The 2019-20 New York Knicks

My beloved Knicks will once again not be very good in 2019-20, but will be better than the 2018-19 version. That’s not saying much, but it’s not nothing. I’ll guess they’ll win between 28 and 32 games. If Perry moves rotational vets for assets and/or the team suffers rotten injury luck (again) another 20ish-win season is in the cards. On the other hand, it’s hard to concoct a reasonable scenario where this roster gets to 35 or more wins.

SO, Why Bother with ThE 2019-20 Knicks?

For those of us who are diehards (no judgment), we hold these truths to be self-evident that we are here for the Knicks until the bitter end. For everyone else who has not been so afflicted, in a sentence, what’s at stake this season is a chance for the franchise to turn the corner from moribund to competent. That’s not pegged to a specific record, though getting into the mid-30s in wins would mostly cinch it. Becoming a nondescript lottery team with a .500ish home record would be a meaningful developmental step. (Shout out to Phil! Thanks Phil. How’s it goink?) Soft bigotry of low expectations aside, it’s still just year two of a proper rebuild. And, it’s worth noting, NBA teams rarely double their win total in one off-season. Whether there is a lot of roster turnover or young teams run it back with the kids the next season, even improved talent takes a while to gel.

WHAT TO WATCH

What does Fiz do with R.J. Barrett?

I was (am) a bona fide R.J. skeptic, but to his credit he has changed the nature and extent of my skepticism through the work he’s put in on his body and game. In summer league I was really wondering whether he has the requisite athleticism to play on the wing in the NBA. He’s not springy and light-footed. He’s a hulking, “power” wing. This pre-season we saw that he’s not only come to grips with that, he’s doubled down on it, literally accentuating his strength, a mark of legitimate maturity. He’s also tightened up his dribble, which has helped his ability to finish at the rim and has helped his court vision to matter. Now, all I have to be skeptical about is whether a guy who was an unrepentant gunner in college will ever truly devote himself to a life of service. I am hoping he does, because I saw flashes of a wing version of Draymond (on offense anyway) in the pre-season. Yes please.

Can the Year Two Guys (TM) take a step forward?

Keven Knox looks like he’s gotten a little stronger in the pre-season. You can see him starting to fill out. His shooting stroke looks–and has always looked–legit. The concerns for him on offense are about shot selection and getting to the FT line. On defense however, he was dreadful in every conceivable way last season. So after a rookie season where he was allowed to do what he wanted, things could be very different for him. Either poor shot selection or ghastly defense could keep him out of the rotation on many a night this season. Can he show the maturity to stay on the straight and narrow offensively and rotate defensively? If this team has 35+ wins in it, the answer will have to be yes.

Mitch Robinson established himself as an official “phenom” as a rim protector last season. This season, for me the question is whether he will mature into setting hard Tyson Chandler-type screens, or stick with the Enes Kanter fake-screen nonsense he picked up. (I can’t imagine from where.) Even without improved scoring or rebounding he could be a big part of the solution to the team’s offensive spacing woes. I use Chandler as an exemplar of a player who offered virtually nothing on offense but lobs and putbacks, but who nevertheless used his body to create space for others (and easy lobs for himself).

Other guys seem less likely to be part of the rotation without an injury to a starter or key reserve. As a resident of Frank Ntilikina Island, Frankistan province, that pains me to say. Allonzo Trier has value as a decently efficient bench scorer. He looks intentional about taking open threes on ball rotation and getting to the FT line. Of all the bench bros (i.e., Trier, Dotson, Ntilikina, Brezdeikis and Allen), he’s the best bet to carve out a regular role as a closer. The Knicks need (efficient) offense, especially at the ends of quarters.

Can Fiz implement a coherent vision?

I still don’t think I can see what this team is trying to do or be yet. Of course, it’s worth noting that last season’s roster was mostly a bunch of kids and gunners who didn’t defend. In the pre-season thus far, I’m seeing a lot of forward-initiated offense. I like Julius Randle‘s ability to put it on the floor when opportunities present themselves, but if he and Marcus Morris are primary offensive facilitators the turnovers will come in waves. Many fans are wondering (me among them) if R.J. Barrett might be the best fit as a “point wing” initiating the offense. We shall see.

WHAT THE KNICKS DID, FREE AGENCY EDITION (Part 2)

The Knicks did what they did, added who they added. Now we speculate on what happens. Some are quietly conceding that the team’s approach isn’t idiotic, but there’s a lot of #LOLKnicks 4Eva!! out there too. The Athletic’s Knicks beat guy, Mike Vornukov, provides a nice summary and raises all the key questions ($).

Let’s break it down, beginning with the approach. Reasonable people can disagree with the decision to pursue two max players rather than push forward with a healthy Porzingis. Regardless, Perry and Mills were adamant about targeting only Durant, Irving, Leonard, and Davis in marquis free agency/trades–end of list. Having missed out on all of them, a viable “Plan B” could then only involve taking on current “toxic” assets for future draft picks or building a competent (if not good) roster.

Perry and Mills are opting for the latter, though it’s worth noting these are ideal types and in real life they overlap quite a bit. Of course, some people are shitting all over this decision like they have a bonus check dependent on it. I’m honestly not sure based on what, but whatevs.

So let’s look at the additions, which had an obvious theme. Apart from Julius Randle, these are all 1 year deals with a team option for a 2nd year. They are effectively expiring contracts, which in theory keeps the team liquid for trade deadline deals and for next summer when buyer’s remorse sets in on some of the contracts handed out the last two days.

Julius Randle — There is much to like. After basically not being able to throw it in the ocean in his first three seasons (he only played one game as a rookie), he’s really found himself the last two where he’s even added a 3pt. shot. That said, there are holes in his game. He doesn’t bring much on defense. He’s improved from “obvious target” to “not horrible” despite getting few blocks or steals. He rebounds well and his defensive win shares have trended in the right direction. Some consider him a stat compiler who doesn’t contribute much to winning. I suppose that’s fair, but it’s worth noting a two-year deal plus a low guarantee/team option doesn’t suggest the team isn’t counting on him to wear a cape and save the franchise.

Taj Gibson — It’s not hard to imagine that Perry, Mills, and Fizdale had Udonis Haslem in mind while targeting Gibson for a 1 + 1 deal for $10M per. I tend to be a bit suspect of these “culture setting” acquisitions. They can turn out to be wastes, or worse. In a worst case scenario Joakim Noah was sold to Knicks fans as a “culture setting Thibs guy” too and his deal is possibly the worst in team history. From a basketball standpoint, I’d have preferred the as yet unsigned former Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green, a career 37% shooter from 3.

Bobby Portis — I like Portis more than many. For all the “Knicks signed 3 power forwards, #LOLKnicks” jokes I saw on twitter, I’ve always seen him as a stretch five. He’s taken a quarter of his career attempts from three, where he’s a career 36% shooter. He’s not much of a defender. He’s a good rebounder but doesn’t block shots. A better (but more expensive) version of Luke Kornet. I’ll just say this, from a pure basketball standpoint if Portis was European we’d generally view his portfolio as more useful than we do.

Reggie Bullock/Wayne Ellington — One-dimensional shooters, both. Bullock is the better defender, at least in theory. To pick nits, I might have chosen one or the other wing and doubled down at PG. (It seems apparent the team views Frank Ntilikina as a wing.)

Elfrid Payton — It’s hard to see the upside of this play beyond Perry presumably just liking Payton and having a clear PG archetype. Although neither guy shoots the three much, my play would have been to add TJ McConnell to really push the pace.

To be clear, I don’t love every signing but the strategy is crystal clear. Perry and Mills are trying to get the team out of the basement. There’s just no profit in being there anymore. It’s unlikely these Knicks will be a winning team in 2019-20, but they should be able to push the win total into the 30s and maybe flirt with .500. Perhaps even better, the plan stylistically appears to be to push pace.

WHAT THE KNICKS DID, FREE AGENCY EDITION (Day 1, Part 1)

Summary: Most of what the Knicks have done under Perry & Mills is defensible and at some point people just have to concede that Dolan has mostly stayed out of operations, as he promised.

Sunday was the first day of NBA free agency and people were coming off the top rope on the Knicks with intensity; people I didn’t even know were basketball fans. I’ve been a Knicks fan since Patrick Ewing was drafted. So I have caught those #LOLKnicks Ls, like Keith Damn Hernandez standing on first. I don’t like it, but you put what we’ve put on the floor for two decades and the one-liners write themselves.

That said, people are gonna make me do a thing I never thought I’d do. They’re gonna make me (gulp) defend the loathsome James Dolan. You simply cannot write the story of how the Knicks got to where they are after 2013 without casting Phil Jackson as a central villain (too). If you don’t follow the team like that, fair enough. But if you call yourself a journalist or analyst you’re just being lazy, dishonest or both.

Why does it matter? Well, by pretty much all accounts, when Dolan hired Jackson he stayed out of basketball decisions and has stayed out. So the mess that Scott Perry is cleaning up is mostly Phil’s. (That ghastly Tim Hardaway, Jr. contract is on Steve Mills.) When people claim that Durant spurning the Knicks was inevitable, because “look at how they treated Porzingis,” that’s fair but it is also superficial. Phil Jackson damaged that relationship, full stop. He spurned a rebuild much of the fan base begged for to re-sign Carmelo Anthony. He regretted it before the ink dried, then passive-aggressively shifted blame to Anthony. When Porzingis publicly defended Anthony the 70-something Jackson publicly shanked the kid. That move went a long way toward his firing. Porzingis, perhaps rightly, was leery of the “new” regime, which includes people from the old regime. At the same time, the new regime (also rightly) said, “We’re not good with Porzingis. If we’re ever going to burn it all down it has to be this summer, where between the FA market and the draft there are 4-5 franchise-altering talents in play.” They pivoted to arson, and got what I still think is one of the better deals of the past few seasons.

Much of the #LOLKnicks vitriol yesterday came late in the evening when a report surfaced that the Knicks wouldn’t offer Durant the max because of the injury. There’s little to gain in debating the semantics, but I doubt there was ever any offer. This seemed obvious last week when the Knicks said publicly that they’d scrutinize the injury. The conditions changed and it just made sense for both parties to walk away. That blows, but the Knicks were trying to buy Durant’s gravitational pull–his capacity to attract another max talent along with other quality players–not just his jump shot. They needed both. Without both it wasn’t the right gamble. It’s a more sensible gamble for the Nets.

A MILD DEFENSE OF RANK MEDIOCRITY. OR, WHAT THE KNICKS SHOULD DO NOW, FREE AGENCY EDITION

It is time to let go of the dream. You know the one, where Kevin Durant and another star fly in through the window and the Knicks become an immediate title contender. A month ago that dream seemed so real that even bona fide Knicks haters and axe-to-grinders were wearing orange and blue Freddy Krueger sweaters. They had to choke down their bile, concede that a rumor that doesn’t die is not a rumor, and shift their hot takes to “well, the Knicks will screw it up somehow.”

If you’re a Knicks fan, and you are fully present, you are now endeavoring to sit with a four-week run of the following footballs to the groin: 1. The team STILL has not out-drafted its record or received the first pick since the first NBA draft lottery in 1985; 2. BOTH the Pelicans and the Lakers went full-on front office clown show in 2018-19, yet were absolutely gifted franchise-altering talent; and 3. Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon, putting him out for this coming season and raising questions about his basketball future. Fuck the basketball gods. For real. Fuck them. They are as capricious and mean as the Greek ones.

To be fair, many Knicks fans are genuinely excited about RJ Barrett. He was easily the right draft pick, once trading the pick was off the table. His excitement about playing for the Knicks and connections to the city have a fun David Wright-like vibe to them, and I say that as a stone cold Barrett skeptic. So, this off-season hasn’t been all bad news. But make no mistake, the Knicks are currently constructed for an Orlando Magicesque brand of rank mediocrity. And even that is probably 2-3 seasons off.

So, this whole post is basically a mild defense of rank mediocrity. Not only would it be a colossal improvement over the recent past, it is also the proper short-term goal. Perry and Mills played their “we can offer you a blank slate” card. This was the last chance to play it, whether Durant signs in New York or elsewhere. It’s played. From here on out, New York will need to play an “upward mobility” card to even get a meeting with (near-) Hall of Fame talent. If there is any hope of playing such a card successfully, the current core, likely supplemented by a few vets, must demonstrate actual upward mobility. It’s gotta play its way out of the hell of 20-or-fewer wins at least into the purgatory of 30-35 wins this season and into playoff contention the next.

So, without further ado, here are three guiding principles for upward mobility in the NBA.

Principle #1 Take Meetings with As Many Stars As Possible

Getting a meeting doesn’t matter much, in the sense that it’s not predictive. But, NOT getting a meeting matters a great deal in that it is almost perfectly predictive. If Perry and Mills are going to go star-chasing in 2-3 seasons they have to start selling their vision to players and powerful agents now.

Principle #2 Only Pay the Right People

Well, duh.

The question is, who are the “right” people? Assuming Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard move on, the Knicks really should sit out any other max- or near-max deals. Tobias Harris meshes nicely on paper with a super young and not super-talented squad, but signing him to a max/near max deal to put up numbers on a bad team would be unwise. Ditto Kemba. Fortunately, the Knicks have not been rumored to really be in on either.

Instead, the Knicks should be looking at decent players who could use a market re-set on short-term deals. Team options after one season are best, but I wouldn’t balk at a player option in some cases. Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu is a prime example of the type of player I’d overpay on a short-term deal and I might concede to a player option in year two. He’s a low-volume stretch four that defends well and could literally play in any scheme. Assuming the luxury tax scares Portland away from a strong bid to keep him, he could be looking to chase a ring or chase checks. Seats on title contenders may fill up quickly leaving players like Aminu looking for short-term deals that allow a bit of leverage, especially if they have value in a potential trade deadline deal.

Similarly, the Knicks should look to trade for players made available as teams look to shed salary. For instance, Steven Adams was heavily rumored to be dealt on draft night, and Oklahoma City may have several players available. A veteran like Adams would, for instance, help the development of the talented, but foul prone, and inexperienced Robinson.

Principle #3 Just Say NO to Toxic Assets

Some have argued the Knicks should rent their cap space to help contending teams unload bad contracts in exchange for future assets. I’m not opposed to renting cap space in principle, but the Knicks should stay away from “toxic” assets. Generally, “no contracts with three+ years remaining” seems like the right rule of thumb. And let me repeat: rule of thumb. A bona fide star looking to force his way out of a bad situation (e.g., Karl Anthony Towns) is worth exploring case by case. What’s more likely is Darryl Morey trying to dump his junk (i.e., three years of Ryan Anderson’s and CP3’s terrible contracts) on the Knicks. A different way New York could rent cap space is to facilitate 3-way trades between capped out teams, if again, Perry and Mills target young players and/or picks and leave toxic assets alone.

A final note regarding acquiring picks. New York should learn a lesson from Boston. It’s fair to criticize Danny Ainge for never “pulling the trigger” on a truly big deal given all his alleged draft capital, but that take doesn’t properly appreciate the catch-22 he faced. The use value of those picks is higher than their exchange value. In other words, the league is daring him to keep all those picks and develop them if he thinks they’re so valuable.

Draft picks are obviously valuable. They are by far the most reliable source of cheap rotational talent–a must in a salary capped sport. But just like in your real life, really good fruit is super cheap when there’s a bumper crop. Or more formally, utility is constrained by storage capacity. When you have more draft picks than you can reasonably accommodate with roster spots and development they become less valuable in trade. Now I’m not saying the Knicks should walk away from unprotected lottery picks. I’m saying that we’d all do well to remember the Knicks own a good number picks into the foreseeable future: all their own, the two Dallas first round picks, and the two Charlotte second round picks. Hoarding picks for their own sake may not be the wisest move. Rather, the team should pursue a balance between picks and players on reasonable deals.

Yeah, I’m Still on Team #TradeThePick

By most accounts, the Knicks are set to select Duke wing RJ Barrett with the third pick in the 2019 NBA draft (ESPN+). Though I remain cooler on Barrett than many, there is no clearly better option to draft at #3 overall.

Instead, I will continue to argue that the Knicks should look to deal the selection (probably for a vet and a pick). To be clear, I’m not interested in compensatory star chasing now after missing out on Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. My rationale is that New York has to adjust to the new way of thinking in the NBA. Now that there is no lottery payoff* for losing, it is especially important to stay out of the NBA’s 15-20 win cellar. All else equal, the best way to do that is to NOT field one of the youngest teams in the league.

*I think NBA conventional wisdom is shifting (or has shifted). It used to be franchise death to end up in the NBA’s “murky middle” with the 8th, 9th, or 10th best record. You’d rather just be awful and max out the odds of getting a franchise-altering draft pick. Now that those odds are flattened–even acknowledging that a top 3 guarantee isn’t nothing–teams know that the next Zion or Tim Duncan is only 14% likely to walk through that door. A better bet may be what Doc is doing in LA: trying to convince a star that an 8-10 seed with cap space and a solid foundation is a near-term contender. A terrible team with nothing but a low-odds lottery ticket will find it increasingly hard to draft its way out of the cellar OR chase stars.

Many people are in love with Barrett’s “star” potential and I’m not going to fight with anyone over that. My only response is that you better be a true believer that he’ll peak as a perennial top 5-8 player at his position to justify adding yet another 19 year old to this roster. I’m not doubting Barrett can be good, but I’m absolutely not willing to say he’s a good bet to be a top 5-8 wing. Add to that, David Fizdale’s record as a talent developer is mixed. Of course, whose isn’t? And in fairness, at least some of that is about having so many mouths to feed. There’s a limited supply of developmental instruction to go around and New York was pretty maxed out on it in 2018-19. But some of y’all want to add another kid to the mix? Yikes.

Meanwhile, the trade market could be white hot this off-season and the Knicks could benefit without star chasing. With the Warriors hobbled, teams are opening up the proverbial game board. Some of them are–surprisingly–star chasing. Others are shedding salary to go star chasing (also, the Bucks looking to dump salary). Still others are just looking to stay out of the luxury tax. Some good players will change uniforms this off-season, and there’s no good reason for some of them not to end up in NY (even if only until the trade deadline). The Knicks are not a playoff team in 2019-20 (duh), but they can make some smart, short-term plays that keep them out of the cellar while helping the kids by not asking them to do too much.

I Think I’m on #TeamTradeThePick

I have yet to be won over by RJ Barrett or Jared Culver and am starting to think the Knicks should look to move the pick. Where and for what are open questions, but basically I oppose fighting the board. A given draft cohort distributes what it distributes in terms of star-quality, and the third overall selection carries no insurance against a one star draft. My impression is that neither Culver nor Barrett is a fantastic bet to be a star, however defined. It’s not outrageous to think the salary attached to the third pick is too big a premium to pay for the privilege of waiting on either to develop.

With Culver, the risks are obvious. His athleticism appears to limit his potential as a wing to a 3-and-D role player. Barrett, though not considered a cloud-piercing athlete, hasn’t been rumored to be as athletically limited. With him, I can’t get past 702 shots (i.e., 20.9 FGAs per 40). That feels like a preposterous amount of shooting to me under any circumstances. I feel like we can’t just rationalize that away by saying, “Well, less would be more in the pros.” All the apologia surrounding his freshman season (“It’s injuries!” “It’s Duke’s floor spacing!”) has nearly worn me down though. Its oddly consistent. So I’m like, “Well, maybe I’m just being a grumpy old man about this.” So I pulled up sports-reference.com’s college hoops data just to see how often somebody gets up 700+ shots in a season. Their season leader database goes back to the 85-86 season, which is far enough back to include the 3pt. shot introduction.

  • There are only 21 player seasons of 700+ shots: Interestingly, three occurred in 2018-19. Purdue’s Carson Edwards (703), Barrett (702), and Cal State-Northridge freshman Lamine Diane (701).
  • Freshmen account for three 700+ shot seasons: Barrett and Diane this season and LSU’s Mahmoud Abdul Rauf  (739) back in 1988-89.

702 shots is a LOT of shots. So, I don’t feel like my fear that Barrett could be entirely a creation of volume is unreasonable even if it turns out to be wrong. Among the 21 player seasons at that volume his 53.2% TS is 7th worst. Of course, I don’t want to ignore his age. Barrett is only 18 years old and the vast majority of players taking shots at that volume are 3rd and 4th year players. And, for what it’s worth, Lamine Diane, CSU-Northridge’s similarly sized freshman, was absurdly bad (49.9% TS). So, Barrett’s presumptively better than some random 18 year old jacking up shots. I buy that he possesses NBA upside, but as what? I’m not certain. I can see the DeRozan comp as reasonable, but not some sort of baseline expectation. As a preternaturally strong-but-skinny freshman DeRozan was a good bit better on two point shots overall, and was living death at the rim based on his elite athleticism. With the 9th pick, where we selected Knox, Barrett would seem like the right gamble. At 3rd overall, he forces NY to move a current player to pursue two max contracts. Whoever that might be was likely better than even odds to be moved anyway, to be fair. But he basically gets two developmental years to prove he’s “an asset” before expense becomes a consideration. Pretty much anyone in this class NY might consider at #3 feels like the wrong gamble for this off-season. I won’t cry if the best move ends up being pick the best player available. It be’s that way sometimes.

A few days ago I went in search of college basketball’s top no-conscience gunners to see where Barrett stacked up. Random shout out to Kevin Bradshaw of the now defunct US International University (USIU) in San Diego. He is the great white whale of no-conscience gunners. Back in the heady days of Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams playing at warp speed, Bradshaw transferred to USIU from Bethune Cookman. That first season, he got up a “modest” 707 shots as a junior–the 17th most in the sports-reference database–and averaged over 30 ppg. But for his senior year (1990-91) he went full Kaiser Soze. He showed so-called men of will what will really was, getting up 867–EIGHT HUNDRED SIXTY SEVEN–comically, laughably, hilariously inefficient shots to average 37.6 ppg. on 51.1% TS. I strongly suspect none of that will ever be bested (or worsted). Bradshaw, who at last check is doing what the old folks used to call the Lord’s work, teaching high school in San Diego, is an interesting sports story of dizzying heights, a near fatal fall from grace, the long road to redemption, and a documentary to go with it.

The Knicks Have the Third Pick in a Three Player Draft. And Maybe It’s Only a Two Player Draft.

I will thank fellow citizens of Knicks Land–traditional media and bloggers–to stop telling me how to feel about the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. For all the losing and misery of the past two-plus decades, we should all be well-acquainted with disappointment. And, we should all know that it need not stem from a sense of entitlement or some other moral failing. It’s a big part of being a Knicks fan. Like any half-sensible fan, I knew that a 14% chance of the getting the top pick meant an 86% chance of not getting it. A golden ticket to Zion was always highly unlikely and yet not getting it is still worth mourning for a few days. For those Knicks fans who, like me, are still on the head-shaking portion of the famous Zo .gif, we can get to the head nod without all the lecturing and shaming. Thanks.

To be clear, I’m far from feeling whoa-is-me despair but the tenor of the past few days post-lottery have felt too weird and Stepford Wife-y for my taste. So, here’s my “gritty realism” take on where things stand.

  1. All hail our Pelicans overlords. Only New York and New Orleans could effectively “control” the offseason coming out of the lottery. And in truth, NY’s control, even with a golden ticket to Zion Williamson, would have been mostly theoretical unless and until Kevin Durant actually signs. With NO winning the lottery, it has the equivalent of two infinity stones already in hand. It’s not just that NY didn’t get its way. It’s that the lottery gifted the only other actor with the potential to shape the entire offseason with precisely that power. Do people not understand that it is David Griffin’s world now? This, incidentally, raises another question. Is he the secret son of Lucifer? Because, I mean, come on. That man has had way too much NBA lottery fortune for any Arizona State alum. (Ed note: #BearDown.) Meanwhile, the Knicks have STILL never drafted above (and rarely even at) their record since 1985.
  2. NY’s trade assets have no clear competitive advantage in any potential Anthony Davis deal. The only routes to star-quality veteran talent are free agency, the trade market, and the draft, which are interconnected. We can ignore free agency here since we cannot know NY’s odds of signing Durant or any star. The lottery outcome ensured that NO got the draft’s lone consensus star, the only trade asset that could’ve prevented an auction for Anthony Davis. (As we know from economics, auctions are usually hella expensive for the buyer.) With that outcome conditions are now ripe for a Davis auction involving (at least) the Celtics, Knicks, and Lakers. All can offer vaguely comparable packages, depending on Griffin’s strategy and preferences. And, of course, if he really is the son of Lucifer as I suspect, maybe he gets Davis to stay in New Orleans to play with Zion.
  3. Pending new info or insight, color me skeptical of RJ Barrett. New York may prefer, or be forced by circumstance, to draft and develop the #3 pick. Obviously, no one controls the distribution of talent in a given draft. (This must be true because no one with the power to stop it would have allowed the 2000 draft to happen. Jamal Crawford–who I love–might have the best career in that class. Yikes.) I’ve been told this is a three player draft. Are we sure? The more I read about the presumed #3 prospect, the less I like him. I’m no scout, but I wonder why we should consider Barrett a substantially better prospect (if at all) than, say, Miles Bridges. So much of what I’m reading about Barrett seems overly-reliant on counting stats, puffery, and an unreasonable amount of apologizing for a LOT of selfish play. He’s middling or bad on every advanced metric, save rebounding. It’s VERY easy to overvalue basic percentages for an 18 yr. old prospect, but what are people hanging their hats on with Barrett? It’s not cloud-piercing athleticism. It’s not a fabulous stroke, is it? Now, he is an elite rebounding wing. But even that makes me wonder whether he was an early bloomer who got reduced to a mid-range chucker by ACC-quality athletes. So much of his ballyhooed productivity seems like an artifact of a frightening usage rate that generated over 700 shots but only a 1.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Obviously, none of this dooms him as a prospect. But if Mills & Perry are buying into Barrett as much as virtually everyone else they better work him out to within an inch of his life and know exactly what he’s made of before pulling the trigger.

All that said, it’s a better time to be a Knicks fan than in a long time. The team is well-positioned to make a significant move in its journey toward decency this offseason. Yet the unlikeliest of teams–The New Orleans Pelicans–will play a bigger role than anyone would have imagined a week ago in determining just which paths the Knicks can and cannot travel on that journey. To sum things up, in the words of the great Bill Connolly of SBNation, “sports are dumb.”

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.

2018 SummerKnicks Wrap-Up

The SummerKnicks of the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League finished with a record of 2-3. Obviously, the record by itself doesn’t tell us much. The real learning from Summer League is to be found in individual performances rather than aggregate stats, so let’s get to those.

Kevin Knox. You’d have to be cynical even for a Knicks fan not to be hopeful–maybe even a little giddy like Fran Fraschilla–about Knox’s performance in Vegas. We saw glimpses of him leading the break and initiating the screen roll both to score and create for others. These are things we really didn’t see at Kentucky. He was very committed to attacking the rim and getting to the FT line. He is going to be hard to guard for teams that aren’t committed to stopping him. (Boston was committed and leveraged him into difficult shots.) Knox had the greenest of green lights in Vegas leading him to throw up some bad shots here and there. So he was hardly a model of efficiency, though he hit a reasonable share of difficult shots. A bigger–if still mild–concern coming out of Summer League is that the jumper comes and goes. It’s a good looking shot, so it should be just a matter of time before it becomes a reliable weapon but how much time is anyone’s guess.

Mitchell Robinson. If you loved Knox in Vegas then you also have to love what Robinson put on display in every game. His rebounding and shot blocking should absolutely translate to the NBA. And good heavens, he covers so much ground. He blocked at least three jump shots on the perimeter that I can recall. Of course, like most young bigs he has no real idea how to establish defensive post position or rotate. Given all this, Robinson may represent a tough call for the brain trust. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Fiz and Perry decide that it is best to let him mature in Westchester this entire upcoming season regardless of what he does in training camp or pre-season. Totally reasonable. Or, he could play his way into 15-20 rebounding, shot-blocking, slam-dunking minutes per night.

Frank Ntilikina.  Game 2 Frank was the best Frank, obviously.  But how he performed is just as important as how well. He pushed the ball up the floor, even on dead balls. He attacked the rim and unveiled a bit of Andre Miller to his game. That last part might be the most important development for his upcoming season. Ntilikina isn’t likely to be a classic penetrate-and-kick PG like Marbury but he can still break defenses down. Miller is the patron saint of putting a defender on his hip and taking him to the mid-post to pass or score. He did it on slow-paced teams and fast ones. Given Frank’s size, he needs some Dre in his game. Though plenty quick, he’s big enough to back down all but a few PGs. We needed to see that in summer league, along with a willingness to keep his dribble alive in traffic. We saw him do all these things across five quarters. (The first three quarters vs. ATL were ychhh.) I don’t subscribe to this being a so-called “make or break” season for Frank, I expect to see him carry this skill set into the regular season.

Damyean Dotson. The most disappointing summer league performance (relative to expectations) almost certainly belongs to Dotson. A second round flier who generally impressed when he got some run with the big club, he is hardly “the” key to the upcoming season. Still, a lot of people expect Courtney Lee to be moved this off-season. That mostly presumes that Dotson will contribute (if not start) as a 3-and-D wing. I’m not gonna go nuts over a few bad games. (And, he did play well in the final game.) But, Dotson was mostly awful on both ends of the floor against non-NBA talent for four straight games. He has training camp and pre-season to turn things around but he’s got  work to do. I’ll be rooting for him.

Allonzo Trier. The Knicks tried him at PG, when as far as I know he never even brought the ball up the floor at Arizona. And hoo brr-other, it did not go well. Jason Kidd he ain’t. But, he’s not a bad project on a two-way deal to play the bench scorer role. At 6’5″ he has nice size for SG so even if he never develops as an initiator he should contribute at his natural position. His college and summer numbers make it evident he can score reasonably efficiently. He was also the 3rd leading (per game) rebounder. 

Others. Apart from Kornet, the SummerKnicks really didn’t feature other NBA talent. Daniel Ofechu had some nice moments as a rebounding and passing PF. I have my doubts about whether he’s athletic enough to stay on the floor but he has an NBA skill set. On the other hand, I don’t really understand the team’s fascination with Isaiah Hicks.

Why Being a Knicks Fan is the Worst (But This Time Might Be Different)

As you are no doubt aware, dear reader, Knicks phenom Kristaps Porzingis (aka the Unicorn) tore his ACL in a meaningless game on February 4th against the Milwaukee Bucks. The injury ends his 2017-18 season and almost certainly keeps him out of game action until after the calendar turns to 2019. This was, in its own way, a perfect microcosm of life as a Knicks fan. To that point in the contest, KP had more than held his own against Milwaukee’s uber-talented phenom, Giannis Antetokuonmpo. Porzingis blocked at least one of his dunk attempts and generally frustrated him. Of course, with Porzingis off the court the “Greek freak” went bananas

On the 2nd quarter play where Porzingis was injured he faked a high ball screen then quickly slipped it and cut to the rim, coming wide open to receive a perfect bounce pass for a dunk. Antetokuonmpo pursued but had little chance to contest the shot. Unfortunately, as Porzingis landed he appeared to catch just a wee bit of Antetokuonmpo’s foot with his own. He came down awkwardly and crumpled into a heap, clutching at his knee. With so little contact (it’s not even clear on video) a torn ACL seemed far less likely than an ankle sprain. Yet here we are.

Of course, Knicks fans are hardly alone in terms of suffering through life with an injured star. So when I say that the Porzingis injury is a microcosm of life as a Knicks fan, I’m not suggesting the Knicks have it worse than others. Rather, I’m referring to that foreboding sense that every Knicks fan feels; that the outcome will eventually be terrible no matter the cause. Now, it’s incompetent boobery often enough to warrant endless mocking from seemingly every ignorant jackass in the sports media universe. So at least dumb luck represents a kind of rhythm change. We usually have to wait all the way until the June draft lottery to get screwed by dumb luck. But here it is in early February, like Punxatawney Phil’s dismal shadow.

But y’know? This time feels a little different. To be clear, losing Porzingis is fetal-position-thumb-suck bad. I just feel more confident than in the past that this front office won’t make things worse with idiotic quick fixes. Y’know why? The Knicks are–gasp–not incompetently run. As much as it feels like tempting cruel fate to type those words, they are true as far as I can tell.  Although the possibility of a James Dolan “big time” move this summer hangs like the Sword of Damocles, he has (to date and to his credit) stayed disengaged from day-to-day management since firing Phil Jackson. The Mills/Perry duo (to date and to its credit) has stayed away from the kind of short-sighted, just-do-a-bigger-deal disasters that any Knicks fan can recite without thinking. Reasonable people can criticize their player evaluation (they clearly didn’t value Hernangomez), but turning McDermott (who they weren’t going to pay) into a cost-controlled look at a guard with size, athleticism, and some upside is not a bad look at all.