Grading each aspect of Kevin Knox’ game at the All-Star Break

This is a season of development for the Knicks. We always knew it would be.

Things have gone as planned (well, sort of). The Knicks are in control of the top slot in the lottery, and the young guns have almost completely overtaken the rotation. Potential pieces for the future are getting plenty of burn in featured roles, shaking off the rookie rust early in their careers to hopefully set the tone for second and third year leaps going forward.

At the forefront of this movement has been the man selected with the ninth pick in the 2018 Draft, Kentucky product Kevin Knox.

Knox was always going to be a bit of a project. He brought tantalizing physical tools and flashes of greatness to the table, but it was expected that Knox would most likely not be an instant-impact rookie. His ceiling is among the best of his class, but it always seemed that some very rocky bumps were going to be there on the way to reaching that peak.

Fortunately for the Knicks, this season was perfectly constructed to accommodate players of that ilk.

After all, according to my research, Knox is still only the ripe age of 19. The man (is he actually a “man” yet?) has plenty of time.

With that said, as the team prepares for the (much-needed) All-Star break, I thought now would be a good time to evaluate the youngling’s progress. Forty-nine games into his professional career, let’s take a look at Kevin Knox’s performance in each area of the game, and grade each accordingly.

SHOOTING: C

Knox’s shooting has not been atrocious by any means, but he definitely has a ways to go. On the plus side, Knox has been decent enough to where you can reasonably expect a future jump. Paul George shot at a 30% clip from three as a rookie. LeBron James connected on 29%. Since then, they’ve shot 39% and 35%, respectively, over the rest of their careers.

Post-rookie year leaps happen all of the time. It’s normal for a rookie to struggle with his shot. Knox has hit 33.6% of his threes so far, a below-average, but respectable enough number.

Since 2009-10, 61 rookies have attempted at least 3.0 three point attempts per game (minimum 40 games played). Knox checks in at 41st in 3P% among those names. Here is a look at the region around him:

There are some names in this bottom half that give you some confidence, such as Kemba Walker, Jamal Murray, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Knick villain Kristaps Porzingis. However, there is a far greater number of busts in this group. Knox could stand to raise his clip just a few points by the end of the season to inch closer to the top of this list, where a high frequency of future stars reside.

Knox has also hit 72.4% of his free throws. Again, it’s not terrible, but it is below league average. That number would place Knox at 49th out of the 61 player group referenced above. There isn’t a single player with an All-Star appearance below Knox (though Luka Doncic is at 72.2%).

Knox has a very pretty shot. He gets good lift and has a nice stroke. With better shot selection and more mental reps, he could definitely become a very good shooter. So far, the results have not been very good, but they have not been catastrophic. Hope is without a doubt alive and well. I think he can certainly get there in time.

Some strides over the final few months would be wonderful to see. Knox was catching fire in December, but has clearly been looking more and more fatigued since the calendar flipped. The All-Star Break should work wonders for him.

VOLUME SCORING: B

Knox is averaging 12.6 points per game and 15.9 points per 36 minutes.

He’s improved from the early portions of the season, where he was posting consistent numbers in the single digits.

While the efficiency hasn’t yet been there (.434 eFG%, .469 TS%), Knox has been aggressive looking for his shot. I think that’s great for him. Mental reps are huge in the NBA for a young player getting accustomed to completely new circumstances and competition. Knox will enter his second season with a lion’s share of tape to look back at and learn from.

Among the 189 rookies to play at least 1000 minutes since 2009-10, Knox currently sits at a healthy 49th in points per 36 minutes.

There are some very impressive names in Knox’s region. As mentioned, Knox currently owns an average of 15.9 points per 36 minutes. Jayson Tatum is at 38th (16.4), Bradley Beal is at 41st (16.1), Kemba Walker is at 44th (16.1), Victor Oladipo is at 46th (15.9), and John Wall is at 54th (15.6).

Knox ranks even more highly when it comes to aggressiveness. He sits at 22nd in field goal attempts per 36, with 15.4. He sits directly behind Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma and ahead of Lauri Markkanen and Kemba Walker.

Among the top 40 names in FGA/36, only five have shot below 40% from the field: Knox, Walker, Dennis Smith, Trey Burke, and Emmanuel Mudiay.

As discussed earlier, a surge in efficiency over the final stretch would go a long way for improving the outlook of Knox’s future odds of success based on past results. With that said, it’s great he has alleviated any concerns regarding complacency as a scorer. He’s going to look for his buckets. That much we know.

REBOUNDING: C-

Knox is averaging 4.2 rebounds per game and 5.3 rebounds per 36 minutes.

How does that stack up among rookies at his size? Let’s compare the 6’9, 215-pound Knox to fellow rookies in the height range of 6’8 to 6’10.

Since 2009-10, of the 99 rookies in that height range to play at least 500 minutes, Knox ranks 78th in rebounds per 36 minutes.

Among 19-year old rookies, only Brandon Ingram and Andrew Wiggins trail Knox.

Certainly, rebounding was not expected to be a major part of Knox’s game. He currently carries a slender 215-pound frame, and of course, is over a year away from legal drinking age.

Knox could certainly improve his rebounding from where it is. However, rebounding doesn’t seem to be a skill that improves with age. Most players remain steady in that category throughout their careers.

I don’t think Knox’s rebounding number is terrible. If he can carry it with him throughout his career, it should plenty acceptable alongside improved scoring. Still, he could stand to make improving his play on the glass a point of emphasis in the offseason.

PASSING: D

Nobody really expects Knox to be a passer, but he has still left a lot to be desired in this area.

Knox is averaging 1.0 assist per game and 1.2 assists per 36 minutes.

Among the 180 players to play at least 1000 minutes this season, Knox is 176th in AST/36, ahead of only JaVale McGee, Hassan Whiteside, Jerami Grant, and Gerald Green.

Touching the ball as frequently as he does (Knox’s 22.2% USG% is 6th among the 24 rookies with at least 500 minutes played), it’s fair to expect a little more playmaking propensity from Knox. He can tend to be far too aggressive looking for his shot, leading to wild basketball. Over-aggressiveness will lead to too many contested looks, missed open teammates, and late passes resulting in a turnover among other catastrophes.

Knox has averaged 24.8 passes per game in 28.5 minutes. Among the 13 Knicks to appear in at least 25 games this season, only Mitchell Robinson has made fewer passes per minute.

His few passes haven’t been very productive, either. Only 3.9% of Knox’s passes have resulted in an assist, 14th-lowest rate in the league.

Specifically, Knox has been too shot-happy when driving to the hoop. Among the 127 players to drive at least 200 times so far this season, Knox has passed on the lowest percentage of his drives, at only 10.8% (24 out of 223). The average number in that group is about 40%, while the league leader, Ryan Arcidiacono, has passed out of 64.0% of his drives.

In turn, Knox’s drives have not been very productive. On those plays, he has shot only 39.7% (13th worst), turned the ball over 8.5% of the time (26th worst), and committed an offensive foul 13.0% of the time (4th worst).

Like the rebounding category, passing is not necessarily a core skill Knox was drafted to bring to the table, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an area he should try to improve in.

Anthony Davis also averaged only 1.2 assists per 36 as a rookie. This season, he is averaging 4.3. Kawhi Leonard averaged only 1.6, but has been above 3.5 in each of the last three seasons. Paul George averaged 1.8 and now has a career 3.5 average.

Hopefully, Knox’s distributing ability will improve as the game slows down for him.

You can liken it to a running quarterback in the NFL who always looks for his first. It may be sexy for a QB to post 50 rushing yards per game, but what if for every 50 yards he gains on the ground, he is passing up on 100 potential yards through the air?

For every contested shot an aggressive scorer like Knox takes, there is most likely a higher efficiency opportunity available for someone else on the court.

An elite quarterback doesn’t look to run first, but he also doesn’t ignore the option completely. He knows when the run is the highest upside play and takes it then and only then.

Basketball follows the same concept. Great players know how to balance scoring and distributing to maximize every possession.

The more refined Knox becomes as he matures, the more often we should see him make the smartest play, be it a smarter shot or the smart pass.

DEFENSE: C

Via NBA.com, Knox’s 114.2 defensive rating is 20th out of the 21 players to take the court for the team, better than only Tim Hardaway Jr. The Knicks have been 6.3 points better defensively per 100 possessions with Knox off the court versus when he has been on.

I remember reading and watching scouting reports on Knox extensively after the Knicks drafted him. The common consensus seemed to be in line with just about every other aspect of Knox’s game. While his physical profile gave him a tantalizing ceiling as a defender, he had a lot to work on fundamentally.

On the ball, Knox’s defense hasn’t been too shabby. Via NBA.com, Knox has allowed a FG% to his matchups 0.1% lower than expectation, sixth-best among regular Knicks.

On three-point attempts, Knox has dipped opponent shooting by a very strong 3.8%, allowing only 32.5% shooting.

From watching Knox, his problems have mostly been off the ball and down low. Of course, he has struggled with guarding bigger 3s and 4s early in his career with his lack of size.

Away from the play, Knox tends to get lost and lose his man, a common issue for young players and one that was present for him at Kentucky.

Knox’s defensive upside was probably the number two trait behind his scoring upside that made him a top-ten pick. He has the tools to be a very useful multi-position defender.

But we’ll ask the same question regarding his defense that we’ve been asking regarding every other aspect of his game – can he make the necessary strides to fulfill his sky-high potential?

A calm Knicks trade deadline before the impending storm

After a slow trade deadline, the real fun for the Knicks begins in earnest. A look at where things stand now and in the immediate future.

Aside from paying two men roughly the GDP of a small island nation to not play basketball for them over the next two months, the Knicks had a quiet deadline day. We probably shouldn’t be surprised.

After making a trade that sent shock waves throughout the league, the smart money said the Knicks were going to sit tight. Why? There’s different reasons for different players that fans may have expected to be involved in a deal:

  • Wes Matthews: it wasn’t the player, but the salary. It’s not easy to move $18.6 million and only get back expiring money, which was an obvious caveat in any trade. Once Philly and Sacramento made their respective moves, no suitors with the wherewithal to make a deal were left on the market.
  • Enes Kanter: it was the player and the salary. As I wrote about here and here, there was never going to be a trade market for Kanter. Sorry.
  • Frank Ntilikina: even the most ardent Ntilikina supporters1 would have advocated seeing what was available. That said, it’s tough to imagine anything but low-ball offers for the worst shooter in the league. Orlando made an offer, but was rebuffed. It made more sense to keep him, see if he can figure it out, and get his value up above the basement level.
  • Emmanuel Mudiay: he hasn’t been good enough for a playoff contender to look at and say “he can help us.” Orlando got their reclamation project point guard in Markelle Fultz. Even if anyone has been impressed by his play, his cap hold is so large ($12 million) that it’s hard to see anyone thinking they needed to get him on the books now so they could have an advantage in re-signing him. He will be eminently gettable this offseason.
  • DeAndre Jordan: Every little bit helps.

That leaves Noah Vonleh, the one guy who fans reasonably could have expected to be on the move, especially with his name in trade rumors.

What could the Knicks have gotten for someone who would have been a fourth big on most of the better playoff squads? It’ tough to say. The team acquiring him would have been doing so purely as a rental, which is why, as JB detailed last month, the Knicks should have been looking to move him in the first place.

A look at some other deadline deals may help explain why he’s still a Knick:

  • Nikola Mirotic – a player who could potentially swing a playoff series this spring and who came equipped with full Bird rights – netted the Pelicans four second round picks, two of which are likely to end up in the last 50’s.
  • The Lakers got Mike Muscala – a better shooting, worse defending version of Vonleh – in exchange for an interesting young player in Ivaca Zubac2, who is a restricted free agent to be.
  • The Lakers also acquired 3&D maestro Reggie Bullock for a 2021 second rounder3.

Could the Knicks have gotten a second for Vonleh? Almost certainly. Would it have been a difference-making pick? That’s less likely. Was it worth keeping him around, regardless of the return? It’s a fair question to ask.

On one hand, if the Knicks want to show some semblance of cohesion over the last 29 games – and they should – Vonleh should help them do that despite his less-than-desirable advanced stats of late.

More importantly, though, we just saw the team ship out the one-time franchise cornerstone ostensibly because he didn’t want to be here. By all accounts, Noah Vonleh is a player who has not only bought in to what the Knicks are trying to build, but can attest to the effectiveness of their program as well. Scott Perry would seem to want guys like that in the building for as long as possible. When you throw in the possibility that this summer may not go according to plan, it’ll probably be easier to negotiate a short-term extension for Vonleh operating in house than from the outside.

So Vonleh remains, along with a core group of young Knicks that, as Zach Lowe astutely pointed out yesterday, may be auditioning for jobs in New Orleans as much as they are for playing time in New York next season. Fans should expect to see a healthy dose of Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina together in the backcourt, along with Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson and of course, Kevin Knox.

On Knox, something that hasn’t been said explicitly but seems to be an obvious reality: if Kevin Durant is here next year, Kevin Knox almost certainly won’t be. If Knox is a serviceable NBA player by next season4, it’ll be at the three, which is where Kevin Durant calls home during the regular season. Of course the two could play together, but if Durant comes, he won’t be doing so to watch Knox continue to have his growing pains. Add in the fact that, aside from their draft pick, Knox is New York’s best trade asset, and it’s tough to see a scenario where Knox isn’t the centerpiece of a trade for a veteran following Durant’s (hopeful) arrival.

There are, of course, many bridges to cross before we get to that point though.

Looking ahead…

On one hand, Kevin Durant seems to be in his own universe, and will decide his fate irrespective of anything or anyone else. He is an enigma. While the KD-to-NY whisper campaign has been in full force for months, I maintain that no one has any earthly clue what he will do, including the Knicks.

As for things outside of Durant, the domino effect will be fascinating to watch, and it all starts on May 14.

That, of course, is the night of the draft lottery, and it effects everything that happens from that moment forward. If the Knicks don’t win – and there is at least an 86% chance they won’t – then they will effectively be taken out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, as no package New York can offer would beat a Boston one that includes Jayson Tatum.

Losing the lottery sets up a doomsday chain of events for New York: the Celtics trade for AD at the first possible moment they can after July 1, Kyrie knows he can play the next several years of his career with a generational talent in Davis, and then decides to re-sign in Boston. At that point, does Durant even look at New York, or does he wonder if there’s anyone worth coming here to play with? It’s a very real question.

It’s also fair to ask another question – one that will be dominating NBA war rooms over the next four months: would the Celtics even include Tatum in a deal for Davis without the assurance the Brow re-signs?

If the Knicks win the lottery, that conversation is moot, as they would move to the front of the line for Davis, whether Boston is willing to include Tatum or not in their own package. At that point, they’ll be able to gather enough intel to know what a move for AD would mean in terms of who would then come in free agency. Effectively, they may not just be trading for Davis, but for Davis, Kyrie and Kevin Durant as well. Zion Williamson could pee champagne and shit excellence, but if it’s him or those three, I’m taking the latter, and so will the Knicks.

The lottery isn’t the only thing that will have a say in all this. Of the Bucks, Sixers, Celtics and Raptors, two will be going home before the conference finals. With the Bucks currently the one seed and employer of the best player in the East, it’s a very real possibility that two of Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard will be going fishing earlier than expected.

Does that change how likely it is for any of those players to re-up with their current organizations? It very well may. On the flip side, if Boston were to make it to, say, Game 6 of the NBA Finals, would that alter Kyrie’s thinking in a different way? Would it change Boston’s approach if Tatum lit it up in June? Every outcome is on the table.

The ironic part is that the team that easily has the most to lose and the most to gain from all of this will have less of a say in the ultimate outcome than any other party involved. All the Knicks can do is the one thing they’ve been pretty good at doing in a season where not much has gone right: incrementally upping the stock of the young players on the roster.

If nothing else, should May 14 and July 1 not go as New York hopes, continued improvement from the young guys will give fans something they can rest their hopes on moving forward. In that scenario, God willing, the team would continue to emphasize youth, take on some bad money for picks and/or young players, maybe invest in another distressed asset or to, and bide their time until the next big fish became available.

Who knows…maybe Boston getting AD could be the best thing in the long run, making it more likely he hits free agency in 2020, right around when the Giannis talk will start heating up.

It bears repeating: everything is on the table. This is the NBA, remember? Chaos has become the only constant there is.

The Porzingis trade didn’t alter the plan, it amplified it

Are the Knicks deviating from their plan or following it?

Sit here, children…plenty of room down in front. Take a pillow if you like. There’s juice boxes in the bin.

It’s story time.

Once upon a time there was an NBA team in a bit of a pickle. For starters, they weren’t very good. Over a 5-year stretch, they averaged 25 wins per season and didn’t sniff the playoffs. They’d gone through three coaches over that span of time, and even fired their president in the midst of all the losing. They also engaged in some of the most egregious spending of any team in the league, paying middling players far more than they were worth.

That this NBA team just so happens to be located in one of the league’s two major markets made all this spending that much worse.

Things got so bad; in fact, in order to gear up for a summer in which some of the league’s best players were going on the market, including arguably the very best player, they had to attach an asset to dump one of those horrendous contracts. Not just any asset either; an All-Star in his early 20’s was sent packing.

Maybe all of this shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the fact that the owner of the team was only running things because the owner’s father had built an empire that the owner stood to benefit from through nothing more than sheer genealogical luck.

Thankfully though, all was not lost. This team had a well-respected coach, one seemingly destined for success as a head man ever since he was an assistant for one of the most respected coaches in the league. They also had a bevy of young assets that by themselves weren’t much, but could easily grow into a positive supporting pieces or potential trade chips down the line.

Low and behold, come the summer that they’d been gearing up for – the one that the new front office had planned for, a plan they never once deviated from – they struck gold. No, they didn’t get the second piece they were hoping for, but it was only a matter of time until that came to fruition.

They got the guy that mattered.

Yeah, I know…there’s a lot of differences between the Knicks and the Lakers.

For one, Los Angeles is the most storied franchise in the NBA with an owner that has the namesake of a man who did it better than anyone. The Knicks, much to the chagrin of our collective superiority complex as New Yorkers, have won two championships in 73 years5 and have, if not the most derided owner in professional sports, one of the prime contenders.

The Knicks also just traded away someone who’s already been an All-Star, as opposed to D’Angelo Russell who only found himself once he got to Brooklyn. The ceiling on each player is not comparable, although neither is the risk. New York has also done a healthy amount of losing this year, unlike Los Angeles in 2017-18 season, but they also own their own draft pick, which LA did not.

Perhaps most notably, unlike the Lakers, New York still employs one of the men who has been here for almost all of this losing. For many fans, the mere presence of Steve Mills is enough to cast doubt on every action the Knicks take, simply because he has been involved in so many poor decisions in the past.

Yet it was Mills, along with general manager Scott Perry, who has stood before us so many times over the last 18 months and said, in different iterations, that for the first time maybe in their history as a franchise, the Knicks were going to build things “the right way” and “not skip any steps.”

Following the team trading away its best young player since Patrick Ewing, it would be easy to use these words as a “gotcha” moment. One could argue that this trade amounted to a dissolution of the right way and instead was a reversion back to the same way.

Same Old Knicks, that is.

Before we get to the logic of this assertion, let’s get two things out of the way:

  • The notion of using a young, All-Star level player – injury or no injury – as a mechanism to salary dump anyone, let alone one signed so recently by someone still running things, on its face, is abhorrent.
  • Whether it is 10%, 50% or 90%, the New York Knicks under this regime bear some responsibility for not being able to foster a stronger relationship with Kristaps Porzingis and2his people.

These two clouds hovering above all of this cannot be ignored, and the parties involved need to be held accountable. They certainly have been.

So yeah…what’s done is done, and it should be criticized appropriately. The question in front of us now is whether this trade somehow represents a deviation from the process this front office staked out from the onset, or does it simply put themselves in better position to follow it?

For many, the idea of opening up an ungodly amount of cap space in a summer that just so happens to represent a potential seismic shift in league power is the equivalent of putting all the chips into the middle of the table. I myself used this exact analogy when I first reacted to the trade last week. This, it would seem, is the opposite of “the right way” and instead amounts to betting little Suzy’s college fund on black.

Is it really, though?

Let’s start with an important distinction: for many organizations, building “the right way” means building slow and steady, and doing so through the draft. This is somewhat by default. Of the three methods for acquiring star players, 1.5 of them are closed off to many NBA teams.

The reality is that the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings of the world are never going to get a meeting with a top-ten player. Moreover, trading for one is now also fraught with peril. Sure, you can get one for a period of time, and you might even get a Paul George to re-up unexpectedly. But this is the exception, not the rule, and with players exerting their power like never before, small market teams aren’t often going to trade a known asset for the mere chance at something greater.

Somewhere between 20 and 25 NBA teams operate in this reality. The rest – the Miami’s and LA’s of the world – get a buffet of all three options. The Knicks should be in this latter group, but are usually in the bathroom dry heaving when the food gets served. As a result, only once in their history have they been in position to get a plate and stand on line.

2010, of course, didn’t work out so well. Whether it was slumping James Dolan in his black turtleneck, Donnie Walsh in his neck brace, or the immortal Tony Soprano donning a beard, things didn’t go according to plan with LeBron.

Some people also mention 2016, when the team couldn’t get a meeting with Kevin Durant, but remember they a) had no cap space with which to make a signing because Phil Jackson had spent it on Joakim Noah3 and Courtney Lee and b) still employed Carmelo Anthony, who just so happened to play Durant’s position. They never had a chance at KD back then.

They do now.

There’s only about six or seven players who truly matter in the league at any given time, and KD damn near tops the list. Perhaps improving your odds to land such player seems like a prudent gamble to take.

Yeah but it’s the Knicks…who’s going to play for this joke of a franchise?

Look…we have no idea what motivates players. What we do know is the evidence that is reported. When Kyrie demanded a trade, New York was on his list. When Kawhi Leonard started making waves, New York was rumored to be a spot his people favored as well. When the Jimmy Butler saga started going down, he had the Knicks on his list, although later backtracked when it was clear they weren’t interested. And then just this week, Anthony Davis had New York right next to LA as a preferred landing spot.

For all of James Dolan faults and for all of the “dysfunction” surrounding the team, the Knicks keep landing on trade lists (and from recent reports, they do for more than just leverage). It’s why, from day one, opening up cap space was always part of the plan. It’s what you do when you have the luxury of playing in one of the NBA’s major markets and have all three player acquisition options open to you.

It’s why, even if there weren’t copious amounts of smoke billowing around New York and Durant’s free agency (something that never existed in 2010 with LeBron), if the Knicks failed to position themselves to make a run at him this summer because of what happened in 2010, it would be akin to taking a vow of celibacy after one date that ended in a spilled cocktail, the words “I don’t like you, in that way…like, at all,” and a hearty handshake4. It would, in short, be organizational negligence.

But isn’t trading away a potential franchise player just as bad?

In an ideal world, of course; but the Knicks aren’t operating in an ideal world. They’re operating in one where said potential franchise guy wanted to be here less than LeBron did in 2010.

Really, the trade comes down to this: as Zach Lowe noted on his recent podcast with Kevin Arnovitz, the Knicks are essentially wagering that a second max slot and a bevy of young players and draft assets, all of which can be used to acquire a third star, is more appealing to Kevin Durant than an unhappy Kristaps Porzingis and much less in the way of future picks to be used for deal-making5. I know which one I’m placing my bet on.

If Durant didn’t come, you’d still be stuck with an unhappy Unicorn, with the only way to possibly placate him being to start winning by any means necessary, even it meant signing a lesser player with all that cap space.

That’s skipping steps, and the opposite of building things the right way. It’s the opposite of sustainable. It’s the opposite of putting yourself in a position to compete for a championship. Most of all, it’s the opposite of patience.

Theoretically, if the Knicks whiff on KD and company this summer, they could simply sit free agency out, stocked with draft picks (perhaps Zion?!?!) and young players. AKA they could continue to rebuild in a slow and steady manner.

That it has since come out, courtesy of Marc Stein of the New York Times, that the Porzingis brothers requested a meeting with New York’s brass and threatened to leave the team and continue his rehab in Spain if he wasn’t traded to one of four teams by the deadline is almost besides the point, just like it’s besides the point that Porzingis could have effectively held the organization hostage – not the other way around – if he refused to sign a long-term deal come July.

No, the Knicks didn’t go all in; they merely diversified their risk portfolio. Keeping Porzingis, on the other hand…that would have been pushing all the chips into the middle of the table, and would have been doing so with a pair of sevens, a hope and a prayer.

Did they wish KP had bought in? Of course. Did they wish this trade was a move they never had to make? Almost certainly. But is it one they had to make if they indeed wanted to continue on the plan Scott Perry set out when he was hired? You betcha.

Again, there are three ways to build in the NBA: free agency, the draft and trades. Following the Porzingis deal, the Knicks have more cap space than any team in league history, seven first rounders over the next five years – including a likely top-five pick this season – and a bevy of young trade chips to rival any team outside of Boston or LA.

All of this, in a market that keeps coming up again…and again…and again, every time one of these big-name guys becomes available.

Does this mean things will work out as planned? Of course not. Hell, things didn’t even work out perfectly for the Lakers, who didn’t wind up needing the Mozgov money they unloaded with D’Angelo Russell to sign LeBron after all. But they played the odds. It’s what you do when you have an NBA team in one of these rare markets. New York keeping it’s doors open right now isn’t a deviation from the plan; it’s finally employing a plan they should have been using all along but never got out of their own way long enough to employ it.

Now they sit and wait.

Of course, if all the chatter surrounding KD and Kyrie turns out to be white noise, the Knicks brass will truly be put to the test. If they respond by inking non-stars to max deals instead of holding steady and waiting for the next moment to use their assets wisely, they would be publicly shamed, and rightly so. In that case, it would indeed be the Same Old Knicks to the nth degree, and yes, very much the wrong way to build a team.

If they do swing and miss though, and use all their cap space to take in some bad, one-year money to acquire more assets, then for the first time in maybe forever, we will know this talk of patience and sustainability is legit.

Time will tell which road we end up traveling. Most are expecting failure, and maybe it happens that way after all.

Or maybe, finally, a new story will get written this time around.

Did the Knicks do their due diligence on the KP trade?

It’s been a few days. That the Unicorn will now be hobbling flying over rainbows in the land of meat and cheese has officially sunk in. We will still be in our feelings for a while, but we’re Knicks fans, so we’re used to it.

There’s been a lot of he said/she said talk in the aftermath about who was actually more sick of who, but there are a couple of things we’ve become certain of over the last few days:

  1. Kristaps Porzingis didn’t really want to be a Knick (context on this in a bit);
  2. The Knicks have been desperately trying to clear cap space for a majority of this season, and not only was the asking price astronomical now, but according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, would only have gone up this summer;
  3. KP was apparently not ready to play with the Knicks holding him out against his will, or if he is ready to play, the Mavericks are taking the same approach; and
  4. There’s a chimney-full worth of smoke surrounding some combination of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis joining forces in Manhattan within the next six months

How at fault the Knicks were in letting Porzingis get so disenfranchised with the organization can and will be debated for some time, but it isn’t really pertinent to this particular conversation. The same goes for whether the Knicks would have been better served swallowing hard, keeping KP past the deadline, and calling his bluff by offering him a massive sum of money in July and daring him not to take it.

What can’t be debated is this: the upcoming summer and the names that will define it have combined to form a dome under which all of the NBA currently operates. It must, at the very least, frame our conversation about the trade New York just pulled off – arguably the most significant one in the team’s history – in this sense: can we really fault them for prioritizing cap space as the most significant asset they wanted back in the Porzingis trade?

Let’s put aside, for a moment, that one of the contracts they needed to move was one that Steve Mills himself inked just a year and a half ago. For as bad as the optics on this are, it would have been even worse if he had bitten his nose to spite his face and held onto Timmy in an effort to prove the contract was a wise expenditure of money. At least he recognized it for what it was: a bit of a disaster.

Now, Hardaway Jr. is gone, along with Courtney Lee, Trey Burke and KP’s relatively large cap hold. All told, the Knicks cap space for the upcoming summer more than doubled. Add on top of that the fact that they acquired two future first round picks which allow them to potentially acquire a star via trade, and the Knicks are well-positioned to go big game hunting.

If they hit, it’s a massive, massive win. If they don’t, the first question that should be asked is whether, instead of cap space and picks, they could have garnered a stronger return in the form of players and/or more picks in trading their own star player.

It’s not a discussion we need to have yet…not until the July feeding frenzy is over. Whether this was this even the best cap-clearing deal they could have gotten, however, is more than valid. According to SI’s Chris Mannix, there’s reason to wonder:

Before we answer the question of whether they got the best deal, we have to look at what they dealt away.

Strictly speaking, Kristaps Porzingis was a distressed asset. He was an asset with massive, massive upside, but was distressed nonetheless due to several factors. For one, he had a checkered injury history, including the most recent one which now seems like it will keep him out for the better part of 18 months. On top of that, there is a looming contract deadline that could get messy – more on that in a second.

There are other minor concerns about his game and feasibility in a league where defensive versatility becomes more valuable by the hour6, but even putting those aside, there was reason to be skeptical that some treasure chest of picks and players awaited the Knicks in return for the grumpy gimpy gifted Latvian, at least not if the Knicks wanted to clear their books in the process.

What else was out there?

With all this as the backdrop, there were some other potential trade partners, ones able to take on all the salary New York wanted to dump and send back unwanted expiring money in return2.

Just not as many as you might think: Atlanta, both Los Angeles teams, Denver, Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana and Sacramento is the entire list.

Now let’s add another layer: any acquiring team had to worry about doing the qualifying offer dance with Porzingis if he didn’t care to stick around. According to ESPN’s report, that’s one factor that scared off the Pelicans.

While there’s no way to know for sure, but given KP’s apparent distaste for organizational strife and/or losing, it would seem logical to believe he wouldn’t want to sign long-term with Sacramento, Atlanta or Chicago for one or both of those reasons. What would have made a deal with any of these three even less likely is that they all probably would have balked at sending over the young player the Knicks would have requested back – Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter Jr. from the Bulls, Marvin Bagley from the Kings and John Collins from the Hawks.

Even with the KP flight risk, Atlanta probably would have been cool with giving up Taurean Prince, but New York would have then asked for either the Dallas 2019 top-five protected pick or Atlanta’s own 2020 pick with very light protections. You could have argued a trade package like this would have been on par with what the Knicks got if Prince had taken a step forward this season, but that hasn’t been the case. Not only has he regressed a bit, but he’s a year closer to restricted free agency than DSJ. Unless the Hawks were willing to give up the ’20 pick without protections – hard to see given the fact that Atlanta is sure to be terrible next year as well – it’s tough to see this trade beating what the Knicks got.

We can also cross the Lakers off the list, as such a transaction would have taken them out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, which would equate to Magic Johnson and LeBron James each conceding defeat. Ha.

That leaves Indiana, the Clippers, Denver and Brooklyn.

I doubt the Clippers would have given up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander straight up for KP given what he’s shown so far in his rookie year, but they definitely weren’t giving him up and taking back all of New York’s contracts, thus putting a crimp in their own notable summer plans, so cross them off too.

Denver has won five in a row and is back atop the Western Conference with Paul Millsap back playing a big role. He theoretically could have been the centerpiece of a trade with other young players coming back to make the money work, but those pieces – Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez and Michael Porter Jr. to name three – are players Denver likes, as opposed to Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs were clearly out on. This makes it less likely the Nuggets would have thrown in picks as well.

The real reason that this deal wasn’t going to happen is that, as we now know, Porzingis is unlikely to see the court this year. A Conference Finals appearance would mean everything to the Nuggets, and without Millsap, they’d have no chance.

Brooklyn is fascinating, just from this simple perspective: would James Dolan ever sign off on a move that sent his young star to the crosstown not-quite-rivals? It would have been a long shot, as the Nets would have needed to include newly-minted All-Star D’Angelo Russell to make the money work. Lose your best player in the middle of a playoff run, clog your own cap, and help out the Knicks in the process?

It’s a stretch. As Stefan Bondy reported earlier this season, the Nets were enamored with Porzingis. They’re also smart enough to know that Russel’s value will likely never be higher than it is right now. Perhaps most importantly, even with Lee and Timmy, they still could have had a boatload of money and maneuver towards max space in July.

The question – assuming Dolan would have stomached such a trade – then becomes whether it would have been a better deal for the Knicks than what they got.

For starters, there’s zero chance the Nets are ever sending out another unprotected pick as long as we all shall live. And who can blame them.

Even putting that aside, it would have been tough to see the acquisition of Russell working out well for New York. If they landed the max guys they seek, Russell’s cap hold gets vanquished and the Knicks have no player or pick to show for themselves in the deal. If New York struck out, they’d be left having to sign Russell to a hefty extension just to save face. They could then continue the slow and steady rebuild with an objectively worse “best” player – albeit one without any qualms with the organization – and far less cap space moving forward. It’s close, but it’s safe to say the deal they got trumps either scenario.

Last but not least is Indiana, which is maybe the most interesting of all.

Indianapolis doesn’t seem like KP’s kind of town, but they’re among the most well-run franchise in the NBA, which we know he craves. They’re also always in the playoffs, so there’s at least a chance KP would have given them a real shot at retaining his services.

The biggest issue here is that the Pacers are not an organization that tanks, so despite Oladipo going down for the year, it’s doubtful they would have included several expiring salaries as if they had no on-court value. The most likely combination would have been Thad Young, Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn, with the Knicks putting Noah Vonleh in the deal instead of Trey Burke as a Young replacement for Indy.

That just leaves the small matter of the young player the Knicks would get back in return. Aaron Holiday hasn’t played much in his young career – he’s averaging just 11 minutes a game – but he’s been good when he’s seen the court. You could argue that he’s the better prospect than Smith Jr., although the latter seems to have more of the skill set David Fizdale desires.

Then there’s the matter of draft compensation. Indiana has had some bad luck dealing away picks in the past – Kawhi Leonard and Caris LeVert were both taken with their selections – so it’s unclear just how willing they would have been to include any in the deal, let alone two.

Would the Pacers have entertained putting Domas Sabonis on the table? It doesn’t seem like something Indiana would do, but if they were, they certainly weren’t including picks as well.

So there you have it. If the Knicks swing and miss in July, we’ll have to come back and revisit whether there were any possible straight-up deals for someone else’s young stud or studs without any salary going out. Until then though, in these uncertain times, Knicks fans should rest assured that in this one, in this narrow framing of the entire Porzingis fiasco, they probably did as well as they were going to do.

The Kristaps Porzingis Trade Postmortem

Almost one year ago to the day (and two blogs ago for me personally) I wrote a story the day after Kristaps Porzingis went down with a torn ACL.

My message was clear. Although there was no silver lining to the injury, the Knicks should use their misfortune as an opportunity to do something they otherwise would have been unable to: repair the relationship with their fallen star, one that the previous regime had sullied. I proposed that when July 1, 2018 came around, New York’s brass should have approached Porzingis at midnight – torn ACL and all – with a max contract extension that would have kept the Unicorn in blue and orange well into the prime of his career.

Continue reading →

KFS Teacher’s Lounge: What to do about Anthony Davis

The basketball world experienced an 8.2 on the Richter scale on Monday after Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Anthony Davis had informed the New Orleans Pelicans he would not be re-signing there and was requesting a trade. Word then got out, courtesy of ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, that the Knicks were indeed a team of interest to Davis. Since then, there seems to be some posturing from the Davis camp that it’s LA or bust. Still, the Knicks are apparently preparing a significant offer according to the New York Times’ Marc Stein.

One thing is for certain: there’s enough smoke for the KFS staff to chime in on the rumors and reveal what they would do if they had to make a decision on pursuing the Brow:

Michael DeStefano – Hold Steady

When the AD news broke and we decided to discuss it in the Lounge, I wrote that you had to go after him. Transcendent talent, only 25 – I was ready to say that you include both KP AND the ’19 pick in your offer.

I’ve changed my mind. The collusion involving the agency that LeBron owns runs works with is part of it, but it’s not the biggest part.

Bigs just don’t impact winning in this league like they used to.  You need an elite guard/wing, and then you need more depth on the perimeter. New Orleans won’t give AD for just KP and filler; Perry will have to fork over the ’19 first and at least one of the Knicks’ young core most fans are so excited about. The Pels’ willingness to take on Hardaway’s contract might tempt me, but I’d rather enter July with:

  • A healthy KP
  • All five of Frank / Knox / Mitch / Trier / Dotson
  • My ’19 stud, and
  • A max salary slot

This is opposed to the AD version, which would cost at least two of the five young’uns and the ’19 lotto pick. Decimating the depth, particularly on the perimeter, is not the way to win in this league. Even though KD might find Davis an appealing sidekick, how appealing is it if the rest of the team sucks?

Wait it out.  Let the draft come and go.  See what the team looks like.

And if you get back-channeled word that KD wants another star, that’s when you use your assets to go get someone like Dame.

David Early – Don’t blow your chance

The first thing you do is offer Kevin Knox and the pick, protected for first overall. Then when they chuckle, you swap in Kristaps Porzingis for Knox. Then at the last minutes you offer KP, Frank Ntilikina, and the pick protected for 1st overall.

As a bottom line, you suck it up and you offer KP and the unprotected pick for AD, plus the requisite salary filler. It’s horrifying, but it’s also an easy decision.

The truth is, the pick has an 86-91% chance of being Cam Reddish or someone not named Zion. Combining the very likely scenario you won’t win the Zion sweepstakes with the risks associated with KP’s rehab (remember his doctor said that if he doesn’t change his whole body’s mechanics he’d be at risk for tearing the other ACL makes this a prudent “hedge.”

It will become almost impossible to outbid other suitors this summer when Boston or a team who wins Zion (like Chicago) enters the fray. This is the best chance right now. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you can obtain the player who we’d all bet will be the best player in the league over the next four years, this isn’t really a hedge at all. It’s simply bundling a few juicy assets with uncertain outcomes for quite possibly the best player in the sport who is only now entering his prime.

He’s already been rumored to be open to staying. He’ll exponentially increase your chances of luring Durant. Durant could win another 3 rings in Golden State. None of it will alter his legacy like winning one in the Big Apple. He knows it. And the Brow makes that a very real possibility.

Our lottery ticket and injured Unicorn for your healthy Unicorn King. I’ll fax the paper work.

Suada Demirovic – Why now?!?

Just as I was about to justify our losses as the Knicks finally figured out how to tank correctly without taking shortcuts, the basketball gods dangle 6-time All-Star Anthony Davis in front of us!

At first I didn’t even want to entertain the idea. Good things never come to the Knicks via trade. Take a look at the last few trades we’ve made, even the “blockbuster” trade that never panned out the way it should have. Yeah, let’s not go there. The Knicks have never really won a big trade.

That said, for the 1st time in a while, New York will have a few pieces to engage in trade talks. We have the best double-double machine in the league and he’s only 26! (laughter dies down) Clearly I’m kidding but I couldn’t help myself. “We want Kanter”? New Orleans, you can have him!

After seeing all the Twitter GM’s working their trade machines, I’m convinced that maybe this is exactly what the Knicks need. But at what cost?

The only pieces that I would not give up are ou . r 3 rookies. They really show they can be complimentary pieces that can turn into All-Stars in the future. So what are we going to give for AD? I’m willing to throw this year’s lottery pick and just about anyone else they ask for. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes, even KP. I’ve gone mad! Here I go looking for a short cut, but not really because this short cut has the potential to bring us more, as Anthony Davis will definitely be able to draw in a good free agent this summer.

But then I think about Zion…(sigh)…

It really sucks that the odds for the top pick are tied between the 3 worst teams. Of course this happens the year the Knicks tank correctly. So we might need to face the reality that we may not win the ultimate prize and instead end up with a consolation. The problem is that everyone else is just “meh.” But a high 1st round pick is still very valuable, especially to a franchise that needs to blow up their whole roster.

The writing is on the wall for NOLA. Let us help you light the dynamite. If anything, we would gladly trade what we have for Jrue Holiday at the very least. We would NOT be giving up KP for him, but there are other possibilities.

Here’s where I come down: Would I trade this year’s draft pick for Anthony Davis? Yes! Would I trade KP? I would, only because Davis is liked in the league and who knows who would want to join him as they write a new legacy in New York with a young core?

Here I go looking for a quick fix! But this is 20 years of us not getting it together, and New York is definitely not going to get it together with one draft pick. I’m for the front office exploring the possibilities without giving up our rookies or impacting our cap space. The Knicks should avoid giving up KP unless we have no choice and the deal is too hot to pass up! Here’s the first real test for Perry and Mills. I’m going to sit back and wait. Will they stick to what they said? You can’t get us to buy in if they themselves can’t.  #TrustTheProcess

Vivek Dadhania – It’s a no from me, dog…

It’s tempting, but there are a lot of variables in play that make me wary of pursuing a deal. First and foremost, the trade only makes sense if you know if you’re getting KD.  If you don’t get Durant, then what happens?  We’re basically a worse version of the Pelicans that still has to navigate against a behemoth of teams in the East.  It won’t be any easier to navigate to the playoffs with Anthony Davis.  If he found it bad in New Orleans, imagine what it’ll be like in New York.

Let’s also not forget that while Anthony Davis has been relatively durable the last few seasons, he’s suffered many nagging injuries this year and has had those injury concerns in years’ past.  There’s no safe bet – especially as a big man – that he’ll be a reliably healthy option, especially entering his 2nd extension period.

If I’m New York, I’d understand (if they haven’t already) that they are merely being fiddled around with to get the Lakers to hurry up and acquire their man.  Don’t cave in.

Stephanie Enriquez – The kids are alright!

Call me crazy, but I don’t want to give up KP or the kids.

I know Davis is a great talent, but I want us to continue the process and not deal our picks yet. Kevin is a stud in the making, Mitch is learning more and more everyday, Zo is great, Frank’s defense is much needed and he will continue to grow as well. As for everyone else on the team, trade them all.

Sadly, I don’t think it’ll be enough for AD. Nonetheless, if KD comes this summer, KP recovers, and our kids continue to grow I think we’ll be ok.

Topher DemitrisStick to the Plan

Let’s get a few objective things out of the way.

Yes, I too love Anthony Davis. He’s a phenom and tremendous player who has the potential to drop 30 with 15 on any given night. In a perfect world, the Knicks would be able to entertain a mutually beneficial trade with the Pelicans that could set the stage for (at least) a return to the playoffs. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that reality. The Pelicans would be wise to start a bidding war between the Lakers, Celtics and New York. We aren’t in a position of leverage in this scenario.

The asking price for Davis – a potential one year rental – would likely require the team to completely burn all the groundwork they’ve put into the rebuild. The Lakers starting price, for comparison, is four talented young players and future draft considerations. So pretty much their entire roster. That might work for LeBron (the guy could take a YMCA team to the first round of the playoffs), but it’s not an ideal situation for the New York Knicks.

It’s not that Anthony’s talent isn’t incredible. My objection to betting the farm comes down to three things. First, there is zero actual guarantee3 that if traded, he would stay in NY. His agent is LeBron’s agent. Davis teamed up with Rich Paul because his true destination is Los Angeles.

Secondly, acquiring him would likely mean our roster gets completely gutted. Goodbye Knox, Trier, Mitch, Ntilikina and the draft pick(s) we’ve all been suffering to acquire. It’s too early to know how good some of these young guys are and they are worth investing at least another year in. I won’t even get into the idea of trading KP (unless management knows something about his injury that we don’t). The best case scenario would be to pair AD with KP anyway. Given that New Orleans can ask for a King’s Ransom, the price is already too steep and bound to increase.

Third, and no shade, but Anthony Davis has a long injury history despite his young age. On top of that, the Pelicans have arguably had much better rosters than anything we’ve seen in NY for years and were still unable to make any real headway in the playoffs. If we gut our team to acquire him, it would be a similar asset exchange as the one that brought Carmelo here. We’d have a Superstar but no real way to build out a contending team. LeBron knows better than anyone: a well put together team is more powerful than any one player (see: the Mavs, Spurs & now Warriors).

After the trade there would be immense pressure on both the front office & Davis to deliver and we all know how brutal/impatient the media is. There is no guarantee Durant leaves Golden State and no guarantee Davis stays beyond a single year. The risk outweighs the reward for me. Abandoning years of scouting, development and team building for the 1-year rental of a superstar is so old school Knicks that my eye is twitching over my coffee.

Assuming the price remains sky high, a trade now looks to be another recipe for vaulted expectations & disappointment. Why hamstring the healthy rebuild track we’re currently on? This is literally the first time in decades the Knicks have opted to build correctly and I’ve got no interest in repeating the mistakes of past regimes. Stay the course, build slowly and winning will attract all the great players we need.

Jonathan Macri – “I’m all in” … “Waitress, can I get some water?”

The question is simple for the Knicks: do you want to put KP on the table or not?

It’s a more interesting discussion than people are making it out to be, simply because KP’s ceiling might be what AD is right now, and the odds the Unicorn ever gets there are only further complicated by the torn ACL. It’s why there’s a significant chance that if the Knicks did offer KP and the unprotected pick, the Pelicans still might prefer to wait till the summer so they can get the Celtics involved.

That’s where things get dicey for New York. Right now, they can sell New Orleans on the possibility of Zion Williamson. By mid-May, that possibility may have vanished. If it does, there’s a significant chance that nothing New York could put on the table – KP, the pick, Knox, Mitch…the whole boat – would beat the best offer Boston can make, assuming they’re willing to make Tatum available2.

So from that perspective, there is a sense that acting now is the wisest move. The reason it isn’t is simple: if you give up KP, the pick and Kevin Knox3 before February 7 and neither Kevin Durant nor Kyrie Irving comes this summer, you’re going to watch AD walk out the door in 2020. Can the organization take that risk? If they did, and the worst of fates transpired, then all the losing – well, the most recent losing at least – will have been for not.

But is it really a risk? Sure, it’s tempting to say that the only way it makes sense to put such a serious offer on the table now is if you know from back channels that AD will be bringing a Super Friend with him. That’s not happening. KD and Kyrie might be two of the more perplexing personalities in the entire league, and no one knows what the hell either will do.

But do you really see a scenario where both guys eschew the opportunity to play along the man poised to dominate the game4 for the next decade in a city where they’ll build monuments to whoever finally delivers a ring? You have to figure that if one guy says yes, that alone is worth whatever you had to give up for Davis, Porzingis included.

When you throw in the uncertainty over KP’s injury, his feelings about the organization (or lack thereof), and the possibility that he himself could maneuver out of here before long, it becomes a mighty sweaty conversation to have with your front office mates as the deadline approaches. Of course, the ultimate doomsday scenario features KP catching wind of your intent to trade him, a deal not happening, and Perry & Mills being left to clean up the pieces.

Assuming the front office doesn’t have the stomach for such a high stakes game of poker, they should at the very least make a token offer (this year’s unprotected first, a 2021 pick, Mitch, Frank and Tim Hardaway Jr., or Enes Kanter if the Pels prefer to clear the books) and see where it gets you.

The answer is almost certainly “not very far.” And maybe that’s not the worst thing. If the Knicks do land the first pick, then all of the sudden they hold all the cards. Zion plus non-KP-stuff arguably beats any other offer, including one with Tatum. At that point, they may not need to work very hard to strike KD’s fancy. He may instead beat them to the punch.

So ultimately, it comes down to this: Do they feel lucky?

Well, do ya, punk?

A midseason review of Allonzo Trier

Allonzo Trier is doing his thing.

The undrafted rookie, who had been struggling since returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for seven games, has found his scoring form again, breaking out in the Knicks loss to Houston. He became the first Knick rookie to post 31 points and 10 rebounds since Patrick Ewing in 1985.

It seems like a good time to do a midseason review of his game.

The Knicks roster is a bit fluid right now, as they balance player development, reclamation projects, and potentially creating cap space via trade to chase superstars in the summer. However, unlike a handful of his teammates, Trier can breathe easy that his roster spot is secure, at least until late June. Because of the contract he signed in December, the Knicks can’t trade him before the February 7th trade deadline. And the way he has played, they wouldn’t have wanted to trade him, anyway.

Let’s take a deeper look at how Trier has performed so far and try to identify a player of similar style and fast-rising story.

Some Stats

Let’s start with the former Arizona Wildcat’s shot chart to date, per Austin Clemens:

He’s averaging 10.5 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks over 39 games.

Per 36 minutes, that translates into 16.9 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.

He is fourth on the team with a 3-point percentage of 36.9 percent. Because of his big game against Houston, he passed Dallas Mavericks’ phenom Luka Doncic in true shooting percentage (TS%).5 Trier’s teammate Mitchell Robinson leads all rookies with a .672 percentage among players who have logged at least 15 minutes per game. (If Robinson is not swatting the ball, he’s probably dunking it).

Using advanced stats, Trier lives up to his nickname “Iso Zo.”

He is excellent in isolations (86th percentile, per Synergy Sports). He possesses a full arsenal of weapons to pick from in these situations, showing-off a variety of moves on drives in both directions, pull-ups, and jumpers without taking a dribble.

Per Synergy, he ranks in the 75th percentile in “spot up” plays. And he’s elite (87th percentile) with less than 4 seconds on the shot clock and is forced to create under duress.

These are often of the highlight variety:

Having so many offensive skills makes him very unpredictable; something that bodes well for a 23-year old. Try to guess what he’ll do the next time he has the rock in an iso-situation; it’s tricky, I’ve tried. Steer him left and he may start that way, then hop back, shot fake, and go right:

There’s room for him to grow as a Pick-n-Roll ball handler; he ranks in just the 44th percentile. Some argue this area will define whether or not he’s a long term solution for New York as a starting point guard in the modern NBA. If he wants to continue to prove his doubters wrong, this is the area he’d spend his upcoming summer on.

Something that surprises: his numbers suggest he’s better in catch-and-shoot situations (71st percentile) than he is off the bounce (46th percentile). But Knicks fans know well his fondness for putting the ball on the floor before pulling up. And while that appears to be his first instinct, it’s not necessarily more efficient. In the future, head coach David Fizdale might encourage him to shoot more off the catch.

He’s shooting 42.3% from beyond the arc on catch-and-shoot jump shots.

Defensively

The eye test would tell us that Trier isn’t the worst defender, but he isn’t the best at stopping people either. Per Synergy, the undrafted guard ranks a bit below average in overall defense. For a rookie, that’s not the end of the world. He’s made some really exciting plays on that end:

Funny enough, the area he’s been the best at defending is against isolations, where he receives a Synergy grade of “excellent” (for a limited 20 possessions).

Maybe he knows a thing or two after becoming a one-on-one wizard of his own? If this continues, the Knicks will really have something. I have an idea! We can call him “Iso Zo” when he scores in iso and “Iso Zone” whenever he gets a stop while being targeted.

He’s very good at the point-of-attack if he doesn’t have to figure out how to navigate screens and switches.

New York Jets legendary cornerback Darrelle Revis would be proud. Notice the fluid hips and quick feet here against John Wall:

He can use the most improvement in defending high screen-n-rolls. He’s a little better in side pick-n-rolls where the defense generally has less options, and he’s about average when chasing his man around screens.

Of course, struggling against a high pick-n-roll isn’t uncommon for rookies. Right Collin Sexton? 

Being able to catch and shoot, score in isolation, defend the pick and roll and defend in isolation are four skills Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey undoubtedly keeps an eye on when scouting. Zo is already quite good at three of those four.

Who does he remind me of?

When I study Trier’s game, I see a confident, aggressive, talented, but streaky player. I think his limitations are mostly in screen-n-roll situations, which he will improve upon as he gains more experience and understanding of NBA details. Certainly, he didn’t see these situations as much at Arizona. To reach his ceiling, he’ll need to improve significantly in this area.

I’m a biased Knicks fan who lived through Linsanity, but I often think of former Knicks’ guard Jeremy Lin when I watch Trier play. Lin made a name for himself in the NBA as a hyper-aggressive slasher who’d put relentless pressure on an opposing defense by getting into the paint and wreaking havoc.

During Linsanity, Lin was actually in the 95th percentile in the NBA in isolations. He was truly unstoppable for a stretch of time playing in former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. It would have been fun to see the coach/point guard duo get to work together more while surrounding Lin with shooters.

Knicks fans know he wasn’t afraid of the big moment:

We saw this same confidence when Trier delivered in crunch time against Houston.

Lin has had a tough road in the NBA. Almost like a child actor, Lin experienced the pinnacle of his career right at the very beginning. He openly struggled with having to start fresh and fight and claw just to maintain the role he has held in the league since.

But Lin is a fighter and capable of handling that pressure and has responded by learning the intricacies of the game that didn’t come naturally to him early on. He morphed into a pitbull on defense, before having to start from scratch again following the patellar tendon tear that cost him his age-29 season. Lin is roughly average from long range but offers more in the relentlessness of his game on both ends.

Lin is a great model for an undrafted and overlooked, but talented player with a chip on his shoulder. Trier isn’t shy. He once started a clothing line branded with his personal motto at the time: “When the lights come on, it’s time to perform.” He was in 6th grade at the time. Precocious, but that might be some of what’s needed to keep your head level when playing at The Mecca becomes your full-time job.

I’ve heard the Jamal Crawford comparisons as well. They’re both from Seattle, as is Nate Robinson. I think Trier has less offensive gifts than Crawford, but looks like he’ll be a better defender and rebounder.

Constant attack mode. That’s what I see in Trier so far. Unlike a few of our other favorite players, we can count on seeing more of him in the uniform the rest of this season and perhaps more.

And if there are any opposing team scouts reading, don’t bother testing “Iso Zone” if he’s alone on an island. He’ll be ready when the lights come on.

What to make of the Knicks reportedly shopping Tim Hardaway Jr and Courtney Lee

So news came out yesterday confirming what we learned last week from Mike Vorkunov that the Knicks are officially in the selling business with the trade deadline approaching.

Well, I use the term “news” loosely. That the Knicks would be thrilled to unload Courtney Lee has been an open secret since the summertime. Ditto for Enes Kanter, or at least it has been since he had his first hissy fit playing time reduced starting last month.

The minor revelation is that New York would also be happy to unload their $71 million man, Tim Hardaway Jr.

There’s been speculation that despite his subpar play of late and the overall holes in his game (see: his 115.2 defensive rating, second worst on the team, and a .475 eFG%), because Steve Mills is still in charge, he’d be hesitant to get rid of the man he signed just 18 months ago.

So much for sentimentality. The only question now is how desperate they are to move him. If noted Knicks critic and KFS Podcast alum Howard Beck is to be believed, perhaps very much so:

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to guess that New York has at least had conversations with opposing front offices about some young players on their team.

This is neither a bad thing nor a surprise. Everyone in the league is gauging interest on their own roster right around now; to not do so would be malpractice, because you never know what someone will be eager to overpay for.

That said, the news is both encouraging and concerning.

On the bright side, the idea that the organization isn’t married to an undoubtedly flawed player just because he was signed by the guy running the show is a promising sign. It shows that they’re able to fairly, and I would argue, accurately, assess their own players. That’s good.

On the downside, the fact that they’re potentially namedropping a guy like Frank Ntilikina is a trigger for any Knicks fan who’s been around for a while. Regardless of your personal opinions on Ntilikina, attaching him to dump Hardaway would be terrible optics. A reminder:

To then include the player they drafted to ostensibly replace Rose as the tax of unloading Timmy could potentially cause the universe to implode, or at least what’s left of my soul. It would be a trade package sealed with “LOL Knicks” packing tape if there ever was one.

Does it mean it would be the wrong move? Of course not…if the Knicks co-opt the deal by offloading Courtney Lee in a separate transaction and then sign Kevin Durant and Superstar Sidekick X this summer, there will be a parade thrown for Perry & Mills, and justifiably so.

That, of course, is a long way off, and unless the Knicks know something about the thinking of Mr. Durant that we don’t (something that can’t be ruled out, but by all indications seems incredibly unlikely), attaching either Frank, Mitchell Robinson or a future first round pick to dump Hardaway Jr. would represent terrible process. That’s because, worst case scenario, such a deal would be available in the summer, at which point they’d know who wants to take their money and who doesn’t.

To those who say “the price will only go up if they wait,” that’s not really how it works. If Kevin Durant decides that he’s coming to New York, Kevin Durant is coming to New York. If the Knicks needed to waive and stretch Courtney Lee as a last resort to open up the space to make that happen, they’d do it in a heartbeat. That this option exists would be a signal to other teams that, hey, if we can get Lee’s expiring (or Timmy, if that’s their pleasure) and pick up a future second round pick in the process – or at worst, a protected 2020 first rounder – we might as well do it.

The only potentially rational thinking behind attaching a legitimate asset or assets to move Tim or Lee now would be if you could unload both before the deadline.

This would be a giant red flare into the sky above the NBA that two SuperFriends could come to the Garden at once, or at least one Superstar and a very nice sidekick (see the tweet below on why it would be difficult to add a max player next to Durant). This type of maneuvering might not be as easy to pull off in one fell swoop2 once July is already underway.

Oh, wait a minute…we saw that story before, in 2010, when Donny Walsh attached Jordan Hill and a future first to unload Jarred Jeffries at the deadline so the Knicks could make a play for two max guys that summer.

We know what happened next: one (semi) big guy took New York’s money, and the rest was spent on Raymond Felton and various roster flotsam that made New York just “meh” enough for Carmelo Anthony to demand a trade here.

The lesson learned is this: once you make an all-in move to attach a first or a promising  young player (or in that case, both), you’ve set your course. There is no pivoting. You are officially in “win now” mode, and it has the domino effect of, well…mortgaging the farm to bring in a guy like Carmelo Anthony.

That type of thinking might not bite you in the ass right away – neither Hill nor Royce White2 ever amounted to much – but it will eventually. Chandler was a fine player. Gallo was more than fine. And Dario Saric and Jamal Murray – a 21-year-old borderline All-Star – are much, much more than fine.

Sure, you can point to the overpay for Melo as the point where that whole process went to shit and say “we’ll be smarter this time,” but the time to start being smarter is now. With a high pick coming in the draft and an All-Star on the mend, the Knicks don’t need to go “all in.” They have options, including rolling over the cap space to 2020 or simply waiting for the next star who demands a trade.

There’s only one, last, tiny little caveat: we have no idea what has been said between the organization and Kristaps Porzingis…what promises were made, what allusions he’s under…nothing. There’s a very real possibility that he’s not putting his name on a five-year max until he sees a roster that’s ready to kick the rebuild into high gear, and will instead opt to sign a 3+1 offer sheet elsewhere if the Knicks don’t land a major player (read: Durant, Kawhi or Kyrie) this summer. Of course, the Knicks could match such an offer, and there are financial reasons why KP might want to sign a bridge deal until he is a 7-9 year free agent, anyway, but something to consider.

Either way, should KP’s contract situation change the team’s approach at the deadline? You could argue yes, but then again, should the organization lay beholden to a player that isn’t bought into a potential long-term vision? Would they, in such a scenario, be better off kicking the rebuild in reverse, signing and trading KP for more young players and/or draft assets, and further decelerating the timeline?

I’m all for good process, but I’m also a realist, and I don’t think anyone inside MSG has the stomach for that.

So where does that leave us? My gut feeling: the front office is fully aware that they’d get killed for a straight salary dump in which they attach either Frank or a future protected first to get out from under the remaining years and dollars owed to Hardaway Jr. This is also something the Knicks have stated on the record that they are not looking to do, as was confirmed in reporting as recently as yesterday.

My prediction: they will scour the landscape for trades involving their unwanted players and one of their young and/or draft assets, but will only accept a deal that will net them a “face-saving” player or pick in return.

For example (and I am not pitching this trade, or even suggesting it should be considered): Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina and one of the Hornets’ second rounders for Jabari Parker and Kris Dunn. The Bulls get an upgrade in their perpetual revolving door of young point guards and get to take a flier on Tim, which shouldn’t matter as much because they don’t figure to be a free agent buyer any time soon.

The Knicks, meanwhile, would get to sell the deal as them getting to take a free look at a talented, high pedigree player in need of reclamation (sound familiar?) in Parker, who they would then likely drop like a hat to free up cap space in the summer. BUT, they also get to wave a “see, we got a young asset back in the deal!” token piece in Dunn.

Should they do this? No. Would they? I hope not. But that’s the type of deal you’d be looking at.

Unless…they can finagle something that would require a bit of wizardry but for which the payoff could be huge. Such a deal would be a 3-teamer involving one of the few teams who are:

  • desperate to make the playoffs this year
  • not free-agent destinations, and
  • have no cap space for the foreseeable future

All of these factors combined equates to someone who would be willing to take the risk on the incredibly high-variance player that is Tim Hardaway Jr., and treat him as a minor asset, not an albatross.

The reason that it would need to be 3-team deal is because the only organizations that fit this mold – New Orleans, Detroit and Charlotte – don’t have the requisite expiring salary to send back in a trade.

In the Knicks perfect world, here’s how this goes: one of these teams would actually give up a nominal asset (say, Malik Monk, Stanley Johnson or Frank Jackson) to combine with smaller assets from the Knicks (say, Damyean Dotson and one of the Charlotte second-rounders), all of which would go to a team willing to take on some not-great money (say, Solomon Hill, the Langston Galloway/Jon Leuer pu pu platter, or3 Bismack Biyombo) that would then send back an expiring contract to the Knicks (some potential suitors: Jabari in Chicago, Wes Matthews in Dallas, or one of several expiring contracts in Sacramento).

Will that happen? Your guess is as good as mine. One of the aforementioned teams would not only need to think highly of Hardaway but also lack better options. That’s not a given.

I’m sure Scott is working the phones to find out if this is the case. In two weeks, we’ll know for sure. Knicks fans will be waiting to see whether they can pull a rabbit out of the hat, or if this will, indeed, be #SameOldKnicks.

Is Frank Ntilikina the answer to all of David Fizdale’s lineup shuffling?

Let’s do a thought experiment for a moment.

Let’s say you’re David Fizdale, head coach of the New York Knicks (10-35), and you want to figure out a way to get your team to play better moving forward and you also want to get more out of struggling former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina.4

Maybe you pop in a simple 5-player lineup search on NBA.com and you see that for any Knicks lineup that has played together for at least 36 minutes this season, this has been your best one per net rating:

Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway, Mitchell Robinson, Damyean Dotson, and Noah Vonleh.

You might try it again at some point right?

That 5-man lineup was used for 94 minutes in the team’s first 15 games of the year. Leaned on, they won 3 of 7 and recorded one of the NBA’s best net ratings (+8.1) at the time.

But David Fizdale didn’t think they got off to a good enough start in the first quarter of games so he broke up the band. Here is what he said at the time per Newsday’s Steve Popper:

Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic wrote about the curious decision back in mid-November too.

Per The Athletic: 

“When Fizdale changed the starting lineup Wednesday, he went away from one of the few things that was objectively working for the Knicks.”

It was a head-scratcher then, but it’s really weird now. The quintet has not logged a single minute together since November 11th. It’s one thing to shake up the starting unit for better starts. But to literally not give a group that had one of the best net ratings in the entire NBA another minute as the team free-falls?

Talk about a baby-bath-water-tank situation.

Well OK Ok. Mitchell Robinson has been hurt, Frank was recently injured, and they needed to get Kevin Knox and others some run.

But much of all that has come at Ntilikina’s and the team’s expense and it feels at least a little unnecessary.

Have the changes helped?

Frank averaged 27.7 minutes per game over the team’s first 13 games. He has averaged 16 minutes since (counting his healthy yet inactive games, but not counting the games he missed with injury). Coach Fizdale lopped off more than about 10 minutes per game from Frank’s playing time following a stretch where Ntilikina was among almost all of the team’s best lineups. He played 30 minutes or more seven out of the team’s first nine games. He’s only played 30 minutes once ever since. Emmanuel Mudiay is the biggest beneficiary. But has that been good for New York?

The team to date now has a -3.5 net rating with Ntilikina as the primary ball handler (that means none of Trey Burke, Allonzo Trier or Mudiay for a total of 289 minutes per Fantasylabs.com).

When Emmanuel Mudiay is the primary ball handler (no Burke, no Frank, no Trier) the team’s net rating is -12.0. per FantasyLabs.com. But those Mudiay lineups have now been used for over 700 minutes. So the Mudiay-led lineup has received about 2.5 times more minutes as the Frank-led lineup while performing almost 3.5 times worse per net rating.2

And while Mudiay has certainly reached a bit of a turning point in his career, it has not necessarily made the Knicks better:

Since the change, Ntilikina has not only received fewer minutes overall but he has had limited opportunity to play with lineup combinations that were once effective.

For example:

  • A trio of Ntilikina, Vonleh, and Robinson logged 113 minutes with a net rating of +3.0 over the team’s first 15 games. But they only logged 17 minutes together total over the team’s next 30 games.
  • A four-player combo of Ntilikina, Dotson, Hardaway, and Vonleh logged 131 minutes with a net rating of -0.3 in the first 15 games, but they’ve only played 8 total minutes over the subsequent 30 games.
  • A four-player combo of Ntilikina, Dotson, Vonleh, and Robinson played 105 minutes (net rating +4.1) over the first 15 games, and didn’t log a single minute together over the next 30 games.

Fizdale was absolutely right that he didn’t have a winning unit. But he did have a much better unit than most of the seemingly infinite permutations he’s experimented with ever since.

New York is now tied for the third worst net rating per game of -9.2 per NBA.com. They have absolutely plummeted since trying other lineup combos. Since Fizdale abandoned his better lineup in early November, the team has won less (their winning percentage fell from 28.6% down to 19%).

The team previously held their own in first quarters (net rating -0.3 with the aforementioned 5-man unit, but now they just get smoked after jump balls with a net rating -10.8 ever since)3; and the team’s overall net rating went from bad to pathetic (from -5.1 down to -9.2).

Man did that backfire. Unless of course…

But even if the Knicks are tanking did Ntilikina really deserve less than 17 minutes per game over a two-month period? Ten minutes less than Mudiay?

In the team’s first 13 games of the year, Frank was not only starting and taking on the likes of Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving but the team had a respectable net rating of -3.6. The kid was showing the defensive brilliance Knicks fans learned to expect during his rookie season:

Ntilikina was in 8 out of 10 of the team’s best three and four-player lineup combinations. You can go back and swap Vonleh in for Dotson, or Hardaway in for Robinson. But that French kid was a constant.

Yet Frank was the one who was essentially demoted when a shakeup came. Did Fizdale sub out the right guy though?

How has the second-year guard from Ixelles, Belgium responded?

Frank took a backseat. He said the right things. And he has quietly rebuilt his resume back up from scratch with some new partners in crime. Per Synergy Sports, he’s a very good defender: elite when guarding isolations or handoffs, and good against pick-and-roll ball handlers. Offensively he’s been below average but performs his best out of isolations.

He’s had plenty of tests. Because coach Fizdale has essentially refused to allow any lineups the time to gel, Ntilikina has been forced to mesh with new faces on a near nightly basis.4

But Frank has made due. For any 3-player combination on the season, given at least 50 minutes, the third best net rating belongs to Ntilikina, Dotson, and newcomer to the rotation Luke Kornet.

Ntilikina paired with Dotson and Knox has a +5.9 net rating. Swap in Kornett for Dotson and that healthy rating doesn’t change.

Using net rating, for a minimum of 50 minutes played together, Ntilikina is in four of the team’s six best performing four-player lineups for the entire year. He’s adaptive and selfless.

Vonleh, Ntilikina, Dotson and Knox have only played 25 minutes together so far this year. Their net rating is +47.4. That number will regress but it’s a signal: there are plenty of combinations that will likely lead to improved play by incorporating more Frank. It’s really remarkable how many lineups he is in that have a slightly positive net rating given how poorly the team has played on the whole.

Somehow, someway, this kid who everyone is certain is underperforming, and whose confidence is shot, has consistently helped a 10-win team play some of its best basketball past the midway point of the season.

It could be because Frank makes plenty of plays that help the game score but not the boxscore: 

Ntilikina is in two of the team’s top three 5-player combinations for the entire season, for those that have logged 50 minutes. I’ve probably bored you with all of these combos but read this last one again. It was a surprise to me.

Even when Frank is not passing all of our fallible eye-tests or statistical measures of success, he plays a role within many of the team’s best lineups. We’re not seeing the type of offensive production we usually associate with NBA success. But whether he was playing with and against starters, or on bench units, (for any reasonably robust sum of minutes ) Frank’s name filters to the top.

He should challenge the way we evaluate NBA players the way Shane Battier once did; a player Fizdale knows quite well from their Miami Heat days.

Frank’s contributions are not lost on the Hall-of-Famer who once ran point for one of the most mesmerizing dynasties the sport has ever seen:

Is it fair to put this on the coach?

What’s perhaps most head-scratching about all of this is how putrid the team has been since Ntilikina’s role was reduced. It would make sense if the team was competing and the coach felt he wasn’t able to keep it up. But he IS contributing and they’re NOT competing.

What if Frank and some of the combos that have worked were allowed to log the type of 700-minute chunks we’ve seen Mudiay receive? Could they have been any worse?

Now I’ve picked on coach Fizdale here, but the team’s front office may have much more to do with everything we’ve seen. It’s entirely possible Fizdale is simply carrying out orders. And tons of losing is not on Mudiay, who has played some good ball in a tough situation.

If Ntilikina is traded, we will know he wasn’t in the front office’s long term plans. In that case, reducing his minutes to avoid injury is prudent.

If Mudiay is traded, we may learn the team was just showcasing him for an asset before turning the ship over to Ntilikina.

And of course, if the team plays so badly they wind up drafting Zion Williamson every single measure taken to make that happen will be seen as a stroke of brilliance in hindsight.

But, hypothetically, if the team wanted to win more games or wanted to develop Frank, they’d give him some more burn. The kid has been slowed down and the team has missed his presence, but he hasn’t been stopped. The advanced team stats prove the name Ntilikina just keeps filtering to the top.

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

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

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

It wasn’t because I didn’t think I could be objective about the benefits and drawbacks of trading away my favorite player the team has had since they were a perennial playoff contender (look it up, kids). Three years of law school taught me how to take emotion out of any scenario and to hone my focus on the facts5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t the crux of my argument though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Small Favor at the Knicks Halfway Mark

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: it also sucked.

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

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

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

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

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

We need to see more meaningful passing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two modest proposals:

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

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

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

Pick a defensive identity

…and “shitty” doesn’t count.

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

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

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

Figure out Frank

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

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

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

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

A deal is not close, but the Knicks and Kings are discussing a trade that would send Enes Kanter out west in exchange for Zach Randolph’s expiring contract, with perhaps a third team getting involved, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski.

Some of our Knicks Film School professors (writers) give their thoughts on what the Knicks should do with Enes Kanter:

MACRI (@JCMacriNBA) – The Knicks Should NOT TREAT Enes Kanter LIKE KRAMER TREATS FREE COFFEE FOR LIFE.

For the non-Seinfeld fans: in the episode where Kramer sues a national coffee chain for making his coffee too hot, he has a meeting with his lawyer and the coffee company to negotiate a potential settlement. The coffee company – Java World – begins the negotiation by saying “We’re prepared to offer you free coffee from any of our stores and-” but before the lawyer can finish what he’s saying, Kramer jumps up, shakes his hand, and elatedly says “I’ll take it!”

This scene is a microcosm of essentially every Knicks trade negotiation in the history of the franchise. You can picture Phil Jackson on the phone with David Griffin and yelling “SOLD!” the moment Griffin agreed to take on JR Smith and Iman Shumpert. We haven’t exactly had a history of holding out for the best offer.

Perhaps the only team in recent NBA history to have a worse transaction record is the Kings. Why they’re interested in Enes Kanter is beyond me, but regardless, the Knicks have to avoid the temptation to jump at the first offer. Play this one out and try to milk negotiations with a potentially irrational actor as much as possible.

Does this run counter to a column I wrote just a few weeks ago, calling for the Knicks to waive Kanter, like, yesterday? You’re damn right it does! But I never accounted for the fact that the Kings would be so stupid value offensive rebounding so much. Let’s play this hand till the river. You got nothing to lose.

VIVEK (@vdadhania) – The Knicks should FIND A SMART REPLACEMENT FOR Enes Kanter.

While Kanter has been generally lambasted for his poor defensive effort, he provides three key traits that are mostly missing on the roster:

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

Development is a tricky process. Simply playing young players doesn’t always work, especially if it leads to bad habits on the floor or stunts the development in other areas.  The Knicks are a putrid rebounding team without Kanter. Removing him from the lineup, teams will feast on the boards which will lead to fewer opportunities for the young players to shine with efficiency, whether in transition or with extra opportunities on offense.

Perry & Mills should look to garner a pick and an expiring contract for Kanter. If he’s bought out, the front office needs to find someone who can grab some rebounds and/or be a useful source of veteran leadership for Mitchell Robinson.

SU YORK (@SuYork_1023) – The Knicks should TRADE Enes Kanter (ONLY IF THE RETURN IS GREAT).

Let’s face it, we all knew this was coming and many of us hoped for this. Kanter went from a good vet presence this season to a team nuisance as quickly as the Knicks give up a lead in the third quarter.

Hearing rumors that multiple teams want him, it’s very important the Knicks make a wise decision. I do not like the recent proposal from the Sacramento Kings looking for a straight-up swap sending Zach Randolph to the Knicks (yes, Z-Bo is still in the league).

What I want to happen:

I want the Knicks to find the best possible trade for Kanter. He still has value on a winning team. He is a walking Double-Double. He still contributes, and despite being a bit disgruntled with his current role, overall, he is a good teammate. I know this is reaching, but if we can at least get a second round pick with an expiring contract that would be ideal. (I’m a dreamer) 🤷🏼‍♀️

If we do not get anything worthwhile for Kanter, I want him to face reality and accept his role on the bench. This season is not about winning. Is Kanter more delusional than your typical fan? I want him to stay quiet and keep producing with the minutes he’s given. We recently saw him more accepting of his bench role and playing well in the Lakers game. Although it was a loss for team tank, the Knicks got their 1st win of 2019. Kanter may be a beneficial influence to the rookies, especially Mitchell Robinson. If Kanter can only hold on a few more months, then walk away this summer, that would be great. That will be the end of the Enes Kanter era in NY!

ALEX (@MrAlexCollins) – The Knicks Should AMICABLY SEPARATE FROM Enes Kanter.

Enes is in his eighth year in the NBA and he is understandably unhappy with his bench role on a team that has only 10 wins at the halfway point of the season and still has the highest strength of schedule remaining in the Eastern Conference, per ESPN.

There is no valid argument for the Knicks keeping Kanter around for the rest of the season. Whether you think he is a net positive player or not, his inclusion on the team is not resulting in the Knicks being anywhere near a playoff contender.

The Knicks should be focused on getting the highest possible pick in the draft and developing their young players. This is best served by giving minutes to Mitchell Robinson, Luke Kornet, and bringing in a veteran big who is happier to sit and mentor the young guys than Kanter has proven to be. Even picking up young big men from free agency or the G-league on 10-day contracts would better benefit the team moving forward.

There have been enough positive instances that we can remember Enes with some fondness, and his last 3 games have been a nice run for him to bow out on. Why not do right by him and move him to a situation where he has a defined role on a team in playoff contention?

Whether the Knicks outright waive Enes, thus giving him the freedom to choose where he wants to play next without restriction, or saving him the embarrassment of being cut from one of the worst teams in the NBA and simply moving him to a contender for an expiring contract, it’s best for all parties to respectfully go their separate ways.

MIKE D (@debatebball) – The Knicks Should START Enes Kanter.

They should keep him.  And if they keep him, they have to play him.  And if they’re playing him, why not start him?

Reasons they should keep him:

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

  2. Practicing against him will help both Mitch and Kornet. Post play, while less important these days, is not extinct. Kanter’s strength and skill down low can help our young centers learn how to hold their own against stronger bigs who still bang on the block and attack the glass.

  3. He’s playing well. He’s been arguably their best player over the last few games. If Fiz is going to preach, “Keep what you kill,” then Kanter deserves to play.

I’d only trade him if we’re getting something more than swapping expiring money, and I’d only buy him out if he asks for that.

DAVE (@DavidEarly) – The Knicks Should FRANTICALLY SHOP Enes Kanter.

The Knicks should FRANTICALLY shop Enes. If they were really smart they’d do all they can to get a couple of second round picks for him without taking back any long-term salary. Otherwise, I’d try to buy him out.

With the right coach, Enes is absolutely good enough to win you a few games down the stretch. You CANNOT risk the top (14%) pick odds with a player of Zion Williamson’s caliber on the board. Moving on from Enes helps you A) avoid PR headaches when you sit him to tank or B) avoid the devastating “spirited win” down the stretch that costs you 35% of your ping pong balls.

The sneaky benefit of sending him to the Kings is that if he actually helps them win, it hurts the Atlantic Division rival Celtics’ pick.

That could be key. If the Knicks wind up with KD and Zion and KP, they just might visit Boston in the conference finals next year. So we can root for Enes to ball out in Sacramento.

Navigating the Kristaps Porzingis news cycle

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

At least not the ones that have been paying attention.

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

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

Again, none of this is news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The word on Porzingis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such is life as a Knicks fan.

Happy Thoughts for a Happy New Year

First, watch the beginning of the play above.

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

Rewind.

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

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

Rewind.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just imagine how you’ll feel then.

Kevin Knox is thriving with Allonzo Trier’s touches

Let’s pretend the Knicks most recent loss to Milwaukee didn’t happen for a second.5

Instead, I want to take a step back and look at what happened in the previous 14 games, which wraps around an important point in time for when Kevin Knox started scoring the basketball in bunches.

The ninth overall pick, who was notoriously booed by a select group of fans who wanted the team to select Michael Porter Jr. on draft night, is looking much more like he did in Summer League, except, this time, the competition is real.

The Kentucky product averaged 20.3 points and 6.6 rebounds on 43.3 percent shooting over the 7 games leading up to Christmas. Pretty impressive stuff.

However, there is another way to look at Knox’s recent stretch beyond counting back the number of games on the calendar. You can cite the same statistics and replace “last 7 gameswithsince Mario Hezonja has seen his minutes reduced and Allonzo Trier has been out of the lineup.”

Kevin Knox is scoring more than 20 points per game since Fizdale drastically reduced Hezonja’s minutes and when Allonzo Trier was absent from the Knicks lineup with a sore hamstring. On the night Trier first sat and Hezonja found himself riding the bench, Knox poured in 26 points on December 9 vs Charlotte.

In the 7 games proceeding Knox’s breakout night, Hezonja was averaging 20 minutes per game. This is only two minutes less than what Knox was averaging at the time. Since Knox replaced Hezonja in the starting lineup, he is averaging 36.8 minutes, while Hezonja is down to 11.5 minutes, most recently receiving DNPs vs Atlanta and Milwaukee.

And this is where Allonzo Trier’s absence comes into play. Leading up to the injury, Kevin Knox played alongside Allonzo Trier more than any other teammate.

So while Knox’s minutes have ticked up at the expense of Mario Hezonja, his added offensive production is the product of receiving touches and shot attempts that were previously reserved for Iso Zo.

Knox’s touches each game have jumped from 37.6 in the seven games leading up to Trier’s injury to 55.1 over the seven games Trier was out of the lineup. Knox also increased his shot frequency by eight more shot attempts per game, which is interestingly around the same number of shot attempts Trier was averaging in the seven games before he got hurt.

But it’s not just volume that is helping Knox’s numbers. He is also much more efficient, of late. His 43.3 percent shooting accuracy in the games Trier sat out is a drastic increase over the 33.8 percentage he shot in the seven games prior to Trier’s injury.

And where does that increased efficiency come from?

Driving to the hoop… the same thing that “anonymous scouts” criticized Knox for not doing enough; the same thing Knox, himself, knows he needs to do more of to get his offense going.

In the seven games Trier was out with an injury, Knox averaged 5.4 drives per game, which is nearly double the 2.8 drives per game he averaged before that point in time. He is also finishing 46.2% of his shots resulting from drives during this current scoring stretch, versus only 27.0% prior to that, according to NBA.com.

Drives are supposed to exclude fast break opportunities, but it’s hard to know, for sure, if NBA.com is accurate in stripping out the semi-transition plays that result in “drives” for Knox. This could partially explain why his numbers have increased during Trier’s injury. The Knicks are more likely to run with Mudiay at point guard and Knox playing alongside him.

That said, it’s the halfcourt game where the added touches Knox receives when Trier is not playing are helping him the most. Without Trier as the lead ball-handler, the 2018 lottery pick finds himself in more situations, particularly at the top of the key, that allow him to drive to the rim, either to pull up short for his patented little floater, or finish the play with a lay-up or dunk.

This is not to say Allonzo Trier is a bad offensive player, but to suggest that Trier’s dominance of the ball can turn Knox into a spectator when he should be taking more command of the basketball.

If we now look at the Knicks loss to Milwaukee on Christmas, we can see how Knox played with Trier back in the lineup. And guess what? Knox still took plenty of shots, 20 to be exact, but 19 of those came when Trier was off the floor.

If David Fizdale wants Kevin Knox to continue to develop as a lead option in the offense, it might make sense for him to stagger Knox and Trier’s minutes as much as possible. This comes from playing Knox less minutes at the four, often resulting in a lineup that finds room for Trier alongside two other guards, and more minutes at the three, with a player like Noah Vonleh, who helps create plays for Knox with his screening ability rather than taking away opportunities by demanding more touches, like Trier.

Knox might eventually become a great modern day four, but the composition of the current roster is pleading for Fizdale to play him with players who help him drive to the hoop and become a lead scorer instead of playing him with ball-dominant players who take away valuable touches for his development.

Where we’re at with Frank Ntilikina

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

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

The most famous line from Animal Farm, George Orwell’s Stalinist critique from 1945, has taken on newfound meaning to Knicks fans in 2018. Thanks to David Fizdale’s proclaimed mantra of “keep what you kill,”2 the thought from day one is that things like reputation, contract status or years of experience wouldn’t matter when it came to dolling out playing time. If you earned it, you got it, plain and simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Y’all know me.

Y’all know me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

De…fence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait…there’s more!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final grade in evaluating the Knicks rebuild so far

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

FINAL GRADES

Establishing Identity & Changing the CultureA-

Leadership in UniformC

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

Development of Individual TalentB

OVERALLB

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott and Steve, keep working those phones.

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

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

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

FIGURE OUT A ROTATION!

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

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

The thought process here is:

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the Summer Magic Alive.

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

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


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

2011 – Klay Thompson (#11)

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

NO FIRST-ROUNDER FOR THREE YEARS

2015 – Kevon Looney (#30)


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

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

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

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

PART IV:  Establishing Identity, Changing the Culture

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

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

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

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

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

What do the Knicks run?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do the Knicks want to play?

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

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

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

“I want to…attack the paint.”

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

“I want to share the basketball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do we like?

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

What are the team’s values?

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRADES:

Establishing Identity & Changing the Culture – A-

Leadership in Uniform – C

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

Development of Individual Talent – B

Fizdale: Frank will see the court soon

Frank Ntilikina has spent the last three games stapled to the Knicks bench. The 2017 lottery pick has struggled with his shot this season, shooting an anemic 33.3% from the field, including a dismal 25.7% from three. That said, in a year dedicated to player development, it has been curious that Fizdale has decided to leave Ntilikina out of the rotation of late.

Following the Knicks most recent loss to Boston, Fizdale indicated that he probably should have played him. The Knicks struggled trying to stop the pick-and-roll throughout the game, a situation Ntilikina excels at defending.

Speaking a day later in practice, Fizdale gave some more clarity on the French guard’s role in the rotation.

I still see Frank as a rotation player […] No one is ever buried on my team. It’s just one quick decision from getting him in the mix. He had a heck of a practice today. You’ll be seeing Frank on the court sometime soon.”

Fizdale was seen sitting with Frank on the side of the court after practice having a long conversation.

Ntilikina continues to say the right things in responding to his lack of playing time, “I’m learning. I’m going to get out of this better, get out of this experience better than I was. This is going to get me tougher on the court, tougher mentally. Just better. It’s an experience that helps players.”

Of course, Frank isn’t the only Knicks guard to deal with inconsistent minutes. Damyean Dotson, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Trey Burke have all seen their minutes fluctuate this season, as Fizdale continues to tweak with the rotations.

I just saw them bounce back real good on the court,” Ntilikina said. “Like they did, and what I’m doing right now, they competed really hard at practice. They got extra work. That’s what I’m doing every day. We’ve got to stay confident in this type of situation. We’ve been through some tougher things in life. It’s just a thing that will help us bounce back and get better.”

The Knicks next play on Saturday against Brooklyn, a team that Ntilikina has had perhaps his most success against in the NBA.

Report: Knicks haven’t had any internal discussions about John Wall

It was reported earlier this week by the New York Post that “some in the league believe the Knicks are stocking up their young assets and will make a major play for Wall if he becomes available.” 

We can now put that rumor to bed. Ian Begley reports the Knicks have not had any internal discussions about a potential trade for John Wall.

The former number one overall pick is due to make $169 million over the next four years from a contract extension that kicks in next season. From the initial report, it was hard to believe the Knicks, who want to be active pursuers in the free agency market, would be looking to lock up as much as $37.8 million on one player next season, alone.

Forget whether you think John Wall is the type of player you want to build around, he would come on a double cost: the cost of the assets to acquire him and the cost of future cap space from his massive extension. It doesn’t make much sense for the Knicks to pay this double price for someone not named Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis.


It was also reported earlier this week by the New York Post that Brooklyn and Detroit have shown interest in Damyean Dotson. Ian Begley reports that while teams have shown interest in the second round standout, neither Brooklyn nor Detroit have reached out to the Knicks about him.

Report: Knicks not actively shopping Ntilikina, but off-record executives believe he will be traded

The Frank Ntilikina rumors continue to swirl, as we have detailed here.

Several media outlets have reported that interest exists from a variety of teams for the former lottery pick. There has been no credible report to suggest the Knicks are looking to trade him, and there remains no report of them seeking a trade.

However, Chris Sheridan of Get More Sports reports that teams around the league believe Ntilikina will be wearing a different uniform by this year’s trade deadline.

New York is not actively shopping the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 draft, but there is a clear sense among other teams that Phil Jackson’s other first-round draft choice — the one not named Kristaps Porzingis — will be wearing a different uniform by the time the Feb. 7 trade deadline passes.

Sheridan notes that New York is not “actively shopping” the French guard and adds that none of the executives sourcing the information would speak on the record.

The report indicates that while Phoenix and Orlando, two teams tied to Frank in recent rumors, are looking for a starting point guard, neither is currently involved in any discussions, according to well-informed sources.

Ntilikina has been a model citizen as he deals with these rumors and consecutive DNP-CDs. However, he did get a bit short, for Frank, in a media session in Boston following an extra round of shooting.

I would not pay this Sheridan report too much attention, considering it is based on executives speaking off the record and we still do not have any credible report suggesting the Knicks are looking to actually trade Frank. There is a lot of “interest” from teams around the league, which is a testament to the potential people see in the defensive-minded guard. Let’s hope the Knicks realize that, too, and get him back on the floor soon enough.

Everything we know about Frank Ntilikina trade rumors

As Knicks fans debate whether Frank Ntilikina is the next great Knick or complete bust10, rumors are starting to swirl about the former lottery pick’s future.

Let’s sort out what we know so far…

Almost all of the reporters on the Knicks beat have reported that other teams are interested in Ntilikina. No credible source has reported that the Knicks are looking to trade the young guard.

However, there does appear to be something going on in relation to how the organization views the French guard’s long-term future in New York.

We heard Chris Vernon, who has ties to Fizdale from his days in Memphis, report that the Knicks are not very high on Frank right now.  “Everybody I talked to was out on him … It’s like ‘he’s not a PG’ … the kid can’t shoot … it was not a good report … I’m telling you this is from people with the team every damn day.”

We also have the evidence of his recent benching, and hints from David Fizdale that the rotation (which currently doesn’t include Frank) is stabilizing after early season tweaking, which at least suggests the team is less than sure about his role right now.

Speaking to reporters on December 5, Fizdale was asked about Ntilikina’s two straight DNPs, in which he responded:


Let’s now review what has been reported in terms of trade interest in Ntilikina, organized from the most credible to least credible sources.

Ian Begley reports that Phoenix reached out to the Knicks earlier this year about Frank.

This is not the first time Phoenix has kicked the tires on Ntilikina. Back when they were looking to deal Eric Bledsoe, Frank’s name came up. As Ian Begley reported last October:

The Phoenix Suns’ focus in talks with the Knicks recently has been on Frank Ntilikina – not Willy Hernangomez — league sources told ESPN, but the Knicks remain uninterested in dealing their rookie point guard.

Of course, Bledsoe ended up in Milwaukee and Willy Hernangomez would eventually be traded by the Knicks.

The Suns even tried to get their hands on Ntilikina during talks about a possible Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving trade in July 2017.

Ian Begley also reports that Brooklyn has interest in Ntilikina. However, both Nets Daily and Brian Lewis of the New York Post are reporting the Nets do NOT have interest.

Besides Phoenix and Brooklyn, Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic reports that Orlando and Minnesota have interest in Frankie Smokes.

Stefan Bondy adds Memphis to the list of interested teams.

Marc Berman of the New York Post also notes that other teams have interest in Ntilikina, but has not listed the explicit teams.


Now we get into what I will classify more as “chatter.”

Chris Sheridan of Get More Sports reports that teams around the league believe Ntilikina will be wearing a different uniform by this year’s trade deadline:

New York is not actively shopping the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 draft, but there is a clear sense among other teams that Phil Jackson’s other first-round draft choice — the one not named Kristaps Porzingis — will be wearing a different uniform by the time the Feb. 7 trade deadline passes.

Sheridan notes that New York is not “actively shopping” the French guard and adds that none of the executives sourcing the information would speak on the record.

The report indicates that while Phoenix and Orlando, two teams tied to Frank in recent rumors, are looking for a starting point guard, neither is currently involved in any discussions, according to well-informed sources.

John Gambadoro of Arizonasports.com speculates that the Knicks are looking for draft picks to package for a star player in any deal that involves Ntilikina, and believes the Milwaukee pick owed to Phoenix could get a deal done.

By far the least credible report, if it can be counted as a report at all, comes from Legion Hoops:

So there you have it, from most credible to least credible, everything we know right now.

Other teams are interested in Frank, his role in the rotation is a bit precarious right now, but there is no indication (yet) that the Knicks are looking to trade the young guard.

The Godfather of Knicks Trades

As an Italian kid who grew up in Staten Island, I have a particular affinity for The Godfather2.

Shocker, I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s go through the WWMD possibilities.

First, everyone’s favorite rowboat captain, Fredo:

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

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

Next up, Sonny:

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

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

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

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

You curious?

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

The Michael Corleone Move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s strictly business.