Knicks Film School Podcast: Buy or Sell Knicks on the fence

Jon is joined by Tom Piccolo of The Basketball Index for a midseason check-in where they go through some key figures and whether we should buy or sell them as long term fixtures. They start with a discussion about how David Fizdale has done with this team so far, and then hit on Emmanuel Mudiay, Luke Kornet, Damyean Dotson and Frank Ntilikina before finishing up by touching on the trade deadline.

LISTEN: iTunes / Google

Why Frank Ntilikina’s greatest weakness should keep him in a Knicks uniform

Full disclosure before we start: I’ve gone back and forth in my own head about whether writing this column would even be possible for me.

As many of you know, I take a great deal of pride in my fake position emeritus here at KFS. If I’m putting forth something that purports to be quasi-analytical, I try to take all sentiment out of it. When I came up with this idea, I wasn’t sure I could be unsentimental about a subject as near and dear to my heart as Frank Ntilikina’s possible future (or lack thereof) with the New York Knicks. I waffled.

It wasn’t because I didn’t think I could be objective about the benefits and drawbacks of trading away my favorite player the team has had since they were a perennial playoff contender (look it up, kids). Three years of law school taught me how to take emotion out of any scenario and to hone my focus on the facts1.

No, the issue here went much, much deeper. That I adore Ntilikina so much wasn’t the problem; it’s why I adore him that was giving me pause.

A quick aside: throughout my lifetime, I’ve been privy to very little successful basketball from my hometown team. During those rare periods, the point guards have been Derek Harper and Charlie Ward, and then later, Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton. Those four had very little in common…with one notable exception: they couldn’t care less about whether they filled up the stat sheet on any given night (with the possible exception of Felton, who enjoyed putting on a good stink face every now and again).

The rest of my time as a Knicks fan has been filled with either ball handlers who put up nice numbers but didn’t contribute much in the way of winning basketball (Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson and the like) or point guards who flat out stunk (but you’re a damn good assistant coach, Howard Eisley!)

When I watch Frank Ntilikina play, I know full well that he’s not in Group B (Marbury/Francis). In my mind, therefore, because he’s a high draft pick, a hard worker, and by all accounts a good kid, he must be in Group A – a player who someday will help the team win games. What I haven’t given nearly enough consideration to, and what many intelligent fans genuinely believe, is that it’s just as likely he ends up in Group C: Dumpsterville.

With trade chatter on the horizon and enough evidence to wonder whether the organization is sold on the young Frenchman, I was forced to look long and hard about whether my reasons for elevating Frank to the higher of the two categories was valid, or simply wishful thinking.

Before I even got there though, I had to acknowledge the mountain of evidence on the other side…and oh boy, does this thing give Everest a run for its money. For starters, there are currently 173 players in the league averaging over 20 minutes a game that have a usage rate over 16. Of those, Frank Ntilikina’s true shooting percentage ranks dead last. That seems bad.

It gets worse. For the second year in a row, Frank has attempted fewer free throws than games he’s appeared in, so it’s not like he’s getting easy points in the wake of his shooting struggles. It’s also not like his lower percentages have come as the result of an uptick in volume, as he’s taking roughly the same number of field goals per 36 minutes (11.3, compared to 10.6 last season). While his turnovers have dropped, so have his assists. Statistically speaking, he is essentially the same player as last year.

The advanced stats don’t make the glasses any rosier. Entering play on Thursday, Ntilikina was tied with Kevin Knox for the worst on court net rating on the team2. Perhaps most troubling, defensively, the Knicks are not much better when he’s on the floor than when he’s off.

Ah yes…the defense. Last season, it was the saving grace in every argument for Frank Stans like myself, but that’s simply not the case anymore. Just going by the eye test, while there have been several moments this year when his disruptive potential has been on full display, there have also been more than a few blow-byes and instances where Ntilikina gets hung up on a well-set screen. The roster around him doesn’t do his metrics any favors, but still, there’s no getting around the fact that he hasn’t taken a leap, and may have even regressed.

So with all that acknowledged, what in the hell is left for me to even argue? If I say “keep him” now, isn’t that an admittance that I’m incapable of objectivity where this sweet-faced baby boy is concerned? Maybe…but let’s give it a shot for the hell of it.

For one, I’m not maintaining my position primarily due to excuses. Are there reasonable explanations for most of the above? Yeah, and that’s part of it. In a half-season of acknowledged experimentation by Dr. Fizenstein, no one has been taken apart and put back together more than Frank. For a kid with confidence issues, it definitely messed with his head a bit. Since his three consecutive DNP-CD’s, however, he’s shooting 38% from deep with usage and assist rates that more closely resemble other point guards around the league. He’s also had arguably four of the best six or seven games of his career over this stretch.

This isn’t the crux of my argument though.

Can I also trot out some lineup data that shows Frank can be the hub of an elite defensive unit? Of course. When Ntilikina is paired with Damyean Dotson, a backcourt partner who doesn’t turn into Peter Parker at the end of Infinity War every time he encounters a pick, the Knicks have given up just 104.2 points per 100 possessions. That number would rank fourth in the league3, and is the best figure among Knicks pairings that have played at least 400 minutes.

That’s also not the reason I’m taking this position.

No, the reason I’m still #TeamFrank goes back to the point I started with: he is an anomaly in the modern basketball landscape.

Once upon a time, the idea of the unselfish point guard was the norm. Of course there are exceptions throughout NBA history, but by and large, point guards looked to pass first and score second. Allen Iverson changed all that, and now we live in an era where roughly half of the top 40 scorers in the NBA spend a majority of their time running their team’s offense.

I know, I know…because the rules have changed to give such a massive advantage to perimeter players – and specifically to ball handlers – if you don’t have a lead guard who can score, you’re fucked. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t paying attention. It’s the reason why David Fizdale has made it his personal holy war to get Frank going downhill, spending less time thinking and more time acting. If you’re a guard in today’s game who has the ball and isn’t either penetrating a defense or pulling up from deep, you’re doing your team a disservice.

It’s taken a while, and the results have been inconsistent, but we are seeing results.

That, coupled with a shooting stroke everyone seems to think will eventually yield results4, should equate to a player who can handle the ball and give you just enough on offense to keep defenses honest.

This is the point when critics ask the obvious question: why the Knicks should settle for a player who gives you just enough?

The counter: having a ball handler content with doing just enough is not only a rarity in today’s game; it is a gift.

In case you haven’t noticed, stars like having the ball in their hands. Is it a coincidence that Kristaps Porzingis has angled behind the scenes for Frank? Maybe, maybe not. Does Frank’s continued presence on the team mean that Kevin Durant is a fait accompli? In your dreams…but on a team that already has one ball dominant fixture and another likely to come in the draft or free agency, either this year or next, would it be the worst thing to have an unselfish pass-first guy on the roster?

Not if he was always going to be the hapless offensive player we now see before us, but that’s where it bears repeating: Frank Ntilikina is still 20 years old. There are very few Luka Doncic’s or even De’Aaron Fox’s in the world – guys who “get it” within their first year or two. Several seasons of struggle is far more common. Even Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, each of whom lit the world on fire as rookies, have had their issues this year.

Those struggles have paled in comparison to the ones Ntilikina has faced, but that was always the expectation going in. This was never supposed to happen fast. If anything, you could argue that his exploits early last season gave us all unrealistic expectations for how this would go. The roller coaster ride we’ve seen since then is more par for the course, at least as far as pre-draft expectations go.

And despite all that logic, can I sit here and tell you that if Ntilikina was the 22nd or 18th or even the 16th pick in the 2017 Draft, and not the 8th pick, I’d still be a devout believer? Of course not. But his pedigree has to factor into the equation just the same.

So yeah…that’s where we are. If you asked me right now to bet on whether or not Frank will still be on this team in three weeks, even odds, I’m probably saying yes…but not with much conviction. My gut tells me the organization might be siding with the skeptics, and that they’re trying to use whatever mystery is left surrounding the kid as one last chance to sell high. Maybe they’re right to do so. What they see behind the scenes trumps anything me or any other observer can posit.

I still wouldn’t. Being the cement to hold together any foundation is a thankless job, but every great team has a guy willing to do it. Maybe we found ours, maybe we didn’t. Here’s hoping that three weeks from right now, it’ll still be our question to answer.

Imagine losing on a goaltending violation?

If the lottery balls bounce the Knicks way come May, boy oh boy, is this a game they’re going to remember.

Up by one with three seconds remaining, the Wizards inbounded the ball and got it to a driving Thomas Bryant, who put up a finger roll that was going to miss left…until Allonzo Trier got his fingertips on it while it was above the cylinder, at which point a goaltending was called. Knicks lose, 101-100. A shot in the nether-regions if there ever was one.

Well, depending on your point of view, I suppose. For the Knicks, the line between moral victories and actual ones has been blurred for some time now, and there’s an argument to be made that a game like today, where they looked downright competent on both ends for three quarters before blowing it late, is the optimal outcome. At some point though, you need to pull a few out to keep the scales from tilting too far in the wrong direction.

It’s tough to name a “best” Knick today, as several Knicks had wonderful parts of a game, but there was no one with a complete effort. Emmanuel Mudiay came the closest, as he started 8-for-9 from the field and finished with 25 points. After the Wizards tightened up their defense with ample switching in the second half, he seemed like the only New York player who could generate any offense. That said, he was on the floor for most of the ugly fourth quarter, including the 9-0 Wiz run (as a result of three straight threes) that occurred immediately after he checked in the game. He was unable to generate good looks for anyone but himself towards the end.

Damyean Dotson and Luke Kornet both had outstanding first halves but largely disappeared down the stretch as Washington’s defense cleaned up its act. Allonzo Trier had his best game since his injury, although he, too, had some out of control moments that we’ve come to expect. Vonleh was his usual awesome self, and Mitchell Robinson reminded everyone why he might be the most exciting of all the Knicks’ young players. He does things on the floor that you simply can’t teach, and he had a few of those moments tonight, including one possession where he single-handedly kept the ball alive through a series of leaping tips over several Washignton players.

On the downside, the Knicks last two lottery picks had rough outings. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina combined to go 3-for-18, with both looking out of sorts throughout. Their approach was fine; the execution was bad. Such is life as an NBA neophyte.

Last, and least, was Timmy. If Timmy doesn’t know the team is trying to ship off his salary, he’s certainly playing like it. It would be hard to see any team taking on his contract with the way he’s looked of late, and today fit right in. In 25 minutes he shot 2-of-7 with three turnovers. His defense was par for the course. He is, in a word, brutal to watch right now.

The Knick head back stateside but do have the weekend off, playing next on MLK Day in the Garden vs OKC. We’ll see if the small signs of progress we’ve seen of late (the Knicks almost held a team under 100 points! This is good!) can continue against a damn good team.

Knicks Film School Podcast: The legend of Dolan J. Trump

Jon and JB are joined by the most original account on Knicks Twitter, @Dolan_J_Trump. They go through some of his more controversial policies, including the Wall, the Porzingis shutdown and the KD Dream Act before getting into the backstory behind the account, how he came to be a Knicks fan in the first place and some discussion of the media coverage of the team.

LISTEN: iTunes / Google

Knicks Film School Podcast: Positives from the Sixers loss

Jon is joined by Jeremy Cohen to discuss the Knicks spirited comeback attempt vs the Philadelphia 76ers that just fell short. They touch on all the significant contributors, including Kevin Knox and his career-high, the scorching Luke Kornet, the driving Frank Ntilikina and Mario “he’s ALIVE” Hezonja. They also discuss whether today’s effort would have been possible with two Knicks who weren’t in the lineup.

LISTEN: iTunes / Google

Knox, Frank, Kornet, Hezonja shine in Knicks loss

On Sunday, the Knicks came as close to a win as you can get without actually getting one. Maybe for them, in a season that may be defined more by lottery balls than victories, that’s ok. There’s no question David Fizdale disagrees, and would have liked to get this one, but if you’re adding up moral victories, New York fighting back from 24 down to have a shot to tie it as time expired definitely qualifies.

In a 108-105 loss, the Knicks had several things to be happy about, both team-wise and individually. As a unit, New York passed the ball with a purpose more than they have in some time, compiling 24 dimes and employing some nice off-ball player movement throughout the game. They also played what was arguably their best defensive half of the season, holding the Sixers to 42 second half points. Do either of those things happen if Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway see time on the floor? Your guess is as good as mine.

Individually, four Knicks stood out above the fray. Kevin Knox jumps off the stat sheet the quickest, as he had a career-high 31 points. After getting roasted early, he also picked up his defense over the latter portion of the game. He played another high-minutes game, totaling 44. A trial by fire if there ever was one.

For as great as Knox’s game was, for those watching, he may have been the third most impressive Knick on the afternoon. Luke Kornet was an astounding plus 25 in 34 minutes, which is unreal. He has opened up the conversation about whether he is a part of this team’s core moving forward, not only for his shooting exploits (7-of-13, 3-of-8 from deep) but for his effort on defense. No he isn’t good, but he tries his butt off, and he even got in Embiid’s head at times.

Of course, there was also Frank. For maybe the first time all season, we saw a complete, two-way game from Ntilikina – one that stood out as much for what he didn’t do as what he did. He didn’t think; he just played. Despite only finishing 4-of-11 from the field for nine points (and six assists, many of them quite pretty), Ntilikina played the way the coaches have been imploring. That Fizdale eschewed his usual substitution patterns and checked Frank back into the game for the final five minutes (to play alongside Mudiay, granted) should not go unnoticed.

Lastly, Mario Hezonja’s continued strong play should not go unnoticed. He had another two steals, giving him 13 in the last four games, and his defense, especially on ball, has been exquisite. On offense, he seems to be finding the balance that has eluded him all year, his missed highlight reel dunk aside. Maybe there’s more juice left in this orange after all.

Lastly, of note, Allonzo Trier continues to struggle, and it seems his playing time has finally become a casualty. He saw only 12 minutes in a game that Tim Hardaway Jr. didn’t play.

New York now crosses the pond for a game in London vs the Wizards, who lost to the Raptors today in double overtime, 140-138. Stopping Bradley Beal (43 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds today…yeesh) won’t be easy, but if today is any indication, the Fiz Kids will be up for the challenge.

Returning home not so sweet for Knicks

The Knicks returned home after their longest road trip in some time.

In your ideal world, you would have liked to see them come out with an inspired effort against the Pacers…one where they reached a new level of activity and effort on defense and where they moved the ball and hunted for easy shots on offense.

Yeah…not so much. New York dropped this one 121-106. Like a lot of nights this year, they kept it close for a while, actually taking the lead midway through the second quarter, before Indiana exerted itself and put the game away. The lead never ballooned to anything over 21, but there was also no doubt who was winning this game.

It’s not that they didn’t play hard – they did, for the most part – and it’s not like they took terrible shots – they tied their season high with 39 three-point attempts – but this team just doesn’t have enough talent to stay in games against most teams on a nightly basis.

Other than Noah Vonleh, who once again stood out on both ends, the only other Knicks to really show out was Mario Hezonja. He was active on both ends, and even though he couldn’t buy a bucket (4-for-12, 10 points), he finished with five steals and once again looked comfortable. Maybe we all gave up on him too soon.

Emmanuel Mudiay was perhaps the worst Knick in the first half, going scoreless, but like he’s done in several games this season, he bounced back and had a nice second half on offense, finishing with 21 points. Damyean Dotson looked good, and may have busted out of his shooting slump (4-for-7, 3-of-5 from deep, 15 points). Lance Thomas got some minutes at center with Kanter and Mitch still out, and was active as usual on defense.

Knox had a rough game for most of the evening, but finished with some nice moves late to remind fans that this will be a season of ups and downs for the teenager. Tim Hardaway left the game in the 4th with a hamstring injury.

Overall, as the Knicks now officially embark on the second half of the season, David Fizdale must, even if by smoke and mirrors, start to try and give this team an identity on both ends. They take a decent amount of threes and get both to the line and the rim at a respectable rate, but it’s time to try and put a little more in place than we’ve seen. On defense, several players have been given long leashes. We need to start seeing something in the way of results.

Knicks are back in action Sunday against the Sixers, who have treated New York like a rented mule this year. The journey continues…

A Small Favor at the Knicks Halfway Mark

A little over four years ago, the fine folks at Paramount were hurting for cash, so they decided to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Ostensibly, the target audience fell into three groups:

  • small children who find amusement in talking animals,
  • people who wanted to see Guardians of the Galaxy, but it was sold out, and
  • wistful adults in their early to mid-30’s who grew up watching the TMNT cartoons on Saturday morning and subsequently dragged their parents to the local Toys “R” Us on the regular to spend $4.99 on action figures, and when the one we wanted wasn’t on display – “Scumbug,” perhaps – our mom would slip the store clerk a few bucks to bring out a box from the stock room and see if it was in there instead. Hypothetically.

My wife and I fit neatly into category three. Regardless of how bad the reviews were, we were going to see this monstrosity in the theater. The hope was that nostalgia would take hold to the point that even Megan Fox’s acting couldn’t ruin the movie.

We were wrong5. After it was over, my wife was not only bummed we’d wasted two hours of our lives, but that a small part of her childhood had died over that span of time. This was a movie that felt like it deserved to be seen as a bootleg. It was that bad.

A year later, I dragged my wife to see a nod to my own childhood, Terminator Genisys. Like Turtles, I knew it was going to be bad, but again, I didn’t care. They could have had Arnold in an afro painting happy little trees for two hours, and if he was playing the T-1000, I would have been there with him.

Spoiler alert: it also sucked.

That said, when I walked out of the theater, I had a distinctly different feeling than the one I did after leaving TMNT. It’s not that Genisys was a much better film2. It was, however, vastly more satisfying. At the end of the day, I got to see Arnold be Arnold, Emilia Clarke be hot3, lots of robots and explosions, and of course, that theme music. There were layers of comfort in the awfulness. The Turtles, on the other hand, were awful in a way that removed any comfort that once existed.

As we reach the midway point of a Knicks season we knew full well was going to be dreadful before it ever started, we’re at something of a crossroads. We know there will be no playoffs at the end of the road. The only question now is whether this season will leave us feeling like we just walked out of Turtles or Terminator on April 10.

Midway through the season, at least according to a totally, 100% reliable Twitter poll I posted earlier this week, it’s far closer to Ah-nold’s biceps than Raph’s tired shtick4.

With over 2000 responses logged, most people seem pretty pleased5.

Still, if there aren’t some leaps and bounds made between now and their last game, those numbers are bound to go down a bit. There are several nitpicks Knicks fans are well within their right to have, but there’s one big issue that takes precedent over all:

We need to see more meaningful passing

This is one that everyone, including the head coach himself, can agree with:

This quote comes on the heels of David Fizdale’s statement earlier this season that being last in the league in assists “makes him want to yack.” Heading into the season’s second half, the Knicks still rank at the bottom of the league in both assists and assist percentage. It’s a problem.

The issue isn’t that the team doesn’t move the ball – they’re currently 18th in the league in passes per game. It’s also not that they aren’t getting any good shots – the Knicks have a greater frequency of open looks than all but six teams in the league 6and are fifth in open threes per game. They’re also 14th in the league in frequency of both shots at the rim and non-corner threes7.

These numbers are a bit deceiving though. As you probably guessed, part of the problem is that the Knicks are a little light on quality shooters. Currently, New York has only three players shooting above the league average of 35.3% from long range8. They do, however, have five more players within a percentage point of that number, including their three most high volume shooters9. The shooting is part of the reason for the low assist numbers, but far from the only cause.

The bigger issue is that they aren’t getting nearly enough of the best shots and are taking way too many bad ones to boot.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are dead last in frequency of corner threes. They’re also bottom of the barrel in field goal percentage at the rim, and while it’s possible that they’re just full of terrible finishers, this is more likely an implication that they aren’t getting nearly enough easy looks at the basket.

Unsurprisingly, the Knicks lead the league in frequency of shots taken after making between three and six dribbles and are second in frequency of shots taken after two dribbles. On the flip side, they’re second to last in shots taken after no dribbles. Looking at the teams that take the most shots after zero dribbles – the Sixers, Warriors and Jazz – and the others in the bottom three – the Cavs and Bulls – it’s easy to see that more sophisticated teams find a way to get shooters in spots where they can simply fire away, as opposed to doing heavy lifting before their attempt.

Add it all up, and it’s clear that the Knicks’ offense leaves a lot to be desired. The more complicated question is whether there’s anything they can do about it.

Entering the season with the youngest team in the league, David Fizdale clearly wasn’t at liberty to install anything terribly complicated – not when there’s an organizational mandate to work five first or second year players into the regular rotation, including three who aren’t yet old enough to drink.

He also doesn’t have anyone on the roster single-handedly capable of breaking down a defense and opening up the offense by themselves. The four players who most closely fit that bill – Emmanuel Mudiay, Tim Hardaway Jr., Allonzo Trier and Trey Burke – have all gotten plenty of burn, but with the exception of Mudiay, their dribbling exploits have more often led to iso possessions than open looks for others.

So what’s the answer? There may not be a great one, at least not one that makes the team better in the short run. We also can’t continue with the status quo. Sure, this year is about improving the culture by getting this team used to being in competitive games, and it’s worked for the most part10. But they also shouldn’t go into 2019 training camp without any experience running an actual NBA offense as a cohesive unit.

Two modest proposals:

  • start instituting more sophisticated offensive sets, and if the kids mess up, they mess up. It won’t be pretty, but for a team that has lost 15 of its last 17 games, how detrimental could a little more experimentation really be?
  • Stop playing iso-heavy players together, or bench some entirely.

On the latter suggestion, Shwinny Pooh at Posting & Toasting just dropped a piece similar to this one in which he goes into some lineup suggestions in some more detail, and I second his thoughts wholeheartedly.

Other than more movement and easier looks on offense, there’s a couple other areas that need addressing:

Pick a defensive identity

…and “shitty” doesn’t count.

Fiz employed a healthy dose of switching early on before experimenting with a zone defense for a hot minute, and now recently he’s been employing more of a trapping scheme. We saw this style have some success, but we also saw the Warriors carve it up.

It’s obviously unfair to judge anything based off a game against the greatest offensive juggernaut in league history, but if that game – and this season – has made anything clear, it’s that New York doesn’t have the defensive personnel to employ any scheme with much effectiveness.

Many fans have clamored for a return to a defense-first starting lineup that includes Frank, Dot & Mitch along with Noah Vonleh, but any way you cut it, bad defenders are going to get time for this team, at least this season. So if you can’t play actual good defenders for most of the game, at least pick a scheme and roll with it so the guys who will be here long term can get used to it.

Figure out Frank

I’ve written far too many words about Ntilikina for two lifetimes, so I won’t belabor this point, but in short, if we’re going into next season with the same questions about Frank that we had going into this one, it’s a problem. He probably needs one more semi-extended stint as the starting point guard to give us real answers, but that’s what March and April for a bottom-five team are for. Even some run with Emmanuel Mudiay (as Shwinny proposed) is a worthy experiment.

That’s all I got. We harp on the bad a lot, because we’re New Yorkers and that’s what we do. It’s fine. Recognizing things that need improving is an important part of growth, and we do need to see some of that growth over the next 41 games.

Let’s just keep our expectations in check during that time. The real prize is still a ways away. We’ve been patient this long…what’s another three months?

Knicks no match for Golden State

The Knicks – mercifully, thankfully – ended their one long West Coast road trip of the year in a game that was a microcosm of their season: play a much better team, get hit early, fight back, keep it close for a bit through smoke and mirrors, and then watch as the wheels fall off as the talent discrepancy rears its ugly head.

Speaking of ugly, there is arguably no greater talent discrepancy in the league than the one that exists between the Warriors and Knicks, which led to a 41-14 run that decided the game over the second and third quarters.

The final score was 122-95, but this game will be remembered for Klay Thompson’s exploits more than anything else. He was unconscious from deep, finishing with 43 points including 11-of-13 from 2-point range. He is a max player come this summer, and it is not a discussion.

It’s hard to overstate how much better the Warriors are than the Knicks. Aside from the shooting, which was most obvious, they are a well-oiled machine on both ends while the Knicks are more like a snowball: if the conditions are right, and there are no impediments in the way, and they find a steep enough hill, they can win a game, maybe, if they get a little lucky.

It isn’t that they don’t play hard; they did for most of the night, with the exception of some possessions where the mere gravity of the Warriors onslaught seemed to get to them. They’re simply a team that is still figuring out what it is on both ends. They can navigate it around that issue on some nights, but not against a team like this. On offense, once Golden State made a point to take away driving lanes in the third quarter, New York had no recourse. On defense, we were reminded that if you pass against the Knicks, you usually win.

No Knicks player had a night worth singling out. Fans who care about the progress of the youth got a rough showing tonight. Kevin Knox had some nice moments on offense, but he continues to get owned on the other end. Allonzo Trier finished 5-for-13 and has not looked remotely like the player he was before he was injured. Damyean Dotson’s shooting slump continues, as he missed all seven of his attempts from the field.

Of note, Tim Hardaway Jr., who seemingly heard the fans calls for him to stop taking so many bad shots, attempted only seven field goals, making four and finishing with 13 points. Mario Hezonja again showed signs of life.

Knicks are back home Friday night for Indiana. Can’t come soon enough.

Knicks lose in Portland, as expected

The Knicks lost a game that anyone in the world could have predicted they would lose (on the road, in a tough place to play, to a much better team that needs every win in a do-or-die Western Conference); but the way they went about getting to their 111-101 loss was perhaps a bit surprising.

Of primary importance, the Knicks hung around for almost all of this one. They did so with generally gritty (although certainly imperfect) defense, a first half in which they lived at the foul line, and a few spurts of hot three-point shooting in a second half in which they largely couldn’t buy a bucket. That said, the Knicks didn’t do any of the things you usually see from a team that keeps a game competitive against a superior opponent. They shot 30% from deep and 40% overall, and gave up every big offensive rebound when it really mattered. Portland, meanwhile, hit every three it seemed they needed to hit.

As Clyde would say, the only real Knicks with the knack were two players who have been much maligned of late, Mario Hezonja and Enes Kanter. They shot a combined 13-for-22 and had 14 and 18 points, respectively, with Kanter chipping in 14 boards, including six on the offensive glass, all of which were meaningful in keeping the Knicks close. We need to see a lot more of this from Mario to get excited that it’s something legit, and Fiz may just give him the chance.

The only other Knicks remotely worth the cost of their plane tickets were Noah Vonleh, who has just continued his season of quiet brilliance, and Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay once again didn’t shoot it well, finishing 7-of-17 for 17 points, but he continues to scratch the surface of being a really useful point guard on offense. He finished with 8 assists after netting 15 dimes over the last two games combined. He continues to intrigue.

Everyone else vacillated between “not impactful” and “terrible.” Leading the latter train was Tim Hardaway Jr., who, for what seems like the 20th time this year, couldn’t buy a basket. He finished 2-for-12 and 1-of-7 from deep. Yeah. His shot selection continues to be an issue, but this seems like him missing open looks more than anything else.

Not to be outdone, Trey Burke was 3-for-9, which included several possessions that made Knicks fans cringe. The shots that were falling last year are no longer going down. It’s as simple as that. No one else did anything of note.

Overall, another game where the Knicks showed up and played hard, which, 40 games into a lottery-bound season, isn’t meaningless. Tomorrow night, they take their annual (thank God it only happens once) visit to Golden State. That should be interesting.

Navigating the Kristaps Porzingis news cycle

When the Ian O’Connor piece on James Dolan came out last month, it didn’t tell Knicks fans anything they didn’t already know.

At least not the ones that have been paying attention.

Dolan is, by all accounts, a flawed man. He’s clearly stubborn about a lot of things, including the righteousness of his own decision-making, which is perhaps the worst thing of all that a person can be stubborn about. His, shall we say, “unique” persona, has resulted in a working environment that has been painted as anywhere from uncomfortable to unbearable.

In the O’Connor piece, the term “culture of fear” was used. Later in the article, there was mention of a program designed to enhance the workplace experience for Garden employees – an implicit acknowledgement that said environment needed some TLC. Howard Beck used the word “tense” to describe the atmosphere around the franchise during our conversation earlier this season, and I got the sense he was being kind.

Again, none of this is news.

What is impossible to know, and what has tortured Knicks fans more than any single trade, signing, or game that has occurred during Dolan’s tenure, is just how much any of this matters.

The issue is that we’re not dealing with Amazon or Apple here. As long as we get our Christmas orders on time and our iPhones last their requisite two years before turning into fancy paperweights, we don’t care whether Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook is an unconscionable douche.

Sports are different. The output isn’t a product; it is a group of humans working together to achieve a discernible task. If the well is poisoned, that task becomes more difficult. This much is clear. What isn’t clear is the butterfly effect that poor ownership creates. If James Dolan yells at a subordinate on a Monday morning, the Knicks don’t necessarily get blown out at home on Tuesday night11.

The answer was a lot easier when Dolan was stepping into the basketball ops side of things and sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Since he’s allegedly stopped doing that (and by all accounts, he has), we’re left to guess what effect, if any, the “maybe terrible, maybe just-not-great” working environment at the Garden has had on the team itself.

On one hand, we have some evidence that the answer is “none.” Putting a certain former power forward aside, seemingly every former Knick, including those who have played while Dolan has owned the team, has nice things to say upon their return. Many even work for the club. The organization has been undone by various bouts of incompetence over the years far more than any internal, organizational strife.

Regarding the current group, Rebecca Haarlow – someone who has covered team sports for over a decade – told me last week that the positivity around the team was “special” and that she’s never seen an energy like the one surrounding this group of players. Haarlow is an MSG employee, so take her words with a grain of salt if you must, but they seem to be fairly bold to not have at least a few layers of truth.

The group of players currently on the court isn’t the issue though; it’s the 7’3” elephant in the room that’s still working his way back – the one for whom there is more at stake in terms of the historical significance of his career than the rest of the roster combined2. Kristaps Porzingis is (justifiably) weighing where he is going to spend the prime of his career, and whether this organization can give him the opportunity to make good on his otherworldly talents.

His leanings in this regard should be the franchise’s top concern. Say what you want about his durability, but teams draft for decades without landing a generational talent the likes of Porzingis. Some teams in the NBA have never gotten so lucky.

Now, with July 1 a mere six months away, every Knicks fan is trying their best to read the tea leaves on where KP’s thinking is at. Specifically, we’re left wondering how much the aforementioned Garden culture affects him, if at all. The problem is that the primary conveyers of this information also happen to be the group that has been disenfranchised by James Dolan more than any other: the local media.

Two weeks ago, Steve Mills held a press conference for reporters, and the Daily News’ Stefan Bondy’s invitation got lost in the mail. Coincidentally, this happened immediately following the News splashing a drawing of Dolan on the back page under the headline “DO IT!” (as in, sell the team) in response to O’Connor’s article. Just as coincidentally, last week, Bondy caused minor waves when he wrote a piece about KP’s free agency that included the following line:

At this point, the question isn’t just whether the Knicks should offer Porzingis a max contract but also whether he should sign one. Because the word on Porzingis is that he loves New York but is skeptical about the Knicks. And who wouldn’t be?

“The word on Porzingis…”

What is a fan supposed to do with that? Is this reporting? Theorizing? Somewhere in between? Say what you will about Bondy, but he wouldn’t write it if there wasn’t some truth to it, somewhere, from someone. But how much is of his “report” is influenced by the events of the previous few weeks, not to mention the antagonistic relationship that has existed between the Garden and the press corps going back well over a decade?

It’s not just the Daily News either. Ian Begley, who I think most Knicks fans would consider a credible source on the Knicks’ beat, also alluded to the fact that re-signing KP isn’t a guaranteed fact when he wrote, “The smart money says the Knicks and Porzingis will reach an agreement this summer, but it’s foolish to see that transaction as a sure thing.

Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman – who hasn’t been barred from any press conferences that we know of – followed up Bondy’s article with this nugget:

Even if this is reliable reporting (and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t), it brings us back to the original question: should we care? Maybe, maybe not.

We’ve all had bosses we think are dicks, but that doesn’t always equate to a poor experience as an employee. To this day, my favorite job is the one I had during high school where I was a car runner for Bay Ridge Lexus3.

My boss – who also happened to be my dad – was an unconscionable ball-buster, especially with me. But he was only in the service shop for an hour or so a day and he never really bothered me. His employees feared him, but they worked on commission, and nothing he did effected their bread, which was all that really mattered.

How different is an NBA team? Maybe it’s not that different at all. Porzingis could think the treatment of reporters is completely unfair and feel bad for fearful Garden employees but still embrace being the face of the franchise because he knows if he ever won a ring here, he’d be draped in sports immortality for the rest of his life.

It’s also entirely possible he looks around every day and questions whether such an operation could ever put it all together to the point of reaching the ultimate goal. He could view the presser incident as the equivalent of a grown man pulling a “you can’t come to my birthday party because you laughed when I tripped and fell in gym class”-level move and exponentially increase the pace at which he plots his exit strategy.

Or he might not care in the slightest. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that the organization, for all its faults, has seemingly done everything humanly possible to make sure Porzingis feels like he is at the center of all of their plans, from talking him up every chance they get, to sending the head coach to spend a week in his home country, to something as silly as putting him at the head of the table in this ridiculous cartoon:

We haven’t heard any reporting – or even guessing – about whether any of these efforts have made a difference to the man and his camp. Is that because the people who would normally be giving us this information are less than inclined to seek positive angles on this particular subject? Or is it simply due to the fact that the Knicks themselves haven’t made KP available for interviews since camp opened?

Around and around we go. At the end of the day, parsing through what is and isn’t real is a fool’s errand. What KP feels about the Knicks – both on and off the court – is anyone’s guess, but to think he’s sold to the point of simply acquiescing to the organization’s desires is silly. It’s why the idea that he would sign a five-year max extension with injury protections is more than a little wishful thinking.

Do you lay out the red carpet and forgo any semblance of negotiation? No…you still make your pitch. But it should be far closer to a Home Run Derby soft toss than one made in October with a man on third. At the end of the day, Bondy is right4. There’s nothing stopping KP from holding fast at a three-year deal with a player option for the fourth season. The Knicks should want to guarantee him for every minute of five full years.

Which one ends up happening may finally give us the answer as to just how much the players do or don’t mind whatever is or isn’t happening on the inside of the Garden’s walls.

Until then, we sit, and we wait, combing for scraps of information and then deciding whether they mean a damn thing.

Such is life as a Knicks fan.

Knicks snap 8-game skid with win in Los Angeles

Say this: they still care.

For professional athletes, no matter how lost of a cause a season becomes, this should be a prerequisite. But as we know, here in New York especially, that isn’t always the case. But it is with this team.

The Knicks followed up a nice effort in Denver with a 119-112 win against a desperate Lakers team, albeit one without LeBron James, for a victory they themselves desperately needed. No one had a particularly great game from start to finish, but collectively, they did enough to get the job done.

The biggest factor was the start they got off to, as the Knicks raced out to a 24-8 lead. It sustained them through second and third quarter stretches in which they were badly outplayed, not for lack of effort, but mostly due to missed shots and the lack of a tenable post defender on the active roster. Emmanuel Mudiay had a brutal shooting night overall, but kept the team in the game in the third with his energy in transition. Timmy also had a quiet but necessary 22 points on 18 shots.

On the night, the Knicks shot just 37.4%. That sounds bad, but they did get to the line a season-high 41 times, hitting 34, and took 37 three-pointers. They missed a ton of makable looks around the rim, but if we’re valuing process over results, they had the shot profile of a modern NBA team. Progress, we see you.

Sure enough, the three most standout performances came from perhaps the three most maligned players on the roster this season: Enes Kanter, Mario Hezonja and Trey Burke. The trio combined for 42 points, and each came up huge at different points in the game. Although the ball movement stopped a bit when Burke came in early, he seemed to find his shot and looked like himself again. Hezonja came in with both Knox and Vonleh in foul trouble late and not only made a few big buckets but had some key defensive moments as well.

More than either of them though, this game was belonged to Kanter. He had a huge moment in the fourth where he jumped out of bounds to secure a loose ball, and followed that up with a big put back and later had a key block (!) down the stretch. His effort on defense was also up there with the best performances we’ve seen from him this season. Credit to him, of course, but credit also to David Fizdale for not losing one of his players who is clearly frustrated with his role.

After the game, Fiz talked about the team’s effort, how they shared the ball, and how they trusted each other down the stretch and closed the game defensively. He seemed like a coach who was not only pleased with his team, but one who feels they are exactly where they should be at this point in time.

Also of note: Damyean Dotson and Noah Vonleh each had four steals and were active on defense in their limited minutes. Kevin Knox’s shot once again abandoned him after some early makes, but he did get to the line four times and finished with 14 points in 37 minutes. His rookie season is the definition of trial by fire.

Two downers: Frank Ntilikina only played one minute after turning his ankle in the first quarter. X-rays were negative and he was diagnosed with a strain, so that’s not terrible. Alonzo Trier, however, was terrible once again. He played only nine minutes and still looks out of sorts following his return from a bum hip.

Sometimes you just need a win. Tonight, the Knicks got one. LeBron or no LeBron, it counts just the same.

Knicks Film School Podcast: Knicks give good effort in Denver

Jon is joined by Jeremy Cohen to discuss the Knicks solid effort in Denver coming off the disastrous loss in Utah. They hit on the phenomenon that is Luke Kornet, another solid (part of a) game from Kevin Knox, whether Frank’s stellar outing deserved more minutes, and what Knicks fans should take from how the Nuggets have put together the top squad in the West. (apologies for Jeremy’s audio cutting out in spots…did the best we could to work around it).

LISTEN: iTunes / Google / Stitcher

Kornet shines in loss to Milwaukee

In a season like this for the New York Knicks, losses are going to come in many shapes and sizes. Some will be embarrassing, some will be heartbreakers, and some, like tonight, against the second best team in the league, with the likely MVP, that scores more points than anyone, can actually make you feel ok.

The final score didn’t indicate it (partially because there is simply a massive talent discrepancy between these teams), but the Knicks fought hard on their way to a 112-96 loss. There were a few highlights, starting with, of course…

  • Luke Kornet, who set a Knicks record for most 3-point field goals by a 7-footer with seven, was a revelation. On offense, his floor spacing opened up the court for the Knicks (which didn’t help because several of their players couldn’t throw one into the ocean…we’ll get to that in a bit) and on defense, he tried. Like, gave actual effort…hands up, feet shuffling…the whole gamut. Amazing what basic competency and energy can do for a defense from even a far-below-average NBA athlete. He is an NBA player. He was not, however, the Knicks best player. That honor goes to…
  • Noah Vonleh. If I was a team that maybe had to play the Bucks in the playoffs, I’d think long and hard about giving up something legit to try and get this dude. Hell, if I’m the Bucks I might trade for him just so someone else can’t use him to defend Giannis. I’m not sure you can play the probable MVP any better than Vonleh did, who just keeps impressing, ending up with 15 and 13 in 35 grueling minutes.
  • No one else was particularly good for the Knicks, but as a team, they competed hard on defense, giving up 112 points, yes, but to the highest scoring team in the NBA in an incredibly fast-paced game. I do not think it was a coincidence that such an effort came with Tim Hardaway Jr. out sick and Kanter relegated to only 14 minutes.
  • Oh yes, that guy. He got ejected for mouthing off to Giannis and getting in his face. Antetekounmpo laughed, as he should have. Kanter needs not be taken seriously by anyone at this point. His pre-game Twitter emoji nonsense is laughably immature for a guy who is supposed to be one of the vets on this team. Seriously…I teach 8th grade and most of them wouldn’t pull the kind of nonsense we see from someone getting paid $18 million a year to be a professional athlete. Enough is enough.
  • Frank was back, and he was…fine. Some nice moments on offense, one ugly brick, some solid defense and a few breakdowns (which we’ve seen more than last year, it seems). He was probably one of their better players overall, which isn’t saying much.
  • No one else could make a shot, but Trier particularly was bad. He finished 2-10, complained about several non-calls, and played some of the only bad defense we saw tonight. If Frank’s play warranted a seat on the bench on Christmas, Trier’s might on Saturday.
  • Lance Thomas, Mario Hezonja and Trey Burke were all healthy DNP’s.

That’s it. This team could use a win. Maybe it comes against Utah on Saturday. Crazier things have happened.

Where we’re at with Frank Ntilikina

Frank Ntilikina got a lump of coal in his stocking with another DNP-CD. Where does this leave him, and should Knicks fans once again be worried?

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

The most famous line from Animal Farm, George Orwell’s Stalinist critique from 1945, has taken on newfound meaning to Knicks fans in 2018. Thanks to David Fizdale’s proclaimed mantra of “keep what you kill,”5 the thought from day one is that things like reputation, contract status or years of experience wouldn’t matter when it came to dolling out playing time. If you earned it, you got it, plain and simple.

By and large, this has been true. Scott Perry draftee Mario Hezonja and his .383/.293/.632 slash line have finally been relegated to the bench. Meanwhile, undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier is averaging 23 minutes per game. Co-captain Courtney Lee has seen his time fluctuate, while Damyean Dotson has already played nearly 200 more minutes than he did all of last year. Noah Vonleh and Emmanuel Mudiay – given up for dead by other organizations – have been given second chances at life. Overall, healthy play has warranted healthy minutes.

Yet, after the Knicks 109-95 Christmas Day loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, there is a sense that not everyone is on an equal playing field. Frank Ntilikina – whose mom flew in from across the pond to see him play – saw as many minutes of action as she did2.

Ntilikina had played in eight straight games following three consecutive DNP-CD’s3

Since then, once again, his shot has abandoned him. Frank has gone a combined 6-for-28 over his last five games.

The issue many Knicks fans have is a simple one: why isn’t Ntilikina allowed to shoot his way through slumps the same way everyone else on the team can? Kevin Knox is shooting 38% on the year and has led the team in minutes this month. Tim Hardaway Jr. has shot 36% from the field over his last 21 games and we have yet to see a repercussion. Trey Burke, who was ostensibly Ntilikina’s replacement against Milwaukee, was 1-for-7 on Christmas and is 11 for his last 61 from the field.

More than anyone, Burke seems to be the guy drawing the most criticism from Frankophones. This is someone who, after a three-month stretch of brilliance last season which included unsustainable midrange shooting, has reverted back to what he’s been for most of his career: barely an NBA player. Throw in the fact that the Knicks invested a lottery pick in Ntilikina just a year and a half ago, and it’s easy to see why people are a bit peeved.

I get it. I was sitting in front of the television sporting my French Prince T-shirt, ignoring my wife’s family, just waiting to catch a glimpse of the kid that I’ve wanted to succeed perhaps more than any other in my 25 years of being a Knicks fan.

I had a feeling I’d be disappointed going back to Fizdale’s comments after the Atlanta game when he admitted he probably should have played Frank more, after pulling him when he took only two shots in 13 minutes and looked like the same hesitant, tentative dude we watched for long stretches earlier this season and last. That it came against perhaps the worst defensive point guard rotation in basketball didn’t help matters one bit.

When Burke checked into the game vs Milwaukee, I knew that was that.

I also couldn’t be mad. I mean, I could…that would be the easy thing to do. There’s not a rational Knicks fan alive who wants to watch Burke put up brick after brick while the team’s once-and-maybe-still point guard of the future lies in wait.

But what we want also doesn’t jive with the monumental task David Fizdale has before him. “Culture reset” isn’t as easy as pushing a button. It starts and ends with getting buy in from each and every person in the locker room, and that means making those people feel like playing time is never handed out unfairly.

Has it worked? Consider, for a moment, just how bad the Knicks are. Their best player this season is a guy who they picked up off the scrap heap on a non-guaranteed deal in late July. The man who was supposed to be their best player hasn’t been able to hit the far side of a barn in two months…and that’s his better end of the court. Their leading scorers this month are a point guard, who literally any team could have had if they wanted him, and a teenager who doesn’t fully know what he’s doing yet.

Despite the dearth of NBA-ready talent, this team has been consistently competitive late into games. The talent discrepancy eventually results in the superior team pulling away on most nights, but if you’ve watched them at all this season, you’ve seen a team that plays hard almost without exception.

On top of that, every young player on the roster, save for Ntilikina, has exceeded expectations. That speaks to development, the other pillar of the 2018-19 New York Knicks season: Discard Mudiay and Vonleh’s achievements as part of this conversation at your own peril; they are 45 years old between them. There is no universe in which what they’ve accomplished is bad for this franchise, on several levels.

But there is a feeling amidst some that if Frank fails, it will all be for naught. It’s not an unfair position to take, especially when their approach towards him has been questioned so heavily.

As Mike Vorkunov thoughtfully dove into earlier this month, other organizations skew in favor of giving lottery picks more time whether they’ve earned it or not. It would seem, at first glance, that Frank is not getting the same benefit. He is, on the surface, getting treated the exact same as Burke, who was benched himself for the two games heading into Christmas Day.

The thing most people seem to be ignoring is that with David Fizdale, results are only part of the equation. For him, approach seems to matter just as much.

In no uncertain terms, Frank has been horrible on the offensive end this year, and that is maybe not a strong enough word to describe his performance. Of the 159 players this season with a 16 usage rate or higher who’ve played at least 10 games and 20 minutes a night, Ntilikina’s 43.6 true shooting percentage ranks dead last. Yet that didn’t stop Fizdale from giving him another bite at the apple after a few games on the bench earlier this month.

Had Frank maintained the approach he had in those first three games, regardless of the results, he likely would have been able to give his mom a Merry Christmas. That wasn’t the case though. We know Frank is doing what the coaching staff asks when he drives the lane and shoots without hesitation. In his two outbursts against Charlotte and Cleveland, Ntilikina had seven and nine drives, respectively, to go with 24 total shots. In the five games after that, he averaged only 5.2 drives and 5.6 field goal attempts.

That might not seem like a drastic enough difference to warrant a seat back on the bench, but when you factor in the results – 21% shooting over those five games – yeah, it kind of does.

Is David Fizdale making the right choice? Is he correct to emphasize an approach on offense that essentially boils down to “attack first, think never,” even if that results in more and more shots that don’t go in?

Again, we go back to the “results vs approach” conversation. The Knicks are not trying to win games this year. At some point, hopefully soon, they will have players on the roster that will change that. This year is about putting systems in place such that, when the players taking those shots improve, so will the results. Say what you will about the misses that Timmy, Burke & Co. are generating, but most of these aren’t bad looks. The Knicks currently rank 9th in the NBA in frequency of open looks.[footnote]defined as the closest defender within 4 to 6 feet. They’re just not going in.

What has become painfully apparent is that hesitation plays no part in Fizdale’s coaching philosophy. For Frank Ntilikina, for the moment at least, that means another stint spent watching from the sidelines.

Like last time, it probably won’t be for long. Fizdale once again emphasized after the Bucks game that his rotations are always in flux. This would probably calm the nerves of many Knicks fans a lot more if they were certain the organization still had faith in the young Frenchman.

If David Fizdale is to be believed, they do, and this is simply their preferred method of bringing him along. Here’s what he said to Steve Popper a few days ago:

“He still resorts back but that’s part of his process…It’s just like any habit is. You’ve just got to stay with it where you build a habit of playing free without worrying about what people say, about what the coach is thinking, what anybody is thinking. It’s just because he’s so unselfish, he’s concerned about that stuff. But it’s the further that I can get him away to where he’s not really harboring those thoughts, I think the better off he’s going to be.

“You can see it. When you’re around him long enough, you can tell when he’s like, ‘Screw it. I’m just letting it all hang out and I’m just going to play.’ And you can see when he’s thinking about, ‘If I miss this or if I screw this up, what’s going to happen? What’s the consequence?’ You can see his brain going through that process. How far can I move him away from that is what I’m trying to get him to where he’s constantly in a clear state of mind.”

The ultimate question is whether time on the bench is the best way to get a kid to play without fear of getting sent to the bench. Earlier this month, the method seemed to work.

That, plus Fizdale’s believe that this doesn’t count as a regression, but is instead “part of his process,” should be encouraging.

For many Knicks fans though, words aren’t enough. They need to see proof…both from Ntilikina and the man tasked with bringing him along.

Kevin Knox impresses early, but Knicks lose to Atlanta

Well that was rough.

I get it. I get that you have conflicted feelings right now. We all watched Zion Williamson have his moment at the Garden, heard him after the game, saw him pay reverence to the locker of the one true unicorn.

Tonight, in all likelihood, gets the Knicks closer to a future reality where Zion is, as he alluded to, making MSG his home for 41 nights a year (and hopefully more).

I get all of that. But in the meantime, well…in the meantime, the reality sucks.

The Knicks have now completed the poop superfecta, losing to the only four teams in the NBA with a worse record than their own. Yes, it’s what this young team was expected to do, even more so because it’s missing Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier, two imperfect players who nonetheless play important roles for this skeleton crew. But at some point, the high morale David Fizdale has built up despite the losses is going to subside. Maybe that matters, maybe it doesn’t. It certainly can’t be fun for the parties involved.

If you’re looking for bright spots, there aren’t many. Kevin Knox lit the Garden ablaze with a first quarter (17 points) that once again reminded everyone why his ceiling could be an eventual top-five scorer in the league. If he can figure out some semblance of sustained effectiveness throughout an entire game, he is going to become a problem. If it happens this year, great, but as far as anyone should be concerned, he is already ahead of schedule.

Then there was Emmanuel Mudiay, who had yet another thirty-point night, his third in five games. This Mudiay thing appears to be real. He is becoming a problem for opposing teams to deal with on offense. How we can judge anyone’s defense on a team with so many bad defenders is a tough topic to handle right now, but he doesn’t appear to be a lost cause on that end of the floor. He hit 3-of-7 from deep tonight, further verifying that this needs to be taken seriously.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was, well…just about everyone else. Other than Vonleh, who has been a steadying presence all season long, the only other guy who stood out was for all the wrong reasons. Frank Ntilikina once again looks somewhat lost. He missed both of his shot attempts tonight, one of them badly, and got visibly frustrated with the refs after a couple of tough foul calls. Everyone seems to acknowledge he is back in his own head. As Steve Mills said today, it is up to the Knicks to help him find the light. Jump ship at your own risk, but I’m waiting the 20-year-old out until he gets right.

Perhaps most importantly, the Knicks, while quite bad and becoming impossibly challenged in closing games, have continued to pay hard. That might seem like a bogus silver lining, but for anyone who’s watched season after season go off the rails, it is not a basic prerequisite. For me at least, I can at least leave these evenings feeling mildly not terrible about where things stand.

Next up: Christmas Day, back at home, vs Milwaukee. Should be interesting, if nothing else.

Why it’s time to move on from Enes Kanter, like right now

Y’all know me.

Y’all know me.

I am not one for hot takes. My takes are cold. My takes are a refreshing Snapple on a sunny July afternoon. There’s enough crazy out there as it is. The last thing I want to do is add to the fray.

So when I woke up the morning after the Knicks lost 131-109 to the Philadelphia 76ers and the urge came over me to write this piece, I had to check myself. Was I really sure I wanted to put this idea out into the ether? I dwelled and dwelled and dwelled some more and finally came to the conclusion that, no, I can’t let this idea just fester in my mind.

The Knicks need to part ways with Enes Kanter, like right now.

I don’t care if it’s on a buyout agreement4 or whether they simply waive him and absorb the full amount left on his 2018-19 salary, it is time to move on.

Before I get into the reasons why, let me first go through a couple of the reasons why not.

First and foremost, I’m not writing this because I blame Enes Kanter. Right now, the Knicks are 9 and 23. If Kanter hadn’t been around all year, they’d still be 9 and 23. Maybe they’d be 10 and 22, or 8 and 24. I don’t know, and I don’t care. The Knicks stink with Enes Kanter and they’d stink without Enes Kanter. He’s no more or less to blame than anyone else on the roster. That’s not what this is about.

This also isn’t personal. If you’ve followed or read me for a while, you know I’m incredibly hard on Kanter, perhaps unfairly so. In fact, definitely unfairly so. I often kill him for physical limitations that are out of his control and gloss over the incredible amount of effort he brings to many facets of the game, not to mention his penchant for playing hurt. He seems, by all accounts, to be a wonderful influence on the young guys, which I never give enough credit for.

I promise though, this doesn’t come from a place of negativity. It comes from a place of reason. That all starts with where the Knicks are, and where they’re trying to go.

De…fence?

This season is, in a word, about growth. Growing the young players, growing sustainable systems, and growing a culture. In one way or another, Kanter either has stood in the way of all of these things or will so before the season is over.

Let’s start with the most glaring issue. You’ve probably noticed that the Knicks have become a bit of a tire fire on defense. While Kanter is by no means solely to blame for this –  his on court rating is actually better than Timmy, Mudiay and Knox – there is a significant difference with the big man. His presence on the floor inextricably alters everything they do defensively. Allow me a moment to explain why.

If you’ve watched New York recently, you’ve seen stretches of defensive possessions where the Knicks’ players aren’t guarding any one man, but rather guard an area of the court. This is called a zone. If you only watch pro basketball and no college, you may not have ever seen this before. That’s because, save for short stretches of games where a coach will employ it to catch an opposing team off-guard for a few minutes, it has essentially been proven unsustainable in the NBA. Pro athletes are smart and athletic enough to penetrate it after they’ve become accustomed to it. As Mike Vorkunov notes in his recent piece on the topic, the Heat play the most zone in the NBA, and it is still under 5 percent of the time.

Starting last Friday, David Fizdale began employing it is a regular part of his defense. He says it’s because he’s meeting his young players where they are. I have a different theory, but instead of telling you myself, I’ll let the Suns’ Devin Booker do that for me:

Booker was referencing the worst kept secret in the NBA, which is that if Enes Kanter is on the court and you are not attempting to engage him in a pick and roll, you are committing basketball negligence. This has only gotten worse with the prevalence of big men in today’s game that also have extended range.

Billy Donovan famously said it best when Kanter was still in Oklahoma City and the Thunder played Houston in the playoffs. Even his former teammate and good friend Steven Adams joked about it earlier this year. Kanter, by himself, is a walking, talking, often goofing around bottom-five defensive rating.

It is not getting better, a fact which the stats more than back up. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Enes Kanter is on the floor this season, opponents effective field goal percentage increases by 2.9%, which is in the 10th percentile of the NBA. Over the previous six seasons, the increases in opponent shooting when Kanter is playing have ranked in the 11th, 35th, 11th, 3rd, 7th and 9th percentiles. How does the old saying go…once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend, seven times is Enes?

This isn’t even about the Knicks getting off to these horrendously bad starts, although eventually that will begin to wear on a team morale that has, thus far at least, remained high. It’s about the fact that as long as Kanter is in the rotation, the progress of instituting any semblance of a defense-first culture is stagnating. We have enough evidence to conclude that he is often unable to execute the types of basic defensive principles a team needs to play competent NBA defense.

To drive this point home, imagine, for a moment, that you had five widgets with which to construct a machine. The sturdiness of several of the widgets is suspect, but also potentially viable in a given configuration. One of the widgets, however, was apt to disintegrate into dust at any given moment. How does one go about constructing a working machine? You can’t. It’s impossible.

That’s where we’re at with Kanter. Yes, of course Tim Hardaway Jr. and Emmanuel Mudiay and Kevin Knox are bad defensively. But they also have the physical ability to at least be passable on defense – ability that will be easier to employ the moment they no longer have to worry about the bomb in the middle of the floor that will self-destruct at any given moment. As long as Kanter is there, it’s impossible to properly evaluate those players because they’re guarding against an inevitability, while also trying not to stink up the joint in their own right.

Here are the defensive ratings for the five starters with and without Kanter on the court:

Emmanuel Mudiay – Kanter on: 116.7, Kanter off: 115.9

Tim Hardaway Jr. – Kanter on: 115.9, Kanter off: 114.3

Kevin Knox – Kanter on: 120.1, Kanter off: 115.7

Noah Vonleh – Kanter on: 114.1, Kanter off: 110.72

The Knicks deserve the last half of this season to see if they can at least climb out of the basement of the league in an area for which New York used to pride itself on. The evidence speaks for itself.

But wait…there’s more!

Your first instinct is probably to say “wait a minute…we’re painfully thin at center as it is. David Fizdale already told us that Mitchell Robinson shouldn’t start because he picks up fouls like they’re on sale at Costco. If Kanter gets bought out, who the hell starts?

This gets into the second primary reason a buyout makes sense. Right now, Noah Vonleh – not-so-arguably the Knicks best player this season – has to start if “keep what you kill” has any teeth left whatsoever. The problem is that, by modern NBA standards at least, he’s playing out of position at the four. At the five, in place of Kanter, not only will the Knicks defense stand a fighting chance, but it’ll open up spacing on the other end3.

If the goal is to put systems in place that will sustain long into the Knicks future, beginning to duplicate how the offense will look with KP on the floor might as well start now. If you don’t want to start Knox at the four because you feel he’s not ready, fine…give Lance Thomas the Keith Bogans treatment, slide Knox over from the three after a few minutes, and bring in Dotson so you can surround either Mudiay or Frank with three shooters on the pick and roll4.

Having those additional minutes available will also alleviate the minutes crunch that’s only going to get worse once Alonzo Trier is back. Mitch still gets the backup minutes when he’s back to full health, and Kornet is always ready and waiting in the garage.

Speaking of the offense, you might be wondering if it’ll suffer without Kanter on the floor. Putting aside the fact that the Knicks score at a lower rate with Kanter on the floor than when he’s off, he’s also someone that demands touches – 7.5 post ups a game, to be exact. Shockingly enough, it doesn’t always end well. He turns it over 8.9 percent of the time on such possessions, second highest among the 11 players who average at least six post ups per game. His assist percentage of 6.1 is also the second lowest among those same 11 guys. For an offense trying to find its footing, having a black hole down low isn’t exactly ideal.

Ok, fine…so he’s maybe not suited for the starting lineup…but cut him? For nothing? Why not just have him come off the bench? Or trade him for something? Anything?

I understand. It seems drastic. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

As I wrote about last month, Kanter is virtually untradeable if you’re only accepting expiring money in the deal. You could stick him on the bench, but as we saw earlier this season, that might not go over so well with the big man. The locker room survived that little tantrum, but his effort was also noticeably reduced during the minutes he played as a reserve. Now imagine how he’s going to feel playing out the string for a team with no hope of a playoff birth and who is mere months away from renouncing your cap hold.

Ultimately, that’s what this comes down to. For all the obvious reasons, barring him taking an almost unfathomable pay cut, Enes Kanter is not going to be a Knick after this season. Cutting him and letting him try to latch on with a contender, even to play a few minutes off the bench here and there, would be doing right by a player who done right by you.

It’s time. I feel badly saying so, but it’s true. Unless you’re captain of team tank5, you should be on board with this move. If the Knicks cut bait now, Kanter’s time here will be remembered fondly, as it should.

No need to sully those memories. Ride off into the sunset on your high horse, big fella. You always gave it everything you had.

At least if there was a stat to be padded, you did.

Knox continues scoring streak as Knicks play no defense in Philly

Tonight was one of those games where, if you didn’t watch, woke up in the morning and saw the final score, you’d be embarrassed that the Knicks gave a poor effort coming off what was perhaps their worst showing of the season in the second half vs the Suns.

To a certain extent, you’d be right. 131 points is 131 points, any way you slice it. Defense is somewhere between 50 and 85 percent effort, and when you allow a team to score that many, there is a level of exertion that is simply not being reached. Some of that goes on the players, some on the coaches.

That said, this was a three-point game with under eight minutes to go in the third quarter against a team that might be the worst matchup for New York in the league, and one that was coming off an embarrassing loss. Philly was engaged and firing on all cylinders. You’d be fair to kill them for the final result but this was a team that came out and at least attempted to show some pride. That most guys in a New York uniform couldn’t buy a basket certainly didn’t help. Make of that what you will.

In terms of individual performances, probably the most notable one came from Tim Hardaway Jr. On the day it was revealed that he’s been dealing with planter facia for over three weeks, Hardaway busted out of his slump with 27 points on 16 shots, and got to the line 10 times – always a barometer for his game. Hopefully this gets him going in the right direction.

Kevin Knox stayed with his trend of coming out on fire early and fading a bit late, but it was another game with over 15 points. He finished with 21, and Coach David Fizdale praised his work ethic after the game, saying he’s learning how to get ready more and more. Damyean Dotson was another plus in his first game back from injury, finishing with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting. He looked like he hadn’t missed a beat, other than a couple of defensive breakdowns. Vonleh did about as well as you could do guarding Ben Simmons.

On the downside, Emmanuel Mudiay came back down to earth, finishing just 3-of-12 from the field. His shot wasn’t falling but the offense had its moments when he was in the game. Enes Kanter, as usual, got targeted on defense, with the Knicks once again trying zone to mitigate his issues. It has yet to work.

We end, of course, with Frank. Like the 131 points the Knicks gave up, three points on 1-of-7 shooting is what it is. People are going to start giving up on him. You can feel it in the air. I’m refusing. His approach – perhaps in part because Trey Burke didn’t see the court tonight – was once again aggressive. He drove when he could and shot when it was the right play to do so but also didn’t force the action. If three more of his looks go down, he’s getting praised.

Of course, they didn’t, and this is a results-orientated business, so that’s a bit of a problem. At some point it will need to change. Either you want to give him more time or you don’t. But if you’re looking for progress, it is there.

Knicks are back in action again Friday night against the Hawks in what will likely be the last game they’ll be favored in for a few weeks. If ver they could use a win, it is now.

Noah Vonleh: The Perfect Backup Plan or a Genuine Trade Asset?

Remember the Knicks 2009-10 season? That was a fun year, if your definition of fun is getting a paper cut between your fingers, turning full speed into a closed door or accidentally pouring breast milk in your morning coffee6.

That season was 82 games worth of a windy, December morning spent waiting on an LIRR platform for a train that probably wasn’t coming. We were graced with a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut in the form of New York’s two most recent draft picks still on the team, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, but little else.

There were some other minor bright spots. David Lee was an All-Star that season, but also entering free agency. He wasn’t someone who profiled as a core piece on a winning team even before the defensive revolution his own injury helped spur years later. Nate Robinson was always good for a night now and again, and I’ll admit it was cool seeing T-Mac in a Knicks uniform at first, but that was about it.

The rest of the roster was filled with assorted basketball muppets of all shapes and sizes. Al Harrington, Larry Hughes, Eddie House, Jonathan Bender, Eddy Curry and Darko Milicic probably shouldn’t have been on any team by 2010, let alone all on the same team. How Mike D’Antoni didn’t lose his mind is a minor miracle.

Sure enough, after the Knicks first, second and third choices in free agency all kowtowed to Pat Riley’s ringz, they were left with the Avocado that was just a liiiiiittle bit too soft but surely would be fine once you opened it up. As for the rest of the roster, Donnie Walsh had to pivot into “oh, shit!” mode once he realized that Amare Stoudemire, Chandler and Gallo, by themselves, probably wouldn’t have a great shot of coming out of the East.

All in all, they did fine, inking Ray Felton and turning Landry Fields from a second round pick to an 81-game starter. But with no foundation to fall back on, D’Antoni ran STAT into the ground just to keep the team’s head above water. We know what eventually happened.

It’s the reason I cringe whenever someone laments putting serious developmental time into players on the current roster who aren’t inked past this season. Granted, there’s a real, honest to goodness young core here (with another pick on the way) plus a young star in tow, both of which make 2019 very different from 2010.

Still, the organization has made it abundantly clear they want to attain a certain amount of respectability next season. The kids will all be better a year from now, but if KD says “no way,” the young core alone won’t be enough to get them there. In such a scenario, the Knicks could feel forced into the position of having to sign a Tobias Harris or a Kemba Walker to max money just to save face.

That, in short, would be a disaster. We’re the Knicks, dammit…let’s have higher standards than becoming the Joe Johnson Hawks.

There is a perfect middle ground available though: bringing back guys like Vonleh and Mudiay on one-year overpays2, reap the continuity rewards, and either take another swing in free agency in 2020 or (more likely) wait for the next star who demands a trade to become available. That version of the Knicks would be a playoff team. More importantly, it would show Kristaps that the organization really does have the patience to “build this thing the right way” and no longer jumps at the first shinny object.

The way he’s played this season, Vonleh might be the key to such a backup plan working.

You barely need two hands to count the number of bigs in the league today who can credibly switch one through five and knock down 3-pointers at an efficient rate.

As of December 13, Vonleh was 37th in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus rankings, and while that statistic is by no means dispositive, it’s telling that he is the only Knick with a positive rating 3. We are deep enough into the season that the 3-point shooting is real, even if it’s not 45 percent-real. His defense jumps off the screen.

So yeah…he’s been more than worth the gamble on his non-guaranteed contract. The only problem now is that Vonleh’s strong play may increase his summer asking price to the point that a big one-year deal might not cut it. If the Knicks really do have their eye on the prize, they may not want to give multiple years to Vonleh and jeopardize max space for 2020 or beyond. For this simple reason, it might be time to start gauging the market.

As with any player, it comes down to what you can get in return. There are two lines of thinking here: either the Knicks can move him in exchange for an asset by itself, or use him to unload unwanted salary (read: Courtney Lee4).

Let’s take the latter first. Spencer Dinwiddie’s contract extension from Friday was further proof that Lee, on his current deal, is a net negative asset. Even assuming he gets back to being the player we saw at the beginning of last season, that’s not someone anyone would be rushing to pay $12.7 million5 in 2019-20 (for proof, just look at the deals J.J.Redick, Tyreke Evans and Wayne Ellington got this summer. All are better overall players than Lee).

New York needs to find a very particular trade partner: a) a playoff contender that b) doesn’t care about cap space this summer and c) has the requisite expiring salary to make a deal work6 and for whom d) both Lee and Vonleh would play meaningful minutes.

Memphis is the most obvious example. The Grizzlies could send back David Fizdale-favorite JaMychal Green, along with MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden and Omri Casspi to make the money work. While Lee would take up the little bit of cap space they would’ve otherwise had come July, the trade would likely open up their full midlevel exception. That figures to be about what they would’ve had to spend anyway if they did nothing. It really comes down to how much they value Lee and Vonleh as players.

The Pelicans could also make sense, sending back Wesley Johnson, Cheick Diallo and Andrew Harrison, but they seem somewhat set in their Davis/Mirotic/Randle big man triad.

Philadelphia looms as a dark horse. They’d certainly rather maintain cap flexibility than pay Lee next year, and it’s possible no prospective deal would jeopardize that. Still, Joel Embiid is averaging nearly 35 minutes a night and the Sixers are hemorrhaging points when Amir Johnson gets in the game as his backup. Vonleh is a natural replacement for those minutes, and could even play alongside Embiid at times. They also clearly need another shooter, so it’s not like Lee would be useless.

That about does it for “attachment” trades. The other option is moving Vonleh straight up for an asset, likely a draft pick. Reading the market from the past few years, players of Vonleh’s caliber might net a low and/or heavily protected first-rounder…but only if the team getting the pick also takes back between $10 and $20 million in bad salary7. Spoiler alert: the Knicks are not going to do this.

A second rounder, on the other hand, is possible. As we’re currently seeing with Damyean Dotson and Mitchell Robinson, such picks are anything but throwaways. They could also be used to grease the skids on a separate Lee deal, if not now, then in the summer.

Philly is once again a team of note here, as they currently own not one, but two of the Knicks next three second rounders. Of course, if the Knicks were really smart, they’d think far ahead and try to snag someone’s second rounder in 2022, currently pegged to be the “double draft” when high schoolers may once again be allowed to have their names called on the big stage.

Every option should be on the table. More than anything, the Knicks should continue to be flexible and keep an open mind. Losing Vonleh (and arguably Lee) would undoubtedly make their team worse. Depending on where you lie on the “winning helps build culture” scale vs the “Zion or bust” scale8, that could be a good or a bad thing.

What can’t be argued is that Vonleh and Lee’s absences would alleviate the crunch for playing time that will once again rear its ugly head once the roster is back to full health9.

At the end of the day, if a good deal presents itself, great. If not, the current path works just fine too.

Knicks Film School Podcast: Damyean Dotson’s trainer, Chris Gaston

Jon is joined by Damyean Dotson’s trainer, Chris Gaston of Chris Gaston Basketball. They talk about how he got into the training business, how Dotson handled infrequent playing time last year, how Dot has dealt with moments this season when he’s been in and out of the lineup, and what he thinks of this Knicks team. 

LISTEN: iTunes / Stitcher / Google

Knicks Film School Podcast: Chris Iseman

Jon and JB are joined by Chris Iseman of The Record/NorthJersey.com. He talks a little about life on the Knicks beat and sheds light on several topics of interest, including how the organization feels about Frank Ntilikina, how the players are dealing with the shuffling rotations, whether this team is really different from last year, where things stand with KP, and what move New York is likely to make with Allonzo Trier’s contract deadline looming.

LISTEN: iTunes / Stitcher / SoundCloud / Google