Remembering Allan Houston and “The Shot,” 20 Years Later

I remember the basement well.

We moved into the house in the summer of 1998. It was right after the Knicks ended what was probably the most memorable 6-year playoff run any NBA team ever had without winning it all.

1993 had the Dunk, and Charles Smith.

1994 had everything.

1995 had the finger roll.

In 1996, we took a game (a game!) off the 72-win Bulls.

In 1997, PJ Brown flipped, and the league flopped.

Then, in ’98, Jeff Van Gundy became a rag doll.

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What if the Knicks don’t get the first pick?

Oh, hello there. Welcome to 6th grade math! Please put away the headphones. Now.

I can still see them.

We can do this all day, really.

Thank you. Now class, on each of your desks is a quarter. No, you don’t get to keep the quarter. On the count of three, I want all 28 of you to flip it. 1…2…3…flip!

Now raise your hand if you got heads.

(15 hands go up. Wait…scratch that…14. One kid was picking his nose.)

That’s half of you. Now everyone who got heads gets to flip again. Everyone else, keep my money where I can see it. Ok…1…2…3.

Raise your hand if you got heads again.

(Seven hands)

OK, last time…flip.

Who got heads a third time?

(Four hands go up)

That’s it? Only four of you managed to get heads three times in a row? Out of 28?

You all suck.

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If KD comes, it’s time to “skip steps” and start trading…even Zion.

Everyone is excited about the draft lottery, but what do the Knicks do with their pick if they land KD?

If Kevin Durant comes to the Knicks, he may not ask them to start “skipping steps.” He isn’t the same person as LeBron James who probably insisted the Cavs trade Andrew Wiggins and more upon his return to Cleveland in 2014. KD seems a bit unique. He went to the 72 win Warriors after they’d just beaten his Thunder. And remember when KD asked to be called “The Servant” instead of Slim Reaper?

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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 numbers behind Mitchell Robinson’s breakout rookie season

On September 25th, 2017, the Knicks pulled the trigger on a franchise-altering trade, ending the Carmelo Anthony era, as they sent the declining star to Oklahoma City. In return, the Thunder sent over Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 second-round selection via Chicago.

Two full regular seasons have passed since that trade, and only one of the pieces involved in the deal remains with the team they were acquired by.

That piece would be the once-nameless Bulls second round pick
— which was used by the Knicks on a lanky seven-footer named Mitchell Robinson.

Let’s dive into some of the numbers behind the 21-year old’s surprisingly stout rookie campaign.

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A Reason for Hope?

After reading an insightful (if depressing) piece on the Knicks offense, Jonathan Macri was inspired to take one more look back at whether this season gave us more of a reason to be hopeful than we thought.

When I was a sophomore in college, my older brother had just bought an ownership stake in a Manhattan bar called McFadden’s Saloon. If you’ve been drunk in New York City at some point in your life, you’ve probably been there (although it’s just a likely that you don’t remember it).

I figured this was a chance for me to fulfill every undergrad’s dream of serving alcohol before I was old enough to drink it, but my brother had other ideas. Never missing an opportunity to teach me a valuable life lesson, he gave me a job alright…as a bar back.

In the city, bar backs are often undocumented workers just happy to be getting paid. I soon found out why it wasn’t the most desirable of jobs, busting my ass until 6 a.m., lugging around cases of beer, wiping up vomit, emptying ashtrays1, all for no more than what amounted to minimum wage.

On my last day before mercifully being promoted to DJ six months after I started, the sewer system in the bar backed up and the kitchen started overflowing with literal poo. Despite my protestations, it would not return from whence it came, and needed to be disposed of manually. Thankfully I was afforded a pair of gloves and a bucket. It was an ignominious end to the toughest job I’d ever have, but one that toughened me up for the road ahead.

It also provided me with the perfect analogy for this Knicks season.

I’m pretty sure David Fizdale knows how I felt that final night. This Knicks season was six months worth of turds, except in the form of basketball games, or something vaguely resembling them. I’m not sure who had it tougher: the man brought aboard to coach a team full of rookies and retreads, or me for choosing to constantly come to his defense.

His job was difficult for obvious reasons. My job, on the other hand, was uniquely challenging for a different reason. Unlike that night at the bar, when I knew exactly where the filth was coming from, this season forced me, and every other Knick fan, to constantly ask whether Fiz was the cause of or solution to New York’s problems.

Thankfully, someone else recently tried to answer that very question. Over the last two weeks, @AmicoDallas presented a superb two-part Posting & Toasting series on the Knicks offense this year. He uses a ton of video to analyze it in painstaking detail and attempts to figure out what went wrong and who, if anyone, was to blame.

If you haven’t already, stop reading this and check out the pieces (don’t worry, I’ll wait). In short, Amico seems to arrive at the conclusion that contrary to popular belief, Coach Fiz actually did have an offensive system predicated on consistent yet basic principles of basketball. By the end, he draws two basic conclusions:

  • Fizdale’s offense was simple, but that was likely by design, and was perfectly capable of providing advantages that could and often did lead to positive scoring opportunities, but…
  • There wasn’t nearly as much improvement throughout the year as you’d have liked to see, and the team’s nominal point guards never got markedly better at either seeing the passing opportunities right before their eyes, being willing to make those passes, or both.

Amico posits some solid theories in regards to the latter point, and while he offers the perfectly valid notion that Fiz simply didn’t put enough emphasis on his point guards finding the open man, he seems to come down more on the side of the team’s ball handlers simply not improving as much as you’d expect.

I tended to agree but wasn’t sure, and wanted to see if there were any numbers that could help me. I started my digging by going to the NBA.com’s stats site and looking at the team’s on/off numbers. What I found was not altogether surprising:

Screen-Shot-2019-04-20-at-2.56.04-PM

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

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

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

Screen-Shot-2019-04-21-at-12.59.51-PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen-Shot-2019-04-22-at-12.02.30-PM

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

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

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

Should Knicks fans be jealous of the cultures in Brooklyn and LA?

For most of the second half of the season, if you scrolled NBA Twitter or hit up one of the dozens of websites that cover the sport, odds are you’ve seen an article about the Nets or Clippers.

It probably touched on how these two franchises, neither of which had much business being in the playoffs this season, let along making noise once they got there, had developed two of the best cultures in the league. Yesterday, each had their first home game of the postseason on the same night, a fitting culmination to their shared success this year. They lost by a combined 43 points.

Is this a bitter piece of commentary from a petty, jealous Knicks fan? Well…maybe a little bit. But not really. Truth be told, I’d give anything to root for a team that so clearly “gets it,” which Brooklyn and LA obviously do. Fact is, every one of those articles is not only deserved, but warranted. The Nets and Clippers are the best stories this NBA season has had to offer. Neither should have won a game in either of these series, and they both did. They’ll probably each win again.

But last night was a good reminder that a pristine culture only gets you so far in a league that was, is, and always will be dominated by stars. It’s not clear that any of the Sixers big guns even like each other, but that didn’t prevent Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris from combining for 60 points on 32 shots. Kevin Durant may already have one foot out the door, but his 38 points counted all the same.

In the end, to win it all, you need talent to do it. Many champions have a strong culture too, but it’s no substitute for a game changer, or three.

What’s the point here? Simple: most of the media commentary we’ve seen regarding New York putting itself in position to acquire star players, either this July or soon thereafter, has been with a wink and a nod towards the fact that they aren’t a team like the Nets or Clippers, and likely never will be. This, frankly, is bullshit.

For one, the Knicks have seemed to improve their culture a great deal, but I’m not about to sit here and make that argument. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen how this team has fought this year, albeit feebly. It felt different than in years past, to me at least. Also, when culture does start to set in, it’s usually hard to see in year one, which this Knicks regime of Scott, Steve & Fiz is barely through.

Here’s the bigger point: What the Knicks have done in opening up $74 million in cap space in the same summer when so many of the NBA’s elite will enter free agency may reek of arrogance, but in a league where stars still move the needle more than anything else, their actions deserve respect. That’s doubly true given how the knock on this team for 20 years has been that they’ve continuously failed to put themselves in a position to take advantage of the fact that they play home games in the Mecca of Basketball. They’ve finally changed that. Yet, instead of the type of praise their crosstown rivals have received, it’s been more of the same derision. It’s annoying.

So you’ll forgive me for experiencing the slightest bit of schadenfreude as I watched last night’s games. The downtrodden can only take so much, after all.

With the bittersweet end comes a new beginning

Miss this season? Are you nuts? Yeah…a little bit.

Prior to walking into the Garden for the final game of the season on Wednesday, if you’d asked me what my prevailing emotion of the night would end up being when I left, the best guess would have been relief.

It’s the only logical response in the season we just experienced, one where I’d visit NBA.com/stats on a near daily basis, scrolling through different categories, filtering by various date ranges, mining for data, any data, that would indicate things were trending in the right direction. During the month of February when the team was bordering on a top ten defense, it felt like they’d won a damn playoff series. Seeing them never fall to the very bottom of the barrel in net rating was an actual, honest-to-goodness source of pride for me on more than one occasion.

It’s been that kind of a year.

Oddly enough though, as the last game devolved into a blowout and the finish line drew closer, relief was the last thing I was feeling. I wasn’t thankful the year was ending. I wasn’t happy about the fact that (knocks head on wood) it would only get better from here.

Instead, I was, ever so slightly, unfathomably, inconceivably…

Sad.

No, it doesn’t make any sense. The purpose of being a fan is to root for a team that wins games. It’s kind of the point.

I’m sure that, for this very reason, there’s a healthy segment of the city that hasn’t tuned in much this year, or for that matter, most of the last several years. I think about these people sometimes and there’s a small part of me that admires them. They probably spend their winter nights doing all kinds of cool shit. Like going out to dinner, playing Risk or having orgies. Do people still have orgies? I wouldn’t know because I’m busy watching Emmanuel Mudiay shoot mid range fadeaway jumpers by the dozen.

Whose loss is that, really?

No, I don’t have that choice because I long ago crossed that threshold of fandom where I was all the way in. The Knicks were so exciting for so long during so many of my formative years that I never stood a chance at being anything other than what I am. That’s probably the case with you, if you’re reading this, the day after the end of the season that any sane person would have wanted to leave in the past the second it concluded, or started for that matter.

Not me. Despite the fact that I’d strongly consider giving an appendage (or at least a toe) for the Knicks to be competitive again, there is another part of me that will miss this year.

It’s simple, really. Since Patrick Ewing’s last game as a Knick, this was as rudderless an organization as existed in the sport. Even before I became an attorney, I was always great at selling myself on bullshit when it helped me get through the day, but even I couldn’t convince myself that there was anything much to look forward to. It’s what made those years so hard; it wasn’t just losing – it was pointless losing.

This year felt different. Kevin Knox might have been the worst heavy-minutes player in the league, but every travel, step out of bounds or wild foray into the paint bizarrely felt like a step in the right direction. He was the most raw example of a roster full of players who carried with them at least the promise of improvement, and in the case of Knox and Mitch and maybe one or two other guys, really significant improvement if everything breaks right.

People often ask how I had it in me to sit and watch every game of the worst season in franchise history, and the honest answer is that it was pretty easy, at least in comparison to years past. For as much as I’ve yearned for a winner, all I’ve ever really wanted as a fan since Ewing left was to regain the ability to hope. This season provided it.

It also played out with the lowest stakes imaginable. Every time one of these kids had a breakthrough, it felt like a pleasant surprise. Every Mitch block, every Knox three, every Trier iso…it was like found money. Most people see a penny on the sidewalk and keep moving. Knick fans know better.

Is this a product of subsisting on bread and water for too long? Of course. These good vibes are the ultimate result of Knicks fan PTSD. For a competent franchise, a year like this is a necessary evil stuck in between high times. For the Knicks I’ve known most of my life, a 17-win season played mostly by relative children has been a cause for celebration.

So yeah…there’s a part of me that will miss it, especially because of what’s likely coming around the corner. The stakes, it would seem, are about to be increased tenfold. Losses will matter again, and there will be real consequences when stuff goes wrong. Things are, by any reasonable definition, about to get better, but also a lot more complicated.

Winning is hard, and when you’re expected to win, it can get even harder, especially in this town. Ask any Laker fan how much fun this season was. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll be exploited by a league getting smarter by the day. And the Knicks track record is against everyone else is, umm…not the best.

So yeah, while I’m excited, I’m also nervous as all hell. I want to believe they have enough intelligent decision makers in place to avoid a similar fate as LA, but really, I have no idea. For as much as I’m looking forward to finding out the answer, I’d be lying if I said a small part of me won’t miss this. It’s crazy, but then again, not much about following this team has ever been sane.

On that note, here’s to the lovable bunch of losers who made this year more bearable than it had any right to be. I’m not sure this was a season to remember even for those involved, but for reasons I still can’t fully explain, it’s not one I’m likely to forget anytime soon.

Now let the real fun begin. Giddy up.

 

(Super) Mario Hezonja: Cuban Linx or Fool’s Gold?

Half of us’ll try to make it, the other half’ll try to take it
So many fake half real freedom-build
Born to science my alliance analyzes
Wild surprises, keeping my eyes wide to this
The unfortunate, laying in mountains counting
With jewelry on, can it be the next team house the horn
Chill dun, just for real ones, light the lye up
I hate to have to tie the next guy up
Pay attention to 1010 WINS, Wu blends
Now I’m steering you to truth, buckle up
Now who’s a legend?

Raekwon – Rainy Dayz

Wondering why I posted these lyrics?  Well, maybe there’s no relevance, but maybe these words will stick in Mario Hezonja’s mind as he enters an important summer.

Up until last night’s absence due to an illness, he had a mini 3 game run that included a triple double, a 30 point effort, and a near-30 point effort. As my fellow teacher Mike D. mentioned in his piece, he showed offensive versatility that was rarely unleashed during his tenure with the Magic and gave fans an impression of a Super Mario. His play recently was so sick, but even he couldn’t escape the wrath of the flu.3

But is it a Cuban Link or Fool’s Gold?

Bettin’ bricks up at the Knicks game with Cubans from Biscayne

Ghostface Killah2

Look, evaluating this season is hard. For the first time in team history, the team came into the season without expectations to win. This did not happen when the team drafted Ewing. It did not happen during any season of the Isiah or Scott Layden era. The teams in the 60s and 70s were not as bad as we are now. From the moment Game 1 began in October, the only question was whether we’d win 15 games or 25 games. 30 wins would equate a championship this year.

The life cycle of a losing season is generally predictable. Sometime after the NBA Trade Deadline or NBA All Star Game, most teams in the doldrums immediately shift to development mode. The equation is simple: more minutes for young players and reclamation projects, less minutes for veterans. As the games don’t matter, the expectation of the games sink. Opposing teams, unless in playoff contention, often play down to their inferior competition. As a result, teams in developing mode often win unexpectedly against opponents that are more talented.3

In the Knicks’ 6 year playoff drought, the organization shifted into development mode at various inflection points. The 2013-14 Knicks competed through the end of March. The 2015-16 & 2016-17 Knicks began their shift in the early portion of March, although both teams featured a largely veteran roster. Last year’s Knicks shifted quickly after the Kristaps Porzingis injury in early February. The 2014-15 Knicks were an outlier and began the shift in early January after the JR Smith & Iman Shumpert trade.

As for the 2018-19 Knicks, the season was a wash beginning the evening of Game 1. Sure, we faced tough competition early on in the season, but wins and losses didn’t matter. The Knicks played with house money this season. Wins were not a necessity, but rather an unexpected benefit realized within the focus on player development. However, if development is the focus over the course of the season, can box scores truly evaluate performance, especially in games that don’t matter?

The Knicks historian says:

As Knicks history reminds us, Mario Hezonja’s performance is not unique by any stretch. Take the following player who had the following stat-line for the last 10 games of the 2006-07 season:

14.7 ppg, 6.3 rbs, 5.9 asts, 1.9 stls

If you guessed Mardy Collins, then you know your Knicks history. What people may not tell you is that those numbers were over 44.2 minutes/game. As expected, his sophomore season never achieved the highs he enjoyed in the end of his rookie campaign. His stat line mainly stagnated and even shot a paltry 32% from the field. He spent 2 more years in the NBA before jumping around overseas. He’s currently playing for Frank’s Ntilikina’s old team in France.

In recent years, Westchester Knicks alumni Langston Galloway & Trey Burke had their moments with the Knicks during development mode. Galloway’s scoring proficiency led him to the NBA All-Rookie 2nd team despite playing 1/2 the season. Burke only played 36 games, but average 12.8 ppg on a ridiculous 50% from the field, including an even more ridiculous 56.6% from long 2. And just as expected, neither player was able to maintain their torrid performance in the following season. Galloway could not remain proficient scoring off the bench and Burke was not able to shoot well from the mid range. After the 2015-16 season, Galloway signed a 2 year, $12 million contract with the Pelicans and subsequently signed a 3 year $21 million deal with the Pistons. While becoming a solid three point shooter, he has yet to replicate the spark he showed with us.

A better comparison to Hezonja’s situation was Derrick Williams. Like Hezonja himself, Williams hadn’t lived up to the hype of being the #2 overall pick, behind Kyrie Irving, in the 2011 NBA Draft. After playing for the Timberwolves & Kings, the Knicks signed him to a 2 year $10 million deal at the age of 24. Outside of getting robbed of $750k of jewelry partying, Williams had a somewhat solid season for the Knicks. He took advantage of his athletic ability but aggressively cutting to the basket. He had plenty of highlight dunks during the season. In his final 19 games of the 2015-16 season, Williams averaged nearly 12 ppg on 50% from the field and showed flashes of being a rotation bench player. Despite his performance with the Knicks, he only received a 1 year $5 million contract from the Heat and was waived before the trade deadline.

Which Mario do we have?

To be honest, the last few games felt more like Mario with a star or Mario with a P-Wing than anything. A temporary jolt that seems quite exciting until the star wears off or Mario crashes into a flying goomba.

Before having this nice stretch, the maddening aspects of Hezonja’s game cloud his potential. Despite his ability to drive into the paint and score, he’d settle for terrible shots and shot only 41.2% from the field so far. Despite his ability to shoot from three, he’s only shooting 27.8% from three, largely due to questionable shot selection. Add in the questionable decision making, the lackadaisical play on defense, and inconsistency throughout the season and you begin to know why Mario’s approaching his second bout of free agency.

This run is also nothing new either. For a 17 game stretch during the middle of the 2017-18 season, Hezonja averaged more than 14 points/game and 1.7 steals/game. He also had a similar statistical stretch4during the final 10 games during the season. The ability is there, but can he harness those skills consistently over a full season?

Furthermore, these runs (especially this season) both occurred during the stretch of the season where his teams were not competing for wins and were prioritizing development. Will Mario’s PG skills translate next season when games are more competitive and outcomes actually matter? If the team is on a winning mandate, can it afford to absorb some of Mario’s poor decision making? Patience is thin within the Knicks organization and fan base when there’s a goal to win games. Young & talented point guards such as Mark Jackson & Rod Strickland were replaced by veteran-laden guards that provided consistent production to help the team win.

Perhaps Raccoon Mario is what we’d dream for, but perhaps we’d be satisfied with Fire Mario or even just Super Mario.

The Future of Mario:

Despite Mario’s overall performance, he still remains an intriguing free agent target. Not one that’s the priority (obviously), but someone that can potentially fill a role with one of the lower exceptions. Mario made $6.5M this year with the non-taxpayer MLE. Because the Knicks enter free agency under the cap, the $6.5M turns into $4.5M. Hezonja is less likely to take a cut especially if a team can offer him a contract around $5-6M on a one year deal. At the same time, the idea of pairing Mario with veterans opens up the possibility of a pay cut to join a winning team.

I expect Mario to sign a one-year contract for about $6 million with another team to show he can replicate his performance. Based on recent history, many of our role players (Kyle O’Quinn, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, etc.) all settled for one year contracts at the same or lower value of their salary with the Knicks. None of the players mentioned lived up to their performance after leaving the Knicks. Let’s hope Mario changes his trajectory.

 

 

Part III: Leadership

As the season draws to a close, Jonathan Macri completes his assessment of the 2018-19 campaign by grading the highest levels of the organization. In case you missed it, be sure to check out Parts I (the players) and II (the coach) as well.

As we approach the two week mark for Avengers: Endgame – sure to be the coolest three hours of my summer5 – I’m reminded of the moment that got us to this movie in the first place, when a misbegotten Star Lord cost half the universe its lives.

About two thirds of the way through Infinity War (Spoiler alert for the seven people who haven’t seen it), the delightful Chris Pratt, playing an intergalactic hoodlum turned hero, had himself a moment he’d like to forget. The Avengers, or at least the half of them that had been jettisoned into space, had come up with a kick-ass plan to remove the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos’ big purple mitt. It involved loads of CGI wizardry that stuck the Mad Titan in a compromising position where he no longer had control of his bodily functions. Pretty freaking ingenious.

To finish him off, all the Avengers needed to do was remove the damn glove. They were thisclose to doing exactly that, until Pratt lost his shit because he realized Thanos had killed his girlfriend (who also happened to be Thonos’ daughter – long story). After repeatedly punching him in the face, the big guy snapped out of his trance, retained the gauntlet, and kicked everyone’s ass. You know the rest.

If your theater-going experience was anything like mine, the crowd reacted like the city of Cleveland as JR grabbed his rebound at the end of Game 1 of the 2018 Finals and immediately started running for a shot of Henny. It may have been the ultimate Nononononowhatareyoudoingnoooooo moment in cinematic history.

Here’s the crazy thing though: we knew it was coming. Marvel had announced the sequel to this film long before A:IW even came out. We knew Thanos wasn’t going to lose…and yet every person who saw the film was devastated when it didn’t happen. Not only did we buy into the fantasy, but we bought into the fantasy within the fantasy.

All Pratt needed to do was keep walking, and boom: universe saved.

Except he couldn’t help himself.

As those punches were landing, I was reminded of a feeling that has become all too familiar in my lifetime, one deep inside my core.

It’s the feeling I get any time I take out my phone (or, back in the old days, turned on the television or radio) and instantly know that the franchise I’ve rooted for since I was nine has done something stupid. It’s the feeling Lakers fans got a taste of on Tuesday night, when Magic Johnson decided to quit his job without telling anybody. I reacted to the Shams Bomb like every other Knick fan alive: Thank God it’s not us.

Because it has been us, so very, very often. We’ve seen those Tweets too many times. The feeling we get when we open them is what’s at the heart of #LOLKnicks. It’s the one responsible for all of our insecurity complexes, the reason we take every good happening with several grains of salt. It’s why I do what I do on this site – it’s cheaper than therapy, and healthier than scotch.

The first time I remember the feeling, I was 17. I was at the house of my first serious girlfriend, opened up a copy of the NY Post that was on the table when I walked in, and saw the news: Patrick Ewing had been traded. I tried for a bit to pretend like I didn’t care about this team far more than I ever would for the girl, but she saw through that pretty quickly. She was pissed; I was distraught.

It’s not the fact that he was traded that had me bummed – a possible move had been discussed for weeks, and the team badly needed a reboot. No, it was the return they got that had me perplexed. Even as a teenager, I knew that trading Ewing’s expiring contract for Glen Rice – a 33-year-old who played the same position as the team’s two best players – was odd.

It was a directionless move if there ever was one. It’s like someone told the team to shit or get off the pot and they couldn’t make up their mind, so they got up and lost their bowels all over the bathroom floor. We’ve seemingly been cleaning up the mess for 19 years.

Perhaps not coincidentally, James Dolan had taken over the running of the team the previous season. The messy missteps that have come during his tenure have been well documented, whether they be on the court, via trades or signings, or having nothing to do with actual basketball altogether. I’d go through them in more detail, but I’m writing this at 8:30 on a Sunday morning and it’s too early for a drink.

Point is, there have been enough of these moves since the Ewing trade that we should not only know an LOL Knicks moment when we see one, but expect it before it hits. Like the inevitable plot device that got us to the next Avengers, it shouldn’t be a matter of whether they’ll fuck up, but simply when, and how soul-seething will it be.

And yet, inexplicably, I entered this season with hope. Hope that we could pull off the glove, and somehow make it from October to July without adding another moment to the list. More than anything – more than developing the youth, clearing cap space, instituting an offense, or anything else – whether the organization could soberly walk that nine-month tightrope while touching its nose and not falling flat on its face would come to define this season.

Why? Because the fate of the Knicks’ universe depended on it.

For reasons only slightly less explicable than the Avengers nearly defeating Thanos, one of maybe the best dozen players ever seems to want to spend the second half of his prime playing basketball in New York. The rumors have been swirling since before training camp began. While nothing in this league is ever certain, for once, all the Knicks needed to do was not fuck things up and they might come out on top.

Did they do it? It depends on how you look at it, but as we assess how the organization as a whole did this season, one thing is for certain: Scott Perry did his part.

The basketball lifer from Detroit brought with him a reputation of professionalism and basic competence, two things often sorely lacking at MSG. His appointment had me hopeful, as did the fact that James Dolan had stayed out of basketball operations since vetoing a Kyle Lowry/Iman Shumpert trade because his backside still hurt from the Bargnani deal. #WhateverItTakes

Over his first year on the job, the closest thing to an LOL Knicks moment we had was when Joakim Noah and Jeff Hornacek got into it at practice one day. That’s small potatoes around these parts. On the plus side, he navigated the Carmelo Anthony trade saga about as well as could be expected, bringing back the pick that would become Mitchell Robinson. Most significantly, he added no future salary and finished his first year with more picks in the cupboard than he started with – the Robinson pick plus two more for Willy Hernangomez, and then one dealt for Emmanuel Mudiay.

(BTW, for all the hand wringing over the Hernangomez trade, Oh-Billy finished this year in Charlotte averaging seven points and five boards in 14 minutes a game and had the lowest net rating on the team of anyone who played more than 800 minutes.)

It’s way too early to judge the basketball decisions Perry made this season, but so far, so good. Knox is what we should have thought he would be. Mitch is a revelation. Allonzo Trier is an NBA player, ceiling TBD. Ditto for Kadeem Allen, who is signed through next year.

I just wrote a whole bunch of words about the coach Perry hired, who, if nothing else, has the team feeling like their best selves despite all the loses.

And then there’s the KP trade. It’ll likely take years before we can fully evaluate it, but the return was praised by most objective observers.

More importantly, the deal was very un-LOL Knicks in two very important ways. Primarily, it saved the organization from a bevy of distractions this summer in more ways than one. Less obvious but perhaps more importantly, it seemed to represent a tacit attempt to add to the culture through subtraction.

Ah, yes…there’s that “C” word again.

I feel the same way about team culture that my 17-year-old self did about getting laid: it seemed like everyone else was getting in on the action except me, and I was fairly certain that would never change. It seems like everywhere you turn, there are articles and anecdotes about the outstanding culture of Team X or Team Y, and I’m convinced that I’ll never read such an article about the Knicks.

It’s tough to argue that the juju on a team with the worst record in the league is on the up and up, but for as much as they stink, there does seem to be a different vibe around this particular group:

So Perry gets a small but shining gold star for his efforts. Steve Mills? When Howard Beck summarized the feelings of anonymous execs around the league that “[t]he front office leadership also draws skepticism from rivals,” it was a polite way of saying that people question why Mills still has a job.

While it’s not necessarily an unfair critique, whatever system the Knicks front office duo has put in place since Perry came aboard seems to be working. For the first time in a long time, all the decision makers are on the same page. Whether Mills has been involved in every move or no moves, it’s all been under his watch as much as Perry’s. If one gets a passing grade, so should the other.

Which brings us to the man in charge.

The feeling I had the moment I opened Twitter and saw that March 9 TMZ clip was the exact one I had hoped to avoid this season. It was Star Lord and Ewing and Isiah and Bargs and Oakley and every other moment I’d like to forget all wrapped into one. It was why, when Beck noted in the aforementioned piece that those same anonymous execs had doubts about the “generally poor reputation of owner James L. Dolan,” there was nothing I could do but nod silently.

What we can’t know, at least not until roughly 80 days from now, is whether Dolan’s inability to just keep walking will make one iota of difference to the Knicks summer plans. The effect that his general presence has on the franchise is something I’ve pondered more than any other topic this season. It’s why I’m not holding my breath for that positive article about the Knicks culture, and why for all the KD talk, I remain unwilling to allow myself to fully believe in the fairy tale.

If you go by the opinions of players and execs around the league, it won’t matter, at least not where Durant is concerned. Maybe we’ve hit the turning point. Maybe this is the start of an era when people will want to come here, and one occasionally curmudgeonly owner really doesn’t have the effect some would have us believe. It bears repeating: just because certain people clearly want Dolan’s existence to make more of a difference doesn’t mean it actually will.

It also doesn’t mean it won’t. There’s simply no way to know for sure.

Here’s what I do know: if July doesn’t go the Knicks way and the entire basketball world is once again laughing at our expense, a part of me will always wonder just how much a ten second interaction with a fan had to do with it.

And another part of me will be mad at the first part for ever believing there was another ending to a movie that’s been 18 years in the making.

Either way, the show must go on.

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 2, 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.

Unfiltered Thoughts on the Knicks Season, Part II: David Fizdale

Continuing with his end of season recaps, Jonathan Macri tries to take an objective look at someone he’s supported all year: Head Coach David Fizdale.

In case you missed Part I: The Players, find it here.

When I was in 8th grade, my best friend asked me for a favor.

There was this girl he liked, and she agreed to go on a date with him, but her parents couldn’t know about it so she had to go out with a friend. The girl’s friend didn’t want to feel like a third wheel, so my friend needed me to ride shotgun.

Being 12 years old with a bowl cut, I would have gone on a date with an English Mastiff, and didn’t put up much of a fight. I was curious, though, about what I was getting myself into.

“All I know is that she’s really nice.”

Even as a pre-teen, I knew what this was code for, so I mentally prepared myself as best I could.

I did not do a good enough job.

We live in an increasingly PC world, so rather than give an explicit description of my companion for the evening, I’ll just say she was soup that ate like a meal and we’ll leave it at that. I did, however, learn a valuable life lesson that evening: no matter how bad you think it’s going to be, it can always, always be worse.

Which brings us to this Knicks season. As I wrote last week, this year was always going to be ugly. But was it supposed to be this ugly? Um, no.

I fully believe that, internally, the Knicks thought they could have a Hawks-type campaign – one that started rough but smoothed out into a team playing .500-ish ball towards April. If that’s the case, then shouldn’t wins and losses factor into judging this season?

Let’s consider Kevin Knox as we try to answer. When the Knicks lottery pick has been off the court, New York has a negative 3.2 net rating during those 1718 minutes. That’s quite a bit better than the negative 13.1 rating in the 1998 minutes he’s played, and is smack dab in the middle of the 32-win Pelicans (-1.2) and 28-win Hawks (-5.3) in points outscored per 100 possessions.

It’s not an exact science, but here’s betting that if the Knicks had their top draft pick slumming it in the G-league, I wouldn’t have needed to expend nearly as much lipstick this season, and Wilbur would be few pounds lighter and a tad less stinky.

That, of course, would have been useless, not only because there still is a very real incentive to tank, but because Knox’s minutes at this level will theoretically pay off in the long run. As my personal Yoda reminded me this week when we were having a discussion about Mitchell Robinson, the only way to get better is to play:

Should Fizdale & Co. be held accountable for Knox’s struggles? Of course they should to some extent, and we’ll get to that in a second. Regardless, it seems silly to judge a coach (or a front office, for that matter) on the win total when over 70% of the minutes have been played by dudes who couldn’t get into some Manhattan clubs (because they’re under 25).

So if we’re not judging the season on the team’s record, let’s instead hold the Knicks to task and assess them on the two things they themselves proclaimed this year would be about: development and culture.

Deveopment

The Big D isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds.

Is it enough that certain young players have improved as the season has gone along, or does the fact that the collective product is still tough to watch matter more? They say a rising tide lifts all ships. In the Knicks case, the opposite has happened…a few individual ships are looking strong, but the tide is often barely above the ocean floor.

It’s also tough to pinpoint who gets credit for what, which is what Mr. Gaines and I were really trying to get to the bottom of. Are the coaches the reason that Mitchell Robinson no longer jumps at the sight of every shiny object? Or for Allonzo Trier getting to the line 7.2 times per 36 minutes since the All-Star break, as opposed to 5.0 before? Or for Damyean Dotson being one of the most efficient pick and roll players in the league and nearly doubling his assist rate since the calendar flipped to 2019?

On the contrary, how much blame should Fiz get for Frank Ntilikina being the worst shooter in the league this season? Has playing Luke Kornet, a net ratings darling, so infrequently this year hinder his potential growth? Do the one or two comically bad turnovers Kevin Knox still gets every game fall on Fizdale’s shoulders?

Even putting aside these issues, assessing the developmental success of this season is difficult for one major reason:

The key young players on the roster who either vastly exceeded (Mitch & Zo) or comfortably exceeded expectations (Dot, Kornet and Kadeem Allen) all kind of feel like house money. That’s great…as long as the bank isn’t about to default on your mortgage. There’s something unsettling about the sure things being anything but sure, even if you’ve picked up some nice surprises along the way.

That’s where Knox, Frank, and to a lesser extent, Smith Jr. come in.

Consider that when New York made the KP deal, those three were still considered the best young assets on the Knicks, as Zach Lowe noted in his post-trade deadline piece. Since then, Smith Jr. was inconsistent and is now hurt, Knox followed an abhorrent January with an even worse February, and Frank played 32 minutes total.

Injuries obviously aren’t the coach’s fault, and to his credit, DSJ did show some improvement in the short time he was here, cutting his turnover percentage this season from 20.3 in Dallas to just 13.5 in New York while upping his assist percentage from 24.2 to 32.2. Knox has even rebounded to somewhere close to his Rookie of the Month form, putting up a .413/.422/.739 slash line since March 1 (he was at .403/.384/.640 in December) to go with a 6.8 assist percentage (same as December). He’s also creating more on his own, as 57.1 percent of his March field goals were assisted, as opposed to 67.8 in December and January.

And then there’s Frank. I recently argued that his struggles are not primarily the fault of the head coach, but it has come under Fizdale’s watch, and that fact can’t be denied. There must be a modicum of blame, and maybe more than that.

All in all, even if the results didn’t exactly come from where we thought they would, this team will have somewhere between four and six young guys it feels good about heading into the offseason. As the head coach and team brass have said, part of development is figuring out who’s going to stick around and who isn’t. It’s incredibly rare that everyone gets to come along for the ride.

So let’s give a tentative “check” in faint, green pencil under the development column. Which brings us to the dreaded “C” word…

Culture

Why do I think New York’s brass wanted to end up in the neighborhood of 30 wins this season? Because there was one absolute, drop-dead necessity that had to take place this year: the Knicks as a franchise needed to be able to go into the offseason with their head held high, and not limp into July, hat in hand, begging for someone to take their money. They needed to feel good about their players, their program, and their progress. In other words, arguably the worst culture in the NBA needed a reboot.

If you’ve listen to the players themselves, that much has already happened. The one guy who seemed not to be on board is now gone (although there may be more to it than him simply not believing in the team’s progress) and the ones that are left seem to have bought in.

Is this simply youthful naivete? Does it even matter? As a wise man once said, it’s not a lie if you believe it. Fizdale wears his version of the truth across his chest like a badge of honor, and he has those around him believing it wholeheartedly as well.

While it isn’t always clear from the outside what Fiz emphasizes and what he doesn’t (more on that in a sec), the fact that we haven’t heard a peep about playing time from anyone outside of Slappy McGoo is telling. It indicates that players know what it takes to get minutes, and if they’re not getting them, they either agree with the decision or are simply accepting it for the greater good. The team also plays hard, and while the final score often doesn’t indicate it, the Knicks are almost always in games either early or late.

He’s also won over the media, which is important in this market whether we like it or not. As Chris Iseman reminded me on the podcast last week, David Fizdale hasn’t snapped at reporters once throughout this entire soul-seething campaign, which is kind of amazing.

This is all good stuff. It’s also necessary evidence for Fiz supporters like myself, because the health of the basketball culture he’s instituting on the court is far less clear.

On the Court

While there are certain things the Knicks head coach this year was never going to be able to improve – shooting, for one, which goes hand in hand with assists to some extent – certain numbers are inescapable.

For one, Fiz has unfortunately channeled his inner Patrick Swayze for much of this year. The corner three is the most efficient shot in basketball and the Knicks have taken proportionally fewer of them than all but two teams in the NBA. Meanwhile, on defense, teams get away with taking the lowest percentage of midrange shots in the league when they play New York. There is an urgency lacking on parts of many nights that one would expect to be present more consistently under a new coach. As we saw on full display many times this season – most recently against the Raptors – if you move the ball against the Knicks, you’re going to score, probably pretty easily.

It all goes on Fizdale’s docket. Every bit of it. They haven’t been as good as Atlanta this season, and the shot profile on either end isn’t as clean as Brooklyn’s was when Kenny Atkinson took over.

Here’s an important question that hasn’t been asked enough though: Would Atkinson, Pierce or anyone else have been able to do better in a similar spot, with this roster and these requirements to get minutes to the youngest members of it?

I’m dubious for the same reason we don’t know whether Fizdale’s X’s and O’s are any good: he was handed a roster almost completely bereft of shooting and shot creation in a league predicated on shooting and shot-creation. It’s why the low assist numbers have never been of much concern to me. With the youngest roster in the league, anyone who expected to see some Spurs-style, “beautiful game” offense this season was always dreaming.

Did you enjoy watching guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox play this year? Guess what? That comes with a price: a simple offense without a lot of moving parts. To some, this is maddening, and it certainly isn’t very pretty to watch, but it’s also an offense that has generated a higher frequency of open looks than any team outside of the Warriors, Spurs or Celtics. Sadly, the Knicks are the worst shooting team in the league this year by a country mile.

As I wrote earlier this season, even though their simplistic offense opens up some good looks, they miss out on the best looks – corner threes as noted above, as well as “wide open” shots4 and easy looks at the basket2 – but again, that’s the price of youth. It’s also the cost that comes with running a system built for a premier shot creator/ball handler and instead having Moe, Larry & Curly at your disposal3.

It’s also a system that has yielded some analytics-friendly numbers.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are 10th in the league in frequency of shots taken at the rim. They’ve also gone from taking the 3rd most mid-rangers in the league last year to the 14th most this season – tied with Denver, and less than the Celtics, Sixers and Warriors. They’ve also gone from the 29th to 23rd in attempted threes. Perhaps most impressively, after finishing bottom-five in free throw rate over the last five seasons, they’re 12th this year.

They’ve also gotten better since the trade. They went from dead last in corner 3’s before January 30 to 18th since, and from 13th in frequency of shots at the rim to 8th. On defense, they moved from the least midrangers forced to 9th from the bottom.

Small signs, but signs nonetheless. In the end, even after a year that at times made my pre-teen trip to the movies feel pleasant in comparison, Coach Fiz comes out arguably unscathed. If nothing else, his profile around the league doesn’t seem to have taken a hit.

(And yes, despite everything I’ve just written, there will be people who continue to kill Fizdale for the mere fact that he refused to quit Emmanuel Mudiay. I get it, as shown by my thoughts from Part I. He’s also one of 11 guards to be averaging over 19 and 5 per 36 minutes on at least 45% shooting4. It’s not a bad list. The Knicks are also 3 points per 100 possessions better when he sit. IDK. Kill the loyalty if you want, but it’s not enough for me to downgrade Fizdale’s performance by itself)

Will what he’s done be enough to help the Knicks land someone special in July? I’m sure that while their targets will certainly consider Fizdale’s Year 1 performance, their perception of the organization as a whole will be a far greater determining factor.

That’s what we’ll tackle in Part III of my end of season series…next week.

All stats through Tuesday, April 2

Unfiltered Thoughts on the Knicks Season, Part 1: the players

In the first of his three-part series assessing the Knicks season, Jonathan Macri takes a look at New York’s roster…and doesn’t hold back.

If someone asked me now to look back at my 23-year-old self, cut the bullshit, and honestly rank the reasons I decided to go to law school, they’d appear in the following order:

3: Helping people with their problems (7% of the reason)

2: I thought it would be a good place to meet girls (11.5%)

1: Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, the theme music from Law & Order, and like a dozen scenes from A Few Good Men, but this one more than any other (81.5 %):

The scene is flawless. It’s peak Cruise, and arguably Moore’s best moment in the movie5. When I watched it, all I wanted was to get a job where I could stand up and yell in someone’s face, preferably about my knowing the law and them not.

Fast forward 12 years and 2.5 careers later. It turns out being a lawyer isn’t actually that fun or cool, which should really be a disclaimer before this movie begins2. Luckily it wasn’t a total loss because I learned a valuable lesson – one that has single-handedly gotten me through this rectal exam of a season.

Like Lt. Kaffey says, what you believe doesn’t matter when you’re a lawyer; it’s all about what you can prove, or if you’re a defense lawyer, knowing which shit to throw against the wall and in what order to throw it.

After watching the Baby Knicks try to learn to walk all year, the wall3 is completely brown. I’ve trotted out a lot of arguments, mostly because I feel that a first year coach with the youngest roster in the NBA collectively deserves the benefit of the doubt, but also because I’m a fan, and as a fan, I just find it easier to think the best.

So all year, I’ve done what a good lawyer does: take the facts and make the best of them. This has often required me to bite my tongue in service of the greater good. When the ship is going down, the band must play on. And played I have, with enthusiasm, grace, and I’d like to think a little bit of dignity. It has been an honor.

But, well…I’ve watched every game of a 15-win season and the last lifeboat is leaving, so fuck it:

Here’s what I really think.

Mario Hezonja

Just an unbelievably maddening player.

Sometimes you watch a guy and can clearly tell he stinks. We had one here. His name was Andrea Bargnani. Sadly, the Knicks owner brass that traded for him thought watching film of a player before acquiring him was considered tampering.

Back to Hezonja: he doesn’t stink. We’ve seen enough on both ends to know as much…which is why he’s been perhaps the most frustrating player on the whole damn team. For every “Ooo!” there’s three head-scratchers and one head-slapper.

I continue to think he’ll have a relevant moment in the league at some point, likely on a smart team with shooting, which is why there’s a tiny part of me that wouldn’t have minded seeing him back. That ship seems to have sailed though, as he’s been a DNP-CD the last two games following a missed defensive assignment last Thursday vs the Raptors. It got him yanked from the game and seems to have been the final nail in his coffin as a Knick.

(just please don’t tell the Croatians I said anything)

Emmanuel Mudiay

My stance on Emmanuel Mudiay this season has made me feel like the friend in the middle of a breakup who tries to support both parties.

“Wait, you had lunch with him? Did you guys share a bag of dicks? I hope you shared a bag of dicks.”

It hasn’t been fun.

Has Mudiay been good? No…no, he has not. But he hasn’t been terrible either. You could even argue that he’s played a bigger part in more wins this season than anyone on the team4. He just turned 23, had a markedly better campaign than either of his last two, and as I’ve argued all season, if he takes one more leap, we’re talking about a useful player here.

And then you watch a game like Monday’s win against Chicago, where if you told me he had was being paid to throw the game, I legit would be like “Yeah, ok…that makes sense.” He was grizzly in all the ways that Bad Mud is usually grizzly, forgetting things like how to dribble, the dimensions of the court, the fact that there are four other players on his team that are also allowed to shoot, and that legs are best used to hold us upright instead of as display items sprawled across the floor. He had the worst plus/minus of anyone on either team except for Brandon Sampson. I could be Brandon Sampson and you wouldn’t know it.

For every game Mudiay has played a part in leading to wins, it feels like he’s had two or three of these types of affairs. When you add this to the fact that it’s almost impossible to be a helpful guard in this league without being either a solid defender or a reliable 3-point shooter – I don’t see him becoming either one – it makes you wonder what the benefit is to keep watering this plant.

You could talk me into giving him a near-minimum contract, because continuity is an undervalued asset in the NBA, but that’s about it.

Dennis Smith Jr.

A lot of the questions people have about Mudiay also come up when you’re talking about Dennis Smith Jr., but there’s four important differences between the two:

  1. Smith has at least shown the ability to be a really good defensive player. That he doesn’t display this ability more often leaves me 50% hopeful and 50% terrified.
  2. He can get to the rim (and above it) as well as all but a few guys in the league.
  3. His bad games don’t induce the need for Tums.
  4. He’s only in his second year.

So yeah, there’s reason to be hopeful. I really like the way he’s run the offense since he’s come over, and his decision making hasn’t been nearly as bad as advertised. Even the shot seems to be an above the neck issue, and I think he’ll be able to get it to league average eventually.

Still, something just seems a little…off about Smith, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. The back stuff is absolutely a concern to me. If the Knicks really did sign KD and got Kyrie or Kemba too, even if they dumped Smith for a middling return (Phoenix’s second rounder, for example) I don’t know that I’d be terribly heartbroken.

That would assume, of course, that they could re-sign…

Kadeem Allen

…on the cheap, which would be fantastic, because he rocks. Seriously. Name one reason this dude can’t be one of the best backup point guards in the league based on what we’ve seen this year.

You can’t, can you? If the shot is even semi-real5, he’s exactly what you want in a third or fourth ball handler. The collective urgency of the defense ratchets up a few levels whenever he’s in. Sign me up.

Lance Thomas

I love Lance Thomas, and there’s nothing you can say or do to change that.

Allonzo Trier

Yay! Someone we can all enjoy together!

Iso-ball gets a bad rap around these parts because a) Melo played here and b) we have eyes. Treir is a different kind of cat though – a homeless man’s Harden who gets to the line at will while hitting a robust 39% from deep. He’s also got some old-man craftiness to his game, bobbing and weaving until he gets a sliver of daylight.

As his lobs to Mitch have shown us, his passing isn’t a lost cause, and he’s quick and slithery enough on defense to make you think that he might not be a train wreck on that end as he gets older.

I don’t think the “Future 6MOY” stuff is outlandish. Of everyone on this roster outside of Robinson, he’s neck and neck with Knox as the guy I’m most confident is still here next season. Speaking of which…

Kevin Knox

After the second game of Summer League, I went live and said that in order to make the leap from bottom feeder to contender, a team needs to get lucky in the draft at least once and end up with a difference-maker from a spot where those types of players are usually gone. I felt like the Knicks had accomplished exactly that.

Little did I know that I was talking about the wrong guy.

We’ll get to Mitch in a bit, who is basketball caviar. Knox, on the other hand, is like bad Chinese food. You know it’s not good but you keep eating anyway, not because you’re hungry, but because you had a craving.

Knox satisfied a specific craving the Knicks had: a big wing who can score in a variety of ways, and we’ve already seen the vague outline of that player at 19 years old. His finishing will get better as he gets stronger, and I’d bet on him scoring over 20 a game with above average efficiency a few times in his career. He’ll be fine.

But it looked like we were getting something better than “fine” after Vegas. His abhorrent defensive awareness and lack of playmaking and shot creation make me think that was a bit presumptuous.

DeAndre Jordan

I’m totally cool keeping him if it means his buddy KD is coming with him. The Mitch Mentor stuff is nice too.

That said, maybe starting next year, when the games matter again, he could occasionally, you know…jump. Like, in someone’s way. When they’re rolling down the lane. Unimpeded. Repeatedly.

DJ’s minus 19.0 net rating in New York is a promising sign for the possibility that he’s a legit candidate for the room exception6. Other than the Lakers doing dumb shit, I’m not sure I can see any team paying him more than that to be their starting center.

Noah Vonleh

Between his midseason downturn and recent injury, it’s easy to forget Vonleh might have been the Knicks’ best player through the first half of the season. He felt like someone who had risen just above the “good stats, bad team” threshold, at least when he was locked in on defense over the early part of the year.

Then the trade deadline happened, and Vonleh fell off a cliff. It’s hard not to wonder whether a player who’s had team after team give up on him got in his feelings a bit after seeing his name pop up in trade rumors.

New York will put him on the free agency back burner, which is fine. He’s competent, and the shot might be real, but we’re not talking about someone who isn’t replaceable. That said, if he wants to be here, that has more value to the Knicks than it does for most other organizations. Room Exception Candidate # 2.

Luke Kornet

He is absolutely an NBA player, and I kinda think he can be a rotation guy on a good team.

It’s not an accident that of everyone on New York’s roster who’s played at least 500 minutes, he’s the easy leader in net rating. You probably can’t play him at the four long term, but he’s savvy enough on defense that you can survive minutes with him at the five. His shooting at the five is a legit problem that opposing defenses need to game plan around.

Frank Ntilikina

I just wrote 2000 words on the Ntilikina situation, and probably another 20,000 before that this season, and, well…I think I’m all out.

Maybe it’s like Carrie says, and you’re only allotted a certain amount of tears/words per man/player; and I’ve used mine up7. That’s probably it.

In short, I still believe in him, and probably always will.

Damyean Dotson

I love me some Dot. Like, love me love me some Dot.

He’s far from perfect. He’ll probably never be that upper echelon level shooter who defenses have to account for all the time, a’ la JJ Redick. If he doesn’t get there, just how much value he offers on offense is questionable. His off ball defense is low key some of the worst on the team, and there’s a real chance it won’t get much better.

I don’t really care. He’s the only guy on this team besides Allen that you can consistently depend on to navigate a screen. He’s shown some friskiness with the ball in his hands of late, and his 1.11 points per possession on 113 opportunities as a pick and roll ball handler is elite. He’s a monster rebounder for his position.

Best of all, if you break his career down not into two seasons but three – rookie year, pre-All-Star break and post-All-Star break– we’re looking at someone who has made leaps and bounds at each checkpoint.

  • Rookie: 44 games, 10.8 min., 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, .447/.324/.696
  • Pre-ASG: 49 games, 24.7 min., 9.3 pts, 3.5 rbs, 1.4 asts, .422/.366/.714
  • Post-ASG: 18 games, 32.9 min., 15.0 pts, 4.1 rbs, 2.7 asts, .424/.386/.800

I’m all in.

Mitchell Robinson

Speaking of all in…

Here’s the space where I’d usually include all kinds of stats that back up just how crazy Mitchell Robinson’s rookie season has been, but you’re smart and have seen all those, so we can skip that part.

(Ok, one stat: Mitchell Robinson is the first player in history – not rookie, player – to average four blocks per 36 minutes in a season where they played over 1000 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage as high as his .691. The next closest eFG% on the list is .606, from Hassan Whiteside in 2015-16)

Instead, I’m going right to the thing that I’d probably consider a hot take if it wasn’t already so blatantly apparent to me: Mitchell Robinson is a star

This fact would be apparent even if I hadn’t spent the past quarter century watching, studying, and generally obsessing over this sport, because you don’t need experience watching a sport to know when you’re seeing a star. You just know.

I don’t know exactly how to define “star,” in the same way that I don’t know how to define good team culture, or the perfect sandwich. But you know it when you taste it, are around it, or with Mitch, simply witnessing it.

In more games than not that he’s played this season, Mitch was the one player who stood about above the rest in a way that doesn’t require analysis. It just requires a working pair of eyes.

We have seen the light. And it blocks out the sun.

Check back later this week for Part 2: David Fizdale

 

The Blame Game: On David Fizdale and his role in Frank Ntilikina’s lost season

With the unsurprising news dropping today that Frank Ntilikina is done for the year, it’s a good time to reflect on just how responsible he is for a season gone awry for the Knicks young guard.

Let’s start here, because starting anywhere else would be disingenuous:

I like David Fizdale.

I like him for a lot of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with basketball. He just seems like someone I’d enjoy grabbing a beer with. This probably shouldn’t matter as much as it does in my assessment of his coaching. Or maybe it doesn’t matter enough. More on that in a bit.

More than anything, I like David Fizdale because I’ve watched this team lose a lot of games over a lot of years, and I’ve seen coach after coach look like they’re out on their guys, the season and their job before the All-Star break. Larry Brown looked like he was out before camp broke. Don Chaney looked and sounded so miserable that I’m convinced he and that prick principal from Dangerous Minds are the same person. Jeff Hornacek made the color beige seem exciting in comparison.

When you’re a fan hanging on by a thread, searching for reasons to believe in bigfoot things might get better, if the guy in charge doesn’t even believe it, well…that’s pretty fucking depressing.

David Fizdale has been the opposite of that. He is the best type of salesman – the one who won’t only sell you the blue ray player that’s been sitting in the corner of his stock room since last Christmas, but who’ll make you think you got a great deal in the process. God bless a man who can walk in front of a group of reporters and say, with a straight face, that a team mired in a stretch of 7 wins and 46 losses just had its best practice of the season, as he did last weekend.

That doesn’t just take charisma. It takes balls. The Knicks needed a man with more than a bit of both to head up the operation this season, because it was always going to be ugly.

But even in an acknowledged tank job, a) it wasn’t supposed to be this ugly (more on that next week) and b) everyone was supposed to come out in one piece on the other end.

With today’s news that Frank Ntilikina is done for the year, that is officially not going to be the case.

One thing I can say for certain after this season is that having one foot on Frank Island and another in Fizdale’s bandwagon is a lonely combination, filled with more self-loathing than is usually associated with Knicks fandom. It is not recommended.

Other than obvious stars, I don’t know that I’ve ever believed in a Knick as much as Ntilikina. He represents all the things we’ve wanted so badly through the years – prototypical size, unselfishness, defense, intelligence, boyish good looks8 – and at a position that’s been filled with ineptitude, imposters or Pablo Prigioni since Clyde was traded to Cleveland.

Because of the offense he wants to run, Ntilikina was quite decidedly not what David Fizdale sought in a point guard. That much is pretty clear at this point. But hiring Fiz to run a particular style of ball was the intention of Scott Perry and Steve Mills from jump street. They knew exactly what they were signing up for, and telegraphed as much when they told an anecdote before this season about attending a Laker game last year and deciding they needed to get more athletic.

This was always going to be an offense predicated on ball handlers being able to break down a defense and opening up shots less with finesse and more by brute force.

Enter Emmanuel Mudiay.

There have been many critiques levied at Fiz, but most come back to the same place: his dogged insistence on playing Mudiay through thick and thin, seemingly at Ntilikina’s expense. To many people, after all the preseason talk of defense and ball movement, it proves he’s either clueless or full of shit.

Doesn’t it?

Of all the questions that have been asked about Fizdale this season, this is the fairest. It calls into question the very essence of teambuilding: is it better to set a tone by employing players who are already good at the trait you want to emphasize, or do you give weaker guys repeated opportunities to fail as long as they’re trying their best?

On one hand, I want to give Fiz the benefit of the doubt here. If he prioritized playing his better defenders, Mitchell Robinson never would have gotten an opportunity to learn on the fly, and Kevin Knox probably sees the floor for all of 13 minutes this season (and Trier ain’t far behind).

On the other hand, sometimes enough is enough. Mudiay may be a reasonable facsimile of the type of guard Fiz envisions running his offense, but there comes a point where you know what you have in a guy, and we reached that point with Mudiay a while ago. Yet the leash on him continues to stretch the length of the court, as it has for all of the young Knicks.

All but one, that is.

And that, more than anything, is what has so many in the fan base annoyed. Why the double standard? Why the seemingly harsher treatment for the only guy consistently doing the things Fiz himself professed were important to the development of this team? And to benefit someone with a very limited, not particularly high ceiling?

Fizdale told us why, again, and again, and again.

This was never about Frank vs Mudiay…or Frank vs Trey Burke…or Frank vs Dennis Smith Jr…or Frank vs anyone. It was always about Frank vs Frank, or more specifically, Frank vs the version of Frank Fiz so desperately sought.

Repeatedly, Ntilikina committed the one sin Fiz absolutely would not tolerate: he was hesitant. Frank knew that to play, he needed to shoot. He started to force it, his shooting got worse, and a vicious cycle began.

Next, Fizdale tried tough love, and it worked…for a hot second. The three-game stretch Frank had after his three-game benching was the best of his young career. The next game, vs Charlotte, he left early with an injury, and watched from the bench as Emmanuel Mudiay had perhaps the best night of his career in leading the Knicks to victory. Is it a coincidence that another downward spiral started from that point forward?

Ntilikina shot 28% from the field over the Knicks next nine games, which included another benching, this one on Christmas day. Then, after Frank missed three games with an injury, he bounced back with a six-game stretch where he was the head-and-shoulders leader in net rating amongst Knick regulars, the last two of which were starts. It looked like he had turned a corner. Maybe, after everything that happened, Ntilikina had gotten to a place where he could toe the line between being true to himself and being the guy Fiz wanted.

That was over two months ago. He’s played 32 minutes since then thanks to the groin injury he suffered in that final start vs Miami. They ended up being his last minutes of the season. And we are, of course, left with questions.

Was it Fizdale’s initial demotion from the starting lineup way back in November that hastened Frank’s shooting woes? Maybe, although he was 29% from the field and 17% from deep in the five games prior to his demotion.

Should Fizdale have known that the change would further shake up Ntilikina’s confidence? Maybe, although the results following the later, week-long benching would seem to indicate the opposite.

Was it wrong for the coach to prioritize playing a highly imperfect guard who happened to be better suited to run his offense of choice, even if it torpedoed the team’s defensive ceiling in the process? My guess is that Fizdale would have loved nothing more than to keep playing Frank and eek out a few more wins, but swallowed his pride and did otherwise because he thought it was more important to get his players used to playing in his offensive system – a system where there is zero room for hesitancy.

This has led many to claim that Fiz doesn’t care about defense, which never made any sense to me and still doesn’t. Anyone who’s coached on a championship staff knows the value of defense…when you’re trying to win games. That was never the goal of this season, or at least not above development. Does playing a better defender over a worse one impact the culture in such a way as to inspire poorer defenders to up their game? This would seem to be the philosophy of many, but I’d just as soon argue that giving bad defenders the chance to improve is an equally valid path, especially when they’re trying hard, as the Knicks have largely done this season.

The bottom line is that Frank’s increased presence on the defensive end would have been great for the bottom line this year, but the long-term gains would be uncertain at best.

So what should Fiz have done? Benched Tim Hardaway Jr. instead of Frank back in November? Try selling that to the locker room. Move Knox to the four? We’ve seen him get manhandled in that spot all year. Insert Frank back as the starting point guard when it became apparent Mudiay was who we thought he was, offensive preferences be damned? That’s exactly Fizdale did back in January, albeit due to Mud’s injury.

Then Frank got hurt. And now we’re here.

It’s our instinct to keep asking these questions because it’s impossible not to look at Ntilkina’s season and try to find someone to blame. Fiz became a natural target because he’s the guy trotting out the turnstile who makes a half-dozen head scratching decisions every game. I get it, especially when the alternative is to look at the delightful kid who does nothing but try his ass off and play the right way and say “it’s your fault.”

The sad fact is that Frank Ntilikina is quite literally the worst shooter in the NBA who didn’t come out of the gate like we would have hoped. Some of that has to go on his shoulders.

I still believe in him, of course. How could you not? I mean, look at that smile…

I just don’t know if it’s going to happen for him in New York.

The reality is that Ntilikina was drafted to play in an offense very different than this one. That the man who drafted him was fired 10 days later is an unfortunate part of that reality.

He can function in this system, in a role slightly different than the one originally envisioned, as Fizdale talks about in the clip above. As the coach has alluded to repeatedly, Frank and DSJ should theoretically make beautiful music together…if our French son can hit is shots. Maybe that can happen here. Maybe his confidence isn’t so shot that it requires a change of scenery to resuscitate. Maybe surviving the summer and starting next season on the Knicks roster will restore Frank’s faith that, yes, the organization who drafted him does still want him around.

Or maybe not.

A lot will depend on what happens in July, or, better yet, what the Knicks’ brass thinks will happen in July, and whether they’ll need every ounce of cap room available. The best chance to trade Ntilikina might be on draft night. That’s over a week before free agency begins.

And just how confident should they be? I’ll have more thoughts on that soon.

In the meantime, I will probably be the only one who remains neither in the “Fire Fiz” camp, nor the “Frank stinks” one. It’s a lonely place to be.

But hey, at least I got a kickass blue ray player to keep me company.

A Knick Fan’s Spiritual Guide to the Offseason

These are tense times for supporters of the Knicks. With arguably the most pivotal offseason in franchise history now three weeks away from getting underway, fans may be tempted to turn to a higher power to help guide them through the difficult months ahead. Our own Jonathan Macri offers some spiritual guidance in an easy to use Q&A format…

I’m not a very religious person. Can I still use this guide?

Yes, although you are probably going to hell.

What if I don’t believe in hell?

You’re a Knicks fan. Hell exists whether you believe in it or not.

It seems like God hates us. How else can you explain what we’ve had to deal with for the last two decades?

Contrary to popular belief, God is actually a Knicks fan, He’s just been taking some time off for load management.

Is there a benefit to watching any more games this year?

Many religions believe that acts of sacrifice are necessary for a positive experience in the afterlife. Some of these sacrifices, like Muslims fasting during Ramadan or alter boys assisting a priest in the rectory, can often be quite painful. Certain sects of Buddhism have practiced self-immolation – arguably the ultimate in painful sacrifice – for centuries. So yes, watching games may indeed have some benefit.

Is repeatedly watching Emmanuel Mudiay dribble into traffic and put up contested 15-foot fall-away jumpers more or less painful than lighting oneself on fire?

What a horrible thing to say. Did you see the Laker game? Mud has been a revelation this year.

Wait…Fiz, is that you?

Sorry, new phone…who dis?

Is a future with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson the closest I will get to heaven?

Almost certainly.

Which possibility is more likely to exist?

Let’s start with the 14% chance that the Knicks get the first pick. From there, we can add in a few percentage points to account for the possibility that a team in some undesirable destination wins the lottery, the Knicks get the 2nd spot, and Zion’s people strong-arm him to New York2. So let’s up it to 18%. If we put KD’s odds of coming at 50/50 – more than fair – that takes us down to 9%. Then it’s on Kyrie, who is a literal crazy person. I’ll give it a one in three chance he wants in at that point. That leaves us at 3%. Getting back to the original question, I guess we’ll call it even.

What if I can’t endure any more Knicks games in their totality…does watching highlights of the games count as “church,” and might this have some benefit?

It depends on the highlights. Simply watching Mitchell Robinson highlights is akin to walking into church during the Eucharist, chugging the wine, grabbing the contents of the collection basket and then leaving. God would frown upon this. Highlights must include at least four Noah Vonleh post-ups, three Allonzo Trier isolations, two Hail Mary’s and one Our Father to receive credit.

If I show up to Madison Square Garden or a JD & the Straight Shots concert and start chanting “Sell the team,” is this heresy, and will I be smote for my evildoing?

Possibly. Turning your back on Dolan might very well be akin to turning your back on Jesus Christ himself.

The parallels are there. Most obviously, they each got to where they are in life by pure genealogical chance. Jesus didn’t “earn” the right to be anyone’s Lord & Savior any more than Dolan “earned” the Knicks. There’s a reason that, in Psalms 2:13, Jesus states “No, no, no, no…the guy with the hammer is my stepdad. Get it right.”

Second, like Jesus is one person but actually three people (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), Dolan is the owner of the Knicks, Rangers and MSG all at the same time. As Sister Thomasine and her wooden ruler made quite clear to me in 3rd grade, no, you cannot cut up Jesus into three pieces, like a Jesus pie. Similarly, you cannot differentiate Dolan into three different owners. He is all of them, all at once, all the time.

Finally, JD is only one letter off from JC. This can’t be a coincidence

Wow, you’ve really lost your mind this season.

That wasn’t a question.

I’m starting to get concerned for the draft lottery. On the 86% chance all of this losing is for not, I don’t think I’ll be able to get through the evening without drinking to excess, and gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. I feel like my lack of self-control might be frowned upon by the man upstairs when free agency rolls around. Will I be punished in July for the sins of May?

No. Aside from the fact that Jesus turned water into wine, there are nearly 250 references to wine or “strong drink” in the Bible. Of these, alcohol is seen as an accepted part of normal culture 58 times, 27 times it is called it a blessing from God, and the loss of wine is referred to a curse from God 19 times. Conversely, there are only 13 warnings of the abuse of alcohol and 16 instances of actual abuse. This is Word of the Lord. Bottoms up.

I’m Jewish, and have been kvetching about Zion all year. Am I a schmuck for thinking that we have a chance at getting him, especially since I’ve been not-so-subtly taught since birth to always expect the worst?

Mishagas. You have every right to believe Zion is coming to the Knicks. In fact, it might as well be written in scripture. As I’m sure you remember from Temple, Zion is synonymous with the Jewish homeland, which is New York. He is destined to be a Knick.

It’s a little late in the game, but I want to give up something for lent that will help our chances of winning the lottery. Do you have any suggestions?

Pride. You can give up pride in any number of ways that tie in directly with your Knicks fandom. Simply being a Knicks fan is a good first step. Some additional suggestions include2:

  • Wearing an Andrea Bargnani jersey outside of the home
  • Defending Lance Thomas on Twitter.
  • Purchasing this, pop it in your ride, put the top down and blast the smooth sounds of a classic blues band steeped in the quiet fire of Americana3.
  • Letting Tim Thomas call you fugazi
  • Getting the pipe.
  • Continuing your workout even after you know Phil has fallen asleep.
  • Reading everything Frank Isola writes.
  • Siding with an Enes Kanter burner account in an argument.
  • Growing a Lou Amundson man bun
  • Becoming a Nets season ticket holder.

That last one seems harsh; the Nets are actually good.

You should get season tickets then. There are plenty available.

I understand the concept of having “faith,” but trading away the best young player the team has had in over three decades for the mere chance at a successful July seems like equal parts greed, lust, pride and sloth all wrapped into one. Is this a bad sign?

You’re getting really close to having your head end up in a box in the middle of nowhere.

July 1 is a Monday. I’m a Catholic, but not normally a church-going person. On one hand, I feel like if I don’t go to mass on the day before free agency officially begins, I’m basically sealing the deal on four years of Boogie Cousins and Jimmy Butler. On the other hand, this would be pretty blatant and shameless pandering. What should I do?

When’s the last time you’ve been to church?

My daughter’s baptism. She’s now a sophomore in college.

Yeah, don’t go to church. Instead, you should go to confession, but in addition to confessing your own sins, you should confess all of the Knicks’ sins as well, starting with the trade of Patrick Ewing, continuing through the Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson eras, and concluding with the Tim Hardaway Jr. contract.

I don’t want Kevin Durant that badly. Can I just convert to Latvian Orthodox and call it a day?

Sure.

 

 

Celebrating Swin Cash

This article is written by Tiffany Salmon.

I often think about women in sports and what it takes to excel in their field while also being a friend, a supporter, a patron, a sister, and of course, in many cases, a mother.

No matter the profession or class, playing all of those roles offers both fulfillment and stress. It’s not easy being something for everyone. And in 2019, with 24/7 news coverage of our favorite celebrities, balancing responsibilities as a female athlete seems more challenging than ever before.

Growing up, all we knew about basketball players, men or women, was how many points they scored, or if their team could count on them for a defensive stop at the end of a tight game. Now, we have seemingly unlimited access, learning about who our favorite players are as people off the court.

When I think of someone who sets an amazing example as both a female athlete and role model, I think of Swin Cash. Swin has ingrained herself in the New York basketball scene over the last five years, which has helped me become not only a fan of her game, but also a fan of her as a person.

Tuning into MSG Networks on Knicks game nights, I always look forward to watching the pre and post game shows. Beginning during the Melo era, I’ve enjoyed  the on-air team which has comprised of Alan Hahn, Wally Szczerbiak, Al Trautwig and Bill Pidto.

Around 2015, with the exit of Tina Cervasio, I was worried we had lost a strong female presence on the telecast. Soon that would change when the brilliant Rebecca Haarlow was bought on board to replace Tina as the live in-game reporter, and later when Swin Cash was hired to bring her basketball expertise to the pre, post, and halftime telecast.

Knicks fans who are meeting Swin for the first time through her presence on MSG have quickly learned that she has a keen eye for breaking down Knicks games on a highly basis, but might not know how much of a beast she was on the court, herself. For all the NBA players she reports on for MSG, Cash’s basketball resume most likely trumps theirs ten times over, and that isn’t an exaggeration.

Being a life long fan of the Lady Vols, I always looked up to Queens product Shemequa Holdsclaw, fell in love with soon-to-be Vol Candace Parker in high school, and, of course, Tennessee had the greatest college basketball coach ever (in my humble opinion), Pat Summit. So to put it lightly, growing up, Swin was a foe to my favorite college basketball team.

Anybody who knows women’s NCAA basketball, knows Tennessee vs. UConn was the ultimate rivalry during the 2000s. Because of this, I’ve always known Swin Cash because she always helped lead to heartbreak in me and many lady Vols fans hearts, alike.

After graduating from McKeesport Area High School in Pittsburgh, Cash was a WBCA All-American and netted a spot on the UConn Husckies 1998 team. During her UConn career, Swin continued to rack up the accolades: in 2000, she won the National Woman’s Division I Basketball Championship, needing to beat my Lady Vols on the way; she also led the 2002 Lady Huskies to an undefeated 39-0 season and another championship with the help pf Queens stand-out Sue Bird, and Diana Taurasi. Cash won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player that year.

In the WNBA Draft, in 2002, Swin was chosen 2nd overall by the Detroit Shock. Known for her rebounding and defense, her impact was almost immediately felt on the franchise. It took only one year for Cash to help the Shock win their first WNBA title in 2003. If you know about how competitive the early 2000s WNBA was, you know Swin and the Shock had to defeat some of the most prominent teams of those early 2000s. Becky Hammond and The New York Liberty and Tamika Catchings and Indiana Fever just to name a couple.

Under Bill Laimbeer, a coach whom she would play for again in the future, the Shock would go on to win three titles in six years. During that time she even helped stop a 3-peat attempt by the dominant Los Angeles Sparks in going against one of the most notable players in the sport and future basketball Hall of Famer, Lisa Leslie.

Beyond the WNBA, Swin also played in Russia during the off season for a year. After finding success with the Shock, she would move West to Seattle to play with the Storm where she joined forces with NYC basketball legend and former UConn teammate Sue Bird, along with Sheryl Swoopes and Lauren Jackson in 2008. That year, the Storm finished with their best record in franchise history at 22-12, but eventually lost to the Sparks in the Western Conference Semis.

Cash earned four WNBA All-Star appearances and also won All-Star MVP in 2009 and 2011 while playing for the Storm.

Along with her many accomplishments in the WNBA, Swin is a 2-time Olympic gold medalist, winning gold in 2004 and 2012 with the US Women’s basketball team.

After her run with the Storm, Swin played with the Chicago Sky and Atlanta Dream from 2012-2014. In her final stint in the WNBA, Swin signed with my beloved New York Liberty in 2014. As a fan of the team, I knew having her would make a great impact, and it did.

Being a fan of the Liberty in the summers of 2016 and 20017 reminded me of the old days, but this time I was able to attend some of the games. In those two seasons, the Liberty finished 1st in the East and earned playoff appearances in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2011-2012. In 2016, under the leadership of Swin’s former Detroit Shock coach, Bill Lambeer, the Liberty made it within one game of making the WNBA finals. I was there for that game, Tamika Catchings, a Lady Vols rival, and the Fever killed the Liberty down the stretch and New York lost a tough one. I will always give thanks to that series because as fan of the Knicks and Liberty I was able to experience playoff basketball in the Garden again for Games 1 + 3 during those Eastern Conference finals.

On June 7, 2016, Swin cash announced she was retiring at the end of the season. One year later, the New York Liberty named her Director of Franchise Development.

For all of her professional success and accolades, Swin is also a generous philanthropist for people in need. In May 2011, she was awarded with an honorary degree of Doctorate of Public Service from Washington and Jefferson College in honor of her charity work. She is also an activist against police brutality and gun violence. Swin, along with other WNBA players in 2016, wore #BlackLivesMatter warm-ups following the continued police brutality of young African American men and women across the United States.

Swin is the founder of Cash for Kids charity and holds basketball camps and clinics throughout the year. In the summer of 2017, Swin gave birth to her first child, a son, Saint, with husband Stave Canal.

Between Swin’s on-air appearances for MSG Networks, she also does analyst spots for Yahoo, ESPN, and CBS, as well as her own podcast, She’s Got Time.  While the sports profession, whether on-air or on the court, can be a tough job to juggle, Swin makes it look easy. She’s just another example of woman doing the work on the field, behind the screen and at home, too.

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.

What to watch for from the young Knicks down the stretch

The games stopped having meaning a long time ago, but what happens on the court still has some importance to a select group of players. Jonathan Macri takes a closer look.

After the Knicks play their Tuesday night game against the Pacers in Indianapolis, they’ll have completed over 80 percent of their schedule. This long, arduous, soul-crushing siege of a death march will almost be over, possibly with fewer wins than the franchise has ever accumulated in a single season.

We’re in the endgame now.

Thankfully, even though the basketball is often unwatchable for quarters, halves and occasionally games at a time, this season is a bit different than many of the losing campaigns that came before it. As has been pointed out by every pollyannish Knicks fan this year5, there is a vague outline of a young core here that could make for an interesting future regardless of what transpires this July.

Would that core look a lot better surrounding a 7’3” Latvian? You betcha. Are we positive that the development of these kids has been executed to perfection across the board? Not in the slightest. Is it possible that they, along with the incoming draft pick, will all be sent packing for Anthony Davis quicker than you can say “We’re going to build things the right way?” Don’t count it out.

But I’ve written about all those possibilities already this year and my brain might slowly start to seep out through my ears if I try to do so again. Instead, let’s go on the assumption that these young’ns will be here and this staff does know what it’s doing – which, in fairness, we have seen ample evidence of despite what could be argued are some glaring miscues.

As such, if you’re one of the 18 people who plan to take in this last fifth of vodka season in all its glory, here’s something to look for from each of the guys that figure to stick around for a bit.

Allonzo Trier

Problem: He’s not shooting enough threes

Solution: Shoot more threes

Save for the ugly nine-game stretch after his December injury, during which his effective field goal percentage dropped all the way down to 33 percent, Trier has been the model of efficiency this year. He is one of only four rookies averaging 20 minutes a game with a usage rate over 20 that has an effective field goal percentage above 50. The other four are the first four picks in the draft.

The problem is that he should be even better. On the season, Trier is putting up two 3-point attempts per game despite hitting over 41 percent from deep. If that number doubled? We might see…well, we might see the guy we’ve seen over the Knicks last eight games.

Over that stretch, Trier is averaging 3.8 long range shots per contest, and it’s resulted in a scoring average over 16. The best part? His deep ball percentage has actually improved to a certainly-unsustainable-but-still-nice-to-see 46.7 percent. If he can simply take around four threes a game for the rest of the year and hit somewhere around his yearlong average, the narrative surrounding his perceived ceiling might really begin to change.

Oh, and his passing? Obviously that’s Trier’s main issue, but getting him to be more of a playmaker is too hefty a task for right now, and figures to be offseason homework. For now, just let the bombs fly.

Frank Ntilikina

Problem: He’s not on the damn court

Solution: Get on the damn court

Can you blame a guy for getting injured?

I mean…no. No, you can’t…

Right?

For a lot of fans, not having to look at Ntilikina put up brick after brick is probably a relief. For those of us who had staked our claims on Frank Island and are now feeling the water between our toes, having him miss what will wind up being over a quarter of the season is like a final punch to the gut in what has been a brutal year.

On one hand, there was a sense before the injury that maybe he could finish strong. If you take away the month of November – when he looked like someone playing basketball for the first time – Ntilikina was a 36.6 percent 3-point shooter on the year. Putting all of his other issues aside, anyone with his defensive profile that hits outside shots at an above-average rate is a useful player.

On the other hand, save for the three-game stretch that followed his three-game benching, there was never a sense that Frank was on the verge of really putting it all together.

There are a lot of complicating factors at play here, not the least of which is that the Knicks may need to choose between Ntilikina and the combination of Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier for salary cap purposes, assuming they’re able to ink two max players this July. If that’s the choice, it’s easy to see which way they’ll go.

That said, if the Knicks sign Kyrie Irving and they can get something for Dennis Smith Jr, maybe he’s the one to depart, especially considering the fact that Ntilikina might not even be worth a late first-round pick based on his play thus far.

Of course if he does come back and play well, that might only hasten his exit out of town. Might that be for the best, as it’s now quite clear David Fizdale favors a particular type of guard to run his offense? Wouldn’t Frank’s skill set would be far better suited running more complex offensive sets in a Warriors or Spurs style system? Does it even matter if his offensive struggles continue? Which team might take the risk of finding out?

These are all questions that will likely remain unanswered unless Frank can get back on the court. And he better hurry…we don’t have enough life-jackets in the boathouse for everyone.

Damyean Dotson

Problem: Getting lost off-ball

Solution: Purchase a map

This one’s simple.

Dotson has arguably been the Knicks best perimeter player since Tim Hardaway Jr. got traded away. So he’s been their best perimeter player all year.

Over his last 11 games, Dotson is averaging 15 points while shooting 38.4 percent from downtown on over six attempts per game. Those sure seem like the numbers of a starting shooting guard. His on-ball defense, though…that’s where it’s at.

His activity level makes you feel annoyed on behalf of the guy he’s guarding. He gets around picks better than anyone on the team, and his defensive rebounding – he’s over three a game – is more than solid.

That said, his off-ball defense needs a lot of work. We’ve routinely seen Dotson lose track of his man and get caught ball-watching this year, often resulting in cuts to the basket or wide-open threes. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be an offseason thing; he should be able to up his engagement and attention levels as the year finishes up. It just hasn’t really happened yet.

If that changes, it’s not hard to see him slotting in as the starting two-guard on this team next season, regardless of who New York signs in July.

Mitchell Robinson & Dennis Smith Jr.

Problem: Lack of playing time together

Solution: Paging David Fizdale…

In the 15 games they’ve been teammates2, Mitchell Robinson and Dennis Smith Jr. have played a total of 145 minutes together, or just under 10 minutes a game. For a pick and roll combo that could be devastating and needs as much time as possible to develop, that’s…not ok.

Obviously, it’s tough to play a pairing much more than that if one guy is starting and the other is coming off then bench, as Robinson still is. Here were David Fizdale’s most recent words on the topic from about a week ago, courtesy of NorthJersey.com’s Chris Iseman:

“I just like his rhythm right now. Why mess with it? If you do throw him in there I’d be pretty [mad] off at myself the first game I throw him in there, he gets two and I’ve got to sit him for a bunch of minutes…I want to keep the kid feeling good and in a good rhythm. It allows me to do some different stuff with him in the second half. When he’s playing well I can play him more minutes. I can even start him in the second half like I did one game at home.”

I get all of that. Robinson himself has even spoken of feeling less pressure and more comfortable with coming off the bench.

At some point though, maybe just throw caution to the wind and say “fuck it.” I’m sure DeAndre Jordan wouldn’t mind getting an early start on his planning for Cancun, perhaps over the season’s last ten games. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Kevin Knox

Problem: He hit the rookie wall

Solution: Break on through to the other side

There are some out there who look at how the last two months have gone for Kevin Knox and are ready to proclaim him a bust.

In fairness, he has looked bad. Like, “Emmanuel Mudiay is my spirit animal” bad. This clip from Sunday night’s Wolves game pretty much encapsulates how the last several weeks has gone for him:

Here’s the thing though: Kevin Knox can make a layup at this level. We know this because we’ve already seen him do it many times, along with a lot of the things he’s seemingly been incapable of doing for a while now, when the Monstars stole his powers he hit the rookie wall.

Is that just a convenient excuse? Maybe…but there are some numbers to back it up.

I noted on the podcast recently that if you stopped Knox’s rookie season after his 44th game – the exact point where he exceeded his minute total from last year at Kentucky – he’d have finished with a .422 eFG%, including 34 percent from deep, and a 9.3 TOV% on a 22.3 usage rate. Over the next 15 games – the ones that have everybody jumping out of open windows – those numbers dipped to .366/.299/12.2 on the exact same usage.

Keep in mind that this is the same dude who was voted rookie of the month in December and was the coaches’ injury replacement for the Rising Stars Game on February 63. For a guy to go from “top ten rookie” to “bust” in the span of a month feels like more than a bit of recency bias.

All this being said, it would still be nice to signs of life. We kind of did on Sunday, in a game where Knox finished 5-of-11 for 13 points and four (four!) assists. It was the first time this year Knox has had that many dimes in a game where he scored more points than shots he took. His best stretch came late in the first half when he had a drive with a nice finish, a triple, a cross-court assist to an open Damyean Dotson for three, and a dish to DeAndre Jordan for what should have been an easy two.

If he just had a few minutes like this during every game from here on in, everyone would feel a lot less anxiety heading into the summer. The Knicks needed to get this pick right. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, maybe they actually did.

Ranking the Top 10 Potential Knicks Lottery Representatives

It’s March. In New York, that means three things:

  • We start to lie to ourselves that it is almost warm
  • We all pretend we know something about college basketball
  • We’re officially two months away from the seventh most important draft lottery in the 35 years we’ve been doing this.

Why seventh?

Right now, the top six are pretty unassailable. They are, in receding date order, the Davis lottery, the LeBron lottery, the Duncan lottery, the Shaq lottery, the Admiral lottery, and of course, the Ewing lottery.

All were sure things, all are Hall of Famers4, and all became part of the fabric of the league to some extent.

Zion, for all of his shoe-shattering glory, is not the fait accompli any of them were, but you could argue that there’s been no greater drop-off between the first and second pick than Williamson’s perceived value and the value of the next best guy.

That’s why this one slots in ahead of the Yao lottery (Jay Williams went second), the Wall lottery (Evan Turner) and the Towns lottery (Okafor/Russell). In most people’s minds before each draft, the downgrade in talent for those years wasn’t as severe even though the eventual results said otherwise. You could convince me that the Webber and Blake lotteries should be in the conversation with Zion, but as of now, I’m giving the edge to the dude who did this.

Regardless, May 14 is still a really, really, really freaking important night. It’s why a site like Tankathon.com, with its daily Single Sims, has become the guiltiest of pleasures. I have to admit, I took a bite of the forbidden fruit myself earlier this week:

The farcical nature of my question didn’t stop a flood of responses. Nor should it have. It’s been 35 years since the Knicks got one of these right, and the Knicks will have no shortage of options to send to Chicago for the unveiling.

So let’s lend a hand. Below are several candidates suggested by you, my Twitter followers, that we’ll assess from 1 to 5 on four criteria: karma, absurdity/comedy, fan endorsement/approval, and how realistic the choice is of happening. Note: if multiple people suggested it, dibs to who did first.

To begin, our honorable mentions:

Desus and Mero (Suggested by @NYSportsGuys5)

From what I hear, Desus and Mero are awesome and I would probably love them.

Sadly, I have a small child, and before her, I was still practicing law, so my television consumption has been pretty pathetic for several years. I’ve only seen these guys in spurts. They seem cool. If anyone wants to buy my broke ass a subscription to Showtime, PayPal me $11 a month at paypal.me/jcmacrinba and I promise I’ll order it and make it a priority to watch.

Until then, I got nothin’.

Karma: 2     Absurdity: 3     Fan endorsement: 4     Realistic: 1     Total: 10

Phil Jackson (Suggested by @Markbristow22)

Following the KP trade, there was a burbling undercurrent on Knicks Twitter of “see, Phil wasn’t that crazy after all!”

It was a little too sliding doors-y for me to buy. Still, no one person has been linked with as many great Knicks througout history: he played with Willis and Walt, he’s a big part of why Patrick doesn’t have a ring, and he was indirectly responsible for KP’s entrance into and exit from the franchise.

There’s also the fact that we haven’t seen or heard from him in years, and based on the totality of his Knicks tenure, he might be senile. His last tweet in June was about the science of meditation. Seeing him amble around the stage, maybe mistakenly sit down at the Bulls’ or Lakers’ table, and generally not be connected with reality would be humorous enough to lessen the blow of not getting Zion.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 5     Fan endorsement: 2    Realistic: 1     Total: 11

David Stern (Suggested by @TheRealFern_FR3)

Maybe it’s just me, but I think having Stern in that seat would be positively brilliant theater, and it has nothing to do with the frozen envelope.

Would Stern openly loath having to be the one to gift the number one overall pick to an owner he probably would have liked to see gone years ago? Or would he be thrilled to be the man who finally delivers the prize, as he recently seemed to include himself as a member of the starved fan base?

I have no idea, but just seeing Stern in all his rumpled glory would make this fun.

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 2    Realistic: 1     Total: 11

Dolan J. Trump (Suggested by @KevKnoxBurner)

For the ill-informed, this is a former Nets fan who runs a parody account of a guy who won an election he had no business winning in large part because he talked about how much winning he would do if he won. Sounds like an appropriate choice!

The way the Knicks have been run this century, they probably deserve Zion about as much as the real Trump deserves to run the country, so there’s some definite karmic potential here.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 3    Realistic: 1     Total: 11

Frank Isola

Just checking to make sure you’re still paying attention.

Kevin Durant (Suggested by @jesuisad)

Given that the Warriors would likely still be playing basketball on May 14, logistically, this one might be tough. Even if they get bounced early, I could see the league office frowning upon this.

I also think there’d be a subset of fans that would want someone with existing connections to the franchise, as opposed to an outsider taking his place atop the throne before fighting a single battle.

Still, can’t hurt to ask.

Karma: 2     Absurdity: 5     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 1     Total: 12

Mitchell Robinson (Suggested by @NYGKnicks)

It’s safe to say that Mitchell Robinson will end the season as the current Knicks who has engendered the most positive feelings among the fan base, which makes him an obvious choice for that reason alone.

Robinson also brings with him the possibility that, should the Knicks’ envelope appear before the top pick, he walks up to NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum and swats the card from his hand, forcing him to take another envelope in it’s place.

Sadly, choosing Robinson is ridden with karmic pitfalls. For one, he was drafted 36th overall. The lottery gods could easily view the Knicks as unworthy of the top pick when they’ve already done so well with a second-rounder.

Second, pound for pound, Mitch might be the most freakish athlete in the league…until Zion plays his first game. Would said gods giggle in delight at the thought of these two sharing a court together, or would they deem it a flight too close to the sun with freakishly long wings? I wouldn’t be shocked if Mitch was the pick, so we may get to find out.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 1     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 4     Total: 12

Pablo Prigioni (Suggested by @Brenhart31)

As Zach Lowe recently noted on his podcast, Pablo Prigioni might be the most favoritest of all the Knicks fan favorites over the last two decades.

That’s not why he should get the nod. If ever the numerical symmetry of the former 35-year-old rookie who averaged 3.5 points while appearing in 53 of the team’s wins should be put to good use, it’s during the summer when a player who wears number 35 is deciding whether to come to New York.

Also, how fitting would it be if a guy who always seemed to get just a bit too much credit from fans became the savior of the franchise for merely sitting and watching a small cardboard placard get pulled out of a novelty envelope?

Sadly, he works for the Nets, so I don’t know that this one is happening.

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 3     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 1     Total: 12

Kristaps Porzingis

Ha.

Andrea Bargnani

Ok, ok….I’ll stop. Also, sorry for listing the same person twice in a row.

Let’s get to the top four.

Patrick Ewing (Suggested by @Atlasjsh)

Almost too obvious of a choice, and probably the one the most fans would support.

Would Patrick do it? Doubtful. Not only does he have no affiliation with the organization, but they’ve never so much as granted him an interview during the many times their head coaching position became available.

Maybe the better question is whether such a shameless attempt to use the positive karma from the last time the Knicks won the lottery would backfire.

Also, umm…I hate to say it, but, ah, uhh…it’s not like Patrick ever won the big one while he was here, ya know?

(ducks, runs for cover)

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 2     Fan endorsement: 5    Realistic: 2     Total: 13

Spike [with his Oscar] (Suggested by @2ForgetUs)

Spike has been making movies since before the Knicks won the lottery in 1985, and he just now won his first Oscar. It might be a sign.

There are, however, three significant issues:

  1. Spike has become a bit of a fair-weather fan this season. I don’t know exactly how many games he’s been to, but it’s far less than in years past.
  2. His Oscar win came for a movie that maybe sneaks into the bottom of his personal top five. Do the Right Thing, Malcolm XHe Got Game and 25th Hour2 are unassailable. That leaves BlacKkKlansman competing with Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, She’s Gotta Have It and arguably Clockers and School Daze for the last spot. This has “With the fifth pick, the New York Knicks select…” written all over it.
  3. Most significantly, the first rule of tanking is that you do not talk about tanking.

Karma: 3     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 4    Realistic: 2     Total: 13

Natasha Sen-Fizdale (Suggested by @BlessNYC)

The recent history (and, as far as I can tell, the only history) of women at the NBA Draft Lottery is a solid if unspectacular one.

In 2014, Mallory Edens, a high school senior and the daughter of Bucks co-owner Wesley Edens, represented Milwaukee and they came away with the number two pick despite having the worst record in the league. Still, given the odds at the time, this was technically a win.

Then last year, Hawks co-owner and actress Jami Gertz 3 was the Hawks rep that nabbed the third pick after her team finished tied for the third worst record. Again, they didn’t win, but they still came out better than the math suggested they should.

That brings us to Natasha Sen-Fizdale, and perhaps more importantly, her husband David.

Opinions on the head coach are mixed as he nears the end of his first season, but there’s one thing that is not in dispute: in Natasha, he absolutely, 100% out-kicked his coverage. Forget the fact that she’s beautiful; she’s the owner of a marketing agency and is by all accounts an awesome person, having become involved in the community at every stop along her husband’s journey. I don’t care if he has the most engaging personality in the world and carries around a 12-inch…clipboard, landing Natasha was…well, it was like winning the lottery.

It’s those type of odds the Knicks will need to overcome in a little more than two months. It almost makes her the perfect choice.

Almost.

Karma: 4     Absurdity: 3     Fan endorsement: 5     Realistic: 3     Total: 15

Charles Oakley (Suggested by @YanksFamBam)

(clears throat)

Being a Knicks fan is so frustrating, not because we usually suck (although this doesn’t help) and not because our leadership is often inept (ditto), but because we have an owner who by all accounts can speak and act in ways that are not so much…what’s the word…pleasant? Sure, let’s go with pleasant.

Sometimes it’s easy and convenient to stick our head in the sand, a thing which we all have to do as human beings from time to time unless you’re a monk. Not with the Oakley incident.

I’ve heard from people in private who were there that night, and am convinced there is legitimacy to the Garden’s side of the story. It doesn’t matter. The way it was handled in the moment and afterwards was petty, ugly, and honestly pretty disgraceful. More importantly, the relationship should have never soured to the point where such a situation could have transpired in the first place. Oakley embodied being a Knick, and his becoming estranged should have been avoided by any means necessary.

Asking Oakley to sit on the lottery dais would, in effect, mean that things had been patched up between he and the organization. This would almost surely require an apology from the owner who so often leaves us feeling conflicted over our fandom. That would represent more progress for this team than anything they can do this July or the next ten seasons combined. It would be exactly the type of karma that the Knicks need heading into May 14. It’s reason enough for him to be the guy.

But there’s more. Follow me down memory lane for a moment…

Charles Oakley was traded for Marcus Camby, who was included in the deal for Antonio McDyess, who was later part of the trade for Penny Hardaway, who was dealt to Orlando for Steve Francis, who was traded to Portland for Zach Randolph, who was shipped to LA for Tim Thomas, who was sent to the Bulls for Eddy Curry, who was a part of the Carmelo Anthony blockbuster. Melo was later sent to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the rights to Chicago’s second round pick the following year, which the Knicks would use on a gangly mystery man who skipped his freshman year of college and fell all the way down to the 36th pick in the draft as a result.

So yes, Charles Oakley is indirectly responsible for Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks latest, best hope for their first homegrown star since Patrick Ewing, the man who was once Oakley’s running mate in New York.

It’s only fitting that he be sent to Chicago – the place the Knicks got him from to begin with – to try to deliver the Knicks’ new center a partner of his own, and New York the star is has so desperately been craving.

Bring it home, Oak. Let’s do this.

Karma: 5     Absurdity: 4     Fan endorsement: 5     Realism: 2     Total: 16

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:

The Emmanuel Mudiay Conundrum

David Fizdale has a soft spot for Emmanuel Mudiay. This much is obvious. Jonathan Macri decided to take a look at just how warranted, or unwarranted, that is, and just how worrisome his affection should be to fans moving forward.

You can’t drink out of it like the Stanley Cup.

You can’t wear it like the Heavyweight Championship Belt.

But make no mistake: the title of Knicks Punching Bag is as esteemed an honor as exists in the world of professional sports. John Starks is the first Knick I can remember holding the title, and he held it with the utmost dignity. He was followed by such luminaries as Chris Childs, Othella Harrington, Tim Thomas, Steve Francis, Jarred Jeffries, Iman Shumpert, Andrea Bargnani, JR Smith, Derrick Rose, and of course most recently by Enes Kanter.

How does one attain this most prestigious of honors?

For one, you can’t hold the title if you outright stink. There has to be at least a segment of the fan base that thinks you’re good, or at least that you hold the faintest potential to be good. Kicking a man when he’s down is only fun if there’s someone there making an effort to drag him out of the mud. Or so I’ve heard.

Second, and most importantly, you can only have one title-holder at a time…but there’s almost always someone wearing the crown. I wasn’t alive in the late 60’s, but I can imagine a young version of my dad watching number one overall pick Bill Bradley as a rookie and shouting obscenities at the television…

Rhodes Scholar my ass! Don’t they teach rebounding at Princeton? Holzman hates Cazzie Russell otherwise he’d be starting. They’re definitely tanking.

I’m not ashamed. We’re New Yorkers. If we’re not complaining about something, we’re either sleeping or dead.

As such, there’s been a bit of a void ever since Kanter moved on. With six weeks remaining in another losing season, it wasn’t going to be long before someone took the baton and ran with it. Following some early jostling for the gig, we have a winner:

Almost from the day he was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay has made his fair share of enemies. Now, with Kanter gone, he’s ascended to his rightful place on the throne.

On one hand, the hate seems a little unfair. Playing on an already terrible team, Emmanuel Mudiay has made the Knicks no more or less  terrible than they otherwise would be.

According to ESPN’s RPM calculation, Mudiay currently sits 59th out of 97 qualified point guards – a stark improvement after finishing dead last and fifth from the bottom the last two years. If we go by the Expected Wins formula on Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks would have two more wins over an 82-game season given Mudiay’s efficiency differential. NBA.com has his individual net rating at -7.9, which is almost identical to the team’s -7.8 overall number.

To Booty-ay Backers (they’re out there!), this is all evidence of a talented point guard trending in the right direction. They see a shooter who has finally crept above league average, a point guard who takes pretty good care of the ball4, and a unique athlete who can get into the paint using his size against smaller players or his speed against larger ones2. Still days away from his 23rd birthday, supporters see no reason to give up on him yet.

His detractors, well…his detractors see everything else. They see a player who has performed far better against backups than starters3. They see a reversion back to form around the rim 4. They see 3-point accuracy that is only a hair above his dreary career mark5. They see a playmaker who doesn’t make plays for others6. They see someone who gives back as much on one end as he might add on the other7.

In short, they see a player who, even if he continued to make incremental improvements at both ends of the court, probably tops out as a high end backup. Best case, he’s a spot starter who might win you a game every now and then, as he has a few times this year (see: home wins vs Milwaukee and New Orleans and road victories in Memphis and Charlotte stand out).

As a player who the organization has now invested over a year’s worth of development time in, there would seem to be some logic to continuing to play him, if not as a starter, then as a backup to the higher ceiling, cost-controlled Dennis Smith Jr. For others, every minute of court time given to Mudiay amounts to a minute not devoted to a worthier cause. Why is that the case?

The easy answer: “It’s the contract, stupid.”

Yes, as we all know, Emmanuel Mudiay is on an expiring pact – one that carries with it a cap hold that comically outsizes his real life value. What we don’t know is what is going to happen this summer. Once the Knicks renounce Mudiay’s hold (a certainty) and then attempt to sign two max players (less so), they will still have a roster to fill out. In the Knicks’ perfect world, those spots will be commanded by minimum salaried players hoping to go ring-chasing.

Are we positive Mudiay has played himself out of such a menial contract? Don’t be so sure. Last offseason, former sixth overall pick Nerlens Noel signed a minimum salary deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, while former 10th overall pick Elfrid Payton signed for just $3 million in New Orleans. Derrick “Once a Knick, Please God, Make it Stop” Rose had to settle for the minimum in Minnesota. Hell, Noah Vonleh – the ninth selection just four years ago – didn’t even get a fully guaranteed deal.

Of course, if the Knicks strike out, bringing some of the band back on one-year contracts for continuity’s sake wouldn’t be the worst idea either.

So yes, while the contract is one factor, by itself, it’s not the reason Mudiay’s continued playing time has everyone so up in arms. If that were the case, Kadeem Allen – who is four years older than Mudiay and also not signed past this year – would have caused the pitchforks to come out when he was averaging 22 minutes a night before being sent back to Westchester.

No, the fury goes much, much deeper than money. Over the course of this season, Mudiay and his playing time have become nothing short of a referendum on David Fizdale. That conversation inevitably turns into a discussion about what is and isn’t the purpose of this season. It’s all interconnected.

I’ve sung Fizdale’s praises more than is probably deserved and won’t add to them here. It is interesting to note, though, that while opinions on Mudiay really aren’t that divergent – he’s some shade of “meh” any way you cut it – opinions on Fizdale shone through the prism of Mudiay run all the colors of the rainbow.

When looking for reasons why the former Nugget is still playing, the common refrain skews towards the negative: David Fizdale plays Mudiay because he doesn’t care about defense…or analytics…or development. That he cut his teeth in an organization that has been at or near the forefront of all three is conveniently placed aside.

Sometimes, the accusations can get a little uglier than that. Some feel Emmanuel Mudiay has been Fizdale’s personal pet project ever since “we gonna get you right” and that it’s the coach’s ego driving his decision to stick with Mud. Others feel he’s Fiz’s personal tank commander and his PT is simply an easy way to rack up L after L. Some just think he hates Frank Ntilikina…or foreign players in general…or has been given a directive not to prioritize holdovers from the Phil Jackson regime. It’s all been floated.

There are other theories…less devious ones that coincide with Fizdale’s reputation as a coach who gets buy-in from players like no other. Could it be that he feels obliged to support Mudiay, someone who’s diligently if not aptly taken to coaching since the summer? Does he feel that casting off a 22-year old just because he doesn’t neatly fit into the organization’s future plans is not only inherently wrong, but a bad look for a team trying to rebrand itself as someplace players want to come? Does he want to maintain DSJ’s drive and kick style when he goes to his second unit? Might he simply want to stay with the hot hand when it’s warranted, as he did to positive results Tuesday night vs Orlando?

All of these glass-half-full options require looking at a basketball team as a living, breathing organism rather than a balance sheet or a collection of statistics. Is that wise? Or an inherently flawed approach?

As you ponder that, consider the coach’s words after New York’s recent home loss to the Timberwolves – the one that had many fans flummoxed over Emmanuel Mudiay playing the final 17 minutes of the game. Fizdale was asked about divvying up playing time between the kids and the vets. His response8 was instructive:

It depends on how the young guys are messing up. If their mistakes are mistakes that I have to show more discipline about, then the vets are going to play more in that situation.

The question came on the heels of a night where DeAndre Jordan saw 33 minutes to Mitchell Robinson’s 13 – something the coach attributed to Robinson’s lack of focus and inability to stay “locked in.” Did this tough love approach have anything to do with Robinson responding by playing perhaps his best game of the season vs the Spurs? Or was it merely a matter of opportunity thanks to Jordan being out with an injury?

Just like the Mudiay questions, we simply don’t know. In fact, none of the theories about Fizdale’s approach can be confirmed or denied, but their mere existence drives home a salient point: unlike a smoking gun, decision making in a tanking season isn’t definitive evidence of anything. This is “eye of the beholder” at it’s finest. Playing Emmanuel Mudiay proves David Fizdale is an idiot. Or that he’s a genius. Or somewhere in between. It’s up to you to pick which one is true.

In reality, on such a shitty team, there are arguments for and against playing any player, just as there are arguments for playing them four, 14 or 40 minutes a game. Just like the Mudiay discussion, opinions on those arguments are colored by one’s own personal views on development, culture, accountability, tanking, analytics, and a whole host of other team-building tenets that have yet to be settled one way or another.

The best part is that all of this talk is likely meaningless. Golden State is a dynasty neither because nor despite the fact that Dorell Wright averaged more minutes per game than Steph Curry during the future MVP’s sophomore season; they’re a dynasty because Steph Curry became Steph Curry. Nothing in anyone’s control was ever going to change that.

If this summer goes according to plan, the fretting about Emmanuel Mudiay will seem comical in retrospect. There will be no guesswork involved as to whether David Fizdale is doing a good job. The record will speak for itself.

In a season like this one, however, there are no answers, only questions…questions that aren’t likely to be answered until the dust settles in July and the season begin anew in October.

Until then, we’ll have Emmanuel Mudiay to argue about, because we’re New Yorkers, dammit. It’s what we do.

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.     

How Dennis Smith Jr. fits with Frank Ntilikina

Coming off the Knicks’ 2016-17 season, one thing was abundantly clear: the team needed a point guard.

The Derrick Rose experiment had profoundly failed, finding new ways to disappoint a fanbase that thought it had seen it all. Brandon Jennings had been waived in February and was slowly making his way to China. Significant back-up minutes were going to rookie Ron Baker. Again, the team needed a point guard.

With their pick in the 2017 draft, the Knicks weren’t just selecting a player; they were seemingly choosing a philosophical direction for the franchise.

By the time they were on the clock, the Knicks essentially had two options – Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina.

The two players didn’t just possess contrasting styles, they were diametrically opposed in every way. They weren’t two sides of the same coin. They were altogether separate currencies.

Ntilikina was steady, deliberate, defensive-minded, team-oriented. His impact was going to be mostly hidden from the box score – lost in translation between your eyes which struggled to see his value and your gut which told you good things happened when he was on the court. His playing style was like coastal erosion, slowly and silently shaping each game’s landscape through persistent energy and effort.

Smith was more like a tidal wave. He was dynamic, aggressive, explosive, prickly and  headstrong. His on-court impact would be more transparent – both his strengths and weaknesses on display for everyone to see. Each gravity-taunting dunk and misguided turnover apt for House of Highlights. When Smith was on the court, there would be no subtlety. You would notice him, for better or worse.

When the team chose Ntilikina over Smith, it signaled to fans that they were now a Serious Franchise. One that ostensibly valued fundamentals and defense over viral highlights and empty-calorie box score stats. It was a serious gamble. Both players had significant upside, but their peaks were on different sides of the world.

The pick was met with polarizing responses from fans and analysts alike. Some were optimistic. Jordan Schultz of Yahoo! Sports gave the pick an A+. Adi Joseph of USA Today Sports gave it an A. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks graded Frank’s value at a B and his fit in New York an A.

Other journalists felt the Knicks made the wrong choice. Sam Vecenie of the Sporting News wrote, “If the Knicks were set on point guard, I would have gone with Dennis Smith.”

Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp said that it was “inexplicable” for the Knicks to pass on Smith, giving their draft a D+ grade. Wrote Sharp:

“Ntilikina is an interesting prospect but he’s probably a few years away from contributing in a meaningful way. In any case, he’s not Dennis Smith. Knicks fans are understandably bummed and wondering what might have been with one of the most explosive guards in the draft.”

Over the ensuing season and a half, Frank has been one of the most divisive players among Knicks fans in recent memory. His supporters will point to his strong perimeter defense, unselfish playmaking and high motor. His critics will direct you to his historically bad shooting numbers and diffident offensive style.

Meanwhile, Smith didn’t exactly set the world on fire in Dallas, either. His box score stats were more impressive, as expected. But, questions about his attitude, decision-making and defense still lingered. Regardless, there was always going to be a prevailing pang of wistfulness every time Smith did something spectacular. A collective “What if?” feeling among Knicks fans.

Then, something crazy happened.

The Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis for a package that would pair 20-year-old Frank Ntilikina with the 21-year-old Dennis Smith Jr. The trade was so earth-shattering for Knicks fans that it may as well have caused time to loop back and fold over itself, allowing the fanbase to live both realities simultaneously. It’s like if Robert Frost’s traveler went back to that divergence in the woods and was able to walk both roads at the same time. No more What Ifs.

Now, the question is whether either guard will be a part of the Knicks’ core moving forward. Obviously, so much hinges on how free agency shakes out. But, it’s worth examining Smith’s strengths and weaknesses to see how he may fit with Frank if both lottery-pick point guards end up on the roster next season.

Strengths

Attacking the Rim

The most obvious and tantalizing part of Smith’s game is one that Ntilikina mostly lacks, and that’s his ability to get to the rim. Smith relentlessly puts pressure on the defense, attacking the basket at will. Since becoming a Knick, he has averaged 15.4 drives per game, per NBA.com, the 10th-most in the league during that eight-game span. In those games he’s taken 46% of his shots at the rim, a number that would rank in the 97th percentile for the season among his position per Cleaning The Glass.

The most impressive aspect of Smith’s forays into the paint is how consistently he beats his man off the dribble, particularly in half-court situations. Watch him create an advantage out of thin air against Bruce Brown, one of the Pistons’ better perimeter defenders:

That first step! He turns the corner so fast, often times the big (Andre Drummond in this case) never has a chance to help. However, if Smith does encounter a body in the restricted area, he has been able to finish through contact:

Per The BBall Index’s proprietary talent grading system, DSJ ranks in the 74th percentile in their Finishing category when compared to the 73 guards with at least 800 minutes. Frank, when compared to that same group, ranks in just the 5th percentile. Ntilikina will certainly improve finishing at the rim as his career progresses, but as it stands today, Smith puts a whole different level of pressure on the rim (and therefore the defense). The attention he draws will help Smith’s teammates get more open looks as well.

Playmaking Vision

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking DSJ is a shoot-first gunner who doesn’t make his teammates better. Smith is not the archetype of a “pure” point guard, but it would be a mistake to underestimate his passing vision and playmaking ability. The guy is far from a black hole when he takes it to the rim. Per NBA.com, Smith passes the ball on 47.2% of his drives. That’s the 9th-highest percentage among the 64 players to record at least 400 drives this season. Even more impressive, The BBall Index ranks DSJ in the 97th percentile league-wide in their Playmaking category. Check out this montage of five skip/ cross-court passes:

The thing you’ll notice is how he probes the defense and attracts so much attention with the ball in his hands. He forces opponents to commit and understands how the defense will bend accordingly. Several of those plays were out of the pick-and-roll where he’s been ahead of the learning curve. Before the trade to New York, Smith was posting a league average efficiency on pick-and-rolls including passes, per Synergy. Considering Smith’s age and high-volume usage on pick-and-rolls, the fact that he is already average is extremely promising. In addition to kick-outs, Smith also keeps the bigs fed on lobs and dump-offs. DSJ has recorded 49 assists for the Knicks so far; 10 of those have been on alley-oop dunks (8 to DeAndre and 2 to Mitchell Robinson). But, instead of those highlight-worthy passes, I want to show this pass:

Even though it seems unexceptional, that’s one of my favorite passes Smith has made since the trade because he exploits the space he gets from the defender sagging so far off him. Collin Sexton goes way under the screen then camps in the paint, daring Smith to shoot. Instead, Smith uses that space to probe a little more. He’s patient as he lets Deandre Jordan establish a strong position. Sexton is unable to contest the entry pass because he’s sagging too far off. This is what Smith needs to do more often – make the simple play. Many opponents will not treat him as a threat to shoot, particularly off the dribble. They’ll sag off and try to gum up the spacing. He needs to use that space to his advantage — to see more passing lanes, or to gain steam on drives.

Smith’s playmaking ability is one reason I’m confident that he can play alongside Ntilikina in the backcourt. The last thing we’d want is for Frank’s development to stagnate due to a high-usage, ball-dominant point guard. But, I’m confident that Frank will improve as an off-ball guy, in terms of both his cutting and his catch-and-shoot numbers. Smith has the instincts and ability to find and reward him.

Off-ball Ability

That said, there’s no question that Frank’s peak value would come from playing at least some of his minutes at the point guard position. Having your point guard be able to defend positions 1-3 opens up more opportunities for your team’s defense. Also, to reach his potential at any position, Frank would need to learn to penetrate off the dribble, draw help, and make plays for his teammates. Running the offense would likely force him to develop those skills. So, does pairing Smith with Frank mean that the Knicks’ decision-makers have given up on Frank as a point guard? Not necessarily. Even though Smith hasn’t proven he can stretch defenses with his jump shot, he has shown he can be a legitimate off-ball threat. He’s done so by (what else?) attacking scrambled defenses off the dribble. Here, Kadeem Allen initiates the offense, leading to a Mitchell Robinson dribble hand-off and DSJ runway:

DSJ’s instant chemistry with Kadeem Allen bodes well for his on-court relationship with Ntilikina. In the 41 minutes Allen and Smith have logged together so far, they are a robust +12. This pairing works because Allen takes some of the defensive burden off Smith, while performing some of the perfunctory duties of an offense initiator…two things Frank will be able to handle when he returns from his injury.

Weaknesses

Shot Selection/ Decision-making

The numbers will tell you that Smith takes too many long twos, and that’s true. But, even worse has been the timing of those long twos. He’ll take some utter head-scratchers – shots he can get at any time – right at the beginning of the shot clock. I audibly gasped at this one:

There must be an emotional toll those types of shots take on your teammates. I’d imagine they linger in your teammates’ heads and lead them to believe that you take more selfish shots than you actually do.

This next shot isn’t quite gasp-worthy, but it’s another early-clock 20-footer that Smith needs to excise from his game:

Another major area for improvement for Smith is turnovers. In his eight games for New York, statistically he’s been OK in that department, but he really struggled as a rookie (as most rookie point guards do). And, in his first 32 games in Dallas this season, he turned the ball over on 18.7% of his used possessions, worse than 98% of other point guards, per Cleaning The Glass. Knicks fans started to see that side of him when he coughed up the ball five times in 22 minutes against the Timberwolves.

But, if DSJ and Frank take turns running the point, these are areas where the French guard can help Smith improve (or at least save him from himself). If Ntilikina is initiating the offense, Smith won’t be able to forfeit possessions with 20 seconds left on the shot clock or throw the ball away with such reckless abandon. Frank projects to be a more dependable, less turnover-prone lead guard. When he takes the reigns you can expect DSJ to play more of a Monta Ellis or Donovan Mitchell type of role.

Off-ball Defense

On defense is where Frank and DSJ can exist in harmony most clearly. Frank has as much defensive upside as any young guard in the league. He has the perfect combination of instincts, mentality and physical tools. Smith, on the other hand, has frequent lapses of judgement and effort on that end of the floor. Too often he’ll torpedo good defensive possessions just by spacing out and losing track of his man. Watch him for all 16 seconds of this clip and please tweet me if you can figure out what he’s doing:

Who is he guarding? Does he think they’re in a zone? Did it turn into an impromptu zone? I need answers as badly as DSJ needs a backcourt partner who can help cover up his mistakes. He routinely gets caught ball-watching:

He doesn’t just lose sight of his man. He seems to lose consciousness of their very existence. Check out this defensive blunder during a crucial possession in crunch time versus the Toronto Raptors:

Here’s the Knicks’ new reality: they have both Ntilikina and Smith. All the hand-ringing and second-guessing over that 2017 draft pick is moot.

Now, it will be David Fizdale’s responsibility to deploy both players in ways that give them opportunities to be successful. That should not be difficult. In today’s league where playmaking at all five positions is so highly coveted, having two point guards who can also play off the ball should be a boon, not a burden.

Mitchell Robinson is just getting started

Remember Little Shop of Horrors?

The horror/sci-fi/rom-com/musical period piece from 1986? The description says all you need to know. It should have been too audacious to work, except for the fact that it was so audacious, it worked perfectly. I mean, Rick F’ing Moranis plays the lead, opposite a giant, man-eating plant voiced by the lead singer from the Four Tops. That about says it all.

I thought of the movie recently when I was trying to find a parallel to the season Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson is having. During New York’s just-ended 18-game losing streak, I found myself thinking of Robinson a lot. As other young players on the roster had positive moments here and there, it seemed like every minute Mitch was in the game, he was doing something good. He was routinely – and quite loudly – announcing his presence on the court in a way that made his emergence as a two-way force seem almost obvious.

Less obvious is why LSOH is the perfect avatar for this precocious wunderkind. Like Robinson, LSOH was and is something we’ve never seen before…a movie that throws a bunch of shit against the wall and yet somehow creates a masterpiece.

Mitch, meanwhile, already has a special place among the NBA lexicon because he still hasn’t met a block he doesn’t like. At the rim, midrange, behind the arc, centers, wings, ball handlers, late clock, early clock, stars, nobodies…it’s all the same to him. Jumping at such a variety of attempts should result in disaster, but just like the movie, it hasn’t.

The nature of the rejections or the rate at which they are coming – he’s leading the league in blocks per 36 minutes among guys who’ve played at least 500 minutes – are not the reasons why I thought of the movie though.

No, the reason why LSOH is being remade as the 2018-19 Knicks season9 is because like the true star of the movie, Mitchell Robinson’s game keeps growing…and growing…and growing some more, with no end in sight. Even better, it’s getting nastier by the day. He is becoming a monster before our very eyes…one that deems your shit to be unworthy, and he will vanquish it accordingly.

On the surface, he might look like the same player as he was in October. In fact, when I sent out a recent tweet suggesting he had grown by leaps and bounds since Vegas Summer League, a few people responded that, no, this was essentially the same guy.

Let’s quickly dispel with that notion. If your memory of last summer’s fake games is fuzzy, refresh it with Zach Diluzio’s phenomenal piece on the subject. He details how, despite the obvious talent, Mitch struggled in several aspects of the game, including but not limited to screen-setting, footwork on closeouts, positioning, and general fundamentals. It’s why, like Zach, I though he was destined to spend a good portion of the season in the G-League.

Hey, guess what has two thumbs and shouldn’t make predictions!

When the real games started in October, not only was Mitch getting playing time with the big club, but he looked downright competent in the process. That was impressive in and of itself. What he’s done in the four short months since then is downright astounding.

Let’s start with the foul issues, Robinson’s most glaring bugaboo. Following an initial feeling-out process in October, in 15 November games, Robinson averaged 7.6 fouls per 36 minutes. Among 280 players to see the court for at least 250 minutes that month, that figure was dead last2.

It wasn’t hard to see why either. Mitch left his feet when the shooter so much as thought about pump-faking. The results spoke for themselves.

Since November, Robinson has steadily decreased his hackin’n whackin, dropping to 6.7 fouls per 36 minutes in December, 5.8 in November and just 4.3 so far this month. That it hasn’t hurt his ability to be a human Magic Eraser3 one bit makes it all the more impressive. On the year, opponents are converting 4.9 percent fewer shots when guarded by Robinson. That’s among the league leaders for high volume defenders and is just ahead of his more ballyhooed classmate, Jaren Jackson Jr.

Overall, the effect that Big Meech4 has had on the team’s defense has improved as well. For the months of November, December and January, the Knicks gave up between 109.7 and 110.9 points per 100 possessions when Mitch manned the middle. So far this month though, that number is an even 100.0. For the season, New York has a 107.8 defensive rating when Robinson plays, which would rank ninth in the league and is nearly five points better than their actual number.

Aside from his penchant for fouling, the other major knock on Mitch’s game early on was that he didn’t rebound the ball like a seven-footer with his leaping ability had any right to. Prior to the ankle injury that kept him sidelined for a month between December and January, Robinson’s total rebound percentage was a paltry 10.7 percent, which ranked 78th out of 91 centers through the end of 2018. Since the new year started, that’s bumped up all the way up to 15.3 percent. At 37th out of 86 centers during that time, it’s far from elite but is more than respectable. His 14.1 rebounds per 36 minutes since the calendar flipped to February – higher than Joel Embiid during that short span – means the best may be yet to come.

There are other small signs around the periphery as well. While all of the attention has been on how much less he’s fouling, Robinson is also drawing fouls at a greater rate. Pre-December injury, he was getting to the line just over once per game. Since coming back, that number has more than doubled. His shooting from the field has also reached astronomical levels. Since January 1, of the 309 players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, his 76.4 effective field goal percentage is second in the league.

Again: dude didn’t play basketball for a year.

Are there still things to work on? Of course. For starters, he’s still averaging a hair under 18 minutes per game. The reason he’s not on the court more despite the gaudy numbers is because it would disrupt the tank his conditioning is still a work in progress (although six of his top 11 minutes totals have come since January 27). He also hasn’t shown the propensity to shoot, like, at all. For the season, he’s taken exactly three shots outside of five feet from the basket. His trainer Marcell Scott has already spoken about upping that number.

So yeah…New York has itself a legit, honest to goodness prodigy on their hands. That news is both good and potentially incredibly complicating.

Whether or not Knicks fans want to hear this, the team is absolutely going to put itself in the running for Mitch’s summer workout buddy, Anthony Davis. The Pelicans, justifiably, are going to ask for the moon. I’m not going to get into whether it’s the right move to clear out the cupboard for a 26-year-old generational talent entering his walk year, because considering the ramifications that it could have on free agency this summer, that’s an article unto itself. What’s notable here, though, is that there’s one very important thing that could wind up keeping Mitchell Robinson in orange and blue even if the Knicks go out and get themselves a Brow: money.

If the Knicks want to retain enough cap space to add two maximum salary players5

Here’s where things gets tricky: Anthony Davis makes $27,093,019 next season. Due to the NBA’s salary matching rules, the Knicks would need to send out at least $21,674,415 in any trade. The numbers get tight here, and where New York ends up selecting in the draft could play a large role as the 5th pick makes almost $3 million less than the first pick.

Regardless, this much is clear: the Knicks will need to send out their own 2019 draftee and Kevin Knox, along with Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina in order to have any chance of the money working out for Davis[footnote]again, assuming they’ve spent all their cap space on two max players. Mitchell Robinson makes so much less than those players ($1.5 million next season) that his salary won’t tip the scales one way or another.

So what does that mean for Robinson? Maybe nothing. For as amazing as he is, is Mitch really going to be the deal breaker in getting AD, especially when acquiring Davis in principle before free agency begins could seal the deal for KD and a super friend? Probably not, but the point should still be made: should the Knicks brass take a hard line stance that New Orleans has to leave them with one of their kiddos, because of how little he makes, the default kiddo in that scenario almost has to be Mitchell Robinson.

This, of course, is getting wildly ahead of ourselves. If the Knicks find themselves in a place where they even need to have these conversations means a) the summer has gone exactly as planned and b) Robinson continues to progress at a rapid rate. For as crazy as the first part seems, the latter now appears more likely than not.

In a horror movie of a season for fans everywhere, that alone is something to be excited about.

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.