April 10, 2020, 12:01 pm
The Knicks have had a tough run for the better part of the last two decades, and to no one’s surprise the 2019-20 season, whether complete or not, falls right in line. In summary, a lackluster offseason led to a horrendous start, which resulted in the coach being fired, followed by the president two months later, all while overpriced, underperforming veterans soaked up the minutes of the young core on their way to a division-worst 21 wins.
Throw in a few embarrassing press releases and the standard general disappointment and you have a normal Knicks season, right? Maybe not.
Let’s take a deep dive into what has transpired so far this season and how it may result in a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Changes At the Top
Before a champion was even crowned last summer the Knicks’ uber-optimistic plans for the future began to fall apart as they missed out on the first-overall pick in the draft lottery. Shortly thereafter, they were unable to secure any top-tier free agent talent and headed into the season with a roster mixed with young players in need of mass amounts of development and a random assortment of mediocre vets who were surely going to impede on said development. All while the front office attempted to claim everything went “according to plan.”
22 games into the season, sporting a 4-18 record, it was apparent whatever their plan was, it did not work, and change was needed. Instead of looking in the mirror and finding the common links throughout the franchise’s struggles, the owner, president and general manager took the easy way out and fired the coach, David Fizdale.
Known around the league as a “players coach,” the Knicks brass had hoped he would be able to help lure prized free agents away from their competitors. Given the roster construction and complete lack of a system, it was obvious Fizdale’s days in New York were numbered. Assistant coach Mike Miller was promoted to interim head coach and made his NBA coaching debut against the Pacers in early December. Although Miller makes similar questionable rotation decisions, he has gotten the squad to play much better than Fizdale did, increasing the team’s net rating from a league-worst -10.9, to a still-awful but much improved -4.3 in 44 games with Miller. The team has yet to fully commit to Miller and with the surplus of big-name candidates and a front office looking to make a splash, I would not expect Miller to keep the job once the season is officially complete.
While slight improvements were being made on the court, there was still a disconnect in the front office regarding the future of the franchise. With a roster full of moveable players and no clear direction, the trade deadline approached without any ideas of what was going to transpire. As rumors swirled, reports of the Knicks being involved in deals as buyers and tied to separate deals as sellers added even more confusion. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the news broke that the president of basketball operations, Steve Mills, had been fired.
Mills had held various positions in multiple stints with the team and presumably saw the writing on the wall and knew his time as president had come to an end. In an attempt to save his job, Mills wanted to make moves at the deadline that would help the team now instead of down the road. Apparently, owner James Dolan and general manager Scott Perry opposed this idea as they moved through the deadline without him, or anyone else, in the position. In a shocking turn of events, firing the president was not the only obscure move the team made at the deadline.
President of a franchise with a roster full of question marks, an owner who is overly involved, no coach, and the worst team in the largest media market in the world is not an easy sell to prospective hires. So, the Knicks did what they do best — set their sights on someone who is out of their league and not interested (Masai Ujiri) but settle for the person with no experience that nobody knows, leaving everyone scratching their heads asking, who?!
That man is Leon Rose. The former CAA agent represented the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, among others. With the hire the Knicks are trying to recreate the former-agent-turned-executive success the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers have had with Bob Meyers and Rob Pelinka. Both were hired into positions with much more stable franchises and competent supporting casts. Credit to the Knicks for taking this path, but whether or not Rose can create a winning situation in New York is far from being determined.
By now everyone knows the story, the Knicks were planning on making a massive splash in the offseason by acquiring some combination of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis to go along with their first overall pick, Zion Williamson. In a matter of six weeks all those dreams and aspirations were long gone. The result: RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton.
With the third overall selection in the draft Barrett was the best player available and although he did not have the same immediate impact as the two picks before him, he showed signs throughout the season that he can be an above average player in the league. It has been ugly for Barrett’s fantasy rankings as low shooting percentages held him back, placing him 259th in 8-cat and outside of the top-300 in 9-cat. Barrett has dealt with the standard rookie woes and was also dropped onto a roster that does not complement his game in any fashion.
The one move the Knicks did make at the deadline was trading Marcus Morris to the Clippers for Moe Harkless and an upcoming first-round pick. The Knicks lucked into Morris last summer when Reggie Bullock failed his initial physical and could not sign his deal, opening cap space to make a move for Morris who rescinded an agreement he had made with the Spurs. Prior to the trade Morris had been having a career year and was the best player on the roster. He ranked 72/82 in 8/9-cat on a per game basis while shooting an absurd 45.1% from deep. With 66% his field goal attempts coming from the mid-range and out, he was the perfect physical stretch-4 for a contender such as the Clippers.
The biggest contract the Knicks doled out over the summer was to Julius Randle at the rate of $63 million over three years. Randle was roughly the 12-15th best available free agent and planned on coming to New York to be The Man. He absolutely was the team’s best player throughout the season but whether he is an overall fit with the rest of the roster and the young developing core remains a constant question.
Randle is a ball-stopper that clogs the paint and does not provide much value without the ball in his hands. His usage rate is in the 96th percentile but he has a woeful 49.2 eFG% and is an utter disaster from behind the arc, making only 27.7% of his 3.6 attempts per game.
With an ADP in the 5th round owners have been disappointed with his results all season long. He averages 19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds and has 30 double-doubles on the season but percentages and turnovers have held Randle back from reaching his full fantasy value. In 9-cat, he has fallen all the way to just inside the top-140 and jumps up to 86 overall in 8-cat, both much lower than anticipated heading into the season.
Elfrid Payton missed 17 of the first 21 games of the season due to injury but since returning he has worked his way into the starting lineup and become great at filling up the box score with empty stats. Since becoming a starter, Payton has posted 10.4 points, dished out 7.5 assists, and grabbed 5.1 rebounds over 36 games, one of only five players in the league to have such numbers.
His shooting ability, or lack thereof, hinders any prospects he has at being an above average fantasy player. Knocking down only 43.9% from the field, 20.3% from deep and 57.0% from the line leaves Payton with 93.3 points per 100 shot attempts, the worst number from any player who has played over 1200 minutes this season. Despite the atrocious percentages, his well-rounded output on a nightly basis has help him exceed his actual ADP of 140 as he sits right around 10th round value in both 8/9-cat leagues.
The one thing we did know about the Knicks prior to the start of this season is that they were going to have to have a busy summer whether they got their guy or not, as they only returned six players from 2018-19, all of whom are on rookie contracts. Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier and Kevin Knox all received valuable playing time down the stretch of last season and most were led to believe this group of players in addition to the draft pick, which we now know is Barrett, would be the foundation of this team for years to come. This was the start of a new foundation as the last little piece the franchise might have had in Kristaps Porzingis was shipped away for Dennis Smith Jr., two first-round picks, and the all-important cap space.
From the onset this season has been a complete roller coaster for all of these returning players.
Questions regarding Trier making the active roster started after Summer League and then he started the first game of the season but only tallied 7 minutes of play. This is more of an indictment of Fizdale than anyone but still sums up the situation. After coming on strong late in 2018-19, Trier has been unable to find a groove all season and has not fit in well with any of the Knicks’ rotations. He has only played more than 20 minutes in back-to-back games on one occurrence this year and it was in the second and third games of the season. The undrafted combo guard has made it clear he believes he deserves more of an opportunity but with his contract expiring once this season is complete, I do not believe he will ever get it.
Another returnee who has had trouble securing his role is Dotson. He started 30 of the final 32 games in 2018-19, finishing the season on a high note, to then start this season playing only 16 minutes of the first six games. From November through January Dotson was a staple in the rotation each night until the Morris trade brought in Moe Harkless and Dotson was relegated to an end-of-bench role. While Dotson’s real-life value could be argued, neither player provides anything on the fantasy side.
The focal human being the Knicks got in return for Porzingis, Dennis Smith Jr., is having one of the worst seasons imaginable. The former top-10 pick, who many thought the Knicks should have drafted in the first place, was expected to run the show this year and possibly be the point guard of the future. DSJ started the season away from the team for personal reasons and has missed time due to injury when he has been with the squad. In his time out on the floor he has looked lost. In only 34 appearances, three starts, this season Smith is averaging 5.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds. To go along with those lackluster numbers, he has posted an eFG of 38.4% so far this year, ranking him dead last for players who have played over 500 minutes.
Fantasy-wise, he ranked in the 230s (per-game) in his first two seasons and many believed a jump in production was in store for this season. Reality has been quite the contrary, as he currently ranks 363rd in 8-cat and a ridiculous 426th in 9-cat after being drafted in the 12th round on average. His percentages hold him back significantly in fantasy but even from a fan perspective, Knicks supporters expected much more this season, hoping his athletic prowess and scoring ability would translate to some much-needed excitement in the Garden.
Like Smith, Knox had an ADP close to the 12th round but currently should be nowhere near anyone’s roster. After starting 57 games as a rookie, Knox is the 4th player in history to see a decrease of greater than 10 minutes per game after playing 25 minutes per game in his rookie campaign. The other three all had injury-shortened seasons. In 15 of his appearances this year Knox recorded less than 13 minutes; the Knicks did not win a single one of those games.
The most polarizing returning Knick is Ntilikina, Knicks fans either love him or hate him there is no in between. Ntilikina cracked the top-300 for the first time in his brief career and currently sits within the top-250 in both 8/9-cat but provides extremely limited fantasy value. In spurts he will show signs he can be a competent and valuable player on both sides of the floor, but has yet to prove he has the confidence to be a guard that can lead a team whether it be as a starter or reserve.
Mitchell Robinson is the Future
Is it too early to say the Knicks got one right with Mitchell Robinson? Probably just got lucky but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The former McDonald’s All-American came straight into the NBA after sitting out an entire year after high school so the Knicks were able to grab him early in the second round of the 2018 draft and the seven-footer was thrust into the starting lineup just six games into his career. He was eventually moved back to the bench and struggled with ankle injuries throughout the remainder of the season, but he showed enough to prove he is a pillar of the Knicks’ infantile foundation. Robinson averaged 7.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game all while shooting 69.4% from the field and finished in the top-50 in both 8/9-cat. He was projected as the 10th best center heading into this season with an ADP of 30
Although still young and raw, Robinson has already proved to be an elite rim protector, and by far the best interior defender on the roster. The fact he backs up a 34-year-old Taj Gibson, on a 20-win team, going nowhere fast, is a questionable rotation decision.
A long, high-flying player such as Robinson benefits from floor spacing; an ideal lineup situation for him is being surrounded by shooters while he patrols the paint and is available for pick and rolls, dump offs and putbacks. He played only 52 total possessions this season without Randle or Bobby Portis on the floor with him, both players who provide no outside threat and create more traffic in the lane.
He does tend to pick up fouls at a high rate with his overzealous attempts at blocking shots, but that is to be expected from a young player who, by his own admission, is still learning parts of the game.
To go along with his gaudy block numbers, Robinson led the league in field goal percentage at 74.2% thanks to a ridiculous 96% of his shots coming at the rim. He has progressed as a roll man and will throw down anything that is put near the rim but has yet to add any other offensive moves to his repertoire, resulting in 66% of his buckets coming as the roll man or on putbacks. Of his 341 field goal attempts only 12 came from further than four feet out and only 35.6% of his made baskets are unassisted, proving he is not yet capable of making a play for himself in the post or in a face-up situation. He does not need to become Anthony Davis on the block but the slightest threat of a mid-range jumper or the ability to make the occasional post move will spike his offensive production.
After not living up to the lofty expectations this season and slipping out of the top-80 in 8-cat and top-50 in 9-cat I would like to see him stay out of foul trouble, as it would lead to more of an opportunity on both sides of the floor. With Robinson’s primary fantasy value being derived from field goal percentage and blocks, a slight drop in production was detrimental to his ranking as he does not bring any other attributes to the table.
Although he remained in the top-five in contested shots per 36 minutes there was a significant drop from 19.5 last season to 16.3 this year. The jump in field goal percentage, points and slight uptick in rebounds was not enough to outweigh the decline in free throw percentage (.600 to .568) and blocks from 2.4 to 2.0 per game. In the final 10 games, Robinson posted the numbers we expected from him going into the year, averaging 12.2 points while shooting an absurd 79.1% from the field, grabbing 8.7 boards and swatting 2.5 shots per game, ranking him 33rd in 9-cat leagues over the short period. If he can assert himself on the glass and corral close to double-digit rebounds per game, he has the potential to be a Rudy Gobert-like force in the paint.
What’s to Come
So, what do the Knicks do next? If this season does resume, the kids need to play. There is no reason Taj Gibson should be starting, Moe Harkless should be playing 40 minutes a night and Bobby Portis should be playing at all. If basketball is to come back, I do not see the teams out of the playoff hunt coming back with the same intensity they had prior to this break. I envision the contenders working their way back and coasting into the playoffs while the rebuilding and tanking teams are just going to lie down.
With the Knicks being in the latter category they are basically on a free roll and have an opportunity to just let the young players play. The front office, especially the brand-new president, needs to get an idea of what they have moving forward. It seemed as if that is what they did to close out the year last season but then followed it up by signing a surplus of players that completely reversed any progress.
If the season is over, they need to start by finding a coach, particularly one with a track record of player development. When the draft rolls around, they need to draft the best player available, regardless of position. There are too many holes on the roster to try to solve any issues with a 19-year-old kid. Take the best guy on the board and add him to the long list of developmental projects. As long as the front office, coaching staff and roster can get on the same page with how they see the future of the franchise going progress will be made but unless RJ and Mitch turn into Kobe and Shaq overnight the Knicks are a year or two away from being a year or two away.