After particularly gut-wrenching losses, I, like many Knicks’ fans, go through a range of emotions and thought processes: I’m disappointed; I’m annoyed; I’m enraged; I’m encouraged when they keep it close; I look back for plays that cost them the game; I think about what they should’ve run or done differently; I point fingers; I search for silver linings; I focus on good for those that played bad and on bad for those that played well; I go on Twitter, look at the extremes, and settle into a middle-ground…
But sometime during this recent run of futility, I became enlightened. Honestly, I don’t know how I missed it before. Even at 4-20, I couldn’t see it. I’d ask myself, “We signed all these players. The front office talked about winning more games. How are we worse than last year when last year was a blatant tank?”
I recently reached out to Coach Fizdale requesting a one-on-one interview about the upcoming season – his goals, his rotation, coaching adjustments he planned to make – and he said, “I’ll do you one better! How ’bout you hook my brain up to a psychological supercomputer and read my thoughts while I work!” I thought it was an odd request but, of course, agreed.
What follows is a live transcript – August 19th, 2019 – as he works on his rotation:
Alright, baby! This is the year! I got the green light from Pat for true positionlessness, so here we go: ‘Bron at the one, D at the…
[Realizes where he is, sobs for approximately 46 minutes]1One for every year since the Knicks’ last title
Get it together, Fiz. I mean, bright side – at least you’re not in Memphis. Right? You good? Good. Back to Fizness. New York Knickerbockers. Go New York Go New York Go. We on our way up, and Step One is beating last year’s win total. Shouldn’t be hard with the talent we added. Just gotta find the right combinations. Let’s go. Starting five…
Payton / Barrett / Knox / Randle / Robinson
Duh. Now, rest of the ten-man…wait a second. Uhh, Allan Houston, we have a problem. We’re trying to win games, and I’m pretty sure to do that someone’s gonna have to stick a jump shot. I mean, Julius is the best three-point shooter in this lineup! 2At least by 2018-19 3P% Nah. Can’t do it. Yeah, Knox looked good in Vegas, but lots of stuff looks good in Vegas; then you sober up and you’re…never mind. Point is, until he does it in a real game, it ain’t real…
And who’s playing defense in front of Mitch here? Payton’s alright, and Julius’s 8-pack might scare some people, but no. No good. Ball-handling and play-making, sure, but no shooting and very little D. Can’t win that way.
Payton / Trier / Barrett / Randle / Robinson
Shooting’s up at least. I love Zo. Love him. His near-40% from deep should help us do some things. Four guys who can get into the paint, two-and-a-half that’ll create for others, the best rim-runner in basketball…but…ahhhhhh.
I love Zo but I don’t love him and RJ together, at least not to start. Both need the ball, and so does Elf since he can’t spot up, and Julius is going at his man off the bounce…
Payton / Dotson / Barrett / Randle / Robinson
Dot’s good without it, and he’s probably our best perimeter defender, except wasn’t their some French dude? Is he still on the team? Anyway, this is more balanced. Let’s settle here for now. So who does that…well, might be easier to do it this way: who’s out of the rotation altogether?
Reggie B – street clothes for a while.
Big Taj – I like him, and I’m gonna play him, but spot minutes.
IGGY – I LOVE this kid. And how’s that saying go? Love means never having to spell his last name properly? But where are the minutes coming from? We’ll bring him along slow. Wait for injuries. Turn him loose in 2020.
Wayne – The guard version of Taj – just lead and stay ready and I’ll get him PT when I can.
Knick-a-leena? – That’s his name! Frank whatever. Great defender, unselfish, leadership qualities…but he drives blindly into four defenders so…
That leaves these reserves:
Smith / Trier / Knox / Morris / Portis
Okay, shooters in the frontcourt – think of the space that’ll create for DSJ and Zo! And if Kev’s shot is fallin’, that’s four good shooters! And you seen those videos of Denny working on his mechanics? This ain’t bad. Defense still an issue, though. Lots of pressure on Twin to lead this unit, but that’s what the 15 mil is for…
Who passes in this lineup? I’m not even talking, like, a good passer – who’s a willing passer? I mean, yeah, I love reckless aggression as much as the next guy, but you need at least one…
If he’s finally put the J back in DSJ, then this works. Slight step back on defense, maybe, but Junior did average almost a steal-and-a-half with us last year. What he lacks in actually stopping guys he makes up for in pressure and steals, right? Right?
And that second unit now – a pure facilitator surrounded by shooters! Done. Let’s not overthink it. Let’s not worry about what the media will say about Kev bumped from the starters, or the fact we got $38 million in free agency money coming off the bench…
…this is the most balanced these lineups are gonna get: facilitators and scorers, shooters and drivers, defense and, well, no defense…maybe it changes after watching these guys work out and scrimmage, maybe it changes in training camp, maybe injuries force me to change things, but for now, this is what we’re going with! Boom!
Now the fun sh**: specialty lineups!
BIG AS BIG GETS Barrett / Knox / Morris / Randle / Robinson
Part of me wanted to play Randle at the two or three to make room for Portis, but that’d be ridiculous. Or would it? #positionless
BIG BUT MORE TRADITIONAL Barrett / Dotson / Knox / Randle / Robinson
BIG WITH MORE SHOOTING Barrett / Dotson / Morris / Portis / Robinson
I can’t wait to turn RJ loose at the one. It’ll be Harden-esque. This writer sitting next to me would call my Harden-RJ comparison insanely premature and unreasonable…just don’t get so excited that you say it out loud, Fiz!
SMALL Payton / Trier / Barrett / Knox / Randle
I really wanna see the Knox-Randle frontcourt. I know, revolving door on D, but that offense? Watch out, now. Five athletes, five ball-handlers…I can run my offense through my center!
Maybe I should put in an offense…
ALL SHOOTING, ALL THE TIME Trier / Ellington / Dotson / Morris / Portis
Or as I like to think of them:
39.4% / 40.3% / 36.8% / 37.5% / 39.3%
In an ideal world, Knox will shoot his way into this, and then, my boy: IGGGGGYYYYYYY!!!! Man, I can’t wait for trade season to make room for Ignatius. Ignacio. Ig – whatever. Bro-zeikis. Love that kid.
NO PASSING…AS IN, WILL TRY TO INBOUND TO HIMSELF AFTER MADE BASKETS TO GO COAST TO COAST
Trier / Barrett / Knox / Morris / Portis
Hell yeah, this is what I’m talking about. Keep-what-you-kill thoroughbreds, forget about the white noise and go get me buckets. RJ’s got the potential to grow out of this lineup, but my four guys with NBA experience? Averaged a COMBINED 5.9 assists per last year. That stat can’t be right, can…yep. Yep, it’s right. Four men. 5.9 assists. WOW.
We got a 24-year-old and a 25-year-old in our “Experience” lineup, and media will still find ways to kill us for late-game meltdowns. This city is a beast, man.
Bullock, if healthy, would be in here somewhere, since he’s going into Year Six, but I don’t see him suiting up at all this season if I’m being honest with myself. At least not for us. Weird deal, the way that all went down.
Gimme a second, just trying…okay, sorry…almost threw up. Too much unselfishness. Can’t stomach it.
Actually, now that my nausea’s subsiding, I kinda like this lineup. Enough defense to hide Julius, I can run the offense through him and Payton, got Dot working off the ball for open jumpers, Prince coming off a World Cup run and some summer Instagram workouts…you know what? These Frankie lineups are interesting. Maybe I’ve had him all wrong. Maybe he belongs in the rotation. Maybe I need to rethink my starting lineup…
If you know a Knicks’ fan claiming they are happy we didn’t get Kevin Durant, it is your duty as a friend to get them help. Things did not go the way we wanted yesterday. It’s okay to be upset, to be frustrated, but let’s accelerate the mourning the way we hoped to accelerate the rebuild. Let’s stop lamenting what was or could have been and begin looking at what is and what’s on the horizon. Let’s start with a roster breakdown (with ’18-19 stats) as it stands right now.
It’s Scott Perry, General Manager of the New York Knickerbockers. Listen, I know we don’t know each other, and I know I’m infinitely more qualified than you in all things basketball, and I know I work in tandem with someone whose Princeton degree suggests he’s MUCH MUCH smarter than you, and I know I have plenty of people on my payroll whose opinions I trust, but look man: this one’s tough. All this talk that Kyrie’s coming; we’ve got a really good shot, I just…[sigh] Look, if KD says, “I want him,” done – end of conversation; and if Kevin falls through or Kyrie decides to go elsewhere, then it’s a non-issue of course, but…see, what if Kevin signs but doesn’t demand Kyrie? Should we still sign him? I’m conflicted. So do me favor: take some time to think it over, and hit me back.
Yo, is he for real? What’s there to think about? It’s Kyrie f***ing Irving. One of the best players in the NBA. Top —
2018-19 was a strange season for the orange and blue. Stranger than usual – weird substitution patterns, sudden DNPs, the shocking trade of a homegrown All-Star. I, like many fans, thought it was simply the Knicks being the Knicks…until a contact at the CIA 31st clue that this is fiction. gave me access to classified surveillance footage from inside the Westchester practice facility.
Exclusive to Knicks Film School, what follows is the shocking true account2100% FICTION of a meeting that took place between Frank Ntilikina and David Fizdale only days before Ntilikina was shut down for the season.
Mario Hezonja has started the last three games at point guard. Two were double-digit losses to playoff teams, and one was a feel-good win on the heels of having clinched the league’s best ping-pong odds. The season has long been over. There are no healthy point guards left on the roster. Hezonja has a habit of playing during meaningless springs.
I’m aware of all of this.
About a month ago when I was being unreasonably optimistic about the Knicks’ young talent, mentioning Hezonja never occurred to me. He hadn’t done much, save a dunk and step over the league’s MVP runner-up. I assumed he’d get that last paycheck from the guy who drafted him and find a new temporary home come July. I even gave Mudiay some love 3I mean, it’s possible he could be good one day, right? Right?, but Mario? Nothing.
I was wrong. He’s shown me enough in this new emergency role that I am now convinced he should be re-signed. Let Mudiay walk. Trade Dennis Smith, Jr. (whose potential I still believe in). Move forward with Frank’s conversion, I guess.
Mario Hezonja is the backup point guard of the future.
Now before I go further, a warning: if you are superstitious, you might want to think twice about reading on. I am operating under the assumption that KD and Kyrie are coming. There is too much smoke to ignore.
And if there is no fire – if come July 1st we are preparing for another lost season – feel free to blame this jinx.
It’s not the averages – 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists over his last three – that led me to this conclusion. It’s not any particular highlight, whether a lob to Knox or a taunt after a big jumper. It’s simple, really: his skill set is perfect for what Fiz wants to do.
The starting “point guard” in Miami during the Big 3 Era was Mario Chalmers. That Mario rarely initiated offense. LeBron and D-Wade created, and Chalmers just played defense and stuck his open jumpers. But when called upon to play with reserves, he had the skills to slide back to a normal point guard’s role.
This Mario could be the 6’8 version of that Mario.
If Fizdale is serious about positionless-ness, this is the most logical move. Leading the reserves, Hezonja would be a mismatch every night. His combination of size and athleticism would cause problems for the opposition and help make up for some of his deficiencies on either end. He plays with pace, he’s unselfish, he moves and cuts when he doesn’t have the ball, he’s a capable shooter, and at the very least he’s active defensively2He’s tied for 4th-best DRtg on the team, not that that’s saying much….
And THEN, he can fit in seamlessly with the stars / starters when called upon. You want to play small-ball around Mitch? Slide Mario in next to KD for interchangeable forwards. KD’s resting? Plug Mario in and let him play off of Kyrie. Irving’s injured and KD’s taken up primary ball-handling responsibility? Let him play off KD. Fiz wants to go BIG, or Dotson’s having a bad game? Mario can play the 2.
When you look at the situation off the court, his fit makes even more sense. The Knicks’ have no money after shelling out their maxes. Strapped for cash, why not re-sign a guy that can fill multiple voids, that can be your backup 1-4 depending on matchups and injuries? It’s this sort of flexibility that makes him more appealing than anyone else, especially when you consider his personality and potential price tag.
Listen. it’s indisputable that he did not have a good year. He came nowhere close to what optimists expected. He was jerked in an out of the lineup and often balanced flashes of brilliance with, to put it harshly, flashes of idiocy. But:
He’s been an awesome teammate.
He took the DNPs in stride.
He’s selfless, or at least pretends really well (either is fine with me).
And he LOVES being a Knick and being in New York (So did Enes, but this feels more genuine).3Via the Post: “If he gives me that call on July 1, we’re done. My second family is in this organization. Steve [Mills] was the guy that first called me when Phil Jackson was here. Scott Perry drafted me [in Orlando]. Fiz came to LA to bring me here. Coach Smarty [Keith Smart], he’s like my second father. So just wonderful relationships with everybody in the organization. The city embraced me. I just love playing here. We all know where I want to be.’’
In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if Mario’s weird season was by design. It’s worth contemplating: with the revolving door at point guard and Fiz’s previously stated desire to go positionless, why did this take until April? If it’s really just a happy accident, the entire staff should be fired immediately, but I don’t believe they’re that incompetent.
Here’s my theory: members of the front office and staff have pre-existing relationships with him. They did him a favor by signing him for more than he was probably worth. They rebuffed suitors despite all logic and common sense suggesting they should have absolutely traded him. Have they been hiding him? Did they have an inkling he was capable of this? Do they have information – the same sort of information that justifies a KP deal and allows Dolan to be super-confident on the radio – that he’s willing to take a significant discount to return?
Assuming the Exception is earmarked for Jordan, a minimum offer would be something like 2 years, $3.5M. Does he love Scott Perry and NY enough to accept that?
I get the sense the answer to many of those questions is YES. I think, no matter what happens with the roster this summer, you will see him back next year. If they strike out on the big fish, why not? If they snag KD and Kyrie, see above. If they end up trading the rest of the young core to add AD to a Big 3, see above x 10. He fits and fits well in every scenario.
You may see this article as reactionary, idealistic, delusional. I get that. I respect that opinion. But know that this isn’t just me falling in love with a three-game statistical outburst. I’m thinking about the skills. I’m thinking about the natural ability. I’m thinking about what that ability looks like with another year of maturity and the best teammates he’s every played with. I’m also thinking about the riots in NYC if Mudiay returns instead, about the assets that DSJ could fetch if moved, about the other alternatives once the money dries up.
I wouldn’t have thought this a month ago, or even a week ago, but now it makes sense.
I guess these games aren’t so meaningless after all.
With only 14 games left, we can enjoy (or tolerate) this final stretch focused on what was supposed to be our top priority all year long: YOUTH.
The 61 days between now and May 14th will feel like years. Losses will be ugly and abundant. Guys we’re counting on to be cornerstones for the future will look horrible at times. But that’s to be expected. With only three guys 25 or older, this stretch is about seeing what we have and projecting what they may become.
What should we make of him? Will he ever be more than a role player?
If you asked me in November, I would’ve cried. If you asked me in December, I would’ve offered a resounding YES. But you’re asking me now, so my answer is I have no idea.
A good stat: Knox is one of only 143 rookies since 1979 (out of well over 2,000 draftees) to average at least 12 points and 4 rebounds per game.
Out of those 143, only 12 were teenagers. The rest of that 12 4 Kobe’s not on it. Neither is Giannis. features guys like LeBron, KD, AD, ‘Melo, and some of the best young players in today’s game (Tatum, Doncic, etc.).
A not-so-good stat: Of those 143 rookies, Knox is far and away the least efficient. He’s 33 percentage points worse than the 142nd-ranked player (Donyell Marshall).
The numbers I understand – basic stats – have fallen off a cliff, and the numbers I don’t understand rate him among the worst players in the League. Needless to say, it’s been a rough year for the #9 overall pick.
Yet when trying to project his and his teammates’ futures, context matters. For example: the Knicks don’t care about wins and have maybe three adequate-or-better defenders on the entire roster, so of course Knox’s defensive stats are going to be atrocious. Hell, Lance Thomas gets run solely because of defense, and his Defensive Rating is only a point better.
The other thing is that Kevin Knox, in case you haven’t heard, is 19. Kevin Knox is the 3rd-youngest player in the NBA. Kevin Knox is going to get better at everything.
I have no idea. The whole point of this series is, we don’t know what anyone WILL be.
But he CAN be much, much better. With smooth form on his jumper, an underrated ability to get by his man, and an already lethal signature shot (floater), why can’t he become the sort of offensive weapon that contributes to real winning? Why not a 3rd or 4th scorer on a contender?
He has A LOT of work ahead of him, on his body first and foremost. Added strength will lead to greater efficiency as well as improved defense. He also needs to spend time in the film room to develop his court awareness, particularly in regards to recognizing open teammates. He should average 2-3 assists per game by accident.
And when he gets better – when he gets stronger and the game slows down and the situation around him becomes more competent – he will look like a different player, one that can become an All-Star. You roll your eyes, but Giannis struggled as a rookie, too. Jimmy Butler averaged 2.6 PPG on 18% from 3…and he was 23 years old.
If you’re already certain Knox is a disappointment, and you’re basing that conclusion off of a rookie year in which he was thrown into the fire as a top scoring option for the youngest and worst team in the NBA, then you’re missing the point and I can’t help you.
When the Knicks return to glory and are sending three guys to the All-Star Game, Knox can absolutely be one of those three…2 Kyle Korver made it averaging 12 PPG. James Donaldson, BJ Armstrong, Brad Miller, Jamaal Magloire…shall I keep going?
…if he’s still on the team, that is. Rumor has it we give up on young guys who don’t thrive right away.
From Day 1, he fit the mold of instant offense off the bench, that conscience-less attacking mentality that you want in the ideal sixth man. In fact, in the 36-year history of the 6MOY Award, only four were NOT “score-first” players3 Aaron McKie, Bobby Jones, Bill Walton, and our own gone-too-soon Anthony Mason.”
Trier looks like the other 32. He’s proven himself to be capable at all three levels, and when featured in a second unit, at times he seems unstoppable.
So despite improvements as a passer – the rapport he’s developed with Mitch has been beautiful – and as a defender, I’d like to see him perfect the 6th man role. Could he start? Certainly. But Fiz has said from the jump that he wants Zo to be himself; the best place for that is as the man off the bench. Besides: as the Knicks overhaul this roster, our studs – whoever they may be – will be best complemented by players who can score but dont need to.
Then when they rest, throw Iso Zo out there and turn him loose.
Prior to the trade deadline, I wrote a piece suggesting the Knicks should move him. Nothing against Dot; I simply viewed him as the asset other teams would value most – a big 3-and-D wing with the physical gifts to switch and hold his own. I thought they could get at least a solid 2nd rounder and with only one year left, I figured why not.
Well, he survived the deadline, and unless a big deal goes down over the summer, he’ll be back for that final year. And then it’s time to make a decision. If Summer 2019 goes well, the Knicks will have spent A LOT of money, and if Dotson continues to build on his improved play, he will command A LOT more than his $1.6M salary.
Most good teams have a guy like this (or are looking for one to complete them…hence my trade proposal). The compliment I hear most often is that he could be our Danny Green. The numbers suggest it’s possible. Maybe even likely. Only time will tell if Dot can become that efficient, but Green also had the benefit of playing with the Spurs. Plug Dot in next to talent, and let’s see what happens.
If we hit the motherload in free agency, I’d take advantage of his Bird Rights and pay him. Every good team needs a guy like this.
(Or he could just become Jimmy Butler without the drama and we could play Knicks Vs. Everyone during All-Star Weekend)
I know, I know – they can’t ALL become stars. Frank can’t become a taller, leaner Kyle Lowry while Mitch becomes a better DJ while Knox becomes Tobias Harris 2.0 while Trier becomes a bigger Lou Williams while Dot becomes Jimmy Butler…listen, I get it. But I resolved to be more positive in 2019, so back the f*** off.
Now, where was I?
Are they really going to consider bringing Mudiay back?
Yes, and it’s worth the consideration. Depending on what happens with other free agents. Depending how much other backup PGs will cost vs. how much Mudiay will cost. Depending how he performs these final 14 games.
Here’s the entire list of players in the modern era who have averaged at least 12.5 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds per game as rookies:
Mark Jackson, Tim Hardaway, Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson, Jason Williams, Steve Francis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Michael Carter-Williams, Dennis Smith Jr., Trae Young…and Emmanuel Mudiay.
He’s had an up-and-down year. He’s been horrible since returning from injury. He’s on pace to post the worst Assists per 36 of his career. But he’s made strides as a shooter – his TS% is .532, up from a previous best of .483 – and Fiz seems to love him. Having a coach that loves and believes in you gives you the best chance to reach your full potential. If Fiz is committed to developing him and sees potential to be significantly better than…this, then it’s at least worth the discussion as a Plan B or C.
Any chance Vonleh is back?
Doubtful. Unless we offer our exception (which I’d bet we have earmarked for a vet), we won’t be able to afford him. Which is why we should’ve moved him at the deadline.
Others worth keeping?
John Jenkins and Henry Ellenson both signed non-guaranteed deals that take them into next year. Jenkins has underwhelmed me, but Ellenson is intriguing. He’s listed at 6-11, 245, and in the 9 games he’s played this year, he’s averaged 13.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per 36 on 43.5% shooting from three. Tiny sample size, yes, but when you watch him play you can see the gifts.
These non-guaranteed contracts may be intended for use in summertime trades, but if Ellenson makes it to camp, I’d like to see him back as our 2020 Vonleh.
I’d also like to see Kadeem Allen back and on the main roster full-time.
Who wouldn’t want a Patrick Beverley-type coming off the bench? Kadeem really impressed in his time with the big squad, and his toughness and maturity would be a welcome addition to the roster.
Finally, you have to bring back Kornet. He lacks footspeed and struggles on D sometimes because of it, but overall he’s had a good year. Any inconsistencies in play can be traced directly to inconsistent playing time. In 13 games playing 20+ minutes, he’s averaged 12.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks on 42% from 3. That’s enough to warrant at least one more season. Brook Lopez, anyone?4Brook’s averaging 12.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in 28.3 mpg for the Bucks, in case you were wondering.
I, like you, am desperately looking forward to May and June. I’m tired of watching brick after brick, turnover after turnover, loss after gut-wrenching loss. But we’re almost there. Try to turn off that competitive part of your fandom, turn up your patience and understanding, and focus solely on what the future may hold and how these guys might fit into it. It’ll make these last 14 a lot more interesting and a lot less painful.
It’s been a long season. Over these last 18 games, let’s just try to enjoy ourselves by focusing on what was supposed to be our top priority all year anyway: YOUTH.
The two months between now and May 14th will feel like years. Losses will be ugly and abundant. Guys we’re counting on to be cornerstones for the future will look horrible at times. But that’s to be expected. With only two guys left over the age of 25, this stretch is about seeing what we have and projecting what they may become.
Part I of this series focused on Frank Ntilikina. Part II focused on Mitchell Robinson. Part III focuses on the centerpiece of our Kristaps Porzingis haul, DENNIS SMITH JR.
In case you haven’t heard, the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis last month.
You know, the guy that those who dubbed him “PorzinGod” thought would save the franchise. In return for their oft-broken unicorn, Steve Mills and Scott Perry received two main assets:
Cap relief that allows them to pursue two max-salaried free agents this summer, and
Dennis Smith, Jr.
The cap space is what fans rallied around after the initial shock wore off. Pundits mused publicly that, If the Knicks made a deal like this, they MUST know who’s taking that money come July.
The rumors – nothing tangible or real, just speculation – focus primarily on two guys, one a recent Finals MVP and the other a cantankerous point guard currently donning green.
Meanwhile, the tangible centerpiece of that Knicks’ haul also plays point guard, and has played it pretty well since coming over from Dallas. Through 13 games, Smith Jr. is averaging 15.1 points, 6.5 assists, and 1.7 steals on 42.4% shooting (up from 39.5% as a rookie). His athleticism is as reputed, his ability to attack the paint and finish at the rim is something we haven’t seen since Marbury, and his willingness to pass has been a pleasant surprise.
Despite the flaws – and there are many – when I watch him play and think about how young he is, how cheap he is, how the offense has looked with him on the floor, and how strong the Knicks’ player development seems to be, I can’t help but wonder:
With DSJ in the fold, are the Knicks set at PG?
Should the $30+ million (allegedly) earmarked for that guy in New England be used elsewhere?
Some of you just cringed, scoffed, quickly pulled up Twitter with plans to passionately roast me…believe me, I get it. But if you’re still there, humor me for a second.
Here are the per-36 stats for various All-Star point guards during their first two seasons:
The numbers are comparable. He’s better in one or two key categories than everyone above – scoring more than all but Irving and Rose, assists better than half of the group, and he’s rebounding his position and creating turnovers with steals. If I added his numbers to the chart and made everything anonymous, you’d have no idea who went on to become the youngest MVP in NBA history, who won four rings, and who was the current 2nd-year pro looking for a fresh start.
The glaring weakness pertains to efficiency – Smith Jr. is worse from the field than everyone listed and MUCH worse from the free throw line. The latter is particularly bothersome, since those points are supposed to be, you know, free. He can succeed if he never becomes a knockdown three-point shooter (see Rose and Westbrook), but with all due respect to Rajon Rondo’s career, nobody wants a point guard who shoots under 70% from the line. DSJ is at 56% in a Knicks’ uniform.
(Writing that last sentence made me physically ill.)
His issues are mechanical. That weird hitch / twist he does just prior to release needs to be fixed. His form needs to be stripped down and rebuilt over the summer, but if he puts in the work, I see no reason why he can’t improve from both lines. And while improvement is not a given, it is a likelihood. Guys improve. This is their job.
Look at some of these leaps from Year 2 to Year 3:
Now let’s revisit the initial cringe-worthy question: is Dennis Smith Jr. good enough that the Knicks should target other positions in free agency?
Understand that I’m not saying he’s as good, or will ever be as good, as the former Cav in Boston (who oddly enough regressed in Year 3 and didn’t really take any major leap until Year 6). I’m just saying that DSJ’s current talent and future promise might be enough to get Mills and Perry to reconsider how they want to spend their money.
If I told you DSJ would sustain averages of 15 & 6 for the remainder of his rookie deal, is that enough from your starting point guard (considering who he may be playing with)?
What if he makes a leap like any of the ones above? Say 18+ PPG, 45% from the field, 73% from the line? Is that enough?
Yes, those numbers still pale in comparison to LeBron’s former sidekick, but that guy will command 30+ MILLION DOLLARS per year. Is it in the best interests of the organization to pay that much money for a guy who criticizes teammates in the media, adds drama to the locker room when things aren’t going well, and has played 60 or fewer games in 4 out of his 7 seasons?
When we already have a promising young player at the same position who’s under team control for two more years at $4.46M and 5.69M respectively?
This is the lense through which I’m watching DSJ over this final stretch. I want to know if he’s good enough to cross the most important position in basketball off our to-do list. I want to see evidence that he’s a consistently willing facilitator and that he’s going to improve defensively (because right now he’s a sieve, despite the steals). I want to see how he and Ntilikina complement each other, and I want to try to project whether that platoon will be enough to get this team back to the playoffs and beyond.
Part of what allowed the Warriors to become great is that young guys on manageable contracts overproduced. Steph, Klay, Dray were all making less than their market values, which allowed them to add Kevin Durant and become the unstoppable force they’ve become. This is what Knicks’ fans should be hoping for – youth showing enough to attract big FAs, then blowing up and becoming severely underpaid alongside those max teammates. Mitch is on his way, and DSJ – if he can follow in those footsteps above – could be right behind him.
Sure, this could all be a waste of words. The two guys in the rumors could be a package deal, in which case DSJ is already gone and doesn’t know it. If that’s the case, then the optimistic outlook I’ve been trying to sell you is exactly what Steve Mills and Scott Perry must sell to an opposing GM. Remind him that great attacking point guards began their careers with similar issues. Remind him that those same point guards all improved as early as Year 3 and became All-Stars, All-NBA selections, MVPs, leaders of playoff teams. Remind him that the kid is still only 21.
And if that’s somehow not enough, just send him this:
The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Knicks were MAJOR players. Now that the dust has settled – vets gone, cap space created, draft picks added – we can spend these last few months focused on what was supposed to be our top priority in the first place: YOUTH.
The three months between now and May 14th will feel like years. Losses will be ugly and abundant. Guys we’re counting on to be cornerstones for the future will look horrible at times. But that’s to be expected. With only two guys left over the age of 25, this stretch is about seeing what we have and projecting what they may become.
Part I of this series focused on Frank Ntilikina. Part II focuses on the most hyped, most improved player on the roster – Mitchell Robinson.
Patience should work both ways, right?
We shouldn’t get too down on Frank when he struggles, so we also shouldn’t get too worked up over Mitch when he thrives. I know you don’t want me raining on your parade, but it’s only logical to stay even-keeled with raw talent. We at Knicks Film School live by this code: never get too excited, one way or another…
You know what? F*** it. It’s been a horrific season, 90% of the press has been negative, the weather’s been sh***y like every other winter, so I’m hopping aboard the Mitch Hype Train, transferring to a ferry bound for Mitch Island, and hitting the beach with my rose-colored glasses to drink my Mitch Kool-Aid.
If you’ve watched him at all, you can’t deny he passes the eye test with flying colors. His gifts literally jump off the screen – the athleticism, the rim-running, the lob-catching, the shot-blocking, the uncanny ability to cover so much ground and close out effectively on jump shooters. It’s all obviously impressive, so you don’t need numbers to know that star potential is there. But just in case…
That’s right – Mitch compares favorably across the board with some of the best defensive-minded, rim-running bigs of recent years, a group that sports both All-NBA and All-Defensive selections, 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards, 3 Rebounding titles, 6 FG% titles, 2 Block titles, and 23 playoff appearances.
View from Mitch Island: Future DPOY and All-Star Mitchell Robinson will anchor a playoff-bound defense as soon as next year.
Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself? [Takes sip] FOH.
Seriously, how am I supposed to temper expectations? He’s suddenly staying out of foul trouble, has risen to 3rd in Blocks per Game despite playing only 18 MPG, is averaging 10.2 points (on 71.4 TS%) and 8.3 rebounds in February, and then his trainer goes and says he can be an “Anthony Davis-type player”?
Now that’s unreasonable. Even drunk off this Mitch Juice, I’m not crazy enough to make that comp…
He’s a little bit behind AD in scoring, but it’s close enough – 9 Points Per 100 Possessions is the same gap between James Harden and Steph Curry this year.
View from Mitch Island: If AD is to Harden as Mitch is to Steph, then that means…Mitch is a future unanimous MVP who’ll lead us to multiple titles!
And look at the rest of these numbers: defensive impact is comparable, FG% gap is embarrassing for a certain disgruntled Pelican, and those O and D Ratings! Mitch must have gotten some really good coaching last year in college to be…wait, what? He didn’t play in college?
So you’re telling me that while Anthony Davis was molded at an NBA factory under Coach Cal prior to his rookie year, Mitch was just at home training by himself? And the numbers are this close?
View from Mitch Island: That wing at Springfield that @JCMacriNBA suggested? Won’t be enough. He’s gonna need his own free-standing, three-level museum.
You doubters thought the All-Star break – and the fact that he was NOT selected to the Rising Stars game – might get us happy citizens of Rob City to calm down a little bit. Well, you were wrong:
All-Star BREAK? Not when you’re a potentially generational NBA center & the best big in your draft class.
He doesn’t post this stuff himself, but Knicks fans know Mitchell Robinson is always working 💯 @23savage____
We saw him trying to perfect the J pre-draft. We see the mechanics – not great, but good enough. We’ve seen the stark rise in FT% to over 69% this month. And now we’ve been blessed with a clip of an effortless three?
[Refills cup and chugs it]
I’m trying to wrap my head around this: these former All-Star bigs came into the league with no semblance of a 3-point jump shot and over time developed range? You mean it’s possible for NBA players to add skills they don’t currently have through dedication and hard work?
Mitch clearly works hard. His sudden significant improvement is evidence enough. If he gets anywhere close to league average…
[Pours Kool-Aid over self, bathing in it]
View from Mitch Island: With the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks selected Rudy Gobert meets Anthony Davis meets Steph Curry.
He’s the pegasus…or was it unicorn? He’s the unicorn everyone’s been talking about, right?
Jokes and hyperbole aside, he’s still super raw. Just like Frank, his future is impossible to project. But think about what your eyes tell you. Think about the improvement you’ve seen on both screen and paper. Think about the developmental paths all bigs mentioned above have taken.
It is entirely reasonable to think that Mitchell Robinson is the steal of the 2018 NBA Draft. It is entirely reasonable to think that surrounded by better players next year, he (and his numbers) will improve significantly. And it is entirely reasonable to think that Steve Mills and Scott Perry may have found a franchise cornerstone with that 36th pick.
View from Mitch Island: Forget reasonable. I’ll be reasonable in July. For now, someone just get me a refill.
The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Knicks were MAJOR players. Now that the dust has settled – vets gone, cap space created, draft picks added – we can spend these last few months focused on what was supposed to be our top priority in the first place: YOUTH.
The three months between now and May 14th will feel like years. Losses will be ugly and abundant. Guys we’re counting on to be cornerstones for the future will look horrible at times. But that’s to be expected. With only two guys left over the age of 25, this stretch is about seeing what we have and projecting what may be.
Part I of this series focuses on who else but FRANK NTILIKINA.
If you favor ball-dominant scoring point guards – like the NBA in 2019 seems to do – no amount of patience will bring you around to Frank’s side. But you know what is on his side? Time. The kid is 20 years old.
I’ve never spoken to Scott Perry or Steve Mills, but I imagine the main reason they’ve rebuffed interest in Ntilikina during each of the past two deadlines is because he possesses things you simply can’t teach: elite size / length for his position; an IQ beyond his years; deceptively effective quickness and athleticism (just ask Rudy Gobert); and 1st Team All-Defense potential.
Yet despite all that, he’s one of the most polarizing young players in the league, mainly because of who the Knicks passed over to take him and how those peers have performed in comparison. He simply hasn’t figured it out yet.
And honestly, I don’t care. The kid is 20 years old. He can still fulfill any destiny. He can become the All-Star that many projected before the draft (highest All-Star odds of any player in his class according to ESPN Draft experts); he can be a solid starter for 12-15 years; he can become an important rotational piece off the bench. But I don’t see any possibility for “bust,” because even if he never lives up to his draft position, whatever he becomes is something the Knicks need.
No way he’ll ever be an All-Star. Look at those numbers. We’d have seen signs by now.
Yeah, you’re probably right. No one ever performs this poorly, especially shooting the ball, and then develops into an All-Star caliber player…
Ideally, this chart would show what each future All-Star was doing at 20. Problem is, most of them weren’t in the league yet. Kyle Lowry is the only 20-year-old on the list. Everyone else is at least 21.
Now this group was not compiled based on similar physical profiles or styles of play; it’s merely to show that for some guys, it takes time. Rondo shot 21% from three as a rookie and somehow figured out a way to survive and thrive throughout his career as a non-shooter. Kemba shot worse as a 21-year-old than Frank at 19, and yet he’s become one of the most lethal scorers in the League, dropping 60 point earlier this season. Even guys reputed as shooters – Billups, Mo Williams – struggled to do what would eventually become their bread-and-butter. Billups was jettisoned 50 games into his rookie year (again, as a 21-year-old) because the results weren’t immediate.
In fact, four of the six players above went on to become All-Stars after being discarded by their original teams. What’d I say the key word was?
You’re out of your mind. The guy will be back in France in three years.
I’ll concede that I don’t expect him to ever represent the Knicks or any other team in February’s scoring bonanza, but you’re missing the point if you think you can declare any definitive outcome for Ntilikina.
THE KID IS 20 YEARS OLD.
And frankly, he doesn’t need to be an All-Star. The Knicks don’t need that either. All they (and we as fans) really need is for him to grow into himself, do what he does best, and fill a role on what will soon be a totally revamped roster. Maybe in a year or two, we’re talking about him as one of the NBA’s bright up-and-comers at the position:
Is it crazy to think he could one day produce like Spencer Dinwiddie has this year? Or like Terry Rozier does whenever Kyrie is out? The Utah Jazz refused to include Dante Exum in trade offers for MIKE CONLEY…is it crazy to think that Frank could one day have that value for us?
(By the way, those numbers above – that’s through Dinwiddie and Rozier’s Age-22 seasons. Exum, 21. Have I mentioned Frank is still 20?)
I don’t know what his destiny is. I don’t know if he has multiple 6th Man of the Year awards in his future, or if he’ll set the single-game assists record, or back up an MVP so well that the team barely misses a beat when he’s in. I don’t know if he’ll ever be the heart-and-soul of a contender like Smart, or a steadying offensive maestro like Rubio. I don’t know if he’ll ever be prime Derek Harper (17+ PPG in six consecutive seasons) or the Derek Harper whose 9 points and 4 assists per game helped us reach Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
And you don’t either. That’s the point. Frank Ntilikina is currently the 19th-youngest in a league that has about 450 players. He plays on the youngest team in the league for a head coach that, as of February 12th, still hasn’t coached the equivalent of two full seasons. The circumstances are not ideal and the numbers are cringe-worthy, but stop worrying about that stuff. Especially the percentages. Sometimes when you play the hardest position in basketball and you’re trying to learn to read the game and adjust to the speed and physicality of NBA competition, you miss some shots. He, like most of these guys, will figure it out one way or another. As a fan in a lost season, instead of checking box scores or living and dying with every make and miss, focus instead on the following post-All Star break:
Is he attacking the basket like he’d been before his injury?
Is he taking open jumpers, or is he hesitating?
Is he creating shots for himself?
Is the quality of his defense back to last year’s elite level?
Kyle Lowry didn’t hit 30 minutes or double-digit points per game until his Age-24 season. Dragic didn’t crack 20 MPG until Age 25. Kemba didn’t become a plus three-point shooter until the same age. Frank Ntilikina is not a lost cause. The potential is undeniable, and the precedent – overcoming young struggles to lead successful careers – is firmly established.
How successful will he be? Only time will tell. But whether his destiny is well-rounded DPOY like Alvin Robertson or underappreciated-in-the-shadow-of-stars a la Ron Harper or Derek Fisher (or more recently, Shaun Livingston), we should value what he brings. So over these final 26, let’s ignore the numbers. Let’s pay more attention to his mindset, to the way he plays and the intangibles he possesses. And instead of stressing about what he isn’t, let’s focus instead on the possibilities.
A deal is not close, but the Knicks and Kings are discussing a trade that would send Enes Kanter out west in exchange for Zach Randolph’s expiring contract, with perhaps a third team getting involved, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski.
Some of our Knicks Film School professors (writers) give their thoughts on what the Knicks should do with Enes Kanter:
MACRI (@JCMacriNBA) – The Knicks Should NOT TREAT Enes Kanter LIKE KRAMER TREATS FREE COFFEE FOR LIFE.
For the non-Seinfeld fans: in the episode where Kramer sues a national coffee chain for making his coffee too hot, he has a meeting with his lawyer and the coffee company to negotiate a potential settlement. The coffee company – Java World – begins the negotiation by saying “We’re prepared to offer you free coffee from any of our stores and-” but before the lawyer can finish what he’s saying, Kramer jumps up, shakes his hand, and elatedly says “I’ll take it!”
This scene is a microcosm of essentially every Knicks trade negotiation in the history of the franchise. You can picture Phil Jackson on the phone with David Griffin and yelling “SOLD!” the moment Griffin agreed to take on JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. We haven’t exactly had a history of holding out for the best offer.
Perhaps the only team in recent NBA history to have a worse transaction record is the Kings. Why they’re interested in Enes Kanter is beyond me, but regardless, the Knicks have to avoid the temptation to jump at the first offer. Play this one out and try to milk negotiations with a potentially irrational actor as much as possible.
Does this run counter to a column I wrote just a few weeks ago, calling for the Knicks to waive Kanter, like, yesterday? You’re damn right it does! But I never accounted for the fact that the Kings would be so stupid value offensive rebounding so much. Let’s play this hand till the river. You got nothing to lose.
Multiple reports indicate the Knicks are in early talks with Sacramento about a potential swap of Kanter for Zach Randolph.
While it’s tempting to add Lee or THJ to the rumor, it makes more sense for those players to be moved independent of Kanter.
VIVEK (@vdadhania) – The Knicks should FIND A SMART REPLACEMENT FOR Enes Kanter.
While Kanter has been generally lambasted for his poor defensive effort, he provides three key traits that are mostly missing on the roster:
Consistent Tank Commander
Development is a tricky process. Simply playing young players doesn’t always work, especially if it leads to bad habits on the floor or stunts the development in other areas. The Knicks are a putrid rebounding team without Kanter. Removing him from the lineup, teams will feast on the boards which will lead to fewer opportunities for the young players to shine with efficiency, whether in transition or with extra opportunities on offense.
Perry & Mills should look to garner a pick and an expiring contract for Kanter. If he’s bought out, the front office needs to find someone who can grab some rebounds and/or be a useful source of veteran leadership for Mitchell Robinson.
SU YORK (@SuYork_1023) – The Knicks should TRADE Enes Kanter (ONLY IF THE RETURN IS GREAT).
Let’s face it, we all knew this was coming and many of us hoped for this. Kanter went from a good vet presence this season to a team nuisance as quickly as the Knicks give up a lead in the third quarter.
Hearing rumors that multiple teams want him, it’s very important the Knicks make a wise decision. I do not like the recent proposal from the Sacramento Kings looking for a straight-up swap sending Zach Randolph to the Knicks (yes, Z-Bo is still in the league).
What I want to happen:
I want the Knicks to find the best possible trade for Kanter. He still has value on a winning team. He is a walking Double-Double. He still contributes, and despite being a bit disgruntled with his current role, overall, he is a good teammate. I know this is reaching, but if we can at least get a second round pick with an expiring contract that would be ideal. (I’m a dreamer) 🤷🏼♀️
🎬📚 | Enes Kanter didn’t do anything super special in the 4th quarter last night, but he was attentive and put himself in position to make plays on the defensive end, which is something: pic.twitter.com/JJcfIq9B7j
If we do not get anything worthwhile for Kanter, I want him to face reality and accept his role on the bench. This season is not about winning. Is Kanter more delusional than your typical fan? I want him to stay quiet and keep producing with the minutes he’s given. We recently saw him more accepting of his bench role and playing well in the Lakers game. Although it was a loss for team tank, the Knicks got their 1st win of 2019. Kanter may be a beneficial influence to the rookies, especially Mitchell Robinson. If Kanter can only hold on a few more months, then walk away this summer, that would be great. That will be the end of the Enes Kanter era in NY!
ALEX (@MrAlexCollins) – The Knicks Should AMICABLY SEPARATE FROM Enes Kanter.
Enes is in his eighth year in the NBA and he is understandably unhappy with his bench role on a team that has only 10 wins at the halfway point of the season and still has the highest strength of schedule remaining in the Eastern Conference, per ESPN.
There is no valid argument for the Knicks keeping Kanter around for the rest of the season. Whether you think he is a net positive player or not, his inclusion on the team is not resulting in the Knicks being anywhere near a playoff contender.
The Knicks should be focused on getting the highest possible pick in the draft and developing their young players. This is best served by giving minutes to Mitchell Robinson, Luke Kornet, and bringing in a veteran big who is happier to sit and mentor the young guys than Kanter has proven to be. Even picking up young big men from free agency or the G-league on 10-day contracts would better benefit the team moving forward.
There have been enough positive instances that we can remember Enes with some fondness, and his last 3 games have been a nice run for him to bow out on. Why not do right by him and move him to a situation where he has a defined role on a team in playoff contention?
Whether the Knicks outright waive Enes, thus giving him the freedom to choose where he wants to play next without restriction, or saving him the embarrassment of being cut from one of the worst teams in the NBA and simply moving him to a contender for an expiring contract, it’s best for all parties to respectfully go their separate ways.
MIKE D (@debatebball) – The Knicks Should START Enes Kanter.
They should keep him. And if they keep him, they have to play him. And if they’re playing him, why not start him?
Reasons they should keep him:
His $18M expiring is difficult to match. We do NOT want to take any non-expiring money back.
Practicing against him will help both Mitch and Kornet. Post play, while less important these days, is not extinct. Kanter’s strength and skill down low can help our young centers learn how to hold their own against stronger bigs who still bang on the block and attack the glass.
He’s playing well. He’s been arguably their best player over the last few games. If Fiz is going to preach, “Keep what you kill,” then Kanter deserves to play.
I’d only trade him if we’re getting something more than swapping expiring money, and I’d only buy him out if he asks for that.
DAVE (@DavidEarly) – The Knicks Should FRANTICALLY SHOP Enes Kanter.
The Knicks should FRANTICALLY shop Enes. If they were really smart they’d do all they can to get a couple of second round picks for him without taking back any long-term salary. Otherwise, I’d try to buy him out.
With the right coach, Enes is absolutely good enough to win you a few games down the stretch. You CANNOT risk the top (14%) pick odds with a player of Zion Williamson’s caliber on the board. Moving on from Enes helps you A) avoid PR headaches when you sit him to tank or B) avoid the devastating “spirited win” down the stretch that costs you 35% of your ping pong balls.
The sneaky benefit of sending him to the Kings is that if he actually helps them win, it hurts the Atlantic Division rival Celtics’ pick.
That could be key. If the Knicks wind up with KD and Zion and KP, they just might visit Boston in the conference finals next year. So we can root for Enes to ball out in Sacramento.