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 bust1, 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.

Tim Hardaway Sr. explains why he didn’t celebrate his son’s halftime buzzer-beater

Tim Hardaway Sr. had a viral moment when he was caught on camera looking unenthused by his son’s play in a recent Knicks game vs Detroit. Hardaway Jr. nailed a jump shot in the closing minutes of the first half, and when the camera panned to his father, well, you can watch for yourself below…

Appearing as a guest on the Five Reasons Sports Podcast in Miami, Tim Hardaway Sr. wanted to clear the air about his perceived lack of excitement.

“When my son plays, I’m very excited,” he explains.

“They were shooting 25% from the field in the first half. They down 11. He makes a jump shot to cut it within 9, at halftime. Am I supposed to get excited about that? I don’t understand that.”

The former Miami Heat guard, who had some epic battles with the Knicks as a player, said he was more concerned with the Knicks regrouping for the second half. He added that it would be different if it was a playoff game.

Hardaway Sr. says he told his son that he needed to get better in all aspects of his game before he was traded to Atlanta. He credits Tim Jr.’s brief stint in the G-League as a key turning point to his career, where he was able to learn for himself some of the things his father was trying to explain to him.

Listen to the full podcast episode below.

Report: Pistons and Nets have interest in Dotson

Marc Berman of the New York Post is reporting that the Pistons and Nets have interest in Damyean Dotson.

Dotson is currently playing some of his best basketball as a Knick, after receiving four consecutive DNPs. Over the last four games he has played, he is averaging 17.8 points on a blazing hot 62.5 percent shooting from the field, along with 4.8 rebounds per game.

The Knicks have a roster decision to make in a few weeks when Allonzo Trier’s two-way NBA service time runs up (approximately December 15). Dotson is signed through the rest of this season, but has a non-guaranteed amount due next season that the Knicks, or any acquiring team, have the option to guarantee, or not, in July.

There have been no other reports confirming interest in Dotson from either Detroit or Brooklyn. In fact, Nets Daily, who is more connected than the typical “blog,” refutes Berman’s report, as they refuted Ian Begley’s report on the Nets’ interest in Frank Ntilikina earlier this week.8

It is important to note that Berman does not indicate that the Knicks are looking to trade the blossoming second round pick, his report simply suggests interest in the two-way guard.

Do the Knicks have interest in John Wall?

Hours after John Wall nailed a three-pointer to kill the Knicks’ comeback hopes at the Garden, a report came out that suggests the Knicks have interest in the 28-year-old guard.

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. The Wizards (9-14) were said to be ready to break it up after their disastrous start. It would have to be a three-team deal with the Knicks throwing in Ntilikina, Dotson, Courtney Lee (for cap purposes), a 2020 first-round and second-round pick.

[via Marc Berman]


What this means: Not a whole lot. The way the report is phrased as “some in the league believe” tells you that it is not a source with inside knowledge who is telling the reporter this information. It’s essentially speculation by people “in the league” which could range from low-end scouts, assistant coaches, anyone who might have an opinion and be in the league. We really don’t know.

Does this even make sense?

John Wall appears to be available. But that doesn’t mean he makes sense for the Knicks.

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. It’s 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.

Who should the Knicks call about a potential Courtney Lee trade?

Courtney Lee has recovered from his neck injury and for the first time in this young season saw game action, logging 16 minutes and shooting 1-4 from the field vs. the Wizards. It will be interesting to see how he is deployed in the near future. There may be some incentive to ease him back into the rotation, but also to showcase his health and talent for a possible upcoming trade.

He is a leader and a mentor as our own Michael DeStafano has written. But signing Kevin Durant is the master plan for the Knicks and they’re currently a bit short financially for that goal. As our Knicks Film School Founder, J.B., recently wrote: 

“Really, it all boils down to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee.”

There are plenty of salary details in that last link, but the gist is they’re going to need around ~$6.4m more in order to create a max roster spot for Durant and that means someone on the books has to go.

A Refresher on the Lee Situation

If you know this well, feel free to skip ahead to trade scenarios. But here is some context:

As early as September, it seemed as if Lee was the most likely Knick to be traded for expiring contracts. Remember, Coach David Fizdale called Lance Thomas a “natural” leader but didn’t offer similar praise for Lee back in September and the team did not include him in their “Future of New York” promo and Lee appeared to reply to what the NY Post called a “slight” on his social media. 

With the stated focus on developing young players, and Lee’s apparent interest in playing again for a contender, it makes sense to reluctantly part with the 11 year guard out of Western Kentucky.

But…

What’s going on with his neck?

Then there was the mysterious injury which complicated things. On the third day of training camp, he took a hard foul from Ron Baker which sent him flying into the support beam under the hoop. Despite getting close to returning more than once, he was held out the lineup until this past week. There was even mention of nerve stuff and spasms at one point. He finally appears healthy again, or healthy enough to return to the lineup, so now it’s about revving the engine back up and finding a team where he fits.

Caught up? Good. Now one disclaimer: I researched this piece before Frank Ntilikina’s name popped up-a few times a day since Thanksgiving in trade rumors. I’m simply not emotionally ready to research much bigger trades that send out Lee with Frank.2 So for this piece, these are all trades of the “keep Frank a bit longer” variety.

Now let’s make some calls.

Click NEXT/SWIPE to view trades

Pelicans

The Pelicans have that clock in their heads. They may want to act boldly in order to retain their superstar, Anthony Davis, who might already have that wandering eye.

There are some players on the Pelicans who aren’t exactly indispensable.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 11.42.37 PM

Wesley Johnson is on the books for $6.1m and his deal expires this summer. He makes an ideal candidate to build a trade around.

Wesley is shooting a blistering hot 42.5% from three and holds a more than respectable .572 true shooting percentage.  Not exactly the kind of play that gets you shipped out for someone coming off a spooky neck injury. However, Wesley has regressed to career averages recently and may continue to do so.

A player like Ian Clark (eligible for trade on Dec. 15th) or Tim Frazier could be strewn into the deal to make the contracts work.

The margins are slim and the Pelicans may have their sights set higher as teams like Washington or Miami consider major changes. But in the event they whiff there, or if the Knicks sweetened the pot somehow, this might become something they’d consider and would fully clear Lee’s salary.

Wolves

It has been rumored since the Jimmy Butler trade that the Timberwolves would waive Jerryd Bayless.

They have not done so yet, and it might be fair to speculate that they’re considering if Bayless has any value as an expiring contract before doing so. By trading for Lee, it would give Tom Thibodeau a player he has long had his eyes on, per the Minnesota beat (you remember the Lee for Ricky Rubio rumors).

Perhaps Thibs could extract an asset in addition to Lee. I wondered aloud if this exact deal, pending Lee’s health, is part of the reason Minny hasn’t waived Bayless and heard back from the top two members of the T-Wolves’ beat:2

So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance!

Grizzlies

The narrative surrounding this one is too good, isn’t it?

If you looked up Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale’s track record, then you know that he helped JaMychal Green develop into a player who was instrumental to the Grizz’s gritty playoff run in 2016-2017. Green saw perhaps his most efficient season as a pro, and played the third most minutes behind Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol in their first round run.

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Green received that compliment, likening him to Udonis Haslem, known as a leader on the 3-championship Miami Heat teams, and where Coach Fiz was an assistant coach. Well, Green recently broke his jaw which gave the exhilarating rookie, Jaren Jackson Jr., an opportunity to flourish. It doesn’t appear that Jackson is going to relinquish his role anytime soon – dude just dropped 36 and 8 on Brooklyn and he turned 19 in September.

Reuniting Green with coach Fiz and letting Memphis welcome back Lee, who enjoyed a couple terrific years in Music City, makes lots of sense. The Grizz have some choices for who to kick in to make the salary match, like MarShon Brooks, Omri Casspi, and Wayne Selden; none of them are exactly tearing it up.

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For Memphis fans, they get this guy back:

I think this is my favorite one for both sides as of this writing.

Pacers

Rookie Aaron Holiday is coming on. The Pacers may not feel they need both of Darren Collison and Corey Joseph (each expiring). Parting with one for Lee could create more opportunity for Holiday, while assisting their off-ball perimeter play on each end of the floor with a touch more size. Collison is involved in lots of twitter trades by Pacer fans, often in a bundle for Kemba Walker. Indy has loads of upcoming cap-space, maybe more than they’d “need” given their situation. They could afford ~$12m-$13m for Lee’s talents if preferred deals for players like Terry Rozier or Walker fail to materialize. Indy is Lee’s hometown and they’re a good team so there could be some “do right by Lee good karma” there too. He’d be a really great fit here.

Kings

The idea that Lee would want out of New York to join a contender and the Kings name would come up is absurd. But amazingly the Kings aren’t a dumpster fire. They’re on a skid lately, losing 8 of 13, but with no draft pick, and therefore, no incentive to tank, they have reason to remain scrappy. They have cap-space, but not a ton of options to lure players to Sacramento. Lee could potentially provide an excellent replacement for Garrett Temple, a mentor to Buddy Hield, and be a key contributor in a push to make the playoffs, no matter how unlikely.

Screen Shot 2018-11-23 at 12.13.34 AM.png

The Kings are missing an athletic, experienced wing like they once had in former Knick Doug Christie, and they have an unbalanced roster, weighted towards lots of front-court players. Why not Courtney?

Jazz

The Jazz fall into the “non-expiring Plan B” section of my trade scenarios. Maybe finding someone else to pay all of next year’s salary is tricky, but at least the Knicks could reduce the cost of what they owe to Lee. Remember, they are only about $7 million shy of max space for Durant. Lee is owed north of $12 million, so they could technically take some money back and be ok.

Utah was really ailing, which is why they already pulled the trigger on sending Alec Burks and a couple second round picks to Cleveland for Kyle Korver. But that doesn’t mean they’re done making moves. Especially because Korver doesn’t address one of their biggest needs.

As that piece above suggests, the aggressiveness with which a team can defend high-screens has been limited with “freedom of movement” rule changes. This has hurt the Jazz especially, who had a stifling defense a year ago, and this change further increases their need for specialists on the perimeter.

Thabo Sefolosha was a solid perimeter defender and career 34 percent 3-point shooter, but he’s 34 years old now. He’s coming off knee surgery. And he’s played just 80 minutes this year.

Sefolosha’s expiring $5.2m and Ekpe Udoh’s (Knicks love former lottery picks!) $3.3m gets you the building blocks for this one. But you may need to involve trade exceptions (Utah possesses two, and NY one) or Raul Neto’s non-expiring but paltry $2.2m to make it all work which gets a bit complicated. But the need is there.

When healthy, Lee is a speedier version of Jae Crowder, enabling them some much needed depth. Tim Hardaway Jr. would have really infused life into an offense that now lives and dies with Donovan Mitchell’s creation. Another 3-level scoring counter punch might really have helped. But with Burks in Cleveland now, it’s less likely. All the more reason to talk about Lee.

Spurs

Gregg Popovich shoved his chips to the center of the table. Rumored to be contemplating retirement around 2020, he all but confirmed as much by seeking packages for talented All-Star DeMar DeRozan instead of asset bundles or developmental projects when he traded Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio has never been a place stars yearn to go, so $13m in 2019 cap space might not be as valuable to them as it would be to say, the Clippers.

Don’t you get the sense that Pop sometimes looks out at Davis Bertans heaving 3’s and thinks “two years of this for $7m per… or pay a little more for guy who can do that but also plays the other half of the game! Especially now that Dejounte Murray is hurt and Danny Green is gone. Man do I miss Timmy.

Here was what Pop offered last year on Bertans:

“It’s not his strong point, but it’s not for lack of effort,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about Bertans’ defense in February, via Orsborne.

And here is what Marilyn Dubinski of Pounding the Rock recently wrote: 

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 3.01.01 PM.png

You can’t not do whatever it takes to make the playoffs after going all in to win now in the Kawhi deal. They’re currently in a brutal conference and 538 hates their chances of making the playoffs as presently constructed.

Davis Bertans and Quincy Pondexter (expiring) for Lee. Who says no?

This is possible after January 15th since Bertans was recently extended. It would grant the Knicks very close to the amount they’d need to get KD, and offer a moveable contract in the form of a cheap stretch big, who just might rub off some Spurs-magic on Kevin Knox and the other young guns.

Pistons

Ahh the PuPu Platter. The east is open. The Pistons are currently 4th in the standings. Weird, I know. Because look:

How about Lee for Big Dog’s son, Glen Robinson III. Also everyone’s favorite NBA goon Zaza Pachulia and the best part of all…welcoming back José Calderón! That still leaves us a few million short. But man welcoming back Numero Ocho, the guy who you once thought was a solid centerpiece in a return for Tyson Chandler as a triangle point guard!

The trade that began the miserable march towards drafting King Kristaps Porziņģis.

Detroit has had almost impossible luck finding two-way wings who can space the floor and stay healthy3. They have even worse luck recruiting great free-agents. A healthy Lee could offer what they once loved about Avery Bradley, who they recently coveted before sending him to LA in the Blake Griffin deal.

As Detroit continues to involve promising rookies like Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown into their rotation, there are even more players on their roster who could become expendable like Ish Smith (expiring) or former Knick, Langston Galloway; although both of them are key members of the Piston’s rotation now. Worth a preliminary phone call to see what they’d be open to down the road.

What about Tax Teams and Title Contenders?

Finally, a team who reasoned that acquiring Lee could put them over the top might consider making a win-now move at the cost of future cap spending. These teams might include the Thunder, Rockets, Celtics, Sixers, Raptors, Bucks or Warriors.

It’s tricky. The Celtics, Warriors, and Sixers are all playing in two competitive time zones, now and in the future. Philly has shot down any rumors of interest in Lee in the past. Maybe a call to see if that’s changed now that Markelle Fultz and Ntilikina might be in play?

The Bucks don’t have much in terms of cap-relief (a deal involving Matthew Dellavedova would only save NY a few million dollars). The Thunder do have one fit in a move for Alex Abrines and Raymond Felton, but major tax issues to address. The Rockets are always creative enough to give a call to as one of the teams who value Lee’s skill-set the most. But because Brandon Knight has two years remaining on his contract, it’s hard to find deals that work.

Because many of the deals in this article cannot even happen before December 15th and January 15th, anyway, it gives Lee a chance to prove he is healthy and rehabilitate his trade value, while giving the laws of attrition a chance to thin out some rosters as injuries have a way of creating new market needs.

 

Development of individual talent: Grading the Knicks progress so far

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

PART III:  Development of Individual Talent

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

Quick facts:

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

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

Let’s break it down.

YOUNG VETS

Tim Hardaway, Jr. – Coming into the season, pretty much anyone with an opinion about the NBA considered him one of the worst contracts in the League, despite his near 18 PPG last season. Well, this season he’s up to 22.2 PPG; his 3-point percentage has rebounded nicely (35.6%); he’s almost doubled last year’s career-high free throw attempts (from 3.1 to 6.1); and he’s averaging a career-high 3 assists per game. And there’s still a TON of room for improvement. The staff has done a great job getting him to this point; now they just need to get him to tighten his handle, play some defense, and cut down significantly on forced shots.4

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

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

REVIVALS

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

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

VonlehGreen

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

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

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

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

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

HOME-GROWN TALENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most Important:  Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson

Not Far Behind:  Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Ntilikina

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

 

Allonzo Trier

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

 

Damyean Dotson

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

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

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

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

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

GRADES

Leadership in Uniform – C

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

Development of Individual Talent…

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

Report: Suns, Wolves, Nets(?) interested in Ntilikina

As Knicks fans debate whether Frank Ntilikina is the next great Knick or complete bust2, reports have surfaced that several teams are interested in the young point guard.

The Phoenix Suns seem to have the strongest interest.

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.

Besides Phoenix, Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic reports that Orlando and an unnamed team have interest in Frankie Smokes.

The Magic have shown interest in the 20-year-old, according to a league source, with a scout in Philadelphia last night watching him.

“He’s intriguing,” a different scout said.

In addition to Phoenix and Minnesota, Ian Begley, who is as reliable as any reporter on the beat, 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.

What this all means: Plenty of teams see the upside in a young guard who can defend all positions on the floor, and if given the opportunity, could perhaps be a lead guard in an offense where he doesn’t need to be the focal point to make a contribution.

Phoenix is clearly interested in pairing Ntilikina with Devin Booker as a perfect combination of offensive firepower and defensive acumen. We will see if the Knicks continue to be patient with their former lottery pick who has struggled to start this season. The front office held strong last October, making it known that they would not include Ntilikina in a blockbuster trade. We will find out if anything has changed since then, after another full season of evaluation.

Mario Hezonja has dunk of the season, but Giannis is ready for him next time

Mario Hezonja might have made the highlight of the season when he dunked with Giannis Antetokonmpo on his tail in the Knicks win over Milwaukee at Madison Square Garden.

But it was the way he stepped over the Greek Freak that has Giannis ready for the next time (could there possibly be another time?!) this happens.

The Knicks play Milwaukee next on Christmas Day and then a few days later in Milwaukee. That back-to-back suddenly got a lot more interesting.

Where Frank Ntilikina’s struggles began and what the Knicks should consider before entertaining any trade ideas

What did Frank Ntilikina do to deserve this?

Is he experiencing a similar fate as Willy Hernangómez, who was once billed as the future of the Knicks, then quickly relegated to a bench role before being traded to make room for more experienced veterans? It seems every day we get a new report that makes a trade feel at least a little more likely. 

Then David Fizdale implied that his players have started to settle into who they are going to be, only 25 games into the season! And if this is in anyway a reflection of his views towards Frank, who has been awful lately, it may lend another waft of smoke to the grey plume recently hovering over the sophomore’s head. Here’s the full quote, see what you think:

“Some of it still gotta be fight,” Fizdale said, explaining why the Knicks’ young players have seen their minutes drop lately. “Some of it still gotta be take and grab it and earn it. I don’t want to just give it all to them, especially now that we’re getting closer to the 25-game mark. Guys have kind of settled into starting to see who guys are going to be.”

Is it possible Frank has already shown him who he is?


How did we get here?

Let’s start with what has happened on the court. Clearly, Frank is struggling. His numbers this year are worse than his rookie campaign with Jeff Hornacek. Yikes.

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At times, watching him struggle recently has been cringe-worthy. It’s almost tempting to think: “Fiz has all the other young guys ballin’. Look at Allonzo Trier! It’s gotta be on Frank.”

To recap, Frank averaged ~30 minutes per game in October. Then he averaged a few less (23.8 minutes) when the calendar turned to November. Then came a home game vs Orlando. The team came out flat on both ends. Sure, Frank came out with his usual defensive acumen…but we already knew he could do that, we need offense now.

Both Frank and Tim Hardaway Jr. opened the game 0-3 with a turnover. Tim got plenty more chances but Frank was pulled for the night. A clear message was sent. Fizdale reduced his role significantly since this moment (he’s averaging about 16.9 minutes a contest since the benching) and his minutes have come sporadically, and not with the same units he enjoyed when he was last seen at all playing well. 

In case you’re curious, here were the 3 shots he missed. All pretty, with a similar flaw that a full-time shooting coach would be able to help. I’m not sure if the Knicks have one employed. But if they do, it’s one of the more fixable problems. It’s still a pretty shot, not like Josh Jackson’s or Markelle Fultz’s.

It’s condescending to use teaching or parenting metaphors for coaches because players aren’t children. I don’t mean it this way but it’s apt. Parents and teachers understand that rewarding effort can pay off more than rewarding results. Think: she got every problem wrong but she tried really hard. Offer praise for effort and teach proper technique. Avoid discouraging the student.

Frank can control his defense, but not whether or not he hits a couple of shots in just three tries. I disagreed with this extended benching and ensuing revocation of basically all lead-guard duties outside of garbage time. It’s possible this is still in the back of Frank’s mind, wondering if he plays good defense but misses a couple of jumpers, he could get a quick hook.

He hasn’t looked the same to me since this moment and has had almost no opportunities since to play with the lineups where he looks his best.

(For persuasive and compelling counterarguments on how less is sometimes more, or how Frank may have been benched because playing him could have done “more harm than good” read Jonathan Macri’s thoughts on this if you haven’t already. Great stuff.)

But Frank wasn’t nearly as bad just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, one of his best games came against the defending champs.

Two-way play like this has the attention of many teams, if not New York’s. It actually seemed as if the Knicks were onto something with a lineup of Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson. There was real chemistry there. But then the team got spanked in Oklahoma City and Fizdale has largely abandoned the project that seemed like the best course for developing Frank.

Why?

Fizdale was right the team was not winning. And since then he has gone to a lineup featuring more veterans and nearly doubled his win total since this date.

Trey Burke has shined. And Emmanuel Mudiay’s inspired play has earned Fizdale tons of praise for his ability to rehabilitate the career of guys who once appeared completely lost on a court. Frank’s partner in crime, Damyean Dotson, was weirdly benched altogether for four games.2 The Knicks rattled off three wins in four games with scrappy play by Burke, Mitchell Robinson, Mudiay, Enes Kanter, Vonleh, and undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier. All of this was really exciting. Fizdale has spread the minutes around to everyone on the roster and increased the trade value of some guys who may not stick around long term. Awesome!

But then the Frank trade rumors began and we started to realize maybe we were leaving someone out of all the fun.


Where Has Frank Thrived?

Let’s now dig into the lineups that have allowed Frank to play some of his best basketball. Below are the Knicks best 3-man combos to date. You’ll notice Frank is in three out of the team’s top 5, per Basketball-Reference Lineup Finder tool:

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So it’s interesting isn’t it? Not only was he personally playing better ball within these combos, they also comprise the Knicks best 3-man units to date, per that +/- measure. Wow.

For what it’s worth: this athletic trio of Dotson, Frank and Hardaway Jr. pass the eye test also. They were just developing a nice chemistry before the band was broken up. 

The idea that the Knicks could simultaneously develop their core players and also play some of their best basketball seems almost too good to be true. How serendipitous, as Clyde Frazier might say.

This trio, without any of the other ball-handlers, like Burke, Mudiay, or Trier, appear to embolden Frank with just enough responsibility in terms of initiation, but without forcing him to have to do too much or relegating him to harmless bystander. 

But ok, lineup data is noisy, maybe the net rating is only good because of other factors.

Well take a look at the following splits. They’re from a cool website called FantasyLabs, and show how Frank personally has performed (per 36 minutes) in various lineup combinations:

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 1.56.23 PM.png

(“Frank Primary ball handler” means lineups with Frank excluding Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and Allonzo Trier. FPTS is DraftKing’s fantasy points, a proprietary algorithm that’s similar to PER although adjusted for shooting efficiency).

You’ll notice certain things like:

  • Frank just hasn’t played as well with another on ball-guard in the lineup. Interesting for those obsessed with his “true position.”
  • He hasn’t played especially well with Enes Kanter.
  • His assists are pretty low when he’s the primary ball-handler, unless we put him in a lineup with Dotson and Hardaway, and then he sees some of his best numbers of all.
  • While he personally plays well with Dotson and Hardaway, the presence of others with them (like Mudiay, Burke or Kanter especially) sometimes thwarts progress.
  • You need to remove Mudiay, Burke, Kanter and Hezonja, and replace them with Vonleh and Robinson to unlock not only Frank’s potential, but the unit’s overall potential on both ends of the floor. There has existed a Frank + team synergy not long ago. And it came with his highest usage of this comparison.

My takeaways are this: 1) the net ratings for Frank are better with the lineups highlighted above, and the team is better, too; 2) if the team is truly “agonizing over whether he’s a point guard or wing,” as has been reported, the best way to find the answer is to play him in the situations he plays well in. Then let the answers come to you. Channel creativity and foster positivity.

Using whether or not the team actually won a game (where you’re literally pitting 19-year-olds against Paul George) as a barometer for a specific lineup is a mistake that’s so silly you just hope the reason given to us wasn’t true.

I understand the incentive to determine whether or not he can be a superstar before everyone else and get ahead of it. Having more information than the competition can be a major advantage whether you’re selling high on Anthony Bennett or Michael Carter Williams. And selling late, like in the case of Jahlil Okafor, can be disastrous. But if you’re at all open to a player being good and are still curious about his position, then the best way to learn is experimentation and the ultimate lab is an actual game.


Competing Goals

I might be a little hard on Fizdale in this post and that doesn’t sit well with me because I think he’s done a very good job in a very difficult environment, and like others, I refuse to judge him completely in a rebuilding year like this. He’s outmatched and has so many competing priorities. I get it.

Consider his competing goals:

  1. Develop his youngest players to see which ones are truly part of the long-term plan
  2. Develop and showcase some of the team’s one-year reclamation projects and trade candidates
  3. Keep most of the fans happy and compete and win as many games as possible
  4. Create the perception that the team is on the way up for potential free agents who are looking for a “win now” team, while realizing this team is anything but a win-now team, and might be best suited to “tank” for the highest possible lottery pick
  5. Keep lineups balanced and staggered so that every rookie or sophomore gets some reps with the vets
  6. Eventually find a few lineups, and keep them, so guys can develop cohesion, chemistry, confidence, rhythm. (Remember, Fiz’s former team, the championship Heat, even struggled acclimating to each other in their first 20 games) 
  7. Add ten other things I can’t even think of

It’s nuts. And we’ll forgive him if he can’t tackle each one of these each evening.

As fans continue to show their support for Ntilikina, it’s entirely possible this front office has (accurately) determined his ceiling isn’t high enough, the way Sam Hinkie once crushed swaths of Sixers fans’ spirits when he traded Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter Williams.

***Can you honestly even imagine if Frank won ROY and then was traded for a pick that might not convey for 4 years and that you’d also look back on it and think that was one of the most wonderful fleecings of the decade? That happened! And it was the right decision.

All of that being said, whether you want to keep Frank and develop him, or trade him, it would behoove the Knicks while he’s here to put him back in situations where he has recently played his best basketball. Some rebuilding teams aren’t as lucky. Their 20-year-olds aren’t part of any winning lineups. We’ve seen a couple with Frank that have worked.

Trading him now at an all-time low value standpoint (after cratering some of his value with benchings and frenetic lineup changes) without first exploring some of these lineups again would be a mistake unless you know you’re getting something really really special in return.

Report: Knicks seeking draft picks to package for a star?

This morning we learned from ESPN’s Ian Begley that the Phoenix Suns may be interested in acquiring Frank Ntilikina.

Then John Gambadoro of Arizonasports.com reported that the Knicks are looking for draft picks to package for a star player in any deal that involves Ntilikina.

In his estimation, the Suns’ pick from the Milwaukee Bucks (acquired in the Eric Bledsoe deal) might be sufficient to get the deal done.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.18.17 PM.png

Gambadoro is the same reporter who was first to break the story that the Suns and the Knicks discussed a potential trade for Kristaps Porziņģis before the 2017 NBA Draft.

This report was later confirmed by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, then with Yahoo Sports.

And so now we know what the Knicks might want in a deal for the former 2017 8th overall pick from France. Because they may be of the mindset that Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving (both once reportedly interested in teaming up with the Knicks) are both staying with their respective teams, the Knicks could be setting their sights on acquiring a star via trade.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks have altered their strategy in chasing star players to add to their young roster. Could they be considering moving Frank Ntilikina for draft picks that they could eventually bundle for a star? We shall see.

Courtney Lee is probable to return to the lineup on Saturday; whose minutes will be impacted?

After being sidelined with a neck injury since training camp, Courtney Lee is finally probable to play tomorrow against the Milwaukee Bucks.

With tomorrow being his first game back in so long, you should expect Coach Fizdale to ease him into game action.

Accordingly, Fizdale mentioned that there won’t be any changes to the starting lineup, as confirmed by Chris Iseman of The Record:

Rapid Reaction:

Courtney Lee’s return will be comforting – at the minimum – for Coach Fizdale as his team has lost two straight games and had one of their worst performances of the season on Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers. Lee’s return will bring a true veteran presence to a rotation that lacks a player older than 26 years old.

From a game perspective, Lee can provide some order to a team that often settles for isolation baskets when plays break down and lets their guard down during stretches on defense. At the minimum, Lee can be a guide for our younger players to know where to be on the floor at different times during the game.

However, Lee’s return will also create an undoubted rotation crunch to a roster that’s already had several players accrue DNPs this season. Here are a list of the players (in order of likeliness) that will be impacted by the return:

1) Damyean Dotson

Lee’s return will most likely cut into Dotson’s minutes. Dotson got minutes as an energy spark in the last two games and was already a DNP in the four previous games. Based on where he fit in the rotation before Lee returned, it seems like Dotson’s minutes are in greatest jeopardy.

2) Frank Ntilikina

Frank Ntilikina’s minutes have dwindled over the last four games. He’s often the last guard to enter the game in the 1st quarter, subbing in for Tim Hardaway Jr. Trey Burke has typically come in as the backup PG for Mudiay and will most likely continue in that role. In the last few games, Frank had been relegated to garbage time minutes in the 4th quarter. There is a strong possibility that Lee’s return may also cut into his minutes even further as long as Frank’s playing as a wing.

3) Mario Hezonja

Outside of Hezonja’s strong start against the 76ers, he’s been quiet since being inserted into the starting lineup. Hezonja’s also endured some DNPs before the starting lineup change. Hezonja is slightly safer to retain minutes because Fizdale isn’t ready to change the starting lineup just yet. However, any new starting lineup will likely send Hezonja back to the bench and most likely into DNPs.

4) Trey Burke

Burke’s job as a backup lead guard is safe for the moment as Fizdale’s not ready to make any starting lineup changes. However, Burke’s had a rough shooting stretch since scoring 29 points against the Celtics before Thanksgiving. A combination of bad defense and a rough shooting slump sent Burke to a round of DNPs earlier in the month. A prolonged slump could also send Burke back into that direction with Lee’s return.

Unlocking the Frank Ntilikina mystery

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

4106fad4-febc-462d-899e-bc38991362d3_original_1

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

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

IMG_3049

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

image1

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

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

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

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

But this Ntilikina thing…it’s the turd in the punch bowl, and the worst part is that no one’s happy2. The Frankie Truthers are convinced David Fizdale is slowly ruining him, playing him out of position and not putting him in spots where he can be successful. The Frankie Haters are more convinced than ever that the Knicks wasted a draft pick. The cops broke up the party and no one’s getting lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Knicks ended up with both Robinson and Trier on draft night

This is a fascinating report by Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic about how the Knicks targeted both Mitchel Robinson and Allonzo Trier, two players that seemingly were undervalued by the rest of the league, and how they were somehow able to draft and sign both of them on draft night.


Trier says he was told by the Knicks that if he was still on the board [when they picked in the second round], they would take him. The Knicks didn’t make a promise to Trier, according to league sources, but did have him in strong consideration for the pick.

“I didn’t think I would get past there, honestly,” he said.

Instead, the Knicks chose Mitchell Robinson, who they had tried trading up into the first round for. A call from a member of the organization soon followed, with an explanation. The Knicks had a need to go big, Trier says he was told, and Robinson had dropped to them, though they still evaluated him highly and hoped to get him.

[via Mike Vorkunov]


The rest is history, as Trier fell out of the second round and back into the Knicks laps as an undrafted free agent.

Why this matters: I think this is important because it shows that the Knicks are scouting the right players. Of course, it is way too early to say that both Robinson and Trier will be long-term successes in this league, just as it’s too early to give up on Ntilikina or to criticize Knox’s slow start. However, from a value perspective in the draft, the criteria is a little different for Robinson and Trier. Finding a second round pick and undrafted rookie, who both display any kind of high ceiling promise is a win that any organization would take.

The Knicks Lineup Discussion with Posting and Toasting

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

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


Macri:

Hey (expletive deleted),

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

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

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

Shwin:

Nice to hear from you Mrs. Lance Thomas,

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

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

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

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

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

Macri:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shwin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macri:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check Posting & Toasting for Part 2 on Monday!

What you need to know about Luke Kornet’s call up from Westchester

The Knicks have recalled Luke Kornet from Westchester.

How did Kornet do in the G-League?

Kornet played great in Westchester, averaging 18.2 points on 48.5% shooting, including a scorching hot 47.5% from downtown on as many as six attempts per game. He also showed his ability to defend near the rim with 2.7 blocks per game. He did this all over 10 games during his stay in Westchester.

What are the roster rules again?

NBA teams are allowed to have a maximum of 17 players on their roster, including two, two-way players. Remember, Luke Kornet is not a two-way player; he is on a regular NBA contract, but with less than three years of experience, the Knicks are allowed to send him to the G-League as many times as they like, while he continues to earn an NBA salary.

Why call him up now?

Since Luke Kornet signed a new contract with the Knicks last summer, he cannot be traded until December 15, which is magically around the same date as when Allonzo Trier’s 45 days are up.

However, trading Kornet3is not so easy since he has automatic veto power as a player on a one-year deal with Early Bird rights.

The Knicks could be looking at the next two weeks as an evaluation period to decide if simply waiving Kornet makes sense to make room for Trier.

They could also be watching Mitchell Robinson get in foul trouble every night and think it’s time to add some depth to the big man ranks.

Do you think the Knicks will eventually waive or trade Kornet?

It’s possible. He is only making $1.6 million, so it wouldn’t be as much of a pill to swallow from a salary standpoint as it would be to cut someone like Ron Baker.

That said, there are so many reasons why Kornet provides value to the Knicks as a big man over the reasons you could list to keep another guard/wing on the roster like Baker.

I know Baker brings hair-flopping energy, and that is valued on a young team, even if it is demonstrated only in practice, but Kornet is a seven foot center who can shoot threes and offer the Knicks depth at a position they could use it.

Unless the Knicks find a way to trade an excess player, given Kornet’s salary amount, I am a bit worried the Knicks end up deciding to waive him over Baker, but we will see.

Can the Knicks convert Kornet to a two-way in place of Trier?

No.

A NBA contract cannot include more than $50,000 in compensation protection and must be converted to a two-way contract prior to the start of the NBA season.

Kornet has both too much money guaranteed on his contract and it is too late to convert him, even if he didn’t have as much guaranteed.

 

Report: Orlando has shown interest in Frank Ntilikina

Frank Ntilikina is clearly not progressing on the offensive side of the floor the way Knicks management and fans, alike, would hope to see. The French guard (wing?) has scored in double digits only three times in the 23 games he has played this season. He is shooting 33% from the field, down from an unimpressive 36.4% last season.

Of course, he continues to play strong defense, but his minutes have been sporadic, as Fizdale turns to Emmanuel Mudiay and Allonzo Trier (who people forget is nearly three years older than Frank, despite being a rookie). Some are questioning whether the Knicks have cooled their excitement about Frank’s future.

Apparently, that has not slowed other teams from around the league in taking notice of Ntilikina.

According to Mike Vorkunov, Orlando has shown interest in the 20-year-old who can defend at a high-level; they had a scout in attendance for the Knicks game in Philadelphia.

“He’s intriguing,” a different scout told Mike Vorkunov


Why this Matters: As great as Ntilikina can be guarding the basketball, he needs to eventually show some life on the offensive side of the ball, proving his perimeter shot is a strength instead of a promise never realized. It is difficult to fully evaluate Frank’s progression this season in a rotation that is constantly changing, not just in the minutes allocated, but the positions assigned.

I need to see more of Frank as the primary ball-handler, doing what is expected this season, playing through the ups and downs, on a nightly basis, as a young point guard. This is just for the Knicks to evaluate what they have in their lottery pick. Meanwhile, it is refreshing to see other teams remained intrigued by his talent, because it offers you a glimpse outside of the Knicks’ bubble.

Could Orlando simply be checking in on someone they consider a low-end prospect? Perhaps. But I suspect other teams would be “intrigued,” as the one scout put it to Vork, by a 20-year old guard who can defend all spaces on the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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


What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership in Suits: Grading the Knicks front office so far

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

Part II – Leadership in Suits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But:

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Leadership in Uniform – C

Leadership in Suits – B+

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

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