A QUICK RE-SET ON NTILIKINA & KNOX

Let’s get this out of the way with haste. I am firmly on #TeamFrank and #TeamKnox. I’ve stan’d for Frank since day one and still do. I’ve been more cautious in my outlook on Knox than some. But, I’ve always said he was a perfectly defensible 9th overall selection.

With a bit over two-thirds of a bad–err, miserable–season gone, it’s a good time to re-visit the available data and see what it says. Notice I did NOT say, “make enduring pronouncements or predictions.” I also did NOT say, “abandon all hope for growth and development.” What I am saying is that all data tells you something and you would be wise to figure out what it tells. Nearly 60 games is enough for us to do some figurin’ for diagnostic purposes.

Frank Ntilikina — We know about Frank’s defense, even if at a glance it doesn’t seem quite as good as last season. Consider that he rates as a net positive in 6 of the 10 five-man combinations in which he’s played (-7.7 overall, one of the best on the team, but his on-court/off-court is +1.7). And, all of his net negative lineups feature some combination of Burke, Kanter, and Hardaway. I can’t wait to see his long, switchy, versatile defense with (in theory) a capable rim protector on the the floor at all times. Unfortunately, his injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. That’s just buzzard’s luck. I like that the team has publicly been patient with his groin injury. Those are notorious for fooling you into thinking you’ve recovered only to be easily aggravated and quick to re-occur.

Speaking of unfortunate, there is no getting past Frank’s ghastly shooting numbers. A 41.9 TS% at age 20, following 43.7% as a 19-yr. old rookie, is “hoo boy” bad. It’s a miracle he has a positive on-court/off-court differential. And yet, from a bird’s eye view–if you squint and tilt your head–you can see the outline of a useful offensive player. Ntilikina may never become a consistent league average shooter, but he can still be valuable on offense like Marcus Smart, a reasonable comp as a moderate-usage, defense-oriented combo guard. Smart shot 49% as a 20-yr. old rookie. Terry Rozier shot an unspeakable 39% as a 21-yr. old rookie in 2015-16. A lot of guys have had to shoot their way out of the basement, into the 50s in TS%, so they don’t offset their defense and the non-shooting aspects of their offense. That is Frank’s path.

As it happens, his non-shooting offense is actually pretty decent. On basically identical usage to last season his assist rate is 19.3% (down a tad from 20% in 2017-18), which seems to back up my thinking that he has the best court vision on the team. He also cut his turnovers way down from 19.8% to 15.8%, mostly by cutting some of the lazy post feeds and floaty cross-court passes out of his diet. Frank has to shoot better for any of this to matter, but there are enough examples of guys who have traveled that path–two active in the division–to have some faith he can do it too.

Kevin Knox — I am not worried about Knox. I think he’ll travel a similar path as Brandon Ingram, where he’ll work his way into being an average(ish) shooter as he adds the necessary strength to play his position. That said, he, ummm, may not develop into a perennial all-star.

Knox’s TS% (46.9% as of this writing) is not meaningfully better than Ntilikina’s rookie year shooting. He’s not shooting well, but he is using up possessions like an elite bucket-getter or playmaker. Trust me, I get all the caveats. Knox goes to work against grown-ass men every night with an IOU for a grown man’s body. He is the third youngest member of his draft class, and one of only five 19-yr. olds playing real minutes (Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Jr., Wendell Carter, Jr., and Marvin Bagley III). Of those, only Jackson, Jr. is younger (~1 month). The others are older by 5-6 months. Keep in mind, at that age 5-6 months is huge for physical development. Considering all that context, Kevin Knox is still the worst shooter on a comically bad shooting team. Even in his 19-yr. old cohort he’s the worst shooter by a country mile. So it may be wise to back off the “future scoring title” predictions. If that happens let’s all just revel in the surprise.

Consider that Thaddeus Young*, a perfectly around-the-median player now in his 12th season, had a 19-yr. old rookie season in 2007-08 that was basically twice as good as the season Knox is having.

*Did you think this was Young’s 12th season? Me either. His career could easily slot into the top half of players drafted 9th overall, where Knox was drafted. Except Young was drafted 12th, where his markedly average career is easily one of the ten or so best.

I am not here to dump on the kid. I like him. I am in NO WAY declaring that he can never develop into the perennial all-star that Young never did. He could make the second year leap De’Aaron Fox is making right now. Sign me up for that, but we should all stop pretending–coaching staff included–that there is any good reason for him to have a green light stuck in the “on” position. In the remaining games I’d love to see him work on other aspects of his game and be held accountable for defense, rebounding, and passing.

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NEOLIBERALISM & THE KNICKS: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just #LOLKnicks

I became a Knicks fan when they drafted Ewing first overall in 1985. I became a Seattle Seahawks fan in the 1984 season. I know what it is to be a long-suffering sports fan. So, I’ve always been a realist, though never a cynic. This Porzingis deal will go down as the one that turned me though. At first I couldn’t put a finger on why, but after sleeping on it I think I got it. This was the moment where I personally felt the kind of gut punch that neoliberalism specializes in; the kind that comes out of nowhere when you were looking at something else. That the Knicks just happen to be the latest instantiation of it gave it some extra oomph. But what I’m talking about is bigger than them, bigger than sports, or even business. 

Before getting into all that though, let me stipulate that on the merits this deal could work out well for NY in the short, intermediate, and long term. And that’s even if Porzingis goes to Dallas and legitimately plays great. Meanwhile, NY cleared the salary decks, lost no young talent, and could still net two late lottery/mid-first round picks over the next 3+ seasons. It is certainly possible, maybe even probable, that NY would never see a better deal in combined talent and financial flexibility. In a vacuum, there is much to like about it. 

But, “in a vacuum” is one of neoliberalism’s main seductions. It is very often an incitement to destroy things for the sake of “flexibility,” as if unconstrained choice is an unmitigated good. Definitions of neoliberalism abound, but for my purposes think of it as a macro-context–a context of context–in which decisions occur. Most would agree that it places a very high moral, political, cultural, and economic value on the act of “choosing” from among alternatives in a marketplace. The value is so high that decision making “flexibility” has become a goal all its own, with seemingly no connection to a mission or objectives.

To put it plainly in the context of sports, neoliberalism entices front offices to accept on faith that markets always supply talent worthy of the chase. The premise is enticing precisely because it’s totally unfalsifiable. We can almost always imagine getting a better talent or a better scheme fit. Eventually, it’s all just a pretense for hitting the self-destruct button to max out decision making flexibility. (Think Larry Brown. There was NOBODY he didn’t lobby management to trade. He was the quintessential neoliberal coach before it was cool.) Neoliberalism entices managers to embrace the uncertainty that comes with choosing, even valorizes them for it. At the same time it scolds them for embracing the uncertainty of building and developing, which involves managing the choices already made.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s good to have choices, but only if you eventually develop them into something worthwhile. It’s not enough to just be good at choosing or good at getting more choices. You can’t have one without the other. 

I have no problem with the Knicks dreaming big about Durant and Kyrie, or even moving Porzingis to do it. Hell, as much as I like The Unicorn there is real risk associated with building around him. But, this trade felt like a gut punch because it seems like Perry and Mills hit the self-destruct button rather than deal with a passive aggressive star and his jackass brother/agent. Their pivot to flexibility leaves me cold about their ability to do the work of a full rebuild, much less patience. As a consequence, we’re now stuck hoping they hit a home run–two home runs–this off-season. I see no particular reason to be confident that more flexibility will lead to better long-term outcomes than would the constraints Porzingis represented. Talent constrains. If you’re ever going to turn choice into something useful you have to work within those constraints, erasing and expanding them where possible. That’s what development is.