Mike Vorkunov: News & Notes from Day 1 of Camp

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If you’re not a subscriber to The Athletic, I’d strongly consider it, if for no other reason than to read Vork’s stuff. He’s always good for a tidbit other writers may not have, and always comes with the advanced stats, if you’re into that sort of thing. One note from his piece from Day 1 of training camp: The last Knicks player on the practice court was Frank Ntilikina, who was shooting corner 3s with assistant coach Keith Smart.

Video Breakdown: Spencer Pearlman on the Knicks corner-3 defense

Spencer Pearlman took some time to break down the Knicks corner-3 defense last year, and why it’s one of the most important things they need to improve in the year ahead.

In the video, he mentions how Mitchell Robinson’s presence should allow defenders to stay home on shooters more easily this season. Sure enough, according to Cleaning the Glass, Knick opponents were 2.9 percent less accurate from the corners when Mitch was in the game last year.

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.