A lot to be excited about in Knicks loss to Charlotte

It’s only one game.

Actually, it’s not even really one game. It’s a quarter and change of one game. And it’s a game where the kid we’re all focused on played a grand total of 20 minutes because he fouled out. No…as far as breakouts go, this wasn’t your typical effort.

But it’s still the game that, should Frank Ntilikina go on to have the Knicks career his talent portends, we’ll remember as the moment when it truly began. Following a buzzy fourth quarter vs Brooklyn and a fairly nondescript first half when he played a scoreless eight minutes, Frank came out in the third quarter like a man on fire, taking ownership of the court like we’d never seen before. 

Gone was the player that had to think for a split second about whether to fire away on an open 3-pointer. In his place was a dude who was trying to get into spots that would allow him to fire away. He was looking for every possible opportunity to use a screen for even a sliver of an edge that would allow him to beat his man. Ironically enough, perhaps his two most standout plays – a no-look alley-oop attempt to Mitchell Robinson that resulted in a turnover and a hard drive to the basket that was called for a questionable offensive foul – resulted in no points. 

Just as significant as Ntilikina’s effort was his head coach’s reaction following that phantom offensive foul. David Fizdale was beside himself, and following Frank’s sixth foul on the next defensive possession, got himself ejected to make absolutely clear that he had the back of a 20-year-old everyone seemed to think he had a vendetta against just days ago.

Besides Frank fouling out, the shame of this evening was the fact that perhaps Kevin Knox’s best game as a Knick will be overshadowed. He scored 26 points on 25 shots and pulled down 15 rebounds, including several on one possession that saw him refuse to be outbodied, ultimately resulting in him drawing a foul. You get the sense that it’s starting to come together for this young man, and it’s coming together quickly. On offense, at least.

As for the other young Knicks, Mitchell Robinson had his usual couple of nice moments, while Damyean Dotson continued to play defense at a elite level – a true standout on this night, when the Knicks “veterans” failed to show up on that end of the court. It was the reason this game wasn’t nearly as close as the 119-107 final made it seem.

It doesn’t fall on any one player, but collectively, the lack of defensive urgency from the starting lineup following a similar effort last night vs Brooklyn was troubling. It’s not hard to see Fiz making another change to the unit soon – something he may have previewed by starting Knox in the second half as opposed to Mario Hezonja, who never saw the court after the first five minutes of action.

All things to think about moving forward, but this night belonged to Frank. After the game, David Fizdale said the thing that has kept the Frank stans believing through all of the down times – that he’s shown flashes – but when asked what was different about Ntilikina tonight, Fiz was on point: “He finally tsaid ‘screw it’.”

Indeed he did. Hopefully, the first of many such occassions. 

A night for Knicks fans to somehow relax, despite the loss

Vindicated?

No…after one quarter’s worth of a fake comeback, David Fizdale probably doesn’t feel vindicated. For one, the Knicks lost 112-104 to a Nets squad that was playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Over three quarters, his team played like it collectively had too much to eat at a Vegas buffet. Other than Enes Kanter, who beasted, as he always does vs Brooklyn, the team was largely “blah” at best, and effortless, at worst. No, Fizdale is too competitive to feel anything positive after a loss that began like this.

But at the very least, the guy can take a damn breath now and relax. He’s earned at least that.

It seemed like by the end of Frank Ntilikina’s third straight DNP-CD, the entire basketball world had its eyes on the Knicks head coach. They were wondering, questioning, doubting. Trade rumors were swirling. It seemed like all the good that had happened over the course of this season had gotten flushed right down the toilet, all because a player who had struggled immensely had been given some time to sit and simply watch and learn. A man with two decades of NBA experience– one who is not only universally praised, but loved by anyone without the last name Gasol – was being called out as having some kind of personal vendetta against a kid that isn’t yet old enough to drink.

Well, in the words of Aaron Rodgers: R – E – L – A – X.

There’s a reason an NBA season is 82 games. For a rebuilding team like this one, it’s 82 chances for trial and error. To tinker and prod and pry and figure out what you have and what you don’t. Over the first 24 games of the year, although Frank Ntilikina had moments of burst here and there, the aggressive player the team wanted to see before the season started was not a consistent presence.

Tonight was a different animal. Some will point to the fact that Frank was given the point guard reigns again, which happened through much of the quarter, and that was why he was successful. But the guy with the ball in his hands tonight was 180 degrees different than the one we saw over his last five starts, when the team produced a sub-90 offensive rating during his minutes. Something wasn’t fully clicking. It sure looked like it clicked on Saturday night.

We’d be remiss not to mention the efforts of the other young guys in a fourth quarter that was played exclusively by rookies and second-year players. Damyean Dotson was a monster, scoring at will for a stretch early in the fourth. Mitchell Robinson once again showed why he might have the highest ceiling of anyone on this team. Kevin Knox showed a few more flashes, which we’re seeing more and more of. Allonzo Trier got repeatedly cooked on defense – he was burnt to a crisp by night’s end – but he again got to the rim when he needed to.

But this night belonged to Frank and Fiz. The Knicks have a coach who has engendered buy-in from every individual on his roster, which isn’t easy to do when you’re bad. They also have a precocious kid who took the first real challenge of his career in stride, came out, and responded about as well as any of us could have hoped.

We saw the future on Saturday night. It looked pretty good. Most importantly though, it seems like the man who’s been tasked with taking us there might have a clue after all.

Knicks Film School Podcast: Tom Piccolo from BBall Index

Tom Piccolo from BBall Index joins Jon to discuss the development of several Knicks in certain key areas this season, including Mitchell Robinson’s defense, Noah Vonleh’s screen setting, Frank Ntilikina’s shooting and aggressiveness, Emmanuel Mudiay’s driving, Tim Hardaway’s pick and roll game and Mario Hezonja’s defense (yes, we said defense).

LISTEN: iTunes / Stitcher / SoundCloud / Google

Celtics get revenge on Knicks in Boston

Game Highlights

Well you could see that one coming from a mile away, huh? Even though this game was a lot closer than the 128-100 final score made it seem, from almost the opening tip, you got a sense that this was not a contest the Knicks were going to win.

The Celtics feel like a team that is about to go on a massive run, as their new starting lineup is clicking and Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward off the bench is almost unfair (Brown in particular couldn’t miss tonight).

Simply put the Knicks lost to a much better team, partly because their defense couldn’t keep up with an offense that is starting to operate on all cylinders and partly because they didn’t shoot it particularly well. On to individual notes:

  • Noah Vonleh was about the only positive on both ends for the Knicks tonight. He’s been their best player this year, and it’s not particularly close. He put up another double double and was defending everyone from Kyrie Irving to Al Horford. Everyone is scheming to try and get him back next year, but don’t underestimate a team giving up a real asset for him at the trade deadline.
  • The kids, for the most part, played fine. Knox’s shot, especially on drives, still isn’t quite there, as he needs to learn how to finish at this level, but he was 2-of-6 from deep and he once again looked comfortable out there. Mitch more than held his own, getting another couple of blocks and snagging a beautiful alley-oop from Mudiay in the first quarter. Iso Zo had a nondescript six points in 18 minutes, and offensive fouls are not officially a thing he needs to be cognizant of doing. Finally, while Dotson was his usual active self on defense, he couldn’t buy a basket, finishing 2-of-11, including 0-of-6 from deep. You would have liked to see him take it to the hole a bit more.
  • Courtney Lee played again, hitting once from long range and looking…fine.
  • This was a terrible matchup for Kanter, and his 24 minutes was probably a dozen too many.
  • Mario…oh Mario. Super? No…no no no no no, no no…not so much. It’s 26 games and I think most New York fans have seen about enough. The poor decision making, the bad shooting (1-of-4 tonight, an ungodly 38% on the year, including 26% from deep). I don’t know if there’s a team in the league that would trade even the expiring contract of a dead man for him at this point, but his minutes are officially a waste at this point.
  • Finally, of course, Frank. That’s 3 straight DNP-CD’s. Luke Kornet came into the game for the last couple minutes of garbage time, although it’s probably best Fiz didn’t think so little of Ntilikina to throw him into this poopfest. I’ve written and said too much about Frank as it is. They may trade him. Who knows. But they better give him one more honest to goodness shot on this team before they do. They owe him at least that.

It’s back to MSG for a game against Brooklyn Saturday night. Something tells me it’ll be a close one.

Knicks Film School Podcast: Understanding Allonzo Trier’s contract situation

Jon and JB go through some of the recent rumors swirling around the Knicks and how they handle all the noise. They then get into the nitty gritty of Allonzo Trier’s contract situation, discussing his preferred option, the team’s preferred option, and the “nuclear” option all parties hope to avoid.

For a written explanation of Allonzo Trier’s contract options, check out this article.

LISTEN: iTunes / Stitcher / SoundCloud / Google Play

The Godfather of Knicks Trades

As an Italian kid who grew up in Staten Island, I have a particular affinity for The Godfather1.

Shocker, I know.

Naturally, when Bill Simmons wrote a LeBron James column breaking down the King’s then-upcoming 2010 free agency decision into Corleone brother-based categories,2, I was a fan.

Ever since then, I tend to think of prospective decisions a team can make in terms of what each Corleone brother would do in the same situation. This has often been quite painful, as I root for a franchise that has arguably made more Fredo Corleone-moves than any NBA team over the last 17 years.

Now, a mere six weeks into the season, the Knicks are getting close to their first major decision of the year, and I’m already starting to ask myself: WWMD3?

There’s a couple balls in the air here that we have to consider. The most immediate one is Allonzo Trier, who the team needs to either send to Westchester or sign to an NBA contract by approximately December 15. The latter would require the opening of a roster spot, which means that someone on the current 15-man squad would need to go.

Second, Courtney Lee is back4. It’s an open secret that the Knicks want to move his 2019-20 salary before the trade deadline. His debut vs Washington was about as you’d expect, with Lee looking rusty on offense but fairly spry on defense.

Finally, there’s Damyean Dotson and Frank Ntilikina. Reports have surfaced over the past few weeks saying teams are calling about both players, ostensibly because they’ve each had a stretch of DNP-CD’s, with Frank’s still ongoing. Dotson is signed through the rest of this season with his guarantee date for next season reportedly around July 15, or right after the major free agency decisions are made.

So let’s go through the WWMD possibilities.

First, everyone’s favorite rowboat captain, Fredo:

With a hat tip to the Post’s Marc Berman, the Fredo move is absolutely to trade for John Wall. The list of reasons not to trade for John Wall is almost too long to go through5. Luckily, thanks to a trade kicker that amounts to the Wizards shelling out approximately $21 million just to dump him, it’s almost certainly not going to happen this season, to the Knicks or any team. If it did, I imagine that at the introductory press conference, Scott Perry would remove his mask to reveal he was fooling us all along. Shaggy and Scooby are crestfallen, hilarity ensues.

Thankfully, Fredo doesn’t work here anymore. If the Knicks brass has been clear about one thing, it’s that this team would not make a halfhearted playoff push that in any way jeopardized the long game. At least we’ll always have Vegas.

Next up, Sonny:

The Sonny Corleone move is actually pretty obvious given all the parameters of the situation: package Dotson with Lee to a good team that needs wing depth in exchange for an expiring contract and maybe a middling second-round pick. Between the two of them, Lee and Dot can give a lot of teams – even good ones – 48 minutes of quality two-way play every night. Dotson is the tax you pay to get someone to give up some of their 2019 spending cash on Lee, but for Perry and Mills, you then can get up on the roof of Madison Square Garden and shout loud enough for all to hear, “WE OPENED UP ENOUGH CAP ROOM TO SIGN KEVIN DURANT! ALL HAIL CEASAR!

It makes sense on several levels. Aside from the cap space you’ve opened up, you’ve solved your roster crunch and done a solid for a veteran who deserves to play for a playoff team. You even get a nominal “future asset” to boot. There are also several possible deals out there, as our own Dave Early detailed earlier this week.

If this happens, Knicks fans shouldn’t feel like they just got caught on the wrong side of the toll-booth. The move accomplishes a purpose, and for as much as Dotson seems too good to merely be the sweetener in a Lee salary-dump, if the team is headed where it thinks it is, his presence is probably not going to wind up being a difference maker one way or the other6.

Of course, it’s not the way I would go.

You curious?

All right. Just this one time…this one time…I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.

The Michael Corleone Move

If it were me, I’d take a page out of the book of the Michael Corleone of modern-day general managers, Danny Ainge.

It’s not just that he’d trade anyone at any time to help his team; it’s that he trades guys when their value is at its highest. On the Knicks right now, no one’s perceived value is higher than Tim Hardaway Jr.

Conversations about Hardaway Jr., and specifically whether he’s worth his contract or not, never seem to come to a satisfying conclusion. At this point though, at the very least, even his detractors admit it’s not an awful deal. A fair deal? Maybe, maybe not.

On one hand, he’s one of 19 players in the NBA currently averaging at least 22 points per game. That’s not insignificant, especially when the other names on the list are All-Star caliber players. He’s also nearly doubling his career high in free throw attempts per game, which has always been the knock on him, and has become a more willing passer, netting 3.4 dimes per 36 minutes. There is still the occasional “No…no…nooooTimmywhatareyoudoing?!?!?” shot, but less so than in the past.

On the other hand, of the 19 players, his true shooting percentage is the second lowest, just edging Russell Westbrook. He also has the second worst individual net rating, topping only Zach LaVine of the hornless Bulls.

That last one shouldn’t be a surprise for someone who’s the best option on a bad team – one that is shouldering far more of an offensive load than he has any right to. Theoretically, once he’s in his natural role – a third option on offense, someone you hide on defense – his efficiency should go up quite a bit. After all, in the 759 minutes THJ shared with KP last season, the Knicks had a positive 4.1 net rating, which is borderline miraculous considering how bad that team was.

It’s also the reason you don’t salary dump him for expiring money (the Sonny move, as some have advocated), let alone attach an asset to make a trade (the Fredo move, which Bill Simmons himself advocated for on today’s podcast with Marc Stein).

Unfortunately, those look like the only options right now, because for as much as he’s had a nice season, teams are hoarding space for the Summer of Durant.

But what if Timmy wasn’t the only player you were sending out? What if you were able to attach another asset that might not be in your long term plans, but who would be just juicy enough to net something decent in return?

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay. It’s been less than a month since he went from arguably the worst point guard in the NBA to “hey, that guy might be pretty good!” and fans are already trying to figure out a way to keep him aboard for next season. Without going through all the possible machinations of how they might be able to do this (because God knows, there’s a lot of them), here’s a modest proposal: attach him to Timmy as a sweetener and up your chances of getting an honest to goodness asset back in return.

A team making a run this season might want to try out Mudiay’s services, and then they would have the option to re-sign him with his Bird rights this summer.

I know what you’re saying: Deal Burke instead! Of course you are, because you have eyes, and have watched Trey Burke play this year. Save for a handful of nice games, he’s been…not great. Mudiay, on the other hand, has been downright decent. Some team might just talk themselves into him becoming the player the Nuggets thought they were drafting with the 7th pick in 2015.

But wait…what if he actually becomes that guy, leaving the Knicks looking as silly as Denver for giving up too early? It could happen, which is exactly the reason some team might actually offer something decent or the right to find out. Coupled with Timmy – who himself could just be beginning his upswing, as we noted – you might get someone to give up something nice.

While I myself have advocated repeatedly for waiting this thing out until the summer and not worry so much about Mudiay’s cap hold or Timmy’s salary, there’s a difference between making a move because you’re scared and making one from a position of strength. It wouldn’t come without risk, but what worthwhile move is ever risk-free?

Who would make such a deal? The Pelicans are woefully short on wing depth, currently sticking with a nine-man rotation that includes Solomon Hill (26% from deep) and 28-year-old journeyman Tim Frazier. They’re also a game under .500 with no point guard for at least a month 7 and a giant, Anthony Davis-shaped clock ticking above Bourbon Street. Mudiay is the perfect uptempo point guard to fill the void until Peyton returns and then back him up (or continue starting) from there on in, while Hardaway gives them extraordinary lineup flexibility to play big or small.

A swap of Hardaway Jr. and Mudiay for Hill and Wesley Johnson works financially, and the talent upgrade would be enough for New York to demand a top-10 protected first round pick in the deal. Johnson is expiring, while Hill is on the books for $12.2 million. If the Knicks don’t move Lee, that leaves them a few million short of max space for KD this summer.

No bueno, right? Not so fast. Aside from still being able to move Lee separately in a straight salary dump in February or July, they could also attach a smaller asset – one of the Hornets second rounders from the Willy trade, perhaps – to move Hill if and when they know they’ll need the space. Absolute worst case, you stretch the last year of his salary.

Of course, if Kevin Durant doesn’t come, you can just leave Hill and Lee on the books and let them expire. In that scenario, you’d completely wipe the slate clean for 2020, aside from KP’s extension and your rookie salaries. Not factoring a possible extension for Allonzo Trier, that would equate into enough space to add a 10+ year max plus a $10-15 million sidekick, depending on where the cap eventually falls. On top of that, you’ve added another juicy draft asset in the process – one they could use themselves or deploy in a trade.

Would we miss Timmy, someone who has embraced being a leader in the locker room and worked hard to live up to a contract so many have derided? Of course. But remember: this isn’t personal.

It’s strictly business.

Knicks win most exciting game of the season

In a thrilling game at the Garden, the Knicks pulled out their best win of the season behind impressive performances from Kevin Knox, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Damyean Dotson.

HIGHLIGHTS

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MACRI’S GAME NOTES

Often, in a season going nowhere fast, wins that won’t lead to a playoff berth are seen, at best, as meaningless, and at worst, as harmful.

Tonight wasn’t one of them. The Knicks fell behind the best team in the NBA (by net rating at least), fought back, fell back again, fought back again, and won in overtime, 136-134. There were too many big performances to count, but we’ll go through them all, as well as the DNP-CD heard round the City:

  • For most of the night, this was shaping up to be the Kevin Knox Game. He found himself, finally. He ended up with 26 points in 37 big minutes, including 5-of-12 from deep. We finally saw the “Oh snap, this guy is going to be a problem” player that we all thought the Knicks had drafted after Summer League. That it came after the NY Post article featuring several scouts questioning his ability, his response spoke volumes. But it wasn’t his game. That honor belongs to…
  • Emmanuel Mudiay. Admit it…you wanted to send him back to China. Or Antarctica. Or the Moon. We all did. How could you not? He was terrible last season and not great in the preseason. Boy, how things have changed. He channeled Steph Curry for a while there, leaning into three after three, finishing 4-of-5 from deep on his way to 28 points, including several huge buckets late. When he is in, more often than not, the offense hums, and he’s starting to (gasp) fight on defense. Reminder: he is 22-years-old. All of the sudden, his cap hold doesn’t look like so sure of a bet to be renounced.
  • Damyean Dotson did what he always seems to do: be a model of the perfect modern two-way wing. He has an 21 points on nine (Nine? Nine!?!?!?) shots, while being a presence at the opposite end. He would play at least 15 minutes a night for virtually any team in the league. The Knicks have a choice to guaranteed his contract next summer; he is an asset and should be treated accordingly.
  • It’s a testament to the performances in this game that Noah Vonleh is getting mentioned fourth. He’s probably four spots too low. His defense on the Greek Freak was good, bordering on great. On offense, he was literally perfect, nailing all six of his shot attempts, including all three from deep. Again: anyone could have had this guy for nothing. Anyone. Kudos to Scott Perry for the move, and for David Fizdale for trusting and empowering another young player with talent. His emergence is a monumental feather in the organization’s cap.
  • Timmy and Kanter didn’t have great nights in the box score, but helped in their own way. Tim was a solid distributor, netting eight dimes, and even though he couldn’t hit the far side of a barn most of the night, had several big buckets late. Kanter, well…this wasn’t the game for him, with both Giannis and Brook Lope serving as massive matchup nightmares for him. That said, he held his own when his time came. Kudos to the big guy.
  • Trey Burke had a knee scare in the first quarter, but it looks like he’ll be ok.
  • Mario Hezonja had maybe the most memorable moment of the Knicks season when he dunked on Antetokounmpo, stepped over him, and then stared him down in the first quarter. He ended up playing only 12 minutes, perhaps in relation to that post-dunk reaction, but it was a cool moment nonetheless.
  • Courtney Lee was active but did not play.
  • Mitchell Robinson more than held his own in a high-stakes environment. Like Vonleh, he fouled out, but his defensive progress is evident.
  • Finally, of course…Frank. He got the DNP-CD. Knicks Twitter was ablaze with every hit take you could imagine throughout the game. Afterwards, David Fizdale did not beat around the bush, saying flatly that it was his decision, and cheering Ntilikina for being a great teammate throughout while making sure to say that he will be back “in no time” and that nothing with his rotations is permanent (we’ve noticed). He also said that’s he’s continuing to try and pump confidence in him. Many will hear that last part and throw their hands up in the air. I get it. It doesn’t make sense on it’s face. But if you think that a coach who refused to give up on Emmanuel Freaking Mudiay has already thrown in the towel on a 20-year-old with Frank’s ability, you’re not paying attention. We saw tonight a Knicks team that plays the way David Fizdale wants. Frank was doing anything but. There is a rewiring going on, and it’s been tough. Much harder than anyone anticipated, for sure. It does not mean they are out on him. It’s a long season, and while you may not think the tough love approach is the wisest one, David Fizdale at least deserves all 82 before he is judged.

That’s all I got. Great win. Important win. Let’s get another one…Knicks vs Wizards Monday night.

Unlocking the Frank Ntilikina mystery

One of the most common tools teachers use when they’re too lazy to think of something better to support student learning is a KWL chart. It’s not a terribly complicated tool:

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Generally, you start out a class by having kids fill in what they “know”, followed by what they want to know, or “wonder”. The goal is that by the end of the period, they can put some stuff on the right side of the page – in the column for what they “learned” throughout the lesson. Ideally, all three parts of the chart get more or less equally filled.

Before the season, the KWL chart on Frank Ntilikina looked something like this:

IMG_3049

We’re now 23 games into the 2018-19 season, and the KWL chart on Frank Ntilikina is barely legible.

image1

Instead of added clarity, we’ve gotten more confusion. The questions now surrounding Frank not only center around what (he is), but how (the coaching staff is using him), why (he can’t hit a shot), when (they’re going to try him at point guard again), who (he should be playing with) and where (he’ll be after the February trade deadline).

Regarding that last one, if you hopped on Twitter Friday morning, you’d think that every team in the league is interested in trying to swipe him from the Knicks’ grasp. This is in part because, as Marc Berman’s Friday NY Post article noted, “Fizdale and team brass are agonizing over whether he’s a point guard or wing.” Teams are thinking confusion for the Knicks equals opportunity for them.

The shame of it is that if Ntilikina didn’t exist, the narrative surrounding this season would be almost entirely positive. There would be no point guard controversy – for all their faults, the Mudiay/Burke combo would be viewed as found money. The minutes crunch that saw Damyean Dotson get four consecutive DNP-CD’s would be eliminated. With the exception of Kevin Knox, who’s likely still inhibited by his early-season ankle injury, the young players on the team have blown away expectations.

Most significantly, the Knicks have generally been far more competitive than anyone expected, and seem to be getting better. They sport a minus 2.2 net rating over their last six games (which includes Wednesday’s Philly disaster that came on the second night of a road back to back), good for 17th in the NBA over that span, one spot below the Warriors. It’s bad, but not awful.

But this Ntilikina thing…it’s the turd in the punch bowl, and the worst part is that no one’s happy8. The Frankie Truthers are convinced David Fizdale is slowly ruining him, playing him out of position and not putting him in spots where he can be successful. The Frankie Haters are more convinced than ever that the Knicks wasted a draft pick. The cops broke up the party and no one’s getting lucky.

So let’s try to sort through some of this, shall we?

For starters, a simple truth that hasn’t been mentioned enough: If Ntilikina was putting up four or five deep balls a game and converting them at an above-average clip, much if not all of this handwringing would go by the wayside. Point guard or no point guard, it would be proof enough that he’s going to be a useful offensive player. Combined with his defense, that alone would be enough to to justify his spot as part of the team’s core, if not his draft position.

That, of course, isn’t the case. Ntilikina is currently hitting 25.7% of his three 3-point attempts per game. It’s truly been a tale of two seasons: over the first seven games, Frank was hitting 41.4% on over four looks per contest. Since then, he’s gone 6-for-41 – a cool 14.6%, which sure makes it seem like there’s something to the murmuring that his shoulder is bothering him. That’s not just falling off a cliff; it’s finding a fissure and going straight through to Beijing.

Speaking of China, the other added complication no one saw coming is in the form of a young man who played there as a teenager, Emmanuel Mudiay.

I wrote about Mudiay 10 days ago, coming down on the side that, while his development was a worthy pursuit, it shouldn’t come at the expense of Frank, mostly due to Manny’s defense (he had an abysmal 116.6 defensive rating at the time) and lack of any elite skill.

Naturally, Mud has a 103.3 defensive rating since then, best among the ten Knicks who’ve appeared in all six games. He’s also continued to get a lot of looks around the rim – 40% of his shot attempts overall, which is in the 84th percentile league-wide according to Cleaning the Glass, and he’s hitting them at a respectable 57% clip. The scoring gap in terms of overall efficiency when Mudiay is on the court vs. Ntilikina is a widening chasm.

To some, all of this is evidence that Frank, as the troll dolls put it, is trash. To others, it’s Exhibit A in the argument that David Fizdale isn’t doing nearly enough to bring him along. Regardless of which side you’re on, one thing there’s no denying is that Frank has become less involved in the offense as the year has gone on.

Over the season’s first five games, when Ntilikina was the starting small forward, he was averaging 48.8 touches per game, netting 3.65 seconds and 2.96 dribbles per touch. When he took the starting point guard reigns, those numbers increased to 54.5 touches, 4.35 seconds, and 3.67 dribbles2. Back on the bench primarily as a wing, the next five games saw the numbers go down to 27 touches, 3.2 seconds, and 2.35 dribbles. Finally, in the last four, they’ve cratered to 17.3 touches, 3.21 seconds, and 1.91 dribbles3.

So let’s add “decreased role” to our “know” column. What I’m “wondering” is why that is.

There are some who feel that the team, or at the very least the coaching staff, has already given up on him – not only as a point guard, but as a player. This is a great talking (head) point, but not one that stands up to logic. Even if the coaching staff had already decided Frank was terrible – and Fiz doesn’t seem capable of thinking any player is beyond repair, as we’ve seen – killing his trade value by relegating him to insignificant offensive role in furtherance of no greater purpose would be biting one’s nose to spite one’s face.

It’s far more likely that Fizdale, who in no uncertain terms will be judged on how he develops the young players on this roster, is doing this as part of some larger plan. Thus far, the dividends have been inconsistent at best. On one hand, after Frank got moved to the bench, we saw stellar efforts against Portland and Boston. Not coincidentally, those games were the most minutes he’s played since November.

We have another “wondering”: Did Frank earn more time because he played well, or did he play well because he got more time? The answer likely lies somewhere in between, but that’s besides the point. The bigger question is what is playing well under David Fizdale?

You don’t have to read between the lines much to figure out the answer. I’ll give you a dollar if you can find a media session that doesn’t include Fiz either praising a player’s aggression or demanding more of it. It’s his Golden Rule, especially for ball handlers: if you’re not trying to prod, probe or penetrate the defense, you’re not doing your job. That is Fizdale’s offense: screen, screen and screen some more until there’s a hole in the dam and then, BANG – hit it, and hit it hard. For all of their assist issues, the Knicks are 11th in the NBA in screen assists. Aggression is the key to it all.

Most Knicks fans know what an aggressive Frank Ntilikina looks like and what it doesn’t. Some may mistake taking shots for aggression, and then get confused when he gets pulled after a few bricks, thinking that Fizdale is benching him for missing open looks, which runs counter to good development. Case in point: against Philadelphia, Frank put up three shots over 12 possessions in just six first half minutes…not a bad ratio. The issue was that on eight of the other nine, Ntilikina didn’t touch the ball, never getting out of the corner. This came one night after the Detroit game, when, as Clarence Gaines noted, Frank was in “attack mode” on only three of 24 possessions.

More than anything, this is the biggest “wondering” that supporters of the young Frenchman have: how can Fizdale expect Ntilikina to be aggressive when all he does is stand in the corner as Trey Burke or Alonzo Trier go to work?

It’s a fascinating question that goes to the heart of what David Fizdale expects from his players. Even when he’s not the nominal point guard, we’ve seen stretches from Ntilikina where he gets the ball and takes control. Just because the offense calls for Frank to start out in the corner doesn’t mean he has to stay there. Fiz critics will lament possessions where Ntilikina never moves from his corner spot like a member of the Queen’s Guard, but some of this has to fall on the player too. In Fizdale’s mind, if you want it, come and get it, and it shouldn’t matter who else is on the floor with you.

In a sense, Fizdale has already been proven right. We’ve seen the neophyte 4look good on offense from the point and on the wing, as a starter and from the bench5. For what it’s worth, before the season Trey Burke had this to say about his pairing with the 20-year-old6:

“I believe last year he played better when I was on the floor with him because he had a guy to take the pressure off him handling the ball,” said Burke. “He can play a spot-up and when he’s ready to be aggressive and get in the lane and make plays, he could. I think he played much better with me, and he’d say that as well. I definitely see us in the backcourt a lot.” – Tommy Beer, Forbes

When he’s ready to be aggressive. That hasn’t happened much.

It leads us to our biggest “wondering,” the 800 lb. gorilla in the room: wouldn’t it be easier for Ntilikina to be aggressive if he were, you know…still the starting point guard?

At first glance, the numbers from when he manned that role are kind of ugly. During that nine-game stretch, the Knicks had a 100.7 offensive rating with Frank on the floor, which is just about tied with the league-worst Hawks.

As Fiz has said repeatedly implied though, it’s about the process, not the product. If Frank was playing the way Fizdale wanted, he’d likely still have the role, no matter how rough a go it was.

Initially, he was. In his first four starts at point guard, Ntilikina averaged 8.8 drives per game in 30.6 minutes of action – nothing crazy, but more than respectable. That number would lead the Knicks for the season, is the same as Steph Curry and in the neighborhood of guys like Jamal Murray and Victor Oladipo.

During this stretch, Frank also made half of his 3.5 field goal attempts on drives and sported a 14.3 assist percentage out of such possessions. Best of all, Ntilikina attempted and made eight free throws during those four games. That obviously doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a player who has attempted only eight total free throws in the other 19 games combined, it was a lot.

As an added bonus, the Knicks held a fourth quarter lead in every one of those contests, winning twice and losing to Indiana and Golden State.

The next four games were a very different story. Frank’s drives dipped to an average of 4.5 in 21.6 minutes of action. He shot it at about the same rate (50% on 2.0 FGA per game), but his assist percentage plummeted to 5.6. The first of those four games came against John Wall in Washington, when it seemed like Ntilikina became unnerved on both ends from Wall’s aggression. The next three – vs Chicago, at Atlanta and at Toronto – didn’t get any better. The game after that was the 5:45 affair at home against Orlando when he looked perhaps more out of sorts than ever in his brief stint.

In total, New York’s offensive rating over his final five games running the show was an abysmal 85.8 in 92 minutes. Their overall net rating with Frank on the floor during that time was a negative 19.2.

It leaves us “wondering”: did Fiz bench Ntilikina because Frank wasn’t playing the way he wanted him to, because he felt he was doing more harm than good to his own development, or simply because he felt he wasn’t ready for the responsibility of being a starting NBA point guard?

Based off of what we know about Fizdale, one thing we can be pretty sure of is that Frank wasn’t benched simply for poor play7. Need proof? Ntilikina’s four highest minute totals have come in games where he’s gone a combined 8-for-29 from the floor. That’s not what matters to this coach.

It seems far more likely that Fiz simply felt the time wasn’t right to keep the experiment going. Is it because he wanted to teach the kid a lesson? Maybe a little. It’s just as probable that he felt Ntilikina would lose too much confidence if things kept progressing the way they were. It also can’t be discounted that he wanted to continue to put forth starting lineups that remained competitive in games as he tries to instill a culture where losing is abhorred as opposed to simply frowned upon, or worse, accepted as the norm.

Has he given up on the idea that Frank can play the point? His stints during garbage time at the end of both the Detroit and Philly games would seem to indicate otherwise.

So our final “Wondering” is this: how much of the blame, if any, does Fiz deserve here?

Could there be a more sophisticated offensive system in place that garners more natural opportunities for Frank to find a rhythm? Probably. Could Fiz simply spare a handful of possessions per game where he lets Frank operate out of the pick and roll? Of course. Could there be at least some possessions every night when Ntilikina doesn’t share the court with another ball-dominant guy? Definitely.

Is it in Fizdale’s style to make these accommodations? At the moment, the answer seems to be a fim “no.” This might be the only thing we’ve really “learned” so far. If the scout in Berman’s article is to be believed – that Ntilikina is soft, unaggressive and lacks instincts to play point guard – maybe tough love is the approach he needs to emerge from the darkness and harness the gifts he clearly possesses. Luckily, his confidence doesn’t appear to be wavering, at least if you take his word for it.

If nothing else, more patience is warranted. As another scout quoted in the article noted, having an unselfish player who just wants to make the right play and doesn’t care about scoring is invaluable to have on an NBA roster where most guys are just looking to get buckets.

Ultimately, time will tell if Frank can achieve the balance between his natural instinct to distribute and the learned trait of attacking relentlessly. It requires a rewiring of the brain, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that 23 games in, it’s gotten worse before it’s gotten better. Luckily, they still have plenty of season left – more time for us all to fill in that last column, hopefully with something more positive than we have so far.

The Knicks Lineup Discussion with Posting and Toasting

As the Knicks get closer to the 25-game mark and the end of David Fizdale’s self-proclaimed tinkering period, we thought the new head coach could use some help in deciding which lineup is the best. And since we don’t take this assignment lightly, we rang Posting and Toasting and asked if they could lend us one of their best people to help with this important task. Sadly, they were all busy, so they sent @shwinnypooh. Not to be out-done, we got Jonathan Macri off his barstool to cover our side of things.

What follows is Part 1 of the email exchange that occurred between these two titans. (Part 2 will appear on Posting and Toasting’s website on Monday)


Macri:

Hey (expletive deleted),

So first, I guess I should thank you for agreeing to humor me in this exercise, although it’s certainly not like you have anything better to do. Let’s call you Ron Baker, actually.

Anyway, lineups…don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it doesn’t look like David Fizdale has settled on one yet. He reminds me of Sideshow Bob in the “Cape Fear” Simpsons episode, and every new lineup combination is a different rake that smacks him in the face. We at least ought to try and help the poor guy out.

Let’s start with this: many in the fan base have been clamoring for a return to the Frank/Tim/Dot/Vonleh/Mitch starting unit, they of the positive 8.1 net rating over 94 minutes. Where do you stand on that?

Shwin:

Nice to hear from you Mrs. Lance Thomas,

Appreciate the opportunity to demonstrate how much more intelligent I am than you and for EVERYBODY in the Knicksverse to witness this beatdown.

Now, to your question about the starting lineup, personally I’d have persisted with the lineup that hung tough with the Warriors and Raptors, yeah. It doesn’t really bother me that Fizdale wanted to switch it up though. Frank really has been struggling offensively — having two strained shoulders may be a factor in this current slump he’s in — and Mudiay did do some nice things off the bench. I can wrap my head around that switch and think it’s perfectly reasonable, but moving Dot and Vonleh out for Trier and Knox is like willingly choosing to give up 130 a night, which they’ve been doing quite a good job of since the switch. Probably not a coincidence.

If you’re looking for more offense with ball movement and pace, probably don’t put Trier in there. He’s a scorer, yeah, but he likes to feel the ball before doing anything with it. If your starting 5 is made up of 4 minus defenders and Mitch, who’s a rookie whose performance on a night-to-night basis is volatile, shit’s going to get ugly on defense.

Whatever. I’m cool with experimenting, I just think there needs to be more balance in the experiment. If it was up to me, I’d probably mess around with a Mudiay/Frank/THJ/Knox/Mitch lineup and see how it goes. Still got 3 minus defenders in there, but you can switch pretty well and you have your best perimeter defender and rim protector in. You also get to see how Mudiay and Frank play together with a spread floor and you should theoretically have enough scoring to at least give yourself a fighting chance between Timmy and Knox.

You think that’s still weak sauce or is that something you might be interested in?

Macri:

Wow. Way to sign off your response with a clip from an HBO show that’s not only been off the air for years, but not even the best one.

I’ll let Tony Soprano tell you why you’re wrong here.

Yeah, I said it…these kids, they got no idea what it takes to be number one.

I get it. I do. We want to see a starting lineup with as many of the young’ns as possible. But three of them? It’s too much, and they’re not ready for it. Knox’s defense is such a train wreck right now that keeping him in the starting lineup causes too many breakdowns. There’s a fine line between “let the kids learn the hard way” and “let the kids make it so that no one else on the court can trust one of their teammates and peeps start up with the stink eye.” Knox is on the wrong side of that line.

Mitch, God love him, is too volatile. It’s important to have a starting lineup that you can trust to remain intact on the floor for a solid five minutes, and like Fiz said before the Portland game, he can’t rely on Robinson to avoid the silly fouls right now.

And then there’s Mudiay. I agree with your sentiment about him and Frank, and think the offense just looks more juiced when he’s in. I just don’t know that him and Tim can ever be passable defensively on the court at the same time. And this team can’t afford starting games with Tim on the bench.

So my alternative proposal: Frank/Timmy/Dot/Mario/Vonleh. Mario makes up for some of what Mudiay brings on offense, and if he’s your 4th best defender and Tim is your 5th, you can more than survive if the other 3 are solid, which is the case here.

Shwin:

Is three young guys really too much? Maybe it is, but Hezonja isn’t the answer to anything. Knox has been bad — shocking for a 19-year old rookie, I know — but Super Mario has been playing like a wet fart. He’s bricking everything, taking horrible shots and tries to create in transition like he’s LeBron. I barely trust him to bring the ball up the floor without throwing the ball into the 10th row, let alone handing him more responsibility by leaning on him to initiate offense more consistently.

After seeing his performances against Boston and New Orleans, Mudiay, in his current form, has to start. He’s pushing the tempo well and finishing at the rim without always falling down.8

He hasn’t racked up a number of assists, individually, but he’s getting the ball moving early and often by forcing the defense to rotate when he penetrates. I love Frank, but that’s not something he’s comfortable doing so often.

I would ideally like Mitch to start, but I’m starting to come around to your and Fiz’s view here. It’s hard to build consistency when you have him getting into foul trouble every other game within two minutes of stepping onto the court.

The same can be said of Frank, to be honest, although he’s not nearly as bad with it as Mitch. Also if Kanter plays like he has the last couple of games, consistently, where he’s actually playing within the team concept offensively and giving a shit on defense, I have very little issue with him starting. Will he? I’m not sure, but for now he is, and so long as that holds true, it seems the most appropriate way to go.

I’m fine with the current lineup aside from Hezonja. He’s been so bad that the success they’ve had has been entirely in spite of him. The obvious move, if you’re uncomfortable with Knox, is to stick Frank or Dot in there. With Frank seeming to have really leaned into this current bench role with ridiculous defensive displays and a renewed, if still inconsistent, offensive vigor after a prolong slump, I think Fiz has to leave him there. Throw Dot in at the 3 so you have two plus defenders in the lineup with him and Vonleh, and add some defensive rebounding and shooting ability into the mix.

Macri:

Boy, I was all ready to defend my Mario point, especially since you compared a fellow Italian to a wet fart…and then I sat down…and I thought about it…and I thought about it some more…and, well…yeah, I just don’t have it in me. The idea of Mario is a beautiful cornucopia of basketball goodness. Actual Mario is leftovers that someone forgot to put in the fridge. It’s been 20+ games in a new environment, and we’re seeing a lot of the same things we saw again and again in Orlando. Let’s move on.

At this point, arguing against Mudiay seems foolish. Since I wrote a piece, like, 10 days ago, essentially saying that he would have to show even more to warrant key playing time at point guard, guess what: he’s shown even more.

Can we can go down the whole road of “what’s the point, he won’t be here next year, and he’s taking time away from someone who will?” Sure. But Mudiay is only 22 years old and his development into a real, live NBA player would not only be a huge feather in the organization’s cap, but it would hasten the development of those around him. Also, if you buy into the whole “losing mindset” thing, being competitive in games this year is a big deal, and will look good to prospective free agents. No reason Frank can’t still get ample time off the bench, including a handful of possessions every game where he runs the offense – something Burke always seems to cede his way.

Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m with you on Kanter. Plus, Kanter with Vonleh (plus 0.7 net rating as of Sunday morning, according to Cleaning the Glass) is a different animal than Kanter without Vonleh (minus 14.1, aka, the “we want Anthony Davis and we’re not afraid to admit it” Bobcats).

Logically, your Dotson choice makes sense. Too much sense almost – he shores up the defense and his shooting spreads the floor to compensate for the lack thereof elsewhere.2 I just…I don’t know. For as much as we may want to believe that it’s not about who starts, there’s something in me that feels there’s value in Frank being out there with the first five.

Am I being crazy? You can tell me I’m being crazy. It’s ok. I won’t be (too) hurt.

Check Posting & Toasting for Part 2 on Monday!

Knicks blown out in Philly

This one was never close. Philly steamrolled the young Knicks playing on the second night of a back-to-back.

HIGHLIGHTS

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GAME NOTES

Before Wednesday night, the Knicks had played two truly forgettable games this season – consecutive blowout losses to Orlando and Oklahoma City. Since the latter, things had been pretty good, with the team sporting a respectable minus 1.1 net rating over the preceding seven games.

That number is going to dip after what was probably their worst overall showing of the year, a 117-91 loss in Philadelphia. Granted, the team was on the second night of a back-to-back, playing a rested Sixers squad coming off a bad home loss, but they were thoroughly outclassed regardless, shooting a “wait, that has to be a mistake” 34.8% from the field. Most of the guys played a step slow all night on defense and you’ll rarely see a worse shooting night from an NBA team. There were a couple of important takeaways.

  • Big picture wise, the “Frank Ntilikina Development Watch” has now reached Code Yellow (that’s the middle one), approaching Code Orange. He played six minutes in the first half, and over a dozen possessions, he didn’t touch the ball on nine of them, all but one of which never saw him leave the corner. The three possessions he did touch the rock, he shot it … and missed all three. This wouldn’t be a story if there was some agreement that the coaching staff is deploying him in a way that is best for his development, but that’s a major source of contention amongst the fan base and NBA people, alike. As a slight silver lining, we saw some Frank at point guard minutes to close out the game in garbage time. This now officially bears watching on a nightly basis.
  • On the bright side, Damyean Dotson once again played, and once again looked like his regular, active two-way self. The numbers during what little meaningful time there was in this game weren’t great, but he again exuded the presence of a guy who just looks like he needs to be on the court. His three steals stood out.
  • Mitchell Robinson didn’t foul out, so that was a plus. He also had a couple nice blocks on Embiid late. Complain if you want about Frank and Knox, but Mitch is either ahead of schedule, or at worse, right where he should be – looking overmatched much of the time but making a few special plays every night.
  • Speaking of Knox, he had seven points on 3-of-7 shooting and generally looked better than he has in a few games.
  • The starting backcourt of Timmy and Mud shot a combined 1-for-16 from the floor and missed all nine 3-point attempts. Yeah.
  • Lastly, in the irony of ironies, Mario Hezonja may have been the best Knick on the floor, swiping four steals and looking the best he has on offense during a brief stretch in the first quarter. Fizdale’s choices don’t get any easier.

That’s it. Thankfully. The Knicks have two nights off. They look like they’ll need it. They’re home for the Bucks on Saturday.

Fizdale doesn’t plan on sending Knox or Robinson to G-League

Kevin Knox is off to a slow start after an exciting Summer League. The 19-year-old rookie is shooting a dismal 32.5% from the field in 15 games. Meanwhile, Mitchell Robinson has shown more flashes of excitement, but he can’t stay out of foul trouble; it is his first time playing organized basketball in over a year.

Would it make sense to have Knox and/or Robinson spend some time in Westchester this season to fine-tune their skills?

David Fizdale doesn’t think so. As he told reporters before the Knicks game against Philadelphia:

I’m keeping both of them with us. We’re raising them as a village now with the group. Through whatever tough times they go through that’s what we’ve got to go through with them right now.”

“But I want them with our guys, playing with our guys, interacting with our guys, having successes and suffering with our guys.”


What does this mean?

On the surface, David Fizdale’s proclamation that we’ll see Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson with the big club for the remainder of the season is a good thing.

For one, it confirms that the pair will continue to get minutes on the court for the rest of the season, because if the choice was between getting minutes in Westchester or riding the pine in MSG, they’d get sent down. How many minutes is anyone’s guess, but the safe bet is that Knox will get a minimum of the 15-20 he’s seeing now, with that number likely to go up as the season progresses. As for Mitch, the same would be true if they played with Summer League rules, where you needed 10 fouls, not 6, for a disqualification.

So that’s a plus. It also means that the team remains committed to the overall, season-long goal of developing the young players, even at the cost of wins. Again, keeping the organizational eyes on the prize is a welcome change from years past.

Of course, the Knicks could go halfway in making a decision on where to play the two rookies by doing something they did last year in sneaking each player some time in the G-League in-between games with the big club. The problem with that is those type of minutes are usually reserved for players who aren’t getting enough minutes in the NBA. It’s already a marathon for rookies to get used to the NBA schedule (especially so for Mitchell Robinson who didn’t play organized basketball last year), so adding minutes to their load doesn’t seem to make sense.

If there is a downside, it’s more of a devil’s advocate position than anything else: if accountability really does reign supreme throughout the locker room, does a statement like this so early in the year take away a little of the bite that goes with that? Probably not. If anything, the kids can feel reassured that as long as they play hard and unselfishly, they don’t need to be looking over their shoulder if they make a mistake (which is probably good, because that would result in a strained neck before too long).

Lastly, it’s an indication that, barring a trade, New York will continue to face a roster crunch in the near future. The rotation is at 11 players over the last two games, and that’s not considering Courtney Lee, who is close to returning. Whoever’s going to wind up the odd man (or men out), it won’t be Knox or Robinson.

Knicks Film School Podcast: All good (Knicks) things must come to an end

Jon is joined by Jeremy Cohen to discuss a night in Detroit where the Knicks couldn’t buy a basket. They focus on several hot topics of late, including Allonzo Trier’s continued inspiring play, Mario Hezonja’s place in the rotation, Damyean Dotson’s return to the living, and Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina’s struggles.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Stitcher / SoundCloud

Knicks Film School Podcast: Moke Hamilton

JB and Jon are joined by Moke Hamilton of the Athletic. They cover several Knicks topics of interest ranging from Scott Perry and Steve Mills’ philosophy in building this team to how David Fizdale plays into their vision to which players on the roster are untouchable. Moke also hits on why he thinks the Joakim Noah stretch made sense and what would get the Knicks to consider moving Tim Hardaway Jr.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Stitcher / SoundCloud

The Knicks 3-game winning streak FAQ

With the Knicks winning three games in a row against solid competition, fans of the team may find themselves feeling a bit unnerved in these uncertain times. We here at Knicks Film School understand your plight, and are ready to help. For your convenience here is a helpful FAQ to help you navigate these choppy waters. If you get to the end and still feel faint, please call a medical professional. We hope you enjoy.


What is happening right now?

The Knicks are winning games. Please remain calm.

Is this a thing that NBA teams do?

Yes, occasionally. It actually happens quite regularly in other cities.

Is winning a good thing for the Knicks?

It depends on who you ask. Some people feel that winning games improves culture, makes your franchise look more attractive to prospective free agents, and generally begets more winning. Others feel that it just takes away ping pong balls heading into lottery night.

Which is the right answer?

There is no right or wrong answer, really … it’s all a matter of perspective.

No, really … which is the right answer?

The ping pong ball people are wrong.

This is especially true under the new lottery rules, where the team that finishes with the worst record in the league is guaranteed a top-five pick, but only has about a 50% shot at a top-four pick in what everyone seems to think is a four player draft. Even if the Knicks win some games, the way things are lining up, they’ll still likely finish with the fifth-worst record in the NBA, which gives them over a 40% chance at a top four pick.

Why are ultimately meaningless wins worth even a slight decrease in the odds?

Because they’re not meaningless. When you’ve been a dumpster fire of an organization for the better part of two decades, you need to show certain basic competencies before you move on to loftier aspirations … walk before you run, basically. Taking talented but flawed players into your program and helping them play the best basketball of their lives is an important step in that process, and that’s what’s happening now.

But I thought none of these players will be here next season … why does it matter if they help us win games? Isn’t that what happened early last year?

One thing at a time. Regarding players staying or not, there’s basically two scenarios. If they’re not here, that almost certainly means that Kevin Durant is here, in which case, scotch and Cheetos for everyone!

If, however, Durant says no, and the Knicks had shown zero progress this season, there would likely be some pressure on the front office to sign a max player in July just to save face, even if that max player wasn’t really a max player. Having players on the current roster succeed not only lessens that possibility, but opens up the option of bringing several of these guys back on one-year deals at inflated salaries. This not only allows you to field a competitive team while awaiting Anthony Davis’ free agency in 2020, but it gives you a roster full of intriguing trade chips should the right deal arise.

Regarding whether it matters, see the proceeding question. Also, winning games with young reclamation projects that still have upside (Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh) is very different than winning games with vets who are already known quantities (Jarrett Jack, Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas). It shows that your player development program is working, which other players around the league notice.

If the Knicks do sign Kevin Durant, why will a bunch of these guys be gone?

In this scenario3, the Knicks would need to renounce the cap holds of Mudiay, Kanter, and Hezonja, and almost all of their exceptions, to make room for Durant2.

When you renounce a player’s cap hold, that means you lose the eligibility to exceed the cap to sign them using their respective Bird or non-Bird rights. If the Knicks were to create enough cap space to sign Durant, they can’t have money tied up in cap holds.

However, if the Knicks do trade Lee and take back no future money, they will have a few million in cap room to spare, along with the room exception, which is roughly $4.6 million. Still, if guys like Mudiay and Vonleh keep producing, it’s easy to see another team making a more sizable offer for their services.

Back to this team: we were lead to believe that Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson made up the Knicks’ future core, and that this season would be all about their development. In Memphis, they played a combined 33 minutes. Shouldn’t I be concerned?

You’re probably going to be concerned regardless of what I say.

Humor me.

Ok fine … no, you shouldn’t be concerned. This is where we get into nuance that can’t be properly expressed in 280 characters. If David Fizdale was burying his young players on the bench and we were watching them rack up DNP-CD’s, that would be a major cause for concern, but that isn’t happening.

Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson are arguably two of the five rawest rookies in their class, yet Fiz is still finding a way to give them 17 minutes per game, on average. The fact that Robinson, in particular, is playing in the NBA at all at this point, and hasn’t been relegated to the G-League, is a minor miracle in light of his summer league performance. Knox, meanwhile, was clearly slowed by the injury that kept him out for over two weeks.

These numbers will only go up as the year continues, but right now, they’re more than fine. Playing guys more minutes then they’re ready for and letting bad habits develop is worse than not playing them at all. Ntilikina and Trier, meanwhile, are at 24 minutes per game, while Dotson is at 27.

But Dotson hasn’t even played in four games?

Yeah, that’s a problem.

I thought this was supposed to make me feel better?

Sorry. I’m honestly not sure what’s up with Dot right now, because he has been largely excellent in his minutes so far this year. He does continue to be the first guy off the bench to high five his teammates, though, so that’s a good sign. I’d bet that Fiz let him know his time is coming and that he’s giving Mario Hezonja one more look before relegating him to the bench or out of the rotation entirely. With the team winning, it makes a change that much tougher.

Back to Frank … he’s never the only point guard on the floor anymore. 

I’ve noticed.

Is that ok?

This is the question that’s hanging over this entire Knicks season, and tons of smart people have tons of different opinions about it. Some think he needs to get a certain number of minutes at point guard come hell or high water. Others just want him to get time on the floor and not be relegated to the corner when he’s out there.

Of late, despite fewer minutes and shared time with Burke, Frank has looked more confident and assertive on offense, which has always been the knock on him. He’s taking control of the offense in spurts, but also not forcing it – a balance he thus far hadn’t been able to achieve, including during his stint as the starting point guard earlier this year. So whatever Fiz is doing seems to be working.

One more point on this: if we assume David Fizdale is a rational actor, he knows that the best case scenario for his future as a coach is figuring out a way to get a 6’7″ kid, with an All-Defense ceiling, on the floor as much as possible in as advantageous a role as possible. Not prioritizing his development would harm Fiz more than anyone, which wouldn’t seem to make any sense. So question Fizdale’s development methods if you will, but questioning his priorities seems to be a bit silly.

So we’re winning games … the team is playing hard, playing unselfishly, and playing for their coach. If you’re to be believed, they’re also still keeping their eye on the future as the ultimate prize. What do we have to complain about as Knicks fans?

You’re a New Yorker. You’ll find something.

Knicks Film School Podcast: The Knicks are … good?

Zach DiLuzio joins Jon to digest the Knicks’ improbable win in David Fizdale’s return game to Memphis, one that extended their winning streak to three (three!) games. They talk about why this particular win was so impressive, what the team’s recent play means for the long-term organizational goals, and how fans should react to the younger players seeing less time lately.

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Knicks win in Memphis for Fizdale

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Knicks Fan TV Postgame Live


MACRI’S GAME NOTES

Hey hey hey there friends … we interrupt your regularly scheduled Tank Job for this important announcement: the Knicks – the New York Knickerbockers – might not be terrible.

Bad?

Yeah, they’re probably still bad.

And they’ll look it on some nights as this season progresses. For right now, though, they’re playing hard, they’re playing smart, and they’re playing together, all culminating in a huge 103-98 win in David Fizdale’s return game, their third in a row.

On to the highlights:

  • Have to start with Kanter. Have to. He was a beast, putting up a 21 & 26 night, which included a stretch in the 3rd where he ate Memphis’ collective lunch on the block, repeatedly posting up and getting buckets, relieving the pressure on New York’s guards to produce points for a key stretch of the game. Perhaps more impressively, his defense was also more than passable. I wrote a few weeks ago that I thought Kanter’s season in NY would end in a buyout, and I might be wrong if he continues to add value like this.
  • Emmanuel Mudiay’s resurgence continues. He didn’t shoot it great, but 17 points on 12 shots is fine any day of the week. He was once again in complete control of the offense – his own and the team’s – and his defense was also far better than what we’ve become accustomed to. His dunk late in the fourth may have been my favorite moment of the season.

  • Noah Vonleh continues to put in work on both ends. Tonight was a quieter effort, but he is a switchable force on the defensive end, his jumper appears to be a thing, and his baby hook is unguardable.
  • Timmy again had a rough night from the field, but he got to the line seven times (two on techs) and hit 3-of-7 from deep. Like Mudiay, the field goal percentage was ugly, but you’ll take 22 points on 16 shots most nights.
  • Other than Frank, the kids struggled tonight, which was to be expected against a tough, veteran squad that’s been hitting on all cylinders. Knox looked overmatched, and Mitch had some rough moments guarding Gasol. Ntilikina, however, had a nice stretch running the offense and looking for his own shot in the second quarter. He didn’t play much in the second half, but in a game where every bucket was going to be critical, it was understandable.
Regardless of how Knicks fans feel about the vets playing more of late, there’s no denying that David Fizdale has this squad playing their asses off. For a franchise where that hasn’t been the case much over the last 17 years, that is step one, above everything else they need to do to go back to becoming a respectable NBA franchise. Kudos to Fiz. He’s go this thing rolling.

Mudiay shines in Knicks win

MACRI'S GAME NOTES

Don’t look now, Knicks fans … we have ourselves a winning streak. New York beat their second presumptive playoff heavyweight in a row, defeating the New Orleans Pelicans 114-109. It was an exciting game throughout, marred only by a brief Anthony Davis injury scare in the 3rd quarter quarter. He returned late, but it wasn’t enough, thanks to the effort of several Knicks, none of which get the game ball. That honor goes to …

  • Scott Perry took over the GM job about 17 months ago, and quickly realized the roster he was in charge of building was short on talent and athleticism. He didn’t have many options to build this thing by traditional means, as he was short on cap space and extra draft picks. But boy, did he make due. Three Knicks who literally anyone in the NBA could have had – Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh and Allonzo Trier – were plucked off the scrap heap and combined to score 66 points tonight. Awesome job so far in his first chance as a head man.
  • Emmanuel Mudiay, several years after the fact, had himself the kind of game the Nuggets envisioned when they drafted him seventh overall in 2015. He’s finally figured out how to use his huge frame and elite athleticism to his advantage, getting six buckets at the rim to go with six from the free throw line on his way to 27 points, including several huge baskets late. If the 3-point shot he’s showing is real, he’s about a 20% improvement on defense away from becoming a dangerous, dangerous NBA player. After the game, Fiz did not rule out him starting at PG for the rest of the year.
  • Mudiay’s late game heroics overshadowed what might be the most efficient game an undrafted rookie has ever had, finishing with 25 points on 12 shots, and added 8 rebounds and 4 assists to boot. He’s already shown himself to be a guy who won’t always have it, but when he does, he can single handedly alter a game. His passing and court vision continues to improve.
  • Noah Vonleh will wind up getting relegated to an afterthought, but his early offense may have kept the game close. He continues to be a threat from deep, netting four threes on his way to 14 points, 11 boards, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. If there was any doubt as to whether he’s a valuable NBA rotation piece, there isn’t anymore.
  • That the Knicks won this game while getting perhaps Tim Hardaway Jr’s worst performance of the season was telling. Timmy couldn’t buy a bucket and never got into the lane or to the line to make up for it, but after the year he’s had, he gets a pass.
  • Trey Burke was quiet after a scorching four games, finishing with 7 points on 2-for-8 shooting. To his credit, David Fizdale recognized it and didn’t force the issue.
  • Rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson had nights where they looked their age, although Mitch did pick up another 2 blocks to go with his 6 fouls in 9 minutes.
  • Lastly, Frank Ntilikina’s defense shined as usual, and he made his only 3-point attempt, which had to feel good. He only played 14 minutes, which is less than we’d all like to see, but he continues to look more comfortable and confident on offense than he did during his down stretch earlier in the season. 
  • #FreeDot
  • Last, but not least, Enes Kanter had a nice two-way game, and for the first time that I can remember, his defense may have overshadowed his offense. Aside from three blocks, he was in solid position for much of the game and contested several shots better than he normally does.
That’s it…Fiz makes his return to Memphis on Sunday night, where the Knicks will look to do the unthinkable and beat three good teams in a row. Do you believe in miracles?

The Curious Case of Emmanuel Mudiay

Someone on Twitter messaged me recently about whether I knew of any fun Knicks drinking games3.

Before the season started, if you’d have asked me this, the first name to pop into my head would have been Emmanuel Mudiay. What better way to get all warm and toasty inside than to drink at the sight of any one of his plethora of follies, I thought.

Take a shot every time Emmanuel Mudiay drives the lane and ends up on the floor, perhaps? Or maybe take a sip of alcohol whenever you see Mudiay fail to get around a pick? You could also throw one back each time Mudiay stands behind the 3-point line without a defender in the same area code, or every time he makes a basketball decision that would get him benched in a CYO game. Do all of them and you’d be passed out under the dining room table before the halftime buzzer sounded.

Well, you would be if he ever saw the court, that is. Due to a bum ankle, that didn’t happen for the first six games of the 2018-19 season. After a two-minute stint in game seven of the season and a DNP-CD in game eight, Manny has averaged 22 minutes over the last nine games, including three consecutive starts.

If you had given the Mudiay drinking game a whirl over that time, to the shock of almost everyone, you might have actually made it to the end of most games still being able to walk in a straight line. It still feels odd to write the words, but Emmanuel Mudiay has not been the complete and total disaster he was during his brief Knicks stint last season – the one that caused head coach David Fizdale to single him out at his introductory presser, saying “You really suck, dude” “We gonna get you right.”


Good Mudiay

To some extent, the coach’s prophesy has come true. The former Denver Nugget and Guangdong Southern Tiger has cleaned up several of the areas that drove fans crazy. For starters, his .546 true shooting percentage is worlds better than his .462 career mark2. He’s also no longer a comedy of errors around the basket. Mudiay is hitting 56 percent of his shots around the rim, which is in the top half of point guards in the NBA according to Cleaning the Glass. Even better, among 107 players averaging over five drives3 per game, his 61.9 percent conversion rate on field goals out of such plays ranks third, in the midst of several All-Stars. We’ve seen the improvement on display regularly this year, like here against the Pelicans …

… and last week against Oklahoma City:

This last play speaks to one of the two reasons Fiz has verbalized for wanting to get Mudiay into the lineup: playing faster. With Mudiay on the court, the Knicks play at a pace of 104.4, which would rank fifth in the NBA4. When he’s on the bench, that number drops to 101.23, which would come in at 17th – or what the Knicks actually rank. Another great example of him pushing it came during the Knicks’ hitting-on-all-cylinders first half in New Orleans:

That play also shows the other, ostensibly primary reason Fizdale now has Manny starting games: his passing. This is also where things start to get tricky. On one hand, the eye test confirms that Mudiay can make every pass in the book. Here’s him hitting Kevin Knox right in the shooter’s sweet spot, which is the difference between Knox being able to get this shot off and not:

Here’s Mudiay finding Knox once again, this time on a cut to the rim that required a fairly high level of precision:

Both of these plays show why it’s unfair to say that the only way to properly develop New York’s young talent is to play all of their young, core pieces at the same time. Each of these passes rewarded the Knicks youngest young’n, Kevin Knox, for making the correct basketball play. That’s a good thing, and Mudiay – someone who likely won’t be here after this season – was responsible. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.

He also clearly has a talent for finding guys in spots that others may not see, and for getting to spots on the floor that make facilitating the offense a bit easier:

The bottom clip here is a good example of how solid passing won’t always lead to assists. Obviously, Dotson missed the shot. Even if he’d made it though, the couple of dribbles he took beforehand likely would have precluded this from going down as an assist on the official scoresheet5.

There’s even some data from last year suggesting Mudiay passes into more efficient opportunities for his teammates than Ntilikina does:

So yes, Mudiay can dish it. But so can Frank. We’ve seen Ntilikina make just about every pass in the book at various points in his young career. Moreover, when he’s in the game, the Knicks assist percentage is 48.8, whereas Mudiay’s on-court number is 44.8. That’s not great, and whether the ball moves directly from Frank’s hands or not, the offense does seem to flow more when Ntilikina in the game at the point of attack.

There’s more. Manny is dishing a pedestrian 3.7 assists per 36 minutes. Explain that number away as much as you want, but if part of the reason Mudiay is in the game is to juice an offense from the point guard position, that number ain’t cutting it. Mudiay’s turnover ratio is also brutal, coming in at 13.4. That ranks 179th out of 218 players seeing over 20 minutes per game. And these turnovers are usually of the more spectacular variety:


Bad Mudiay

And now we get into the “Bad Mudiay” section of our programming. Through 10 games – not an insignificant sample size, but by no means definitive – Manny’s on court defensive rating is 116.6, which is nearly four points per 100 possessions worse than the league worst Cavs. We saw this matador D on display in Orlando, along with the spaciness that has continued to plague him even during this recent stretch of competence:

If this comes down to a question of whether Emmanuel Mudiay should start games or not, one number jumps out more than any of the above stats or clips: 125.8.

That’s the Knicks’ defensive rating when Manny and Tim Hardaway Jr. share the court, which is slightly worse than if New York’s players were getting paid to throw the game. It’s come in only 96 minutes, which, again, isn’t everything, but also isn’t nothing. If we go on the assumption that Timmy will continue to start games – spoiler alert: he will – it would seem that this starting backcourt is an untenable combination6.


What does this all mean?

Ultimately, for as wonderful as Mudiay’s offensive resurgence has been, baring continued leaps and bounds, even this version of Mudiay figures to top out as a high-end backup. If the team didn’t have such an incentive to develop Frank to his fullest potential, maybe there’s a discussion between the value of Manny’s passing, driving and pace-pushing vs the drawbacks of his defense and Manny-isms.

That’s not the case though. Emmanuel has not shown anything resembling an elite skill in any particular area, whereas Frank already flashes All-Defense potential on a nightly basis. If there’s only one plant in this garden that gets the water, it should be Frank’s.

Does this mean Mudiay shouldn’t play? No, because as I’ve written about before, there’s immense value to being an organization where misfit toys feel they can come to become whole again. There’s even a (slim) chance Manny could net a small asset at the trade deadline, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

As for Frank, his ceiling and development continue to be the hot-button issues for the fan base. The further the season moves along, things seems to be getting less clear, not more, and Mudiay’s insurgence/resurgence only makes matters more complicated.

Is more time off ball a help or a hindrance to Frank’s overall growth as a player? Has taking him out of the starting lineup relieved pressure, or has it damaged his confidence? Should there be more plays drawn up to enable his success on the court, or is it best that a player with a tendency to overthink uses this season to figure out things on his own through trial and error?

These questions should become easier to answer as the season moves along. Mudiay, meanwhile, will be given more chances to show continued improvement. Perhaps that’s wise. The leash, though, should be short. While this entire year is for Training Purposes Only, with a quarter of the season nearly gone, the Knicks don’t have any time to waste.

 

Is Enes Kanter Tradable?

When Enes Kanter went full-Kanter in announcing that he was opting into the final year of his contract, it was met with a mixture of groans and eye rolls from the fan base, but mostly the reaction was a simple “meh.”

It’s not that people don’t like him. He’s like a human party favor … fun to have around but not the reason you came. The Knicks were going to be bad this year anyway, and Kanter seemed like a good dude to have in the locker room. Plus, it’s not like the money was going to be spent anywhere else, with the team hoarding its acorns for a certain construction worker this July.

If anything, Kanter figured to be someone who could prop up the offense at times for a team that we knew would have trouble scoring7. The dream scenario, of course, was that he would shore up his defense enough for him to become a marketable trade piece at the deadline.

His counting stats say such a thing is possible. He’s averaging 15 and 12 and his PER is 20th in the league, ahead of guys like James Harden and Victor Oladipo.

The advanced stats tell a different story. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are currently 7.8 point per 100 possessions stingier with Kanter off the floor then when he’s on, which is in the11th percentile league-wide. Put into context, New York is a slightly below average defense when the big man sits but becomes nearly four points per 100 possessions worse than the 30th-ranked Cavs when he plays.

Making matters worse, he’s not even offsetting this deficiency in other areas. The Knicks are actually slightly worse on offense with Kanter on the floor, and they pull down boards at the roughly the same frequency when he plays as when he doesn’t.

Fans who mostly pay attention to box score stats may find this a bit perplexing, so I’d strongly recommend checking out Drew Steele and John Schulman’s recent film breakdown, which explains far better than I can why Kanter’s advanced stats are what they are.

At this point, it’s clearer than ever that Kanter not only won’t be back next year, but that his presence on the roster might actually be hurting not only the development of other players, but their chances to remain competitive in games as well2. About the only reason to want Kanter to remain on the roster through the end of the year is the prayer that some team will trade for him.

Would a GM out there ignore the advanced metrics, thinking Kanter could provide 10 to 15 good minutes off the bench in the playoffs?

It would have to be a team that would not only be able to send back the requisite amount of expiring salary3, but be willing to do so as well. Of all the things New York might do between now and season’s end, taking back additional 2019-20 salary isn’t one of them.

There are only three possible teams that even remotely make sense and have the requisite salaries to make a trade possible. We’ll take a look at them in reverse order of the likelihood of a deal:

3. Dallas Mavericks

Even including them here is a stretch. They do have an equivalent salary to send back to New York in Wesley Matthews. Still, it’s almost inconceivable to imagine them thinking higher of Kanter as a player than Wes, who is launching over seven threes per game and hitting them at a nearly 38% rate.

Dallas does have a top-five protected pick though, so maybe they look to acquire Kanter as a low key tanking measure.

(I’m kidding, Kanter stans … I’m totally, totally kidding …)

2. Philadelphia 76ers

This works financially by swapping Kanter for Wilson Chandler and Amir Johnson4.

Currently, Johnson is technically the Sixers’ backup center behind Joel Embiid, although they also play small with Mike Muscala – a deep ball threat – in the middle sometimes. Johnson and Muscala currently own two of Philly’s four worst net ratings, but they’ve been down in that department as a team. While it’s conceivable they view Kanter as an upgrade over those two, the bigger issues here are that a) Chandler is almost certainly more valuable to them than the Knicks big man would be, and b) if they were to move Chandler, they’d likely do so for some additional needed shooting.

(Yes, Courtney Lee, we see you raising your hand as you jump up and down in the back of the classroom. Don’t worry … we’re working on it…)

1. Sacramento Kings

This is the only one that has a semi-realistic chance of happening. Unsurprisingly, the VladFather would be involved.

I’m hesitant to type the words “never count out the Kings to make a dumb move,” because that’s what people said (say?) about the Knicks for years. Still, it’s not that hard to imagine Vlade looking at Kanter’s counting stats and think “if I can get this guy essentially for free, I have to do it!

Because Sacramento is so far under the cap, there’s several ways this could work. They could simply ship back Kosta Koufos’ $8.7 million expiring salary (who New York would almost certainly waive) and be done with it. That, however, would eat up a lot of their remaining cap space. That might not seem like a big deal, but there are several teams over the tax line who may want to use Sacramento as a salary dumping ground before the trade deadline or even before the new league year starts in July.

If Sacramento wanted to retain more of that space, they could also send back Ben McLemore (who the Knicks would also waive) and the salaries would get much closer5.

Would Sac-Town do it? There are a few things to consider. For one, the move would essentially end Marvin Bagley’s minutes at center, where he’s playing nearly half the time according to Basketball Reference. That might be a good thing; according to Cleaning the Glass, the Kings are not good with Bags in the middle, although it’s early to make that kind of judgment6.

Assuming the Kings think Kanter can help them make a playoff push, the bigger issue would be what the Knicks would demand in return. Sacramento doesn’t own either of its own picks in 2019, but does have two second rounders incoming in each of the next three years, starting this June with the pick they received from the Knicks as compensation for Scott Perry. They could look to deal that pick back to the Knicks, which exercises as the second least favorable among Cleveland, Orlando, and Houston, or look to deal a second round pick beyond 2019. They also have an interesting young big man in Skal Labissiere, although with New York’s roster construction, it’s tough to see them favoring him over a draft asset, especially since the Knicks owe their own second rounder to Brooklyn.

So no, it’s not impossible to move Kanter’s mammoth expiring contract … just highly, highly unlikely.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to try though. If they can’t, a buyout becomes an option, not only for the reasons described above, but because it could be seen as doing a solid for a veteran who deserves the chance to latch on with a playoff team.

Whether another organization takes that bait is anyone’s guess.

 

For Frank Ntilikina, could less be more?

Look, I get it.

I get it.

We all expected this to be simpler.

They hired a developmental coach. The kid lived in the gym all summer and went from Bonds 2000 to Bonds 2001 in weight. They gave him – finally – the starting point guard job. All of the pieces were in place. The only thing left to do was roll out the ball, let him take his lumps, and watch his game grow like a Chia Pet. Like water, if you just added playing time, Frank Ntilikina’s game would grow like magic.

So much for that. Ntilikina is in a bad, bad place right now, and it seems to be getting the better of him.

Right now, things ain’t pretty for our beloved French son. Other than a nice home effort against the Hawks, he’s looked mostly out of sorts on offense the last seven games, culminating in last night’s six-minute, zero-point, two-turnover performance against the Magic. Most disconcerting, a player who was billed as a future plus-shooter coming into the draft is three for his last 23 from downtown.

The problem appears to be above the ears, and it seems like his coach knows it. Pulling a player after half a quarter is a reaction to one of two things: lack of effort – which has never been a problem with Frank; or the need to save a player who is doing more harm to himself than good by being on the floor.

When asked about the benching after the game, Fiz would only say it was because he wanted to see a different look and that Trey Burke’s scoring was more what they needed. He’s not stupid. If you’re benching a player because he’s too in-his-own-head to be successful, it does no good to hear your coach say it aloud to the masses.

Is overthinking actually what’s happening though? Mike Vorkunov’s excellent recent profile is telling on that front. In his various quotes from the article, Ntilikina used the words “think” or “thinking” a dozen times, including this one:

“I think about it a lot of times. I talk about it a lot of times with some of my friends and some basketball players. Because basketball goes way further than just what you’re seeing on the court. It’s a whole thing mentally. It’s a whole thing technically and tactically. That’s the beauty of the sport.”

There’s a phrase in sports about letting the game come to you. Frank appears to be doing the opposite.

Later on in last night’s press conference, Fizdale gave an extended reminder that the starting lineup is a fluid being, that he’s going to be changing it all year long, and that it has nothing to do with any individual player or players, but rather the overall fit. It seemed to be a precursor to an impending move – softening the blow, if you will.

If Frank does indeed get pulled from the starting lineup, is it the right move?

Those inside the locker room know best, but we often learn that forcing time on a player who just isn’t right can begin to have diminishing returns. Is that the case here?

Before we answer, a quick aside: In my math class, we started off the year teaching linear functions, where for every value of x, there is a certain value for y. When you plot one of these functions out on a graph, it’s a straight line. Give any x value, and you can see where the corresponding y value will end up. Works the same, every time.

It’s tempting to think developing a young player works the same way. “If you play him 20 minutes, he’ll grow at this rate, but if you play him 30 minutes, watch out…”

Sadly, development doesn’t work like that. Did you know there are sixteen definitions for the word “develop” in the dictionary? That’s because it’s complicated, and there’s no one way to properly do it. If there was, every coach of every young player in every sport would employ it. As it is, most young point guards get thrown into the fire and learn on the fly. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it fails, is that because the method was wrong, or was it because the player never had what it took to begin with?

It’s an impossible question to answer, but it’s not like a less linear approach hasn’t worked before.

Last season, the San Antonio Spurs  – arguably the most soundly functioning organization in professional sports over the last two decades – began the season with Dejounte Murray as their starting point guard. Like Ntilikina, Murray was a naturally gifted defender still trying to learn the nuances of the offensive game. Also like Frank, he was entering his second year, and though just 21 years old, seemed to be ready for the opportunity.

He wasn’t. Pop moved him back to the bench after just seven games, where he mostly remained until January, at which point he regained the starting job. Over his three-month stint as a reserve, Murray played under 10 minutes 10 times, including one stretch in December where he saw just nine minutes and change over three games.

Over that time, something seemingly clicked. After Murray took Tony Parker’s place for good, he shot 47% for the rest of the season, up from 41% prior. Coming into this year, before a torn ACL derailed his season before it began, there was no buzz-ier player in the NBA than Murray.

Another example Fizdale knows very well and who Frank has also been compared to is Mike Conley, who himself was relegated to the bench for a 20-game stretch during his sophomore campaign. There are more examples scattered throughout NBA history.

Is there a guarantee that a period of time with a lessened load will be the cure-all for Ntilikina? Of course not. But for fans to take the approach that less playing time or a removal from the temporary starting lineup would unquestionably be the wrong decision and that such a move would only further damage an already fragile confidence level is shortsighted. Nothing hurts one’s confidence more than repeatedly trying and failing, which is exactly what’s been happening. Sometimes less can indeed be more.

One more quick story: as some of you know, before becoming a teacher and blogger, I was a lawyer. As Editor-in-Chief of Fordham’s Mock Trial team, I thought I was hot shit, and when I got to my firm, I insisted I should immediately be put on trial work. They obliged.

What followed was not great. I experienced loss…after loss…after loss. I lost a pedestrian knockdown case where my client was a nine-year-old kid…in the Bronx, where juries give out verdicts like candy on Halloween. Through it all, my firm kept sending me out there. Never once did a partner step in and suggest that I second seat a trial, just to get the feel of the real thing without all the pressure.

After just over three years, I’d had enough. I was so frustrated with the profession that I quit. There were many other reasons, for sure, but my lack of success at the one thing I thought I was good at played a huge part. Seemingly, things worked out for the best, but there’s a part of me that will always wonder “what if?”

There are no perfect approaches to building a point guard on the fly. It is often trial and error7. If nothing else, Frank’s mental makeup and work ethic would seem to indicate that he will find his way out of the darkness, regardless of what happens from here on in. It just might be a little harder than he – and we – imagined.

And that is totally fine.

Better situation for KD: The Knicks or the Clippers?

Never one to miss an opportunity to needle Knicks fans, my idol Bill Simmons had Howard Beck on his podcast today and they jointly made the case that if Kevin Durant is indeed going to switch teams, it makes much more sense for him to go to the Clippers instead of the Knicks.

Anytime Simmons makes some kind of proclamation like this, I give him a pass because he’s in the entertainment business, first and foremost, and he knows what gets clicks and listens2.

Howard Beck, on the other hand, is a journalist, and arguably one of the four or five best and most respected covering the league today. He’s also someone who used to cover the Knicks on a daily basis during some pretty dark times and has been open and honest about the fact that he doesn’t think the Knicks will ever be successful as long as the current ownership structure ensues.

Does he still hold a grudge for the media policies that were in place during his time here? Who’s to say. I’m not about to get into whether his stance on James Dolan is valid or warranted, because quite frankly I have no idea. I’m also a fan of the team, so for me to call out any bias on Beck’s part without acknowledging my own would be disingenuous and wrong.

Still, a case was made that LA is the better choice for the apple of New York’s eye. Were they right in saying KD should remain on the left coast? Let’s take a look:

Beck’s big point, unsurprisingly, is that the ownership situations are incomparable. He makes the case that there’s a great vibe throughout the Clippers organization thanks to Steve Ballmer (who certainly seems like a guy you’d want to work for), whereas with the Knicks, there’s a tension that pervades the franchise which exists up to this day, and it all comes from upstairs.

While it’s unclear whether Beck has been around the team since David Fizdale – himself seemingly a very positive guy that can lighten up a room – took the reins, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here. That said, Dolan, by all indications, has butted out of basketball operations for years now (save the time he stepped in when most in the basketball world hoped he would to dismiss Phil Jackson).

Meanwhile, Zach Lowe had this nugget on the Clippers in his NBA preview:

The brain trust surely includes folks who know the league is ripe for a proper tank job, and wish Steve Ballmer would greenlight one.

That’s not insignificant, especially in a year where the draft is stacked at the top and with LA needing to renounce several of its cap holds to have room to sign Durant anyway. Simmons and Beck also make the point that Ballmer gets kudos by his willingness to spend freely. If one thing about James Dolan has never been an issue, it’s this.

Next up they talk about how Los Angeles has a better collection of NBA talent, which no one would argue with at the moment. What they don’t have is a 7’3″ Latvian with the potential to change the sport.

We have enough evidence to know that stars come to play with other stars, and of the Knicks and the Clippers, only New York has one such player in tow. Beck mentions Porzingis, but only offhandedly, noting that his injury status makes him a question mark. While it’s true that no one fully knows what version of KP to expect when he returns, if his own Instagram account is to be believed, the Unicorn seems to be progressing nicely:

Regardless, the mere notion that Porzingis exists and will likely be here for the duration of Durant’s prime is a huge factor in this discussion, and ACL or no ACL, that can’t be taken lightly. Few guys can alter championship races, and a healthy KP looks primed to be one of the few who can.

As for the rest of the rosters, neither Howard nor Bill seem to buy into the hype surrounding the Knicks young core, despite the fact that Simmons’ own site has put out multiple pieces touting it this year alone. The Ringer’s lead NBA writer also seems to be a fan of their young point guard:

Look, the Knicks are bad. No one’s arguing against that. They also currently have the 21st ranked net rating in basketball and have had a fourth quarter lead in every game except one. Fiz seems to have something positive brewing, and the front office has unearthed some gems. To dismiss the roster as a collection of unknowns and never-will-be’s seems a bit shortsighted.

The Clippers are more of a known quantity and have quite a bit of NBA talent. They also will look very different if they’re to open up the cap room to sign Kevin Durant. Yes, they have all the cap space they need, but making that space available will also require renouncing the cap holds of several players who currently have them in the Western Conference playoff hunt. As implied earlier, they also don’t figure to be getting much help via the draft, whereas the Knicks may very well be in contention to nab one of the Duke All-Stars.

Lastly, the idea of bad contracts came up. Beck used the word “terrible” to describe Tim Hardaway Jr.’s pact. I myself have gotten in trouble with Knicks fans for arguing that despite his hot start, the remaining two (and possibly three, depending on if he exercises his player option) years left on THJ’s deal is not an easily moveable asset, mostly due to his below-average-at-best defense. That said, he’s one of only a dozen NBA players currently seeing over 30 minutes a night that’s sporting a 55 true shooting percentage and a 29 usage rate2.

What made Beck’s denouncing of Timmy a bit egregious was the fact that two minutes later, Simmons was singing the praises of Danilo Gallinari. The former Knickerbocker has had a wonderful year thus far, shooting the lights out of the ball while averaging 20 points per game. He’s also 30 and and has missed over 50% of his team’s games over the last five-plus seasons. His contract is no more or less movable than Hardaway’s.

At the end of the day, it seems like it’s at best a 50/50 toss up, but as many have stated, if Durant does choose the Knicks, it’s likely going to be about his own basketball legacy more than anything else. For as great as Ballmer and the city of Los Angeles might be, saving the Clippers doesn’t have quite the same cache (as Simmons strongly mentions).

Seven months and counting until we all find out.

In the meantime, the Knicks have 70 more games to play. Hopefully by the end of that, some of these more tired narratives will continue to go away.

Knicks Numbers, Part 1

Every 10 games throughout the season, we’ll be checking in on some statistical pluses, minuses and quirks surrounding the young Knicks. The first one focuses on an apparent lack of ball movement that might not be as bad as it looks but is a cause for concern nonetheless.


Wouldn’t you know it, despite most prognosticators pegging the Knicks as a bottom-five team (and some even lower than that), reports of their death appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

Ten games isn’t much, but it’s enough to begin making some assessments, and overall, fans should be pleased. Through Sunday’s Wizards game, the team had a minus 3.5 net rating, good enough for 21st in the NBA3. With an equal number of road and home tilts (including an MSG date with the defending champs), they appear to be what their record says they are: a run of the mill, below average team.

Normally that wound’t be cause for celebration, but when you factor in that the Knicks are not only the youngest team in the league, but that over half of their minutes have been played by guys 24 or younger, it’s more than a bit refreshing.

Still, this is New York. If we didn’t find something to complain about, we’d lose our residency and be charged extra for our morning sugary milk with a splash of coffee.

As such, a downer: through Sunday night, the Knicks were second to last in the league in assists, averaging 20.1 dimes per game. Of course, assists are an imperfect statistic that doesn’t factor in pace of play, which is why assist percentage is so helpful … and the Knicks are third to last there as well. Looking, finally, at assist points created – probably the best stat to rate how efficiently passes are leading to points because it measures how many total points a team creates through assists – they’re dead last.

It begs the obvious question: should fans be concerned?

It’s not that assists or any of their statistical offshoots are the be all, end all, but when you look at the teams that excel in these areas, it’s telling. Through Sunday night, there were four one-loss teams in the league, and they all ranked in the top 13 in assist percentage. Even more to the point, the Warriors, Raptors and Bucks – arguably the three best teams in the NBA – ranked first, second and third in assists per game. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Thus, this would seem to be something Fiz & Co. should target under the “needs work” column. The question is whether that improvement will happen organically as the young players grow, get more experience in a new system, and the talent level continues to increase, or whether these are deeper issues that require looking at the schemes the new coaching staff has instituted thus far.

More on that in a minute. First, let’s take a look at what’s working.

For one thing, it’s not like they don’t have a plan. If you’ve watched even five minutes of game action this year, you know that ball screens and dribble handoffs are a huge part of their offense. Sure enough, they’re tied for 13th in screen assists per game2. That’s a plus.

They’re also not an isolation heavy team, a welcome change from years past. The 6.9 percent of possessions they’ve used on iso’s is 16th the league, and they don’t have a single player in the top 50 in isolation plays per game3.

Now here’s the really interesting part: New York is moving the ball around more than you’d think for a team with so few dimes. Through Sunday, the Knicks were making an average of 290.8 passes per game, good enough for 17th in the league. That average is nearly in line with the Celtics (294.2 passes per game) Warriors (295.4) and Jazz (299.3), three very different offenses who are nonetheless seen as among the most sophisticated in the NBA.

So, no, the problem isn’t ball movement … it’s that all the movement isn’t leading to anything good. After 10 games, the Knicks had a lower frequency of wide open shots4 than all but four teams. Adding insult to injury, New York has a 50.9 effective field goal percentage on those shots – third worst in basketball5. The struggling Rockets are the only other team in the bottom ten in both categories.

Their frequency of open looks6 is better, currently sitting at 28.7 percent – good enough for 11th in the league – but again, the Knicks aren’t hitting these shots, converting only 38.7 percent of such opportunities, third worst in the NBA.

Meanwhile, New York has a higher frequency of tight shots7 than all but six teams8.

So what’s the deal – are we watching an offense lacking in creativity, or are the players just not very good?

Based on early returns at least, it would seem to be the latter. The fact that David Fizdale’s offense has generated as many open looks for the team as it has is a minor miracle considering how woefully short the Knicks are on guys that demand a defense’s attention. Fans always scream for a Houston Rocket-esq shot profile, but those looks are a lot easier to come by when you have James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon available to penetrate and probe9.

Put it all together, and it seems like New York’s lack of assists is more a function of them being a young team short on shooting and talent than anything else, a fact that was driven home loud and clear following Monday’s home tilt with the Bulls that at times set the sport back to its peach basket days.

While Fiz isn’t getting compared to Brad Stevens anytime soon, the absence of wide open looks is more likely a function of not having that one guy who can completely collapse a defense on his own – the type of thing that usually generates those lovely wide-open corner threes we’ve seen the Knicks give up ad nauseam for years.

It makes sense when you think about it. For as wonderful of a season as Timmy has had, he might be the worst “best” player on any team in the league, at least in terms of gaining separation and creating good looks for his teammates10. Without him on Monday, things got even more stuck in the mud.

It goes without saying that once Kristaps Porzingis is back and in full force, he should command enough attention that defensive breakdowns from opponents will start to occur. That, of course, will require him to improve upon the only glaring negative on his resume: a ghastly 1.3 career assists per game number. To put that in perspective, of the 48 players who appeared in at least five games last season and had a usage rate over 25, KP’s assist percentage of 6.3 % ranked dead last by a mile.

So yeah, get well soon, our lanky Latvian son. Another unicorn-y seven-footer who may or may not be one of the five most devastating offensive forces to ever grace the hardwood also wouldn’t hurt efforts to open up the floor.

All in due time. For now, the team will keep plugging away, learning how to generate chicken salad out of Noah Vonleh ball screens and Allonzo Trier Allen Iverson impersonations.

It’ll get better. Just don’t blame the coach. Or expect it to improve any time soon.