Being the punch line of every joke is tough. Then again, there is a reason why the New York Knicks have been just that throughout the NBA for the better part of 15 years. James Dolan is an owner that creates dysfunction. Since Jeff Van Gundy left in 2001, the Knicks have had 11 head coaches and six GM’s. The Phil Jackson fiasco was one the biggest disasters in the NBA in recent memory. Jackson is now gone, and so is Carmelo Anthony. Their departure has brought the Knicks a fresh start, something the organization needed desperately. Melo’s era in New York never worked beside the one magical 58-24 season. Some of that is on Melo, most of it is on the organization. Either way, the Knicks are headed in a brand new direction.
The Knicks have made the playoffs in only four of the last 15 seasons. Poor trades, bad draft picks, and overspending have all played a factor. No team has made worse decisions in the past decade than the Knicks. Phil Jackson, the Bargnani trade, drafting Jordan Hill, the list goes on and on. The problem was the front office only (unsuccessfully) thinking in the short-term. Relying on the lure of Madison Square Garden and New York got the Knicks in trouble, and they paid the price.
The Knicks have swung and missed on several key free agents in recent years. They are still paying the price; the Knicks will be bad again this year. New York will likely miss the playoffs and win somewhere around 30 games. Going forward there are issues, but there is also a lot to be excited about. Compare New York to other bad teams around the league, and New York appears to be in a better future situation than you think. The Knicks finally have a relatively clean slate and a chance to not be the, “Same old Knicks.”
The Unicorn has arrived. In his third season, Porzingis is no longer a player with great potential, he is the real deal. Porzingis is stronger this year, more confident and out of Melo’s shadow. He is the clear number one option this year, and he is delivering. It’s tough being the number one option when defenses scheme to stop you every night, and you don’t have great offensive players around you. None of that seems to bother Porzingis as he has scored at least 30 points in five of his first six games so far this year. Porzingis is 3rd in the league in scoring at 29.3 points per game and coming off a career-high 38 points in a win over the Denver Nuggets.
Not only is he getting buckets, but he is also doing it efficiently. He is shooting a career-high 47% from the field, 36% from deep, and his true shooting percentage is an excellent 57%. Porzingis essentially is the Knicks offense; he has a ridiculous 33.9 usage percentage. Teams know he is getting the ball and still can’t stop him. That’s what happens when you’re a 7’3 player, who can shoot threes, and handle the ball like a guard. People thought Porzingis would be good, just not this good, this fast. He is 15th in the league in PER at 25.88 and is on track to be an All-Star for the first time this season. Porzingis’ game is the perfect combination of efficiency and aggressiveness. He also is attempting a career-high seven free throws per game.
His time in the weight room has paid off. It is paying off in the post the most. According to Synergy Sports, Porzingis ranks in the 83rd percentile among all players in post ups. He scores a ridiculous 52% of the time, and his points per possession is 1.139 on an impressive 51.7 adjusted field goal percentage. Watch this play here.
Porzingis gets the ball outside the right block, guarded by Paul Millsap. First, Porzingis hits Millsap with a jab step to create space, and then takes two hard dribbles to get into the paint. Then he half spins, only to come back the other way and hit the turnaround jumper over Millsap and Wilson Chandler, who comes over to help.
I mean how do you stop this? Unstoppable players have unstoppable moves. Porzingis’ turnaround jumper is near impossible to defend.
Now to his defense, where there are still issues. Porzingis still struggles to defend in space, particularly against spot-up players. He easily bites on pump fakes or leaves shooters wide open. Part of this is him starting at the four because Enes Kanter starts at the five. Porzingis is better on defense at center, where he can stay close to the basket and block shots. Porzingis likes the four on offense, and because the Knicks have an abundance centers to play, it’s tough to find minutes for him at the five. Still, the defensive numbers are discouraging so far; he ranks in the 21st percentile overall. Defense is the next facet of his game that needs improvement.
Overall, Knicks fans have to be thrilled. Porzingis is only 22 and already an All-Star caliber player, who is only going to continue to get better. New York, you have a franchise player that you can build around. The trick is keeping him happy.
Ahh, the much-maligned young point guard. The 19-year-old kid from France was taken in the first round this year by the Knicks. Most Knicks fans were upset as they wanted Dennis Smith Jr. Dallas took Smith with the next pick and so far he looks like the better player. He will probably be the better player when it’s all said and done. Don’t worry Knicks fans you didn’t get a slouch. Nikkitina is a legit 6’5, and he is oozing with defensive potential.
In the three games he has played the Knicks have allowed only 97 points per game, in the three he missed with an ankle injury, the Knicks allowed 108 points. Now that’s a small sample size and not all because of Nikkitina, but some of it is because of him. He and Jarrett Jack have stabilized the point guard spot, particularly on defense since they replaced Ramon Sessions. Most rookies, especially point guards, struggle on defense. Nikkitina is ahead of the curve.
Frank is in the 87th percentile in defending pick-and-roll ball handlers. That is incredible. He forces turnovers on 23% of the possessions, and only allows ball handlers to score 23% of the time. His defensive instincts are incredible, and the play below highlights just that. Thanks to Knicks Film School for breaking it down.
Frank starts the play guarding the ball but makes the ball handler give it up quickly. Then Frank is aware of a cut coming from the corner, so he leaves his man to get int he passing lane and steal the ball. He saved Doug McDermott’s you-know-what. The play here is a next level play made by a rookie. Incredible.
Now, offense is not his thing yet. He is averaging 4.8 point and 2.5 assists per game on 34% shooting. These numbers will surely go up when he plays more than 15 minutes per game, but it’s not a great start. The concerning thing is he has not attempted a free throw yet. Frank is not aggressive, or confident thus far. Turnovers are also a big problem. His turnover ratio is a woeful 21.4. That’s why he has one of the worst PER’s in the league at 3.90.
The one encouraging thing on offense is he is shooting 37% from three. If he can hit consistently from deep, then he brings value on offense. Knicks fans will have to be patient with his offense; it will take a while. I don’t think he will ever be an elite playmaker or scorer, but I think he can be solid on offense, and when you combine that with fantastic defense, you have an outstanding player. You could have the next Pat Beverley. Don’t beat yourself too much Knicks fans, for not taking Dennis Smith, Nikkitina has the chops to be a starting point guard for years to come. He will get better every game, be patient, New York.
This Year’s Knicks
New York lost its first three games, which everyone expected, but then won their next three, which no one expected. Wins at Cleveland and against Denver were particularly impressive. New York before the season figured to be okay on offense and terrible on defense. Well, right now they are 16th in defense and only 20th in offense. Turnovers are the issue on offense as the Knicks are 24th in the league in coughing it up. Shooting isn’t much better, as they are 19th in effective field goal percentage and 22nd in true shooting percentage. No one besides Porzingis is shooting well.
On defense, the Knicks strength is cleaning up the glass. They don’t allow a lot of second opportunities, their 11th in defensive rebounding. As I mentioned, the defense has improved by merely replacing Ramon Sessions with Frank Nikkitina and Jarrett Jack. Jack, in particular, is impressive. He is 34 and a reclamation project, but he is strong and plays the right way. Jack can still defend, and knows how to run an offense; he had ten assists last night. Nikkitina, on the other hand, hurts the offense, but New York will have to deal with that while they develop him.
One other thing that might help the offense is Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has struggled immensely in five out of the six game. He randomly dropped 34 points and eight assists at Cleveland. Hardaway is a capable scorer, who can get hot, but has to be more consistent. So far he is only averaging 14 points on 34% shooting. Hardaway is better than those numbers. What’s most concerning is he is just 29% from three. New York needs his shooting.
I know everyone was mad at New York for signing him to a $71 million deal, and yes, it was an overpay. That doesn’t mean, Hardaway Jr. cant be a productive player for the Knicks and part of their core in the future. Hardaway will never be able to play like a 71 million dollar player, but he can play like a 50-55 million dollar deal player. Meaning he is capable of averaging 17 points on 45% shooting, and four assists per game. As defenses pay more attention to Porzingis, more opportunities should open up for Hardaway. He could definitely end up being a serviceable #2 or #3 option. The good news is he is defending at an above average level this year, and he used to be a disaster there.
That’s the story of the Knicks, a lot of one-way players. Enes Kanter and Porzingis are offensive players, Jack and Courtney Lee are defensive players, and Hardaway right now is average at both. That leads to 3-3 and missing the playoffs this season. Porzingis may be worth an extra five wins now though. Therefore New York must decide who is on their team going forward. That requires playing players who are not a part of the future, while also developing young players who are. A tough balance for Jeff Hornacek and the Knicks organization.
Potential Trades Candidates
While there are bright spots in New York, It’s still more bad than good in Gotham. Mainly because the team has bad contracts and players, who don’t fit their future timeline. Joakim Noah, Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn and Courtney Lee are players who fit that description. Let’s start with Noah. Noah is 32 and had three years remaining on his contract at $17 million a year (thank you, Phil Jackson!).
Noah is missing the first 12 games of the season with a suspension. Even when he gets back, his health is a huge risk. His health combined with his age, contract and decline in play make him almost untradeable. Will he even get consistent minutes when he comes back? It will be tough as the Knicks will player Kanter, Porzingis and O’Quinn at the five, and there’s also Willy Hernagomez, who we will discuss later. I am not sure there is get out of jail free card with Noah. They will have to get very lucky to trade him. Most likely they will have to eat his contract. Secretly, the Knicks are probably hoping he retires, or they can discuss a buyout.
Now onto Enes Kanter. New York received Kanter as part of the Melo trade. Kanter is a double-double machine, and this year he is averaging 14 points and ten rebounds per game. He is still only 25 and entering his prime. That’s the good news. The bad is he is awful on defense. He can’t play in the playoffs. Not that the Knicks will be there, but it makes him harder to trade. His contract also makes him hard to trade. Kanter has two years left on his deal at also $17 million per year.
As you can tell the Knicks are strapped for cash. They need to shed one of these contracts. Kanter will be tough, but possible. New York is doing the right thing by starting him and increasing his trade value. To trade him the Knicks will have to throw in a sweetener. That sweetener is Courtney Lee. Lee is 32, but he still has value. Teams are always interested in wings who can defend and shoot 40% from three. Losing Lee would hurt this year’s Knicks, but help their future. Lee has three years remaining on his contract at $11 million per year.
Finally, there is Kyle O’Quinn. O’Quinn is a solid reserve, who teams will be interested in. O’Quinn can play the 4 and the 5 and is on a very friendly contract at two years left at $4 million per year. Teams needing depth in the frontcourt will call. This year he is averaging seven points and seven rebounds, with a high 22.99 PER. One trade idea that in appealing for the Knicks is Courtney Lee and Kyle O’Quinn for Gorgue Dieng and a second-round pick. New York would get an extra pick in the draft, open up playing time for this year’s draft pick in Damyean Dotson and get a quality frontcourt reserve in Gorgui Dieng.
Salary Cap Issues
As you may have noticed, the main reason for the Knicks being unable to make any trades are terrible contracts. New York is strapped for cash but can get relief as soon as 2019. If they can’t trade Kanter, New York might as well keep him, and play him off the bench and let him roast backups in the post. They can then give the starting job to Willy Hernagomez. Their payroll will jump from $93 million to $60 million from summer of 2018 to summer of 2019. Meaning the Knicks should just be quiet in this year’s free agency and don’t make any “classic Knicks moves.” Ron Baker, Kyle O’Quinn, and Doug McDermott all come off the books then as well.
Plus New York would still have one more year before they have to extend Porzingis, but they shouldn’t mess around with that. There are some big fish in the 2019 free agent class that the Knicks could reasonably go after. Guys like Deandre Jordan, Klay Thompson, and Tobias Harris will be available. Porzingis will help attract free agents, so will New York (hopefully). If the Knicks show improvement by 2019, they can be a legitimate free agency player. Financial flexibility right now is terrible for the Knicks, but it gets better in 2019. New York has to be patient and hopefully make at least one sound trade that gives them some cap relief, while also bettering them in the future.
Looking at the Future….
New York has a franchise player in Kristaps Porzingis. Regarding future success that puts them ahead of teams like Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta, Brooklyn, and Chicago. They also have all their first round picks in upcoming drafts. Unfortunately, in the next four drafts, they are sending away a second-round draft pick. The good news is they got a second-round draft pick back in this year’s draft as part of the Melo trade. It’s the Bulls pick so that will be at the top of the second round. New York also has a young point guard with potential for the first time in forever. His offense will take time, but defense is legit, and the Knicks need defense.
Plus, the Knicks have another exciting young big man in Willy Hernagomez. He is not playing much now, as the Knicks try to bolster Kanter’s and O’Quinn’s trade value, but he has tons of potential. He had an impressive 19 PER as a rookie. With Porzinigs they would be a dominant offensive front line. Defensively there would be issues, but both can improve on that end. If the Knicks don’t believe that is their frontcourt of the future, then they move Hernagomez, they could get a lot for him. One trade that could work is Hernagomez and Lee for Eric Bledsoe. Just a thought!
Whatever the Knicks do, they can’t trade draft picks. For the first time in a long time, they have all their first round picks. New York will be bad this year and should have a high pick in a strong draft. If they hit in this year’s draft, then they will have another promising rookie to join Porzingis and Nikkitina. Combine that with a solid two-guard in Hardaway Jr., a young developing center in Hernagomez, and there is a lot to like. Knicks GM Scott Perry must stay the course, and not lose patience. If he does that than the Knicks can be playoff contenders within two years, and after that, the sky is the limit when you have a unicorn like Porzingis leading the charge.