how realistic the choice is of happening. Note: if multiple people suggested it, dibs to who did first.

To begin, our honorable mentions:

Desus and Mero (Suggested by @NYSportsGuys5)

From what I hear, Desus and Mero are awesome and I would probably love them.

Sadly, I have a small child, and before her, I was still practicing law, so my television consumption has been pretty pathetic for several years. I’ve only seen these guys in spurts. They seem cool. If anyone wants to buy my broke ass a subscription to Showtime, PayPal me $11 a month at paypal.me/jcmacrinba and I promise I’ll order it and make it a priority to watch.

Until then, I got nothin’.

Karma: 2     Absurdity: 3     Fan endorsement: 4     Realistic: 1     Total: 10

Phil Jackson (Suggested by @Markbristow22)

Following the KP trade, there was a burbling undercurrent on Knicks Twitter of “see, Phil wasn’t that crazy after all!”

It was a little too sliding doors-y for me to buy. Still, no one person has been linked with as many great Knicks througout history: he played with Willis and Walt, he’s a big part of why Patrick doesn’t have a ring, and he was indirectly responsible for KP’s entrance into and exit from the franchise.

There’s also the fact that we haven’t seen or heard from him in years, and based on the totality of his Knicks tenure, he might be senile. His last tweet in June was about the science of meditation. Seeing him amble around the stage, maybe mistakenly sit down at the Bulls’ or Lakers’ table, and generally not be connected with reality would be humorous enough to lessen the blow of not getting Zion.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 5     Fan endorsement: 2    Realistic: 1     Total: 11

David Stern (Suggested by @TheRealFern_FR3)

Maybe it’s just me, but I think having Stern in that seat would be positively brilliant theater, and it has nothing to do with the frozen envelope.

Would Stern openly loath having to be the one to gift the number one overall pick to an owner he probably would have liked to see gone years ago? Or would he be thrilled to be the man who finally delivers the prize, as he recently seemed to include himself as a member of the starved fan base?

I have no idea, but just seeing Stern in all his rumpled glory would make this fun.

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 2    Realistic: 1     Total: 11

Dolan J. Trump (Suggested by @KevKnoxBurner)

For the ill-informed, this is a former Nets fan who runs a parody account of a guy who won an election he had no business winning in large part because he talked about how much winning he would do if he won. Sounds like an appropriate choice!

The way the Knicks have been run this century, they probably deserve Zion about as much as the real Trump deserves to run the country, so there’s some definite karmic potential here.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 3    Realistic: 1     Total: 11

Frank Isola

Just checking to make sure you’re still paying attention.

Kevin Durant (Suggested by @jesuisad)

Given that the Warriors would likely still be playing basketball on May 14, logistically, this one might be tough. Even if they get bounced early, I could see the league office frowning upon this.

I also think there’d be a subset of fans that would want someone with existing connections to the franchise, as opposed to an outsider taking his place atop the throne before fighting a single battle.

Still, can’t hurt to ask.

Karma: 2     Absurdity: 5     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 1     Total: 12

Mitchell Robinson (Suggested by @NYGKnicks)

It’s safe to say that Mitchell Robinson will end the season as the current Knicks who has engendered the most positive feelings among the fan base, which makes him an obvious choice for that reason alone.

Robinson also brings with him the possibility that, should the Knicks’ envelope appear before the top pick, he walks up to NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum and swats the card from his hand, forcing him to take another envelope in it’s place.

Sadly, choosing Robinson is ridden with karmic pitfalls. For one, he was drafted 36th overall. The lottery gods could easily view the Knicks as unworthy of the top pick when they’ve already done so well with a second-rounder.

Second, pound for pound, Mitch might be the most freakish athlete in the league…until Zion plays his first game. Would said gods giggle in delight at the thought of these two sharing a court together, or would they deem it a flight too close to the sun with freakishly long wings? I wouldn’t be shocked if Mitch was the pick, so we may get to find out.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 1     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 4     Total: 12

Pablo Prigioni (Suggested by @Brenhart31)

As Zach Lowe recently noted on his podcast, Pablo Prigioni might be the most favoritest of all the Knicks fan favorites over the last two decades.

That’s not why he should get the nod. If ever the numerical symmetry of the former 35-year-old rookie who averaged 3.5 points while appearing in 53 of the team’s wins should be put to good use, it’s during the summer when a player who wears number 35 is deciding whether to come to New York.

Also, how fitting would it be if a guy who always seemed to get just a bit too much credit from fans became the savior of the franchise for merely sitting and watching a small cardboard placard get pulled out of a novelty envelope?

Sadly, he works for the Nets, so I don’t know that this one is happening.

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 3     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 1     Total: 12

Kristaps Porzingis

Ha.

Andrea Bargnani

Ok, ok….I’ll stop. Also, sorry for listing the same person twice in a row.

Let’s get to the top four.

Patrick Ewing (Suggested by @Atlasjsh)

Almost too obvious of a choice, and probably the one the most fans would support.

Would Patrick do it? Doubtful. Not only does he have no affiliation with the organization, but they’ve never so much as granted him an interview during the many times their head coaching position became available.

Maybe the better question is whether such a shameless attempt to use the positive karma from the last time the Knicks won the lottery would backfire.

Also, umm…I hate to say it, but, ah, uhh…it’s not like Patrick ever won the big one while he was here, ya know?

(ducks, runs for cover)

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 2     Fan endorsement: 5    Realistic: 2     Total: 13

Spike [with his Oscar] (Suggested by @2ForgetUs)

Spike has been making movies since before the Knicks won the lottery in 1985, and he just now won his first Oscar. It might be a sign.

There are, however, three significant issues:

  1. Spike has become a bit of a fair-weather fan this season. I don’t know exactly how many games he’s been to, but it’s far less than in years past.
  2. His Oscar win came for a movie that maybe sneaks into the bottom of his personal top five. Do the Right Thing, Malcolm XHe Got Game and 25th Hour2 are unassailable. That leaves BlacKkKlansman competing with Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, She’s Gotta Have It and arguably Clockers and School Daze for the last spot. This has “With the fifth pick, the New York Knicks select…” written all over it.
  3. Most significantly, the first rule of tanking is that you do not talk about tanking.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 2     Total: 13

Natasha Sen-Fizdale (Suggested by @BlessNYC)

The recent history (and, as far as I can tell, the only history) of women at the NBA Draft Lottery is a solid if unspectacular one.

In 2014, Mallory Edens, a high school senior and the daughter of Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens, represented Milwaukee and they came away with the number two pick despite having the worst record in the league. Still, given the odds at the time, this was technically a win.

Then last year, Hawks co-owner and actress Jami Gertz 3 was the Hawks rep that nabbed the third pick after her team finished tied for the third worst record. Again, they didn’t win, but they still came out better than the math suggested they should.

That brings us to Natasha Sen-Fizdale, and perhaps more importantly, her husband David.

Opinions on the head coach are mixed as he nears the end of his first season, but there’s one thing that is not in dispute: in Natasha, he absolutely, 100% out-kicked his coverage. Forget the fact that she’s beautiful; she’s the owner of a marketing agency and is by all accounts an awesome person, having become involved in the community at every stop along her husband’s journey. I don’t care if he has the most engaging personality in the world and carries around a 12-inch…clipboard, landing Natasha was…well, it was like winning the lottery.

It’s those type of odds the Knicks will need to overcome in a little more than two months. It almost makes her the perfect choice.

Almost.

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 3     Fan endorsement: 5     Realistic: 3     Total: 15

Charles Oakley (Suggested by @YanksFamBam)

(clears throat)

Being a Knicks fan is so frustrating, not because we usually suck (although this doesn’t help) and not because our leadership is often inept (ditto), but because we have an owner who by all accounts can speak and act in ways that are not so much…what’s the word…pleasant? Sure, let’s go with pleasant.

Sometimes it’s easy and convenient to stick our head in the sand, a thing which we all have to do as human beings from time to time unless you’re a monk. Not with the Oakley incident.

I’ve heard from people in private who were there that night, and am convinced there is legitimacy to the Garden’s side of the story. It doesn’t matter. The way it was handled in the moment and afterwards was petty, ugly, and honestly pretty disgraceful. More importantly, the relationship should have never soured to the point where such a situation could have transpired in the first place. Oakley embodied being a Knick, and his becoming estranged should have been avoided by any means necessary.

Asking Oakley to sit on the lottery dais would, in effect, mean that things had been patched up between he and the organization. This would almost surely require an apology from the owner who so often leaves us feeling conflicted over our fandom. That would represent more progress for this team than anything they can do this July or the next ten seasons combined. It would be exactly the type of karma that the Knicks need heading into May 14. It’s reason enough for him to be the guy.

But there’s more. Follow me down memory lane for a moment…

Charles Oakley was traded for Marcus Camby, who was included in the deal for Antonio McDyess, who was later part of the trade for Penny Hardaway, who was dealt to Orlando for Steve Francis, who was traded to Portland for Zach Randolph, who was shipped to LA for Tim Thomas, who was sent to the Bulls for Eddy Curry, who was a part of the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster. Melo was later sent to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the rights to Chicago’s second round pick the following year, which the Knicks would use on a gangly mystery man who skipped his freshman year of college and fell all the way down to the 36th pick in the draft as a result.

So yes, Charles Oakley is indirectly responsible for Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks latest, best hope for their first homegrown star since Patrick Ewing, the man who was once Oakley’s running mate in New York.

It’s only fitting that he be sent to Chicago – the place the Knicks got him from to begin with – to try to deliver the Knicks’ new center a partner of his own, and New York the star is has so desperately been craving.

Bring it home, Oak. Let’s do this.

Karma: 5     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 5     Realism: 2     Total: 16

The Emmanuel Mudiay Conundrum

David Fizdale has a soft spot for Emmanuel Mudiay. This much is obvious. Jonathan Macri decided to take a look at just how warranted, or unwarranted, that is, and just how worrisome his affection should be to fans moving forward.

You can’t drink out of it like the Stanley Cup.

You can’t wear it like the Heavyweight Championship Belt.

But make no mistake: the title of Knicks Punching Bag is as esteemed an honor as exists in the world of professional sports. John Starks is the first Knick I can remember holding the title, and he held it with the utmost dignity. He was followed by such luminaries as Chris Childs, Othella Harrington, Tim Thomas, Steve Francis, Jarred Jeffries, Iman Shumpert, Andrea Bargnani, JR Smith, Derrick Rose, and of course most recently by Enes Kanter.

How does one attain this most prestigious of honors?

For one, you can’t hold the title if you outright stink. There has to be at least a segment of the fan base that thinks you’re good, or at least that you hold the faintest potential to be good. Kicking a man when he’s down is only fun if there’s someone there making an effort to drag him out of the mud. Or so I’ve heard.

Second, and most importantly, you can only have one title-holder at a time…but there’s almost always someone wearing the crown. I wasn’t alive in the late 60’s, but I can imagine a young version of my dad watching number one overall pick Bill Bradley as a rookie and shouting obscenities at the television…

Rhodes Scholar my ass! Don’t they teach rebounding at Princeton? Holzman hates Cazzie Russell otherwise he’d be starting. They’re definitely tanking.

I’m not ashamed. We’re New Yorkers. If we’re not complaining about something, we’re either sleeping or dead.

As such, there’s been a bit of a void ever since Kanter moved on. With six weeks remaining in another losing season, it wasn’t going to be long before someone took the baton and ran with it. Following some early jostling for the gig, we have a winner:

Almost from the day he was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay has made his fair share of enemies. Now, with Kanter gone, he’s ascended to his rightful place on the throne.

On one hand, the hate seems a little unfair. Playing on an already terrible team, Emmanuel Mudiay has made the Knicks no more or less  terrible than they otherwise would be.

According to ESPN’s RPM calculation, Mudiay currently sits 59th out of 97 qualified point guards – a stark improvement after finishing dead last and fifth from the bottom the last two years. If we go by the Expected Wins formula on Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks would have two more wins over an 82-game season given Mudiay’s efficiency differential. NBA.com has his individual net rating at -7.9, which is almost identical to the team’s -7.8 overall number.

To Booty-ay Backers (they’re out there!), this is all evidence of a talented point guard trending in the right direction. They see a shooter who has finally crept above league average, a point guard who takes pretty good care of the ball4, and a unique athlete who can get into the paint using his size against smaller players or his speed against larger ones2. Still days away from his 23rd birthday, supporters see no reason to give up on him yet.

His detractors, well…his detractors see everything else. They see a player who has performed far better against backups than starters3. They see a reversion back to form around the rim 4. They see 3-point accuracy that is only a hair above his dreary career mark5. They see a playmaker who doesn’t make plays for others6. They see someone who gives back as much on one end as he might add on the other7.

In short, they see a player who, even if he continued to make incremental improvements at both ends of the court, probably tops out as a high end backup. Best case, he’s a spot starter who might win you a game every now and then, as he has a few times this year (see: home wins vs Milwaukee and New Orleans and road victories in Memphis and Charlotte stand out).

As a player who the organization has now invested over a year’s worth of development time in, there would seem to be some logic to continuing to play him, if not as a starter, then as a backup to the higher ceiling, cost-controlled Dennis Smith Jr. For others, every minute of court time given to Mudiay amounts to a minute not devoted to a worthier cause. Why is that the case?

The easy answer: “It’s the contract, stupid.”

Yes, as we all know, Emmanuel Mudiay is on an expiring pact – one that carries with it a cap hold that comically outsizes his real life value. What we don’t know is what is going to happen this summer. Once the Knicks renounce Mudiay’s hold (a certainty) and then attempt to sign two max players (less so), they will still have a roster to fill out. In the Knicks’ perfect world, those spots will be commanded by minimum salaried players hoping to go ring-chasing.

Are we positive Mudiay has played himself out of such a menial contract? Don’t be so sure. Last offseason, former sixth overall pick Nerlens Noel signed a minimum salary deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, while former 10th overall pick Elfrid Payton signed for just $3 million in New Orleans. Derrick “Once a Knick, Please God, Make it Stop” Rose had to settle for the minimum in Minnesota. Hell, Noah Vonleh – the ninth selection just four years ago – didn’t even get a fully guaranteed deal.

Of course, if the Knicks strike out, bringing some of the band back on one-year contracts for continuity’s sake wouldn’t be the worst idea either.

So yes, while the contract is one factor, by itself, it’s not the reason Mudiay’s continued playing time has everyone so up in arms. If that were the case, Kadeem Allen – who is four years older than Mudiay and also not signed past this year – would have caused the pitchforks to come out when he was averaging 22 minutes a night before being sent back to Westchester.

No, the fury goes much, much deeper than money. Over the course of this season, Mudiay and his playing time have become nothing short of a referendum on David Fizdale. That conversation inevitably turns into a discussion about what is and isn’t the purpose of this season. It’s all interconnected.

I’ve sung Fizdale’s praises more than is probably deserved and won’t add to them here. It is interesting to note, though, that while opinions on Mudiay really aren’t that divergent – he’s some shade of “meh” any way you cut it – opinions on Fizdale shone through the prism of Mudiay run all the colors of the rainbow.

When looking for reasons why the former Nugget is still playing, the common refrain skews towards the negative: David Fizdale plays Mudiay because he doesn’t care about defense…or analytics…or development. That he cut his teeth in an organization that has been at or near the forefront of all three is conveniently placed aside.

Sometimes, the accusations can get a little uglier than that. Some feel Emmanuel Mudiay has been Fizdale’s personal pet project ever since “we gonna get you right” and that it’s the coach’s ego driving his decision to stick with Mud. Others feel he’s Fiz’s personal tank commander and his PT is simply an easy way to rack up L after L. Some just think he hates Frank Ntilikina…or foreign players in general…or has been given a directive not to prioritize holdovers from the Phil Jackson regime. It’s all been floated.

There are other theories…less devious ones that coincide with Fizdale’s reputation as a coach who gets buy-in from players like no other. Could it be that he feels obliged to support Mudiay, someone who’s diligently if not aptly taken to coaching since the summer? Does he feel that casting off a 22-year old just because he doesn’t neatly fit into the organization’s future plans is not only inherently wrong, but a bad look for a team trying to rebrand itself as someplace players want to come? Does he want to maintain DSJ’s drive and kick style when he goes to his second unit? Might he simply want to stay with the hot hand when it’s warranted, as he did to positive results Tuesday night vs Orlando?

All of these glass-half-full options require looking at a basketball team as a living, breathing organism rather than a balance sheet or a collection of statistics. Is that wise? Or an inherently flawed approach?

As you ponder that, consider the coach’s words after New York’s recent home loss to the Timberwolves – the one that had many fans flummoxed over Emmanuel Mudiay playing the final 17 minutes of the game. Fizdale was asked about divvying up playing time between the kids and the vets. His response8 was instructive:

It depends on how the young guys are messing up. If their mistakes are mistakes that I have to show more discipline about, then the vets are going to play more in that situation.

The question came on the heels of a night where DeAndre Jordan saw 33 minutes to Mitchell Robinson’s 13 – something the coach attributed to Robinson’s lack of focus and inability to stay “locked in.” Did this tough love approach have anything to do with Robinson responding by playing perhaps his best game of the season vs the Spurs? Or was it merely a matter of opportunity thanks to Jordan being out with an injury?

Just like the Mudiay questions, we simply don’t know. In fact, none of the theories about Fizdale’s approach can be confirmed or denied, but their mere existence drives home a salient point: unlike a smoking gun, decision making in a tanking season isn’t definitive evidence of anything. This is “eye of the beholder” at it’s finest. Playing Emmanuel Mudiay proves David Fizdale is an idiot. Or that he’s a genius. Or somewhere in between. It’s up to you to pick which one is true.

In reality, on such a shitty team, there are arguments for and against playing any player, just as there are arguments for playing them four, 14 or 40 minutes a game. Just like the Mudiay discussion, opinions on those arguments are colored by one’s own personal views on development, culture, accountability, tanking, analytics, and a whole host of other team-building tenets that have yet to be settled one way or another.

The best part is that all of this talk is likely meaningless. Golden State is a dynasty neither because nor despite the fact that Dorell Wright averaged more minutes per game than Steph Curry during the future MVP’s sophomore season; they’re a dynasty because Steph Curry became Steph Curry. Nothing in anyone’s control was ever going to change that.

If this summer goes according to plan, the fretting about Emmanuel Mudiay will seem comical in retrospect. There will be no guesswork involved as to whether David Fizdale is doing a good job. The record will speak for itself.

In a season like this one, however, there are no answers, only questions…questions that aren’t likely to be answered until the dust settles in July and the season begin anew in October.

Until then, we’ll have Emmanuel Mudiay to argue about, because we’re New Yorkers, dammit. It’s what we do.

Mitchell Robinson is just getting started

Remember Little Shop of Horrors?

The horror/sci-fi/rom-com/musical period piece from 1986? The description says all you need to know. It should have been too audacious to work, except for the fact that it was so audacious, it worked perfectly. I mean, Rick F’ing Moranis plays the lead, opposite a giant, man-eating plant voiced by the lead singer from the Four Tops. That about says it all.

I thought of the movie recently when I was trying to find a parallel to the season Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson is having. During New York’s just-ended 18-game losing streak, I found myself thinking of Robinson a lot. As other young players on the roster had positive moments here and there, it seemed like every minute Mitch was in the game, he was doing something good. He was routinely – and quite loudly – announcing his presence on the court in a way that made his emergence as a two-way force seem almost obvious.

Less obvious is why LSOH is the perfect avatar for this precocious wunderkind. Like Robinson, LSOH was and is something we’ve never seen before…a movie that throws a bunch of shit against the wall and yet somehow creates a masterpiece.

Mitch, meanwhile, already has a special place among the NBA lexicon because he still hasn’t met a block he doesn’t like. At the rim, midrange, behind the arc, centers, wings, ball handlers, late clock, early clock, stars, nobodies…it’s all the same to him. Jumping at such a variety of attempts should result in disaster, but just like the movie, it hasn’t.

The nature of the rejections or the rate at which they are coming – he’s leading the league in blocks per 36 minutes among guys who’ve played at least 500 minutes – are not the reasons why I thought of the movie though.

No, the reason why LSOH is being remade as the 2018-19 Knicks season9 is because like the true star of the movie, Mitchell Robinson’s game keeps growing…and growing…and growing some more, with no end in sight. Even better, it’s getting nastier by the day. He is becoming a monster before our very eyes…one that deems your shit to be unworthy, and he will vanquish it accordingly.

On the surface, he might look like the same player as he was in October. In fact, when I sent out a recent tweet suggesting he had grown by leaps and bounds since Vegas Summer League, a few people responded that, no, this was essentially the same guy.

Let’s quickly dispel with that notion. If your memory of last summer’s fake games is fuzzy, refresh it with Zach Diluzio’s phenomenal piece on the subject. He details how, despite the obvious talent, Mitch struggled in several aspects of the game, including but not limited to screen-setting, footwork on closeouts, positioning, and general fundamentals. It’s why, like Zach, I though he was destined to spend a good portion of the season in the G-League.

Hey, guess what has two thumbs and shouldn’t make predictions!

When the real games started in October, not only was Mitch getting playing time with the big club, but he looked downright competent in the process. That was impressive in and of itself. What he’s done in the four short months since then is downright astounding.

Let’s start with the foul issues, Robinson’s most glaring bugaboo. Following an initial feeling-out process in October, in 15 November games, Robinson averaged 7.6 fouls per 36 minutes. Among 280 players to see the court for at least 250 minutes that month, that figure was dead last2.

It wasn’t hard to see why either. Mitch left his feet when the shooter so much as thought about pump-faking. The results spoke for themselves.

Since November, Robinson has steadily decreased his hackin’n whackin, dropping to 6.7 fouls per 36 minutes in December, 5.8 in November and just 4.3 so far this month. That it hasn’t hurt his ability to be a human Magic Eraser3 one bit makes it all the more impressive. On the year, opponents are converting 4.9 percent fewer shots when guarded by Robinson. That’s among the league leaders for high volume defenders and is just ahead of his more ballyhooed classmate, Jaren Jackson Jr.

Overall, the effect that Big Meech4 has had on the team’s defense has improved as well. For the months of November, December and January, the Knicks gave up between 109.7 and 110.9 points per 100 possessions when Mitch manned the middle. So far this month though, that number is an even 100.0. For the season, New York has a 107.8 defensive rating when Robinson plays, which would rank ninth in the league and is nearly five points better than their actual number.

Aside from his penchant for fouling, the other major knock on Mitch’s game early on was that he didn’t rebound the ball like a seven-footer with his leaping ability had any right to. Prior to the ankle injury that kept him sidelined for a month between December and January, Robinson’s total rebound percentage was a paltry 10.7 percent, which ranked 78th out of 91 centers through the end of 2018. Since the new year started, that’s bumped up all the way up to 15.3 percent. At 37th out of 86 centers during that time, it’s far from elite but is more than respectable. His 14.1 rebounds per 36 minutes since the calendar flipped to February – higher than Joel Embiid during that short span – means the best may be yet to come.

There are other small signs around the periphery as well. While all of the attention has been on how much less he’s fouling, Robinson is also drawing fouls at a greater rate. Pre-December injury, he was getting to the line just over once per game. Since coming back, that number has more than doubled. His shooting from the field has also reached astronomical levels. Since January 1, of the 309 players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, his 76.4 effective field goal percentage is second in the league.

Again: dude didn’t play basketball for a year.

Are there still things to work on? Of course. For starters, he’s still averaging a hair under 18 minutes per game. The reason he’s not on the court more despite the gaudy numbers is because it would disrupt the tank his conditioning is still a work in progress (although six of his top 11 minutes totals have come since January 27). He also hasn’t shown the propensity to shoot, like, at all. For the season, he’s taken exactly three shots outside of five feet from the basket. His trainer Marcell Scott has already spoken about upping that number.

So yeah…New York has itself a legit, honest to goodness prodigy on their hands. That news is both good and potentially incredibly complicating.

Whether or not Knicks fans want to hear this, the team is absolutely going to put itself in the running for Mitch’s summer workout buddy, Anthony Davis. The Pelicans, justifiably, are going to ask for the moon. I’m not going to get into whether it’s the right move to clear out the cupboard for a 26-year-old generational talent entering his walk year, because considering the ramifications that it could have on free agency this summer, that’s an article unto itself. What’s notable here, though, is that there’s one very important thing that could wind up keeping Mitchell Robinson in orange and blue even if the Knicks go out and get themselves a Brow: money.

If the Knicks want to retain enough cap space to add two maximum salary players5

Here’s where things gets tricky: Anthony Davis makes $27,093,019 next season. Due to the NBA’s salary matching rules, the Knicks would need to send out at least $21,674,415 in any trade. The numbers get tight here, and where New York ends up selecting in the draft could play a large role as the 5th pick makes almost $3 million less than the first pick.

Regardless, this much is clear: the Knicks will need to send out their own 2019 draftee and Kevin Knox, along with Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina in order to have any chance of the money working out for Davis[footnote]again, assuming they’ve spent all their cap space on two max players. Mitchell Robinson makes so much less than those players ($1.5 million next season) that his salary won’t tip the scales one way or another.

So what does that mean for Robinson? Maybe nothing. For as amazing as he is, is Mitch really going to be the deal breaker in getting AD, especially when acquiring Davis in principle before free agency begins could seal the deal for KD and a super friend? Probably not, but the point should still be made: should the Knicks brass take a hard line stance that New Orleans has to leave them with one of their kiddos, because of how little he makes, the default kiddo in that scenario almost has to be Mitchell Robinson.

This, of course, is getting wildly ahead of ourselves. If the Knicks find themselves in a place where they even need to have these conversations means a) the summer has gone exactly as planned and b) Robinson continues to progress at a rapid rate. For as crazy as the first part seems, the latter now appears more likely than not.

In a horror movie of a season for fans everywhere, that alone is something to be excited about.

A calm Knicks trade deadline before the impending storm

After a slow trade deadline, the real fun for the Knicks begins in earnest. A look at where things stand now and in the immediate future.

Aside from paying two men roughly the GDP of a small island nation to not play basketball for them over the next two months, the Knicks had a quiet deadline day. We probably shouldn’t be surprised.

After making a trade that sent shock waves throughout the league, the smart money said the Knicks were going to sit tight. Why? There’s different reasons for different players that fans may have expected to be involved in a deal:

  • Wes Matthews: it wasn’t the player, but the salary. It’s not easy to move $18.6 million and only get back expiring money, which was an obvious caveat in any trade. Once Philly and Sacramento made their respective moves, no suitors with the wherewithal to make a deal were left on the market.
  • Enes Kanter: it was the player and the salary. As I wrote about here and here, there was never going to be a trade market for Kanter. Sorry.
  • Frank Ntilikina: even the most ardent Ntilikina supporters6 would have advocated seeing what was available. That said, it’s tough to imagine anything but low-ball offers for the worst shooter in the league. Orlando made an offer, but was rebuffed. It made more sense to keep him, see if he can figure it out, and get his value up above the basement level.
  • Emmanuel Mudiay: he hasn’t been good enough for a playoff contender to look at and say “he can help us.” Orlando got their reclamation project point guard in Markelle Fultz. Even if anyone has been impressed by his play, his cap hold is so large ($12 million) that it’s hard to see anyone thinking they needed to get him on the books now so they could have an advantage in re-signing him. He will be eminently gettable this offseason.
  • DeAndre Jordan: Every little bit helps.

That leaves Noah Vonleh, the one guy who fans reasonably could have expected to be on the move, especially with his name in trade rumors.

What could the Knicks have gotten for someone who would have been a fourth big on most of the better playoff squads? It’ tough to say. The team acquiring him would have been doing so purely as a rental, which is why, as JB detailed last month, the Knicks should have been looking to move him in the first place.

A look at some other deadline deals may help explain why he’s still a Knick:

  • Nikola Mirotic – a player who could potentially swing a playoff series this spring and who came equipped with full Bird rights – netted the Pelicans four second round picks, two of which are likely to end up in the last 50’s.
  • The Lakers got Mike Muscala – a better shooting, worse defending version of Vonleh – in exchange for an interesting young player in Ivaca Zubac2, who is a restricted free agent to be.
  • The Lakers also acquired 3&D maestro Reggie Bullock for a 2021 second rounder3.

Could the Knicks have gotten a second for Vonleh? Almost certainly. Would it have been a difference-making pick? That’s less likely. Was it worth keeping him around, regardless of the return? It’s a fair question to ask.

On one hand, if the Knicks want to show some semblance of cohesion over the last 29 games – and they should – Vonleh should help them do that despite his less-than-desirable advanced stats of late.

More importantly, though, we just saw the team ship out the one-time franchise cornerstone ostensibly because he didn’t want to be here. By all accounts, Noah Vonleh is a player who has not only bought in to what the Knicks are trying to build, but can attest to the effectiveness of their program as well. Scott Perry would seem to want guys like that in the building for as long as possible. When you throw in the possibility that this summer may not go according to plan, it’ll probably be easier to negotiate a short-term extension for Vonleh operating in house than from the outside.

So Vonleh remains, along with a core group of young Knicks that, as Zach Lowe astutely pointed out yesterday, may be auditioning for jobs in New Orleans as much as they are for playing time in New York next season. Fans should expect to see a healthy dose of Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina together in the backcourt, along with Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson and of course, Kevin Knox.

On Knox, something that hasn’t been said explicitly but seems to be an obvious reality: if Kevin Durant is here next year, Kevin Knox almost certainly won’t be. If Knox is a serviceable NBA player by next season4, it’ll be at the three, which is where Kevin Durant calls home during the regular season. Of course the two could play together, but if Durant comes, he won’t be doing so to watch Knox continue to have his growing pains. Add in the fact that, aside from their draft pick, Knox is New York’s best trade asset, and it’s tough to see a scenario where Knox isn’t the centerpiece of a trade for a veteran following Durant’s (hopeful) arrival.

There are, of course, many bridges to cross before we get to that point though.

Looking ahead…

On one hand, Kevin Durant seems to be in his own universe, and will decide his fate irrespective of anything or anyone else. He is an enigma. While the KD-to-NY whisper campaign has been in full force for months, I maintain that no one has any earthly clue what he will do, including the Knicks.

As for things outside of Durant, the domino effect will be fascinating to watch, and it all starts on May 14.

That, of course, is the night of the draft lottery, and it effects everything that happens from that moment forward. If the Knicks don’t win – and there is at least an 86% chance they won’t – then they will effectively be taken out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, as no package New York can offer would beat a Boston one that includes Jayson Tatum.

Losing the lottery sets up a doomsday chain of events for New York: the Celtics trade for AD at the first possible moment they can after July 1, Kyrie knows he can play the next several years of his career with a generational talent in Davis, and then decides to re-sign in Boston. At that point, does Durant even look at New York, or does he wonder if there’s anyone worth coming here to play with? It’s a very real question.

It’s also fair to ask another question – one that will be dominating NBA war rooms over the next four months: would the Celtics even include Tatum in a deal for Davis without the assurance the Brow re-signs?

If the Knicks win the lottery, that conversation is moot, as they would move to the front of the line for Davis, whether Boston is willing to include Tatum or not in their own package. At that point, they’ll be able to gather enough intel to know what a move for AD would mean in terms of who would then come in free agency. Effectively, they may not just be trading for Davis, but for Davis, Kyrie and Kevin Durant as well. Zion Williamson could pee champagne and shit excellence, but if it’s him or those three, I’m taking the latter, and so will the Knicks.

The lottery isn’t the only thing that will have a say in all this. Of the Bucks, Sixers, Celtics and Raptors, two will be going home before the conference finals. With the Bucks currently the one seed and employer of the best player in the East, it’s a very real possibility that two of Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard will be going fishing earlier than expected.

Does that change how likely it is for any of those players to re-up with their current organizations? It very well may. On the flip side, if Boston were to make it to, say, Game 6 of the NBA Finals, would that alter Kyrie’s thinking in a different way? Would it change Boston’s approach if Tatum lit it up in June? Every outcome is on the table.

The ironic part is that the team that easily has the most to lose and the most to gain from all of this will have less of a say in the ultimate outcome than any other party involved. All the Knicks can do is the one thing they’ve been pretty good at doing in a season where not much has gone right: incrementally upping the stock of the young players on the roster.

If nothing else, should May 14 and July 1 not go as New York hopes, continued improvement from the young guys will give fans something they can rest their hopes on moving forward. In that scenario, God willing, the team would continue to emphasize youth, take on some bad money for picks and/or young players, maybe invest in another distressed asset or to, and bide their time until the next big fish became available.

Who knows…maybe Boston getting AD could be the best thing in the long run, making it more likely he hits free agency in 2020, right around when the Giannis talk will start heating up.

It bears repeating: everything is on the table. This is the NBA, remember? Chaos has become the only constant there is.

The Porzingis trade didn’t alter the plan, it amplified it

Are the Knicks deviating from their plan or following it?

Sit here, children…plenty of room down in front. Take a pillow if you like. There’s juice boxes in the bin.

It’s story time.

Once upon a time there was an NBA team in a bit of a pickle. For starters, they weren’t very good. Over a 5-year stretch, they averaged 25 wins per season and didn’t sniff the playoffs. They’d gone through three coaches over that span of time, and even fired their president in the midst of all the losing. They also engaged in some of the most egregious spending of any team in the league, paying middling players far more than they were worth.

That this NBA team just so happens to be located in one of the league’s two major markets made all this spending that much worse.

Things got so bad; in fact, in order to gear up for a summer in which some of the league’s best players were going on the market, including arguably the very best player, they had to attach an asset to dump one of those horrendous contracts. Not just any asset either; an All-Star in his early 20’s was sent packing.

Maybe all of this shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the fact that the owner of the team was only running things because the owner’s father had built an empire that the owner stood to benefit from through nothing more than sheer genealogical luck.

Thankfully though, all was not lost. This team had a well-respected coach, one seemingly destined for success as a head man ever since he was an assistant for one of the most respected coaches in the league. They also had a bevy of young assets that by themselves weren’t much, but could easily grow into a positive supporting pieces or potential trade chips down the line.

Low and behold, come the summer that they’d been gearing up for – the one that the new front office had planned for, a plan they never once deviated from – they struck gold. No, they didn’t get the second piece they were hoping for, but it was only a matter of time until that came to fruition.

They got the guy that mattered.

Yeah, I know…there’s a lot of differences between the Knicks and the Lakers.

For one, Los Angeles is the most storied franchise in the NBA with an owner that has the namesake of a man who did it better than anyone. The Knicks, much to the chagrin of our collective superiority complex as New Yorkers, have won two championships in 73 years5 and have, if not the most derided owner in professional sports, one of the prime contenders.

The Knicks also just traded away someone who’s already been an All-Star, as opposed to D’Angelo Russell who only found himself once he got to Brooklyn. The ceiling on each player is not comparable, although neither is the risk. New York has also done a healthy amount of losing this year, unlike Los Angeles in 2017-18 season, but they also own their own draft pick, which LA did not.

Perhaps most notably, unlike the Lakers, New York still employs one of the men who has been here for almost all of this losing. For many fans, the mere presence of Steve Mills is enough to cast doubt on every action the Knicks take, simply because he has been involved in so many poor decisions in the past.

Yet it was Mills, along with general manager Scott Perry, who has stood before us so many times over the last 18 months and said, in different iterations, that for the first time maybe in their history as a franchise, the Knicks were going to build things “the right way” and “not skip any steps.”

Following the team trading away its best young player since Patrick Ewing, it would be easy to use these words as a “gotcha” moment. One could argue that this trade amounted to a dissolution of the right way and instead was a reversion back to the same way.

Same Old Knicks, that is.

Before we get to the logic of this assertion, let’s get two things out of the way:

  • The notion of using a young, All-Star level player – injury or no injury – as a mechanism to salary dump anyone, let alone one signed so recently by someone still running things, on its face, is abhorrent.
  • Whether it is 10%, 50% or 90%, the New York Knicks under this regime bear some responsibility for not being able to foster a stronger relationship with Kristaps Porzingis and2his people.

These two clouds hovering above all of this cannot be ignored, and the parties involved need to be held accountable. They certainly have been.

So yeah…what’s done is done, and it should be criticized appropriately. The question in front of us now is whether this trade somehow represents a deviation from the process this front office staked out from the onset, or does it simply put themselves in better position to follow it?

For many, the idea of opening up an ungodly amount of cap space in a summer that just so happens to represent a potential seismic shift in league power is the equivalent of putting all the chips into the middle of the table. I myself used this exact analogy when I first reacted to the trade last week. This, it would seem, is the opposite of “the right way” and instead amounts to betting little Suzy’s college fund on black.

Is it really, though?

Let’s start with an important distinction: for many organizations, building “the right way” means building slow and steady, and doing so through the draft. This is somewhat by default. Of the three methods for acquiring star players, 1.5 of them are closed off to many NBA teams.

The reality is that the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings of the world are never going to get a meeting with a top-ten player. Moreover, trading for one is now also fraught with peril. Sure, you can get one for a period of time, and you might even get a Paul George to re-up unexpectedly. But this is the exception, not the rule, and with players exerting their power like never before, small market teams aren’t often going to trade a known asset for the mere chance at something greater.

Somewhere between 20 and 25 NBA teams operate in this reality. The rest – the Miami’s and LA’s of the world – get a buffet of all three options. The Knicks should be in this latter group, but are usually in the bathroom dry heaving when the food gets served. As a result, only once in their history have they been in position to get a plate and stand on line.

2010, of course, didn’t work out so well. Whether it was slumping James Dolan in his black turtleneck, Donnie Walsh in his neck brace, or the immortal Tony Soprano donning a beard, things didn’t go according to plan with LeBron.

Some people also mention 2016, when the team couldn’t get a meeting with Kevin Durant, but remember they a) had no cap space with which to make a signing because Phil Jackson had spent it on Joakim Noah3 and Courtney Lee and b) still employed Carmelo Anthony, who just so happened to play Durant’s position. They never had a chance at KD back then.

They do now.

There’s only about six or seven players who truly matter in the league at any given time, and KD damn near tops the list. Perhaps improving your odds to land such player seems like a prudent gamble to take.

Yeah but it’s the Knicks…who’s going to play for this joke of a franchise?

Look…we have no idea what motivates players. What we do know is the evidence that is reported. When Kyrie demanded a trade, New York was on his list. When Kawhi Leonard started making waves, New York was rumored to be a spot his people favored as well. When the Jimmy Butler saga started going down, he had the Knicks on his list, although later backtracked when it was clear they weren’t interested. And then just this week, Anthony Davis had New York right next to LA as a preferred landing spot.

For all of James Dolan faults and for all of the “dysfunction” surrounding the team, the Knicks keep landing on trade lists (and from recent reports, they do for more than just leverage). It’s why, from day one, opening up cap space was always part of the plan. It’s what you do when you have the luxury of playing in one of the NBA’s major markets and have all three player acquisition options open to you.

It’s why, even if there weren’t copious amounts of smoke billowing around New York and Durant’s free agency (something that never existed in 2010 with LeBron), if the Knicks failed to position themselves to make a run at him this summer because of what happened in 2010, it would be akin to taking a vow of celibacy after one date that ended in a spilled cocktail, the words “I don’t like you, in that way…like, at all,” and a hearty handshake4. It would, in short, be organizational negligence.

But isn’t trading away a potential franchise player just as bad?

In an ideal world, of course; but the Knicks aren’t operating in an ideal world. They’re operating in one where said potential franchise guy wanted to be here less than LeBron did in 2010.

Really, the trade comes down to this: as Zach Lowe noted on his recent podcast with Kevin Arnovitz, the Knicks are essentially wagering that a second max slot and a bevy of young players and draft assets, all of which can be used to acquire a third star, is more appealing to Kevin Durant than an unhappy Kristaps Porzingis and much less in the way of future picks to be used for deal-making5. I know which one I’m placing my bet on.

If Durant didn’t come, you’d still be stuck with an unhappy Unicorn, with the only way to possibly placate him being to start winning by any means necessary, even it meant signing a lesser player with all that cap space.

That’s skipping steps, and the opposite of building things the right way. It’s the opposite of sustainable. It’s the opposite of putting yourself in a position to compete for a championship. Most of all, it’s the opposite of patience.

Theoretically, if the Knicks whiff on KD and company this summer, they could simply sit free agency out, stocked with draft picks (perhaps Zion?!?!) and young players. AKA they could continue to rebuild in a slow and steady manner.

That it has since come out, courtesy of Marc Stein of the New York Times, that the Porzingis brothers requested a meeting with New York’s brass and threatened to leave the team and continue his rehab in Spain if he wasn’t traded to one of four teams by the deadline is almost besides the point, just like it’s besides the point that Porzingis could have effectively held the organization hostage – not the other way around – if he refused to sign a long-term deal come July.

No, the Knicks didn’t go all in; they merely diversified their risk portfolio. Keeping Porzingis, on the other hand…that would have been pushing all the chips into the middle of the table, and would have been doing so with a pair of sevens, a hope and a prayer.

Did they wish KP had bought in? Of course. Did they wish this trade was a move they never had to make? Almost certainly. But is it one they had to make if they indeed wanted to continue on the plan Scott Perry set out when he was hired? You betcha.

Again, there are three ways to build in the NBA: free agency, the draft and trades. Following the Porzingis deal, the Knicks have more cap space than any team in league history, seven first rounders over the next five years – including a likely top-five pick this season – and a bevy of young trade chips to rival any team outside of Boston or LA.

All of this, in a market that keeps coming up again…and again…and again, every time one of these big-name guys becomes available.

Does this mean things will work out as planned? Of course not. Hell, things didn’t even work out perfectly for the Lakers, who didn’t wind up needing the Mozgov money they unloaded with D’Angelo Russell to sign LeBron after all. But they played the odds. It’s what you do when you have an NBA team in one of these rare markets. New York keeping it’s doors open right now isn’t a deviation from the plan; it’s finally employing a plan they should have been using all along but never got out of their own way long enough to employ it.

Now they sit and wait.

Of course, if all the chatter surrounding KD and Kyrie turns out to be white noise, the Knicks brass will truly be put to the test. If they respond by inking non-stars to max deals instead of holding steady and waiting for the next moment to use their assets wisely, they would be publicly shamed, and rightly so. In that case, it would indeed be the Same Old Knicks to the nth degree, and yes, very much the wrong way to build a team.

If they do swing and miss though, and use all their cap space to take in some bad, one-year money to acquire more assets, then for the first time in maybe forever, we will know this talk of patience and sustainability is legit.

Time will tell which road we end up traveling. Most are expecting failure, and maybe it happens that way after all.

Or maybe, finally, a new story will get written this time around.

Did the Knicks do their due diligence on the KP trade?

It’s been a few days. That the Unicorn will now be hobbling flying over rainbows in the land of meat and cheese has officially sunk in. We will still be in our feelings for a while, but we’re Knicks fans, so we’re used to it.

There’s been a lot of he said/she said talk in the aftermath about who was actually more sick of who, but there are a couple of things we’ve become certain of over the last few days:

  1. Kristaps Porzingis didn’t really want to be a Knick (context on this in a bit);
  2. The Knicks have been desperately trying to clear cap space for a majority of this season, and not only was the asking price astronomical now, but according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, would only have gone up this summer;
  3. KP was apparently not ready to play with the Knicks holding him out against his will, or if he is ready to play, the Mavericks are taking the same approach; and
  4. There’s a chimney-full worth of smoke surrounding some combination of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis joining forces in Manhattan within the next six months

How at fault the Knicks were in letting Porzingis get so disenfranchised with the organization can and will be debated for some time, but it isn’t really pertinent to this particular conversation. The same goes for whether the Knicks would have been better served swallowing hard, keeping KP past the deadline, and calling his bluff by offering him a massive sum of money in July and daring him not to take it.

What can’t be debated is this: the upcoming summer and the names that will define it have combined to form a dome under which all of the NBA currently operates. It must, at the very least, frame our conversation about the trade New York just pulled off – arguably the most significant one in the team’s history – in this sense: can we really fault them for prioritizing cap space as the most significant asset they wanted back in the Porzingis trade?

Let’s put aside, for a moment, that one of the contracts they needed to move was one that Steve Mills himself inked just a year and a half ago. For as bad as the optics on this are, it would have been even worse if he had bitten his nose to spite his face and held onto Timmy in an effort to prove the contract was a wise expenditure of money. At least he recognized it for what it was: a bit of a disaster.

Now, Hardaway Jr. is gone, along with Courtney Lee, Trey Burke and KP’s relatively large cap hold. All told, the Knicks cap space for the upcoming summer more than doubled. Add on top of that the fact that they acquired two future first round picks which allow them to potentially acquire a star via trade, and the Knicks are well-positioned to go big game hunting.

If they hit, it’s a massive, massive win. If they don’t, the first question that should be asked is whether, instead of cap space and picks, they could have garnered a stronger return in the form of players and/or more picks in trading their own star player.

It’s not a discussion we need to have yet…not until the July feeding frenzy is over. Whether this was this even the best cap-clearing deal they could have gotten, however, is more than valid. According to SI’s Chris Mannix, there’s reason to wonder:

Before we answer the question of whether they got the best deal, we have to look at what they dealt away.

Strictly speaking, Kristaps Porzingis was a distressed asset. He was an asset with massive, massive upside, but was distressed nonetheless due to several factors. For one, he had a checkered injury history, including the most recent one which now seems like it will keep him out for the better part of 18 months. On top of that, there is a looming contract deadline that could get messy – more on that in a second.

There are other minor concerns about his game and feasibility in a league where defensive versatility becomes more valuable by the hour6, but even putting those aside, there was reason to be skeptical that some treasure chest of picks and players awaited the Knicks in return for the grumpy gimpy gifted Latvian, at least not if the Knicks wanted to clear their books in the process.

What else was out there?

With all this as the backdrop, there were some other potential trade partners, ones able to take on all the salary New York wanted to dump and send back unwanted expiring money in return2.

Just not as many as you might think: Atlanta, both Los Angeles teams, Denver, Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana and Sacramento is the entire list.

Now let’s add another layer: any acquiring team had to worry about doing the qualifying offer dance with Porzingis if he didn’t care to stick around. According to ESPN’s report, that’s one factor that scared off the Pelicans.

While there’s no way to know for sure, but given KP’s apparent distaste for organizational strife and/or losing, it would seem logical to believe he wouldn’t want to sign long-term with Sacramento, Atlanta or Chicago for one or both of those reasons. What would have made a deal with any of these three even less likely is that they all probably would have balked at sending over the young player the Knicks would have requested back – Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter Jr. from the Bulls, Marvin Bagley from the Kings and John Collins from the Hawks.

Even with the KP flight risk, Atlanta probably would have been cool with giving up Taurean Prince, but New York would have then asked for either the Dallas 2019 top-five protected pick or Atlanta’s own 2020 pick with very light protections. You could have argued a trade package like this would have been on par with what the Knicks got if Prince had taken a step forward this season, but that hasn’t been the case. Not only has he regressed a bit, but he’s a year closer to restricted free agency than DSJ. Unless the Hawks were willing to give up the ’20 pick without protections – hard to see given the fact that Atlanta is sure to be terrible next year as well – it’s tough to see this trade beating what the Knicks got.

We can also cross the Lakers off the list, as such a transaction would have taken them out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, which would equate to Magic Johnson and LeBron James each conceding defeat. Ha.

That leaves Indiana, the Clippers, Denver and Brooklyn.

I doubt the Clippers would have given up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander straight up for KP given what he’s shown so far in his rookie year, but they definitely weren’t giving him up and taking back all of New York’s contracts, thus putting a crimp in their own notable summer plans, so cross them off too.

Denver has won five in a row and is back atop the Western Conference with Paul Millsap back playing a big role. He theoretically could have been the centerpiece of a trade with other young players coming back to make the money work, but those pieces – Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez and Michael Porter Jr. to name three – are players Denver likes, as opposed to Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs were clearly out on. This makes it less likely the Nuggets would have thrown in picks as well.

The real reason that this deal wasn’t going to happen is that, as we now know, Porzingis is unlikely to see the court this year. A Conference Finals appearance would mean everything to the Nuggets, and without Millsap, they’d have no chance.

Brooklyn is fascinating, just from this simple perspective: would James Dolan ever sign off on a move that sent his young star to the crosstown not-quite-rivals? It would have been a long shot, as the Nets would have needed to include newly-minted All-Star D’Angelo Russell to make the money work. Lose your best player in the middle of a playoff run, clog your own cap, and help out the Knicks in the process?

It’s a stretch. As Stefan Bondy reported earlier this season, the Nets were enamored with Porzingis. They’re also smart enough to know that Russel’s value will likely never be higher than it is right now. Perhaps most importantly, even with Lee and Timmy, they still could have had a boatload of money and maneuver towards max space in July.

The question – assuming Dolan would have stomached such a trade – then becomes whether it would have been a better deal for the Knicks than what they got.

For starters, there’s zero chance the Nets are ever sending out another unprotected pick as long as we all shall live. And who can blame them.

Even putting that aside, it would have been tough to see the acquisition of Russell working out well for New York. If they landed the max guys they seek, Russell’s cap hold gets vanquished and the Knicks have no player or pick to show for themselves in the deal. If New York struck out, they’d be left having to sign Russell to a hefty extension just to save face. They could then continue the slow and steady rebuild with an objectively worse “best” player – albeit one without any qualms with the organization – and far less cap space moving forward. It’s close, but it’s safe to say the deal they got trumps either scenario.

Last but not least is Indiana, which is maybe the most interesting of all.

Indianapolis doesn’t seem like KP’s kind of town, but they’re among the most well-run franchise in the NBA, which we know he craves. They’re also always in the playoffs, so there’s at least a chance KP would have given them a real shot at retaining his services.

The biggest issue here is that the Pacers are not an organization that tanks, so despite Oladipo going down for the year, it’s doubtful they would have included several expiring salaries as if they had no on-court value. The most likely combination would have been Thad Young, Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn, with the Knicks putting Noah Vonleh in the deal instead of Trey Burke as a Young replacement for Indy.

That just leaves the small matter of the young player the Knicks would get back in return. Aaron Holiday hasn’t played much in his young career – he’s averaging just 11 minutes a game – but he’s been good when he’s seen the court. You could argue that he’s the better prospect than Smith Jr., although the latter seems to have more of the skill set David Fizdale desires.

Then there’s the matter of draft compensation. Indiana has had some bad luck dealing away picks in the past – Kawhi Leonard and Caris LeVert were both taken with their selections – so it’s unclear just how willing they would have been to include any in the deal, let alone two.

Would the Pacers have entertained putting Domas Sabonis on the table? It doesn’t seem like something Indiana would do, but if they were, they certainly weren’t including picks as well.

So there you have it. If the Knicks swing and miss in July, we’ll have to come back and revisit whether there were any possible straight-up deals for someone else’s young stud or studs without any salary going out. Until then though, in these uncertain times, Knicks fans should rest assured that in this one, in this narrow framing of the entire Porzingis fiasco, they probably did as well as they were going to do.

The Kristaps Porzingis Trade Postmortem

Almost one year ago to the day (and two blogs ago for me personally) I wrote a story the day after Kristaps Porzingis went down with a torn ACL.

My message was clear. Although there was no silver lining to the injury, the Knicks should use their misfortune as an opportunity to do something they otherwise would have been unable to: repair the relationship with their fallen star, one that the previous regime had sullied. I proposed that when July 1, 2018 came around, New York’s brass should have approached Porzingis at midnight – torn ACL and all – with a max contract extension that would have kept the Unicorn in blue and orange well into the prime of his career.

Continue reading →

Knicks tie franchise record with 12th straight loss at home

Well that was fun.

Dirk played his last game at Madison Square Garden, and that’s about all anyone will remember from this night.

As they should.

After coming out of the gate flat, the Knicks actually put together about one quarter and a half of solid basketball, taking the lead midway through the second before starting to let go of the rope later in the quarter. Nothing changed after halftime, and by the time David Fizdale gave into the fans’ chants for Enes Kanter, and he had played a few minutes, the Knicks found themselves down by 25. In a recent stretch of games defined by solid effort, on Wednesday night, they “gave into the losing,” as Fiz said postgame.

There weren’t many notable performances, but as in any game, if you look hard enough, you will find at least a few positives…

  • Mitchell Robinson had his usual handful of highlight plays. He finished with four blocks and seven rebounds on a night when the Knicks couldn’t find him as the roll man very often. Other than a stretch in the third where he looked out of sorts, he had a decent showing.
  • Kadeem Allen once again came in and played like you would expect a guy to who is fighting for his professional life. He brings grit and toughness to the team and has more of an offensive game than you might expect for a fringe NBA player. So basically, he’s the complete opposite of…
  • Tim Hardaway Jr. I’m done. I’m soooooo done. He looks like he’d rather be literally anywhere else but on the court, which is a shame because for as ineffective as the rest of his teammates are, at least they’re trying. I can’t say the same for Tim, and that’s been the case for some time now, at least on most nights.
  • Trey Burke had the type of stat line we’ve become accustomed to from him: 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting, three assists, -23 in 32 minutes. If Scott Perry can get a second round pick for him, he’s a wizard.
  • Kevin Knox led the team in scoring with 17, but it came with his usual inefficiency (6-for-16) and couple of bonehead plays, but he also had several moments early on driving to the hoops and showing us some of the gifts he has that you simply can’t teach.

Things don’t get any easier Friday night, when the Knicks are hosts to the Celtics.

Meanwhile, the trade deadline is 8 days away and counting…

Knicks battle through 3 quarters, but lose again

On a day when Knicks fans everywhere were consumed with a player on a team halfway across the country, New York actually had a game to play.

To watch them on this evening was, in a lot of ways, refreshing. Much of the talk over the last week, from some outlets at least, has been about how this season has gone horribly wrong. About how the Knicks knew they were going to be bad, but not this bad. About how they haven’t shown the signs of growth that even a young team should in their first season under a new coach.

With their tenth loss in a row and 18th in their last 19 games, it’s easy to buy into it all. Unless you’re actually paying attention.

For the fourth consecutive game, the Knicks held an opponent to fewer points than they did the previous one (127 vs OKC, 114 vs Houston, 109 vs Brooklyn, 106 vs Miami, and 101 vs Charlotte). For the first time all year, you can watch this group and feel like there is something readily identifiable about them – they’re employing an aggressive defense that picks its spots between when it switches and when it traps, and they’re starting to figure it out.

Most helpful in that effort was the newest Knick, Kadeem Allen, who wrecked havoc on that end of the floor. Fizdale couldn’t stop praising his recent acquisition after the game, and it was well deserved. His energy popped off the screen.

Not to be outdone, the Knicks rookies all had their moments. Kevin Knox broke out of his mini-slump with 19 points, including 3-of-4 from deep. He had a nice sequence under his own basket where he battled for a few consecutive offensive boards before drawing a foul.

Mitchell Robinson, meanwhile, continues to provide a reason to watch this team, netting three more blocks in 13 minutes. His alley oop connection with Allonzo Trier is now officially a thing, and even though Trier couldn’t buy a bucket tonight, he connected with Mitch for three lobs and got to the line eight times.

It goes down as another L though, thanks largely to a stretch in the beginning of the fourth where New York looked out of sorts on both ends. As is often the culprit, the ball stopped moving. Trey Burke doesn’t deserve all of the blame, but this seems to happen more often than not when he checks in, and his entrance into the game is what led to the rough stretch.

The Knicks will try to end this streak against a Dallas team that saw New York play perhaps its best game earlier this season. We’ll see if they can come up with a repeat effort.

What to make of the Knicks reportedly shopping Tim Hardaway Jr and Courtney Lee

So news came out yesterday confirming what we learned last week from Mike Vorkunov that the Knicks are officially in the selling business with the trade deadline approaching.

Well, I use the term “news” loosely. That the Knicks would be thrilled to unload Courtney Lee has been an open secret since the summertime. Ditto for Enes Kanter, or at least it has been since he had his first hissy fit playing time reduced starting last month.

The minor revelation is that New York would also be happy to unload their $71 million man, Tim Hardaway Jr.

There’s been speculation that despite his subpar play of late and the overall holes in his game (see: his 115.2 defensive rating, second worst on the team, and a .475 eFG%), because Steve Mills is still in charge, he’d be hesitant to get rid of the man he signed just 18 months ago.

So much for sentimentality. The only question now is how desperate they are to move him. If noted Knicks critic and KFS Podcast alum Howard Beck is to be believed, perhaps very much so:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to guess that New York has at least had conversations with opposing front offices about some young players on their team.

This is neither a bad thing nor a surprise. Everyone in the league is gauging interest on their own roster right around now; to not do so would be malpractice, because you never know what someone will be eager to overpay for.

That said, the news is both encouraging and concerning.

On the bright side, the idea that the organization isn’t married to an undoubtedly flawed player just because he was signed by the guy running the show is a promising sign. It shows that they’re able to fairly, and I would argue, accurately, assess their own players. That’s good.

On the downside, the fact that they’re potentially namedropping a guy like Frank Ntilikina is a trigger for any Knicks fan who’s been around for a while. Regardless of your personal opinions on Ntilikina, attaching him to dump Hardaway would be terrible optics. A reminder:

To then include the player they drafted to ostensibly replace Rose as the tax of unloading Timmy could potentially cause the universe to implode, or at least what’s left of my soul. It would be a trade package sealed with “LOL Knicks” packing tape if there ever was one.

Does it mean it would be the wrong move? Of course not…if the Knicks co-opt the deal by offloading Courtney Lee in a separate transaction and then sign Kevin Durant and Superstar Sidekick X this summer, there will be a parade thrown for Perry & Mills, and justifiably so.

That, of course, is a long way off, and unless the Knicks know something about the thinking of Mr. Durant that we don’t (something that can’t be ruled out, but by all indications seems incredibly unlikely), attaching either Frank, Mitchell Robinson or a future first round pick to dump Hardaway Jr. would represent terrible process. That’s because, worst case scenario, such a deal would be available in the summer, at which point they’d know who wants to take their money and who doesn’t.

To those who say “the price will only go up if they wait,” that’s not really how it works. If Kevin Durant decides that he’s coming to New York, Kevin Durant is coming to New York. If the Knicks needed to waive and stretch Courtney Lee as a last resort to open up the space to make that happen, they’d do it in a heartbeat. That this option exists would be a signal to other teams that, hey, if we can get Lee’s expiring (or Timmy, if that’s their pleasure) and pick up a future second round pick in the process – or at worst, a protected 2020 first rounder – we might as well do it.

The only potentially rational thinking behind attaching a legitimate asset or assets to move Tim or Lee now would be if you could unload both before the deadline.

This would be a giant red flare into the sky above the NBA that two SuperFriends could come to the Garden at once, or at least one Superstar and a very nice sidekick (see the tweet below on why it would be difficult to add a max player next to Durant). This type of maneuvering might not be as easy to pull off in one fell swoop3 once July is already underway.

Oh, wait a minute…we saw that story before, in 2010, when Donny Walsh attached Jordan Hill and a future first to unload Jarred Jeffries at the deadline so the Knicks could make a play for two max guys that summer.

We know what happened next: one (semi) big guy took New York’s money, and the rest was spent on Raymond Felton and various roster flotsam that made New York just “meh” enough for Carmelo Anthony to demand a trade here.

The lesson learned is this: once you make an all-in move to attach a first or a promising  young player (or in that case, both), you’ve set your course. There is no pivoting. You are officially in “win now” mode, and it has the domino effect of, well…mortgaging the farm to bring in a guy like Carmelo Anthony.

That type of thinking might not bite you in the ass right away – neither Hill nor Royce White2 ever amounted to much – but it will eventually. Chandler was a fine player. Gallo was more than fine. And Dario Saric and Jamal Murray – a 21-year-old borderline All-Star – are much, much more than fine.

Sure, you can point to the overpay for Melo as the point where that whole process went to shit and say “we’ll be smarter this time,” but the time to start being smarter is now. With a high pick coming in the draft and an All-Star on the mend, the Knicks don’t need to go “all in.” They have options, including rolling over the cap space to 2020 or simply waiting for the next star who demands a trade.

There’s only one, last, tiny little caveat: we have no idea what has been said between the organization and Kristaps Porzingis…what promises were made, what allusions he’s under…nothing. There’s a very real possibility that he’s not putting his name on a five-year max until he sees a roster that’s ready to kick the rebuild into high gear, and will instead opt to sign a 3+1 offer sheet elsewhere if the Knicks don’t land a major player (read: Durant, Kawhi or Kyrie) this summer. Of course, the Knicks could match such an offer, and there are financial reasons why KP might want to sign a bridge deal until he is a 7-9 year free agent, anyway, but something to consider.

Either way, should KP’s contract situation change the team’s approach at the deadline? You could argue yes, but then again, should the organization lay beholden to a player that isn’t bought into a potential long-term vision? Would they, in such a scenario, be better off kicking the rebuild in reverse, signing and trading KP for more young players and/or draft assets, and further decelerating the timeline?

I’m all for good process, but I’m also a realist, and I don’t think anyone inside MSG has the stomach for that.

So where does that leave us? My gut feeling: the front office is fully aware that they’d get killed for a straight salary dump in which they attach either Frank or a future protected first to get out from under the remaining years and dollars owed to Hardaway Jr. This is also something the Knicks have stated on the record that they are not looking to do, as was confirmed in reporting as recently as yesterday.

My prediction: they will scour the landscape for trades involving their unwanted players and one of their young and/or draft assets, but will only accept a deal that will net them a “face-saving” player or pick in return.

For example (and I am not pitching this trade, or even suggesting it should be considered): Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina and one of the Hornets’ second rounders for Jabari Parker and Kris Dunn. The Bulls get an upgrade in their perpetual revolving door of young point guards and get to take a flier on Tim, which shouldn’t matter as much because they don’t figure to be a free agent buyer any time soon.

The Knicks, meanwhile, would get to sell the deal as them getting to take a free look at a talented, high pedigree player in need of reclamation (sound familiar?) in Parker, who they would then likely drop like a hat to free up cap space in the summer. BUT, they also get to wave a “see, we got a young asset back in the deal!” token piece in Dunn.

Should they do this? No. Would they? I hope not. But that’s the type of deal you’d be looking at.

Unless…they can finagle something that would require a bit of wizardry but for which the payoff could be huge. Such a deal would be a 3-teamer involving one of the few teams who are:

  • desperate to make the playoffs this year
  • not free-agent destinations, and
  • have no cap space for the foreseeable future

All of these factors combined equates to someone who would be willing to take the risk on the incredibly high-variance player that is Tim Hardaway Jr., and treat him as a minor asset, not an albatross.

The reason that it would need to be 3-team deal is because the only organizations that fit this mold – New Orleans, Detroit and Charlotte – don’t have the requisite expiring salary to send back in a trade.

In the Knicks perfect world, here’s how this goes: one of these teams would actually give up a nominal asset (say, Malik Monk, Stanley Johnson or Frank Jackson) to combine with smaller assets from the Knicks (say, Damyean Dotson and one of the Charlotte second-rounders), all of which would go to a team willing to take on some not-great money (say, Solomon Hill, the Langston Galloway/Jon Leuer pu pu platter, or3 Bismack Biyombo) that would then send back an expiring contract to the Knicks (some potential suitors: Jabari in Chicago, Wes Matthews in Dallas, or one of several expiring contracts in Sacramento).

Will that happen? Your guess is as good as mine. One of the aforementioned teams would not only need to think highly of Hardaway but also lack better options. That’s not a given.

I’m sure Scott is working the phones to find out if this is the case. In two weeks, we’ll know for sure. Knicks fans will be waiting to see whether they can pull a rabbit out of the hat, or if this will, indeed, be #SameOldKnicks.

James Harden and a lot of crazy happened

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…sigh…

God damn, I wanted that one. And I know…I know there are fans out there for whom this amounted to a per-fect evening of basketball – Knicks lose but play hard, the kids play most of the minutes and perform admirably, ping pong balls fall from the sky – but I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t be thrilled about this.

I mean how often do the Knicks get a break like this one?

This could have been one of those rare wins you looked back and remembered in a season of otherwise countless losses. But no.

Am I happy? Of course I’m happy…for Allonzo Trier, an undrafted rookie that put the team on his back to the tune of 31 points and 10 rebounds, finishing with a plus 19 in a game the Knicks lost by four.

I’m happy for Frank Ntilikina, who still can’t purchase a shot with his school lunch money, for coming out and setting the tone on both ends, almost single-handedly upping the defensive intensity and making the smart pass on the opposite end, making sure the ball moved enough to get a decent look.

I’m happy for Mitchell Robinson, who again showed why he’s going to be a monster on both ends once he can stop fouling. I’m even happy for Kevin Knox, who’s in a slump, but battled on defense and made his presence known on the glass.

But I can’t be happy with this result. The last play, where Vonleh was stripped by James Harden…what can you do. I trust Vonleh in that spot. Others may say it wasn’t the guy who should have had the ball in his hands. But you can’t blame Fiz for the play call because he was tossed a few minutes earlier, arguing one call too many on a night when he was often heated.

What you can question Fizdale for, and what will become a bigger and bigger storyline as this season progresses, is his continued faith in Emmanuel Mudiay. I get the rationale for it, for playing a guy who has shown so much improvement and can get to the basket so easily, especially when he’s someone the organization needs to make a decision on this July.

But it is getting hard to watch at times, when the offense clearly does not move with the flow that it can while he is out there. It doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough to now be a question, if not a concern. It is something to be monitored moving forward.

But for now, these young Knicks should hold their heads high. Yeah, James Harden tied the record for a visiting player with 61 points, but as crazy as it sounds, they didn’t do a terrible job on him. Call me a homer if you want, it’s cool. I’ve been called worse.

But the Knicks have nothing to be ashamed of.

Not tonight, at least.

Knicks blown out on MLK Day

10 and 35.

It starts to wear on you at some point. Maybe that was why the Knicks came out rather listless to start the game today, falling down by 20 before you could blink an eye. Or maybe it’s because they start multiple terrible defenders. Or maybe it’s because the Thunder didn’t want to think about this one too long and decided to settle it early. I’m going with a combo platter of all three.

The fact remains that, although the Knicks never officially let go of the rope, this one was never in doubt, as the lead stayed between 14 and 24 for the entirety of the game after midway through the first.

I’ve defended David Fizdale ever since he went with this current iteration of the starting lineup, mostly because this is a year of experimentation, and the Knicks need to a) decide if they want to invest any more time in Emmanuel Mudiay; b) figure out just how detrimental it will be to keep Timmy on the books; and c) get Kevin Knox experience defending NBA players.

The last one is true, the second probably can’t be answered until next year, and the first is getting closer to a final determination. Mudiay did what he’s been doing well of late – driving and scoring – but also came up short on defense and failed to get the offense in any kind of flow, which he had been doing a better job of initially. It seems like we’re getting pretty close to “this is what he is.”

Frank Ntilikina, meanwhile, had another strong game overall even though his shot wasn’t falling. His defense was the best it’s looked in a while, and he had some moments on offense that made you realize he’s not that far away from being passable on that end. Perhaps he read David Fizdale’s pregame comments and got a jolt of confidence. Either way, it was nice to see.

Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson were the other bright spots for the Knicks on the afternoon. The two connected on two delightful alley-oops, which contributed to Trier’s career high eight assists. He also got to the line 10 times, and was perfect from there. Easily his best game in some time. Robinson, meanwhile, again had moments on defense that made you think he has it in him to be a monster on that end.

Timmy broke out of his most recent shooting slump, hitting 4-of-9 from deep on his way to 23 points. That about did it for positive Knicks contributions. Knox had another rough outing, going 3-of-8 for eight points in 27 minutes. Of note, Luke Kornet didn’t get back into the game after his initial seven-minute stint due to an injury of unknown severity. Enes Kanter took his place as the second half starter and ended up with 11 points in 19 minutes.

And then there was this…

Things don’t get any easier from here, as the Knicks play Houston on Wednesday. Get your abacuses out.