Inside Fiz’s Mind As He Considers Lineup Possibilities

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]1

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! 2 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.

mubarakmalik/IG

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…

A ha! I got it:

STARTERS: Smith / Dotson / Barrett / Randle / Robinson
RESERVES: Payton / Trier / Knox / Morris / Portis

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 was completed prior to official signings of Marcus Morris and Ignas Brazdeikis and re-structuring of Reggie Bullock*

…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

#positionless

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.

#KNICKSTAPE – HIGHLIGHT REEL
Smith / Trier / Barrett / Knox / Robinson

Adding an ACC-record-breaker to the flashes we saw last year? Am I drooling?

EXPERIENCE
Payton / Ellington / Morris / Randle / Gibson

Years of service: 5 – 10 – 8 – 5 – 10

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.

YOUTH
Ntilikina / Barrett / Brazdeikis / Knox / Robinson

How did the French guy get in here? I meant to put Dennis, but…whatever…since I broke the seal…

DEFENSE
Ntilikina / Dotson / Bradzeikis / Morris / Robinson

No one will score. Not us. Not them. No one.

PASS-FIRST
Payton / Ntilikina / Dotson / Randle / Robinson

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…

Group Project: How to Maximize RJ’s Summer League

Steve Mills: Professor, are you ready for us?

Yes, yes. Come in. I was just reviewing your grades from past projects, ummm…are we all here? Good, good. Take a seat.

Now, as you know, I’ve been meeting with every group to ensure we’re all headed in the right direction, but this one I’ve had marked on my calendar. I won’t sugarcoat it – the pressure’s on, folks.

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July 1st Roster Update

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.

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A Debate With Myself: The Kyrie Irving Conundrum

[Checks Voicemail]

Hi Mike,

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 — 

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Contemplating Current and Future Knicks

Let’s pretend for a second that our luck is changing, that everything will fall into place the way it’s supposed to on May 14th, June 20th, and finally, July 1st.

A Top-3 player. A second superstar. A ROY candidate and potential franchise cornerstone. What more could you ask for?

And yet many Knicks fans are asking for more. They’re asking for Anthony Davis. And this isn’t some pipe dream, some deluded fantasy that the most hopeful among us typically conjure up.

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The Secret Meeting of Frank and Fiz

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 3 gave me access to classified surveillance footage from inside the Westchester practice facility.

Exclusive to Knicks Film School, what follows is the shocking true account2 of a meeting that took place between Frank Ntilikina and David Fizdale only days before Ntilikina was shut down for the season.

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The Knicks’ Future at (Backup) Point Guard

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 3, 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 defensively2.

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).3

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.

Future Focus, Part IV: Optimism for Everyone Else

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.

Part I of this series focused on Frank Ntilikina.
Part II focused on Mitchell Robinson.
Part III focused on Dennis Smith, Jr.
Part IV touches upon EVERYONE ELSE – Knox, Dotson, Trier, and more…


KEVIN KNOX: 12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1 assist, 36.2% FG, 33.8% 3

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 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.

So…prediction?

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

…if he’s still on the team, that is. Rumor has it we give up on young guys who don’t thrive right away.  

ALLONZO TRIER: 10.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 45% FG, 40.5% 3

He’s been great…shouldn’t he be starting?

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.”  

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.

DAMYEAN DOTSON:  10.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 42% FG, 38.3% 3

What happens when his contract is up next summer?

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?

THE REST

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?4


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.

Future Focus, Part III: Dennis Smith, Jr.

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:

  1. Cap relief that allows them to pursue two max-salaried free agents this summer, and
  2. 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:

Dennis Smith Jr.’s career per-36 averages are:

17.9 points, 6.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 40.8% FG, 31.8% 3PT, 67.2% FT

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:  

Player PPG FG% 3PT% FT%
D. Rose + 4.2 + 6.5% + 9.2%
R. Westbrook + 5.8 + 2.4% + 10.9% + 6.2%
C. Paul + 5.2 + 5.1% + 1.9% + 3.3%
J. Wall + 2.2 + 1.8% + 19.6% + 1.5%
Jeff Teague + 7.4 + 3.8%
Eric Bledsoe + 5.2 + 5.6% + 19.7% + 15.5%


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:

Future Focus, Part II: Mitchell Robinson

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.   

[Takes sip]

[Takes another]

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.  

[Takes sip]

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:

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]

[Refills again]

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.     

Focusing on the Youth, Part 1: Frank Ntilikina

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.  

After all, he’s only 20.  

KFS Teacher’s Lounge: What Should the Knicks do with Enes Kanter?

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.

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:

  1. Consistent Tank Commander
  2. High FG%
  3. Rebounding

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) 🤷🏼‍♀️

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:

  1. His $18M expiring is difficult to match. We do NOT want to take any non-expiring money back.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Why trading Damyean Dotson makes sense

He is one of my favorite players. After begging to see him for seven months last year, I’d venture to say he’s a fan favorite among most Knicks’ diehards. I mean, what’s not to like? He gives you 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 36% from 3 (tied for 2nd among Knicks’ guards) each night – he’s been our most consistent, if not best, two-way player all season, despite DNPs and uneven playing time.

We, as fans, love him. We want more of him. Some of us would support a straight swap of his minutes for THJ’s. He’s an untouchable part of the talented youth that will help carry this franchise...wait, what?  Untouchable.

It shocked me to learn a lot of fans feel this way. Can’t trade Dot. He’s part of the future.

Respectfully, I disagree. The Knicks NEED to trade him.

Play the role of opposing GM for a minute. You’re playoff-bound. You need wing help. Would you rather:

A) 2.5 years of Timmy ($37M remaining after this year)
B) 
1.5 years of Lee ($12.8M next year)
C) 
1.5 years of Dot ($1.6M non-guaranteed next year)

If you answered anything but C, you’re lying to yourself.

For me, it’s simple. Cap space is a top priority, and the opportunity to stock up on draft assets, even small ones, is next on the list. Now when I say they need to trade him, I don’t mean they should give him away. The Knicks don’t need to trade him like Washington needs to trade John Wall. What I mean is, Steve Mills and Scott Perry need to shop him with a controlled and patient aggression. With rules.

The Knicks only make the deal if:

  1. Tim Hardaway Jr. is attached.
  2. Courtney Lee is attached.
  3. A draft pick is coming back.

I’m sorry if this upsets you. Trust me, I get it. I like him, too. A homegrown talent that’s been a bright spot in an otherwise dreary season. But have you considered the possibility that the dreariness is why he looks so bright?  He’s not the foundational 3-and-D glue guy that some might think he is. I don’t want to disparage, but:

  • His 3-point shooting is tied for 82nd in the League. Solid. Not great.
  • His Defensive Real +/- is near the bottom of the league. His DRtg is 115.  These “advanced” stats…I don’t know. Moving on.
  • His one elite skill, rebounding at his position, is not important enough to remove him from any trade conversation.
  • He’s regressed month-to-month in each of the following: points, rebounds, FG%, FT%, ORtg, DRtg, +/-, TOs, and, predictably, minutes per game. There’s no way to know if he’s playing worse because his minutes are down, or if his minutes are down because he’s playing worse. But the decline in MPG might suggest that Mills / Perry / Fiz aren’t sold on him as a surefire part of the future.

Despite all of this, you may still reasonably disagree with my position. You may look at it like, It’s only Year 2, and he’s shown clear two-way potential. Let’s build the rest of this thing and see what he’s made of. You may see him filling a role similar to the one Danny Green and Trevor Ariza have played on contenders. On champions. I can’t argue with that.

But he only has one year left on his contract (assuming his non-guaranteed amount is guaranteed in July). If the Knicks acquire a max player this summer – which requires  them to shed salary, which becomes more likely with a sweetener like Dotson – and if KP ends up signing a max deal, that puts two max contracts on the roster.

Are the Knicks really going to spend over the cap to re-sign Dotson the following summer? With the rest of their young talent soon commanding new contracts? Money has never been an issue for the Knicks, but to keep this thing sustainable, they aren’t going to overpay for every player whose Bird Rights they own.

Besides, what if I told you they could replace Dotson with a similar, younger player who could remain under team control for a longer period of time? You’d sign up for that, wouldn’t you?

While diamonds are hard to find in the rough, Mills and Perry just hit on a second-round steal AND an undrafted stud in their first draft they worked on together. And I am confident, or hopeful, that they could do it again. I believe it’s more than realistic that they could use Dot to facilitate a Courtney Lee trade (creating more cap space in the process), use their 2019 second-rounder on a Dotson-like SG/SF, and sign him to a four-year minimum deal similar to the one Phil Jackson gave Big Willy.

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard – former Knick great Justin Holiday just netted the Bulls TWO 2ND-RD PICKS!  A sub-25-year-old and two picks for Justin freakin’ Holiday.  

 

Dotson is the better player than Holiday. He’s younger, bigger, more athletic, better offensively, and when he’s not surrounded by armchairs, he’ll be a much more impactful defender than he’s shown here. A week ago, I was of the mindset that I wouldn’t move Dot unless he was attached to Lee or THJ; after seeing what the Bulls got for Holiday, I would pull the trigger on any deal that returns a similar haul.

If you want the Knicks to go big-game hunting this summer, if you dream about a KP/FA/Zion Big Three with Knox as the best fourth option in the League, if you believe in your front office’s ability to take a pick in the 40s and turn it into something good, then you need to get on board with this; Damyean Dotson’s departure may be a small but crucial step toward your dreams becoming reality.

Happy Thoughts for a Happy New Year

First, watch the beginning of the play above.

Then, imagine, instead of of a dinosaur, that’s a 7’3 Unicorn catching at the top of the key. Imagine him stepping into a 30-foot bomb and scoffing at his defender for giving him so much room. Imagine him pump-faking when his defender remembers, “Oh sh**, that’s not Kanter! This guy can shoot,” and closes out too hard. Imagine one dribble to the basket. Imagine a long, lean arm rising toward the clouds before hammering the ball through the rim.

Rewind.

Imagine this Unicorn does nothing extraordinary. Instead, simply imagine the impact of his presence. Imagine his defender, the opponent’s rim protector, fearing his range. Imagine the defense extending well beyond the arc rather than sitting in the circle. Imagine the extra space for cutters and drivers.

Imagine the Unicorn in the near corner. Imagine him moving to the mid-post, catching the entry, and turning to shoot an effortless fadeaway, uncontested despite his defender’s best contest. Imagine it off one foot like Dirk. Imagine it kissing the glass before falling through.

Rewind.  

Imagine he doesn’t shoot from the post. Imagine he engages Timmy in the dribble-handoff. Imagine the confusion when the defense can’t just sit on the roll. Imagine, instead, a fade to the three-point line for a quick flick of the wrist. Then imagine a few possessions later, the Knicks run the same action. Imagine the defense, fearing the three, anticipates the pop. Now imagine the roll. Imagine his long strides toward the rim. Imagine him leaping to catch the lob, handling it with such ease and grace that even road fans must applaud.    

Imagine the opportunities in transition. Imagine him setting the screen for Mudiay, drifting to the top of the key, catching and shooting. Or imagine he doesn’t get it. Is Thaddeus Young anywhere near Mudiay’s release? No. He’s blanketing the Unicorn, giving Emmanuel any number of easier options. Just imagine the impact of his gravitational pull, what it could do for everyone else on the floor.

Imagine him catching the inbound. Imagine him taking his man off the dribble – one bounce, maybe two – and drawing the foul. Or imagine he executes the handoff to Lee, and…they switch? Maybe this worked in the past, but not anymore. Not with this better, stronger Unicorn. Imagine a patient Lee pulling it out to exploit the mismatch. Imagine the mouse being walked into the post and dominated. Or imagine Lee inexplicably shooting it anyway. Missing. Yet you don’t scream at the television, because there it is – a vintage Unicorn tip-slam. Imagine his glare. I’m back, it says.  

Imagine the two-man game with Frank. Imagine the collective length of this duo, neither of whom can legally rent a car. Allow your mind to drift to the other end of the floor, even as the offensive possession continues, and imagine the devastating defensive impact they could have together.  

Not now. We’re still trying to score. Imagine the Unicorn fading, catching, and…well, you know the result. Or imagine, again, his gravity. Imagine his defender can’t thwart Frank’s baseline drive. Imagine his man must sprint toward the hash mark, full speed, everything he has. Imagine how different Frank’s life would be. Imagine how much easier it’d be to play with controlled aggression, to find room, to create off the dribble. Imagine Frank getting all the way to the rim. Imagine him flushing it with two hands.

Imagine the help coming from the baseline, with the Unicorn being blanketed out by Fizdale. Imagine Frank taking an extra dribble before throwing a dart to Knox in the corner. Imagine Knox rising up and releasing. Imagine the ball doing what it’s been doing for Knox lately.  

Imagine, now, the wing helping down to the corner. Imagine the extra pass to Lee.

Imagine a top-ranked defense playing helter-skelter, desperate to recover, but always one pass, one move, one step behind. Imagine the open jumpers. Imagine clogged lanes parting like some sort of biblical event. Imagine a frustrated timeout. Imagine a baffled opposing huddle. Imagine futile adjustments. Imagine increased continuity, percentages rising, teammates filling more suitable roles and young talent inching closer to potential fulfillment, all made possible by the return of a truly unique talent…

Sometime soon, you won’t have to imagine anymore. Sometime soon, this will be your reality.

Just imagine how you’ll feel then.

The final grade in evaluating the Knicks rebuild so far

Mike DeStefano wraps up his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing in a season that won’t be evaluated in wins and losses. Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here. Read Part IV here. And now the final grades.

FINAL GRADES

Establishing Identity & Changing the CultureA-

Leadership in UniformC

Leadership in Suits (F.O and Staff)B+

Development of Individual TalentB

OVERALLB

You may disagree. You may see one component as more/less important than the others, but for an A, you have to do everything right. And we can all at least agree on this – there have been some growing pains, and there are going to be a lot more. Not every rebuild can be of the Stevens/Ainge miraculous variety, unless someone out there wants to be our Billy King. No takers? Okay, then let’s look at some of the obstacles the Knicks have faced, and let’s compare where the organization is with the NBA’s current gold standard for dominance (shout to @DaveEarly for the inspiration):

  1. This is the first year together for the Mills / Perry / Fizdale triumvirate. Bob Myers and Mark Jackson came in together in 2011 and endured a 23-43 season.  
      
  2. The Knicks are without their centerpiece. He hasn’t played since last February. The Warriors’ centerpiece, Steph Curry, only played in 26 of 66 games during that rebuild year.  

  3. In the Knicks’ current 10-man rotation (11 if you include when Burke returns; Lee / Lance not included), only 4 were on the team at the start of last season. They’re all learning a new system, and they’re all trying to develop a basic chemistry with new teammates. Much like those 2011-12 Warriors, who only had 6 holdovers from the ever-so-brief Keith Smart era.    

I don’t remember what the outlook was for theWarriors by June 2012. Klay Thompson was a bright spot as a rookie, but Curry was banged up and regressing, and the roster was a mess. Impatient fans saw new leadership and the same old results. 

Then they drafted Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Festus Ezeli, and they remained patient with their point guard of the future (who many at the time were unsure of), and the following season they won 47 games. Then 51. Then 67 and a title, and the rest is history.  Their build that started off with issues – like ours – ended with an A+++++++.

Knicks’ fans just want the A.  We can add pluses later. How can we just get to an A?  

Scott and Steve, keep working those phones.

Guys won’t be back, so get something for them while you can. In March 2012 (lockout season), the Warriors shipped Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson; Jax was then sent to the Spurs for TJ Ford (waived), Richard Jefferson, and the first-round pick that became Ezeli.  The Bogut/Ezeli tandem averaged 32 MPG at center during the 2015 playoffs en route to a title.

THJ, flaws and all, has value. Courtney Lee, when 100%, has 3-and-D value. For backup PG help, depending on your needs (scoring vs. well-rounded), look no further than Emmanuel Mudiay or Trey Burke. Plenty of teams could use a guy like Dotson (strong on both ends, affordable, under contract next year), and they should consider it if the price is right.

Making a deal or two is important to bring back assets, yes, but also to solve the problem below.

FIGURE OUT A ROTATION!

The loss to Cleveland was interesting as far as the rotation is concerned. On the plus, 33 minutes for Knox and 24 for Frank; the minus: 43 (!) for Tim, and 33 for Kanter. Here’s what I’d love to see the rest of the way.   

Player MPG Player MPG
Hardaway Jr. 30 Mudiay 24
Ntilikina 26 Robinson 20
Knox 24 Trier 20
Vonleh 24 Hezonja 12
Dotson 24 Lee 12
Kanter 24 Burke* 0

The thought process here is:

Bring Tim’s minutes down. He should be capped at 34 – never 43! – and some games should be more like 26-28.  

Give Lee a quarter’s worth of run until he’s traded. Run him with the young guys – Ntilikina, Knox, Robinson -to provide leadership and defensive communication.  

Commit to the future – Ntilikina, Knox, Dotson – for at least half the game EVERY game. No exceptions. Ideally, Robinson would be up there, too, butI’m assuming his foul trouble will keep that average down.  

Bring Trier’s minutes down a touch. He’s got his new contract; now they have to figure out his role. Which shouldn’t take much figuring out, since it’s obvious he isNOT a point guard. Use him a little bit less while trying to develop that part of his game, and when he’s on the court (since we want him to be who he is), turn him loose. Twenty minutes of full-speed aggression. Play him next to Mudiay and THJ, and when shots aren’t falling, give him the ball and get out of the way.  

In a perfect world, Hezonja would be closer to 0 (or California), but if you’re going to play him, give him two six-minute spurts and play him everywhere from SG to PF.    

Keep the Summer Magic Alive.

Counting Mills’ time as Jackson’s right-hand man, this front office has done a nice job acquiring talent through (and then after) the draft. There are five nice home-grown pieces on the roster, all of whom could be part of the solution. Continue to add to that stable.

Contrary to popular belief, YOU DON’T NEED #1 TO DO THIS. Would I be happy if we won the lottery come May? Duh. But I won’t cry myself to sleep if the young guys play well enough to subtract some ping-pong balls. I’ll just settle for being the Warriors East.


2009 – Stephen Curry (#7)
2010 – Ekpe Udoh (#6 – eventually traded for Bogut / Jax)

2011 – Klay Thompson (#11)

2012 – Barnes (#7), Ezeli (#30), Green (#35)

NO FIRST-ROUNDER FOR THREE YEARS

2015 – Kevon Looney (#30)


You don’t need to root for the Knicks to suck. Root for them to play well, for the young guys to show signs, for them to even win some games, and then root for them to keep doing what they’re doing: hit in the mid-to-late lottery, the 2nd round, and the undrafted pool. Keep taking chances on young, unique talents in the top 10 (KP, Frank, Knox); keep hitting on 2nd-rounders (Dot, Robinson, even Willy who fetched two future 2nds); keep the same vigilance after Pick 60 (Trier); and keep utilizing Westchester to find guys (Burke, Kornet).

It’s only been 28 games. The turnaround is in its infancy. Moves will be made, guys will get better, KP will come back, and then who knows? But everything outlined above is doable. An “A” grade is doable. And in a few years, it’ll be someone else tacking on the pluses when they write about how their team should rebuild like the Knicks.  

Grading the Knicks’ ability to establish a new identity in trying to change their culture

Mike DeStefano continues his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing in a season that won’t be evaluated in wins and losses. Read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here. Let’s dive into Part IV.

PART IV:  Establishing Identity, Changing the Culture

When we talk about a franchise’s culture, or a team’s identity, what are we talking about?  

IDENTITY should be fairly easy to figure out, right?  Identity connects to style of play, maybe even system, as well as traits that players exhibit on the court. 

CULTURE is…more abstract.  More intangible. More coach speak-ish. Truth is, I’m not sure what it means.  But we can figure it out together.

Mills, Perry, and Fiz have talked about building / changing / developing identity and culture since May. How have the Knicks progressed? Are they on the right track?

To answer the big questions, we first have to ask some smaller ones.

What do the Knicks run?

My fellow Knicks Film Schoolers and I have been discussing this for a while now, and one of our contributors broke it down thoroughly here and elsewhere. But from my perspective, some recurring actions aside, there’s no true system (in the traditional sense). And maybe that’s okay. I honestly can’t decide how I feel about it.  Here’s an argument I had with myself recently:

Thought: The game is moving toward a more free-flowing style, so no big deal if there’s no defined system. We’re finally entering the 21st century!

Counter: Calm down. A system would help with player development, which is the team’s top priority. The game at the NBA level moves so fast that young guys often struggle with even the most basic things. An offense with clearly-defined parameters would make them more comfortable because they’d already (for the most part) know the answers to questions like:

  • Where are my shots coming from?
  • Where can I expect my driving lanes?
  • What reads are available to me when I’m off the ball?
  • Where’s my outlet if I get in trouble?
  • When I do this, how will the defense react?  How will my teammates react?

This is particularly helpful because once they learn how to handle situations within the system, they can more easily recognize adjustments and make reads outside the system.

Counter: A system can also have the opposite effect on young players, especially if it’s rigid like our beloved Triangle. Complexity can be distracting – guys are too busy thinking about which way to run and which pass to make to actually play with any sort of instinct or improvisation.  

Counter: Watch your language. We don’t use the T-word around here. And while the overthinking point has merit, the pros of a system outweigh the cons. Beyond helping guys learn to see the game, it’d also help with: determent of hero-ball; fewer late-in-the-shot-clock Hot Potatoes; reduction of turnovers (we’re suddenly 19th in TOs); and increased calm and effectiveness in late-game situations.

Counter: Well, Fiz doesn’t seem like a system guy, and with better players- like KP and another guy with similar initials – a free-flowing offense with principles instead of rules will thrive. So I’ll deal with the current bouts of discontinuity and stagnation; hell, if they lead to Zion, I’ll welcome them with open arms.     

How do the Knicks want to play?

Another complex answer, though not one I needed to argue with myself about. It’s complex in that, the Knicks want to do a lot of things. I discussed a lot of these when I analyzed the F.O / Staff Leadership, but we’ll update the progress here, using the 10-game mark on November 4th as a starting point:

“I want to get up and down the court.”

On November 4th, the Knicks were 27th in Possessions per Game.  A month later, they’ve risen to 15th.

“I want to…attack the paint.”

November 4th, the Knicks were shooting 20.8 FTs per Game. By December 4th, that number was up to 24.6, good for 9th in the League at the time. Over the course of that month, their 3PA had also dropped, though slightly, from 30.6 to 29.2. Keeping the extra possessions (increased pace!) in mind, this would suggest a conscious effort to attack the paint.  

“I want to share the basketball.”

After 10 games, the Knicks were 29th in APG.  Over the next month, assists would dip to under 20 per, tied for worst in the League.  

“One-second hold. If you can’t get it done in one second, get off it.”

The Knicks have three guys – Burke, Trier, Mudiay – that hold for at least 4 seconds per touch. This is fairly standard. In analyzing the Eastern Conference, 6/15 teams have at least three players who hold the ball this long. The problem?  Three of those teams are bad (Knicks included), and the other three have stars like Kawhi, Kyrie, Lowry, and Simmons. Those are the guys who SHOULD have long touches. But Allonzo Trier should NOT be averaging more seconds per touch than those guys (he is),and Trey Burke should NOT be 7th in the entire Eastern Conference (above those guys and more).

“It’s a free-flowing, all-inclusive offense,an offense where everyone feels involved. Spacing is critical to it. Pace is critical to it. Ball movement is critical to it.” 

I wanted to use this quote because it’s all-encompassing and illustrates Fiz’s overall philosophy. But I also wanted to highlight the “where everyone feels involved” part.

WARNING: what follows is a theory based on general basketball experience and knowledge.                                                                                                             

Anyone who’s ever played pickup basketball has undoubtedly played with a chucker. Chuck shoots first three times down – sometimes without a single pass – and you immediately know you’re in for a long day. But you try to keep your head up, tell yourself, “I’ll do the other things.” You commit to locking up, and when you get rebounds, you push the ball and try to create opportunities for yourself and others. But still, by the tenth possession, Chuck’s shot eight times. You’re frustrated. Soon, the rest of your game suffers. You don’t even want to play anymore … and then he passes you the ball! You’re wide open. You load up, but the ball feels foreign in your hands. It’s a football. You lay a brick.

Could this be happening to Frank? Tony Parker thinks so:

The kid’s been molded to play the right way, force nothing, run an actual offense, and now he finds himself in lineups with guys whose first, second, and third priorities are to shoot. This could explain Knox’s inconsistency, too, but even if you consider this a reach, my eyes tell me that there are lengthy stretches of Knicks’ basketball where not everyone feels involved.   

“Defensively, I like to get up and pressure…”

On November 4th, the Knicks were 9th in Opp PPG and 7th in Forced Turnovers per game. Despite those strong numbers, they were only 25th in Opp FG% and 22nd in Opp 3PT%. Over the next month, they’d fall in every category: 26th in Opp PPG, 26th in Opp FG%, 26th in Opp 3PT%, and 18th in Forced TOPG.  

Many explanations:  quality of opponents improved, officials enforcing new points of emphasis differently, opponents making adjustments with more film to study, benching your best perimeter defenders for no apparent reason…either way, they are trending in the wrong direction.

Despite the defensive issues, overall I’d say they’re doing fairly well. One step at a time. Nothing happens overnight, and it was a near certainty that we wouldn’t see successful progress in every goal this soon in the season. But for me, hitting two goals before Game 30 is pretty good. We’ll revisit this at the All-Star break. 

Who do we like?

In other words, what kinds of players are the front office and staff into? The Spurs have a type. This year, the Lakers had a type (though that’s been met with mixed results). What’s the Knicks’ type? Many of these guys won’t be back next year, but it’s clear what Mills, Perry, and Fiz like. They want bigger, attacking guards, and they want versatility and flexibility in the frontcourt. They want switchability, interchangeability, positionless-ness. Fiz talked about that when he was hired, and we can see concrete evidence of this in both the development of Mudiay, Trier, and Vonleh as well as in the guys on the rise in Miami, the“culture” that made Fiz who he is.  

What are the team’s values?

At this point, a few rough showings aside, here’s what I believe we can expect from this team as far as intangibles are concerned:  

  • They’ll never give up. The Nets were just the latest example of a second-half blowout that somehow became close in the final minutes. This team has no quit in them. And I’m talking up and down the roster. It’s not always the same unit leading the comeback. When the game gets into the fourth quarter, there will always be five guys ready to make a push, and Fiz has been adept at finding that right combination over and over again.
  • They stay engaged. During every one of those runs mentioned above, the guys on the bench were the happiest people around. Against the Nets, THJ, the team leader (by default), found himself on the outside looking in. You watch those replays, and you’ll see a guy thrilled after every big bucket. The early-season Kanter issue aside, Fiz has his guys buying in even when they are not getting the minutes / roles they’d like.
  • Fiz will always say the right thing. This is where people get that “salesman” stuff from, and while outsiders seem to use it to imply fakeness, having a guy that knows how to handle the media is crucial in this city.  He defends his players to the death. He is blunt with team criticisms and other explanations, but he will never play the sorts of mind-games in the media that Phil played so often. I thought he handled all the questions about Frank’s DNPs very well. 
  • Communication is strong. Just like he is with the media, Fiz seems to be a great communicator with his players, and hopefully this will lead to great communication AMONGST his players. My favorite example of this openness thus far is how he handled Dotson’s DNPs. In Dot’s words: “For the most part, Coach is telling us he has a reason behind everything. So just as far as when I wasn’t playing the four games, he was steady talking to me, telling me we’ve got to get this rotation going right now, win a couple games. So I kind of understood it…Nobody is ever in the doghouse.”  Dotson came out of the DNPs on fire, so this quote is more than just lip service.  And Frank’s played well in his 36 minutes back from exile, so maybe there is a method to the madness?  I don’t agree with the DNP approach, but at least the players know what’s up.

  • One Negative: Some of these things were discussed in my “Leadership” analysis, but the Knicks need to be very careful with contradictions. I don’t like that Fiz abandoned his one second rule for Trier – “That rule has gone out of the door for Zo” – because it sets a dangerous precedent. I don’t like that he benched Kanter, and then Kanter bitched, and then suddenly Enes was back starting. Did that come from the top? Is he forced to play the centerpiece of the first big trade of the new regime? I don’t like that Mario is back starting with no explanation. Is that more about Perry and his Orlando connections? It’s been a long, uphill battle as the Knicks finally approach respectability, but they will never get there if they become the sort of organization that makes exceptions and decisions for non-basketball reasons.  

VERDICT: Have we established an identity? Has the culture changed?

The identity is coming.  While they’ve headed in the wrong direction in some key areas, and while the system is still a work in progress, you’ve got to consider one important point: the on-court identity of this team long-term is tied to Kristaps Porzingis, who has not played a game under his new coach. Once KP is back, you will see more defined roles, a more sensible rotation, and more consistency and chemistry.  

The culture is in an even better place. All Knicks’ fans really want, besides world dominance, is a team thatplays hard and tough. A team we can be proud of, even when they lose. I was proud of those young guys in that Nets’ loss. I was proud when they beat the Bucks. From an effort and energy standpoint, I haven’t felt disappointed more than once or twice this year.  Everyone’s working, everyone looks like they’re having fun — New York again seems like a place free agents will want to come to.

GRADES:

Establishing Identity & Changing the Culture – A-

Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits (F.O and Staff) – B+

Development of Individual Talent – B

Development of individual talent: Grading the Knicks progress so far

Mike DeStefano continues his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing. Read Part I here and Part II here. Let’s dive into Part III.

PART III:  Development of Individual Talent

Not the D-word again. We’re all sick of hearing about it. We see it all over #Knicks Twitter; read about it constantly; listen to Alan Hahn and Wally Szczerbiak discuss it regularly post-game; I hear it in my sleep and wake up screaming, “Please, Fiz, not another DNP, nooooo!”  We can’t escape it…so we might as well talk about it some more.

Quick facts:

  • Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas are the only Knicks born in the 1980s.
  • Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the third-oldest Knick; he is 26.
  • 26-year-old basketball players are still developing.

How are all these guys progressing? How is the staff – Coach Fiz, his assistants, and former First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson – doing in their quest to develop these young men into the sorts of players that can fill roles on contending teams? That superstar free agents would want to play with?

Let’s break it down.

YOUNG VETS

Tim Hardaway, Jr. – Coming into the season, pretty much anyone with an opinion about the NBA considered him one of the worst contracts in the League, despite his near 18 PPG last season. Well, this season he’s up to 22.2 PPG; his 3-point percentage has rebounded nicely (35.6%); he’s almost doubled last year’s career-high free throw attempts (from 3.1 to 6.1); and he’s averaging a career-high 3 assists per game. And there’s still a TON of room for improvement. The staff has done a great job getting him to this point; now they just need to get him to tighten his handle, play some defense, and cut down significantly on forced shots.5

Enes Kanter – Kanter looks like pretty much the same player he was last year, only better. He still doesn’t play defense, but his defense is arguably less putrid. He still can’t really hit a jump shot, but he’s shooting them more and with slightly better results. And he’s still a guy whose bread and butter is interior scoring and rebounding, which he’s doing better now than during any stretch of his career (save his first 26 games in OKC). One new development – he’s averaging a career-high in assists per game, and has already led the Knicks in assists multiple times. Not sure what more Fiz & Co. could do here.

For both Hardaway Jr. and Kanter, defense is the biggest issue, and I subscribe to the notion that defense is all scheme and will. The scheme works for other guys on the team, so…

REVIVALS

The one movie I’m looking forward to watching this holiday season is the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I’ll probably watch it a little bit differently this time around because when it gets to the Island of Misfit Toys, I’ll be thinking about these guys:

Noah Vonleh – I love him. He plays hard on both ends; he’s versatile; he has a burgeoning three-point jumper…he’s a poor man’s Draymond Green. Which got me thinking:

VonlehGreen

In other words: when Draymond was 23, he was a poor man’s Noah Vonleh.

Knicks fans should be thrilled about Vonleh’s resurgence…until we can’t afford to re-sign him this summer.

Emmanuel Mudiay – Just watch the video below. Do you think the Nuggets would’ve traded that guy for a washed Devin Harris and a 2nd-round pick? Well, they didn’t trade that guy. That guy was born in NY. Bravo, Fiz.

Trey Burke – Burke is interesting. I wrote a few weeks ago about how I thought his time in the rotation had come to an end, and while I was right about Mudiay surpassing him, I was wrong to suggest he might end up buried. He came back from his DNPs with a vengeance and since has been up and down. Compared to last year, his FG% and assists are way down and his 3P%, rebounding, and turnovers are almost identical; the only thing that’s noticeably improved is his FT%. I don’t see much growth here.

Mario Hezonja – Hezonja is equally interesting. From a fan’s perspective, he’s had a rough go of it this year, the highlight below excluded. But the Knicks have won four games since he became a starter, despite the fact that his minutes, numbers, and percentages are better as a reserve. What he has brought is athleticism, movement without the ball, and, if you ask Fiz, defense. Huh? Still, he’s the same streaky-shooting, turnover-prone, bad decision-maker he was in Orlando. Improvement on one end, at best.

HOME-GROWN TALENT

Allonzo Trier – If you didn’t like Trier coming out of Arizona, you’ve almost certainly converted by now. I’ll admit it – I didn’t like him AT ALL in college. I saw a chucker with no point guard skills. And to be honest, I’m not sure that’s really changed, but the skills he does have – attacking the basket, a cerebral mid-range game, a surprisingly strong 3-ball, and flashes of defense – are enough for me. He may never be the passer I want him to be (though we’ve seen a newfound willingness lately), and he may always take a bad shot here and there, but there’s a place for guys like him in this League. He will win Sixth Man of the Year one day. All that said, I’m not sure Fiz & Co. have done much to develop him. Based on Fiz’s comments earlier in the year, it seems the main thing they’ve done for him is they’ve gotten out of his way.

Damyean Dotson – Started the season like a bat out of hell after rotting away on Horny’s bench last year. Then, inexplicably, DNPs. But he got time in a blowout loss to Detroit, went off, and boom – 18 PPG and a combined +25 over his three games back in the lineup. Are there new aspects to his game this year? Is he doing anything differently since the DNPs? I’m not sure. We saw signs of this last spring; the difference is he’s getting the minutes (sometimes), and he has Fiz’s confidence (sometimes).

Mitchell Robinson – Here, I give the staff all the credit in the world. To have a guy that didn’t play organized basketball last year perform like a guy fans desperately want to see play more is a testament to his development. He’s getting better every day, and I LOVE that they let him play through foul trouble. His first big challenge as a professional is learning how to stay on the floor – letting him see every shot fake and figure out how to avoid the ticky-tack fouls that currently plague him will fast track his procurement of a larger role.

Kevin Knox – At halftime against MIL, he was 2-8. I, like most fans, worried that Fiz would pull him. After all, in the wins vs. New Orleans and at Memphis, he was yanked quickly after poor stretches. 16 total minutes. But this time, Fiz stuck with him, and Knox made sure that decision paid off:  26 points (including five 3s), 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. These weren’t empty stats, either. He had huge buckets to spark the run, and huger buckets when the game got close again. Both his shot and defense, at least in this one game, looked better than they did even in Summer League.

Frank Ntilikina – I don’t need to talk about Frank.  Between @JMacri, @DavidEarly, and more, Knicks Film School has all things Frank covered. The only new development? While Knox was breaking out against MIL in 36 minutes, Frank was cheering from the sidelines. DNP.

The Knicks’ coaching staff, particularly Fiz, is in a tough spot.  They have twelve guys on the roster that have to play. There are only 240 minutes to be distributed in an NBA game. You can’t just give each guy 20 minutes and call it a rotation, so it becomes an impossible puzzle to solve. However, the priorities should be clear:

Most Important:  Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson

Not Far Behind:  Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson

Everyone matters, but no one matters as much as these five. Their development this year is paramount. So it’s confounding that they are the ones constantly getting jerked around. Knox’s two-game, 8-mpg stretch. Dotson’s four DNPs.  Robinson’s quick hook from the starting lineup. Frank’s short leash and DNP.

Reasonable minds can disagree regarding how to effectively develop talent. After the Memphis game, Hahn made the conscious effort to remind fans that YES, you can develop from the bench. You can develop by watching other guys and how they handle certain situations. This is not up for debate. We as human beings develop through learning, and in the NBA, you learn in practice, in film study, and from the sidelines.

But it’s just as inarguable that people learn by doing. Experiential learning. You can’t become a good surgeon by simply reading medical journals and watching other doctors; you need to do some cutting of your own. You can’t become a good writer unless you’ve written and rewritten and re-rewritten hundreds and thousands of pieces, with varying degrees of success. There are people across every industry in high positions that did not study or earn degrees in their fields – they worked hard and learned on the job.

To the same point, you cannot become a good NBA basketball player without getting on the floor night in and night out against other NBA basketball players and putting what you’ve learned and practiced to the test. And 5, 6, 8-minute nights don’t cut it.

These guys need to play. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina need consistent minutes to adjust to the athleticism at this level. Mitchell Robinson needs to hack a hundred more guys and have a thousand more bad PnR passes thrown his way. Trier needs to see every kind of help defense so he knows where the right play is, and Dotson needs to learn how to create offense when his jumper is taken away. Watching will help with all those things, but not more than playing. And not instead of playing.

But what if they simply aren’t ready to contribute?  Won’t that harm their development more than it helps?”  This is a fine theory, but numbers suggest that these guys ARE ready to be relatively effective; they simply need the regular playing time to get in a rhythm and build confidence.  Look at these splits:

Frank Ntilikina

October 29.9 mpg, 8.8 points, 3.6 assists, 38.7% from 3, 101 ORtg
November 19.9 mpg, 4.3 points, 2.2 assists, 15.4% from 3, 78 ORtg

 

Allonzo Trier

20+ mpg 14.2 points, 4.1 rebs, 50.3% FG, 44.1 % from 3
Under 20 mpg 6.8 points, 1.8 rebs, 40.5% FG, 42.9% from 3

 

Damyean Dotson

20+ mpg 12.9 pts, 4.9  rebs, 47.5% FG, 39.7% from 3
Under 20 mpg 4 points, 1.7 rebs, 41.7% FG, 33.3 % from 3

(*Both Dotson’s and Trier’s numbers leap significantly at 30+ mpg*)

And it’s not only them.  Mitchell Robinson is shooting 64% from the FT line when he plays 20+ MPG vs. 45% when he doesn’t. Mudiay is a different player playing starters’ minutes vs. as a reserve. Check out Noah Vonleh’s career numbers: he’s shooting his best-ever percentages and sporting his best-ever ORtg and BPM now that he’s playing a consistent 25 minutes every night.

I’m a proponent of experiential learning, and this is where the Knicks’ have fallen short. The young guys, the guys we need to become either foundational pieces or asset-fetchers, will get better by playing. They will find it easier to get into a rhythm, see more shots fall, and see numbers improve by playing. They will become more confident, assertive, aggressive, by playing.

And if they struggle, who cares? Last I checked, winning wasn’t a priority this season.

GRADES

Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits (F.O and Staff) – B+

Development of Individual Talent…

  • Young Vets: A — A staff of James Naismith, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich couldn’t get those guys to play D. Can’t downgrade Fiz & Co. for that.
  • Revivals:  A- — The ascents of both Vonleh and Mudiay make up for the stalled development of Burke and Hezonja thus far.
  • Home-Grown Talent:  C+ – Harsh when you consider that three of the five (Zo, Dot, and M-Rob) have played well for stretches now. But each of the five could be further along – with more consistent minutes, with less flux in the rotation (chemistry is a thing, you know), with the installation of a more organized system, with more defined roles…These are factors that, if handled differently, maybe Knox would’ve broken out weeks ago and could’ve been building on that ever since. Also, Frank…
  • OVERALL:  B – The home-grown talent is most important, worth 60% of the grade. Luckily for Fiz & Co., as they pursue an A, this grade is NOT final. Consider it a first draft. There are 58 games remaining – plenty of time to rectify these issues. Compared to what we’re seeing now, I expect the post-All-Star rotation to be unrecognizable, both in minutes’ distribution and quality of play.

Leadership in Suits: Grading the Knicks front office so far

Mike DeStefano continues his four-part series on the main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are progressing. Read Part I here. Let’s dive into Part II.

Part II – Leadership in Suits

The importance of this component goes without saying. Every organization that puts a good product on the floor has strong leaders in the front office and on the sideline. It’s why the Celtics most recent rebuild lasted exactly thirty seconds, and why the Sixers went from, “The NBA needs to do something about this” to “Sh**, the Atlantic Division is suddenly STACKED” in just a few short years.

As with any organization, it starts at the very top. Say what you want about James Dolan, but history shows that he’s willing to spend, and recent history suggests that he’s willing to stay the hell out of the way.

Beneath him, we’ve got the two-headed monster of Steve Mills and Scott Perry; beneath them, Fiz; beneath him, a top notch staff of assistants that includes four former NBA players and two guys with NBA head coaching experience.

This group from top-to-bottom is well-respected around the league and has done a nice job turning this team around in the most important ways:

  1. The front office has stuck to its plan – they’ve held onto draft assets; they’ve taken calculated low risk chances on young talent (yielding multiple payoffs); and they are prepared to be opportunistic if the right deal presents itself.
  2. Any team Pat Riley has ever been associated with plays hard. Fizdale’s impact on the Knicks in this regard has been nothing short of transformative. They come with heart and toughness every night. It’s been decades since we could say that.
  3. Guys have bought in. This is more than just the heart and work ethic referenced above. Example: a couple of weeks ago, Emmanuel Mudiay took Trey Burke’s starting spot. Burke’s role in the rotation was precarious at best. Both of these guys are fighting to secure their futures in the League. Yet when Mudiay dunked on Garrett Temple’s face in Memphis, no one was happier than Trey Burke. Big deal – it’s because he’s back in the rotation and got the assist. Keep watching the clip. The guys who lost their minutes to the Mudi-Trey tandem? They’re going nuts on the bench. It takes a special type of leader to get competitors – guys fighting for minutes, reps, reputations, money – to support each other this much, so credit Fiz & Staff for doing a masterful job in this regard.

So this component gets an A, right? Not quite.

First, I’m a hard grader. Deal with it.

Second, from the outside looking in, fans are seeing some mixed messages. Contradictions. These are the sorts of things that, if they persist and build (cue the melodrama), could erode a franchise from the top down:

“I want to get up and down the court.”  The Knicks are 19th in pace.  Last year they were 15th, and the year before, playing in the archaic Triangle Offense, they were 17th.

“I want to share the basketball.”  And, I want to have an unselfish ballclub just like [the Knicks’ championship teams].”  These Knicks are dead last in assists per game, according to ESPN Stats and Info. And while assists, or lack thereof, aren’t necessarily indicative of selfishness, the dismal numbers combined with the amount of bad/forced shots taken on a regular basis would suggest they are not playing unselfishly.

“There’s not going to be anybody that dominates the ball for us … One-second hold.  If you can’t get it done in one second, get off it.”  Trey Burke is 16th in the entire NBA in average seconds per touch (according to NBA.com) at over 5 seconds per. Allonzo Trier is third among rookies who’ve played at least 15 games at almost 4.5.

“But none of that will start without us being a great defensive team.”  25th in Defensive Rating (worse than last year) and 24th in opponents’ PPG. To be fair, Fizdale also talked about being more aggressive defensively – more deflections, more steals. They are up in both steals and opponents’ turnovers per game.      

“Everything is about, ‘You keep what you kill.’”  In other words, minutes will be earned.  For the most part, leadership has enforced this.  Whoever’s playing the best will play.  But what did Dotson do to lose his spot to Hezonja, who’s been playing bad at best?  Is it something that’s happening at practice?  Were the Knicks low-key disciplining Dot for something?  Is it political?

“We’re not putting all our stock in wins and losses right now…”  This year is all about player development, right? RIGHT?

*Stats below are based on the 5-game stretch immediately prior to Detroit last night*

ELDER KNICKS MPG FUTURE KNICKS MPG
Tim Hardaway Jr. 37 Mitchell Robinson 13
Enes Kanter 32 Kevin Knox 16
Trey Burke 27 Allonzo Trier 20
Frank Ntilikina 21

We know numbers like these can be misleading. There are so many variables at play here. For example, Mitchell Robinson fouled out of a game in 9 minutes. He, alone, is the reason he didn’t more run that night.

But:

  • Those ELDER KNICK MPG are significantly above their season averages. Two of them will not be on the team next year.
  • Those FUTURE KNICK MPG are below season averages. All of them, assuming Trier signs a multiyear deal when he gets converted, will have guaranteed contracts next year.
  • In the New Orleans and Memphis games, Kevin Knox played a TOTAL of 16 minutes. Frank Ntilikina played a TOTAL of 27. That’s 43 minutes combined. Over two games.
  • Enes Kanter played 41 minutes by himself against Memphis.
  • Damyean Dotson isn’t present in the chart above. As alluded to earlier, he hasn’t been in the lineup. Four consecutive DNPs prior to Detroit. He is also under contract next year.

Granted, I’m writing from an outsider’s perspective. I see what fans see. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. I hear the press conferences and read interviews; I pay close attention to the front office’s plans and the staff’s basketball philosophies; and then I look for it all to manifest in their actions.

Some things take time – we understand that – but some things should be evident immediately. The front office made a concerted effort to get younger – youngest in the league – and more athletic, so why are we still playing at such a slow pace? Every basketball player has the ability to pass the ball and move without it, to play unselfishly and keep the offense from stagnating, so why aren’t they doing it? These aren’t talent issues, so what’s the explanation? Why have the organization’s leaders said one thing only for the world to see another?

Whatever the reasons may be, the Knicks are in a good place regardless. For all my criticism, Mills, Perry, and Fiz have done a fine job thus far. Fans who think they’re f***ing everything up are blinded by their decades of Knick misery. Fans who think they’re infallible and have operated perfectly are blinded by premature excitement that we’re finally back on a path to contention. They’re not failing, but they still have work to do if they want that A.

Part 1: Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits – B+

The big things are in place. Patience, eyes for talent, and the blossoming of a culture predicated on athleticism and a never-say-die attitude. Some might say I’m nit-picking with the criticism above, but if fans can see them, Kevin Durant can see them.  Other free agents can see them.

Hopefully, the staff is operating with enough transparency at practice, in film study, and on the sidelines that these contradictions don’t exist to the players. Dotson told Rebecca Haarlow yesterday that Fizdale had been very communicative about the DNPs, which is important. And all the players, even the ones struggling for PT, seem engaged and enthusiastic when they’re on the bench, so my guess is outsiders like me make a bigger deal out of this stuff than they do.

Leading by example: Why Courtney Lee has an important role to fill before being traded

Michael DeStafano kicks off a four part series on the main components of “tanking” which is the word often used to describe the process of developing young players at the cost of winning.

There’s a right way to develop, or tank, and there’s a wrong way. In this four-part series, DeStafano will look at four main components that can help us evaluate how the Knicks are performing from a player development standpoint when wins and losses aren’t the best indicator.

Leadership in Uniform
Leadership in Suits
Development of Individual Talent
Development of Culture and Identity

This is Part 1


Leadership in Uniform

Despite the recent 5-game skid and the fashion in which the team has lost, there’s actually been a lot to feel good about this year for Knicks’ fans: we’ve got young talent on the roster; the honeymoon in Golden State seems to be over; and Duke’s Big Three all look great.

We can feel good, despite the losses. We’re supposed to lose.

But for all the positives – the rookies, Frank’s defense, Dot’s emergence, THJ’s step forward, Noah Vonleh’s awakening and Trey Burke’s recent re-resurrection – the bright future we want to believe is just around the corner is NOT a given.  There are real problems here, problems that could affect both the development of individual talent AND the ability to establish a culture that free agents will find attractive.

For me, it’s all about leadership. The problem right now is we have none.

Hardaway’s good at the emotional part, getting people fired up after big shots and clapping his hands to show he’s ready and excited to play defense. But leadership is also about demonstrating the right way to play, and let’s just say this isn’t one of Timmy’s strengths. Young guys are impressionable, and when they see their “leader” trying to perform beyond his capabilities, it can be contagious and result in bad habits.  We are already seeing this THJ Effect a little bit in Allonzo Trier’s recent shot selection.

Kanter seemed like a natural fit for this role six weeks ago. Then he lost his job. I won’t pile on, but tantrums on and off the court are not what we’re looking for.

Besides, both guys are in their mid-20s. No matter how hard they are willing to try, neither has the experience to be the sort of leader a roster this young needs.

The same can be said for Lance Thomas, despite his age. The problem with the lovable hustler as captain is that players don’t really buy it. They respect ability and production – what have you done in your career? – first and foremost. Lance has all the personality traits to be a good locker room presence, to offer enthusiasm and advice from the sideline or in practice, and to set a good example with his understanding of defensive principles, but the ideal leader for this youth is someone accomplished and capable (on both ends), someone with just the right blend of age, experience, and ability.

This is why the Knicks miss Courtney Lee so much.

Lee has been to the playoffs five times on four different teams. As a rookie, he started in the NBA Finals opposite of Kobe Bryant. He’s been in winning cultures, and he plays the right way. He doesn’t take bad shots. He works on defense. He does all the little things. He’s never been a star, but he knows his role and does that – and only that – to the best of his ability.

It’s not enough that he’s on the bench in a suit. These Knicks, particularly the ones that can’t legally consume alcohol, need him on the court in practice and games. Sure, he could affect winning – his presence could help them win a few games – but more importantly, he could show guys, with his voice and his example, how to be a true professional. He has the type of presence that would, I don’t know, keep teammates engaged enough to run the correct play out of a timeout, or eliminate on-court confrontations after failed rotations, or make guys think twice before playing hero ball. As someone who’s spent significant time as both a starter and reserve, he could help guys deal with demotions and crises of confidence.

Leadership doesn’t work the same when you’re in street clothes. These Knicks need his example on the court, in addition to any wisdom he may share on the bench and in practice.

This is Vince Carter’s role in ATL. It was Vince’s role, along with George Hill and Garrett Temple, last year in Sacramento (Fox and Hield this year? Those vets helped). It’s Dirk’s new role in Dallas.

The Knicks need at least one of these veteran leaders. This season is about development of both individual players and team culture. The players will learn, one way or another, in practice and through game reps (which is why the recent allocation of minutes is inexcusable), but the culture part requires more than playing, more than coaches saying, “This is how we want to play, and this is how you carry yourself.” It requires someone, like Lee, to show guys the way and call them out when they aren’t following.

He needs to be traded sometime soon. Ideally he would’ve played these first two months, helped this team establish its identity, and then vacated his minutes by December. But now, when you see the youth struggling, the sloppy, undisciplined product on the court, and the overall lack of a steadying presence, the better alternative is to get him back in the lineup and let him play into February.

Rumor has it he’s running again. That’s great news. This rebuild, if it’s going to be a short one, needs him running under the bright lights in orange and blue as soon as possible.

GRADES

Leadership in Uniform – C

Regarding Lee, it’s no one’s fault that he’s been hurt. But he’s the only veteran leader who can lead by example on the roster. Lance was never enough. Remember that year when we thought we’d turned the corner? The effect ‘Sheed, Camby, JKidd, and Kurt Thomas had? One or two of those type of players would help. The guy we sent home and then stretched could’ve helped, if not for all the drama.

There is still time for the Knicks to find the right balance between veteran leadership and developing the youth, but given the players on the roster, a lot rests on the return of Courtney Lee.