2018 Preview — New York Knicks

2018-19 New York Knicks


Projected Record: 22-60 (15th in East)

Over/Under: 29.5

2016: 29-53 (11th in East)


Key Additions:

  • Kevin Knox (Pick #9)
  • Mitchell Robinson (Pick #36)
  • Mario Hezonja (Free Agency)
  • Noah Vonleh (Free Agency)

Key Subtractions:

  • Michael Beasley
  • Kyle O’Quinn
  • Troy Williams

Summary

Strengths:

  • Lots of young upside
  • Management finally seems to have a plan

Weaknesses:

  • Porzingis out for significant time
  • Not many players ready to win right now

Kristaps Porzingis is out until February at the earliest. There’s your preview.

I suppose I have to write some more about the New York Knicks, but honestly, there isn’t that much else to say. With Porzingis sidelined for the better part of the season, the Knicks might have the worst roster in the entire league. Enes Kanter is arguably their best healthy player right now. Enes Kanter!

Rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson provided a spark during Summer League, and rightfully have Knicks fans excited for the future. Knox certainly looked the part of a high-volume scorer, although he struggled with his efficiency, and Robinson looked simply dominant in the paint and at the rim. Along with last year’s lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina, they’ll spearhead the youth movement around Porzingis that has the future of New York basketball looking bright. They’ll have plenty of minutes to learn from this season, too.

Problem is, youth movements don’t often win many games right away.

There are parts of this roster that just don’t make sense with the general rebuild the franchise has been undergoing since moving on from Carmelo Anthony. Kanter is making $18 million this year to play only one end of the court. Ditto Joakim Noah, to play neither. The Knicks traded away Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2015 to draft Jerian Grant (who lasted one season with the team), only to sign Hardaway back in free agency a mere two years later, for $71 million over four years. They’ve resisted moving Courtney Lee despite the fact that he doesn’t fit with the team’s timeline and would certainly have value on the trade market. The front office decision-making seems indecisive, to say the least.

This isn’t to say they’ve been making entirely bad moves. In fact, the Knicks have been making some worthy gambles on post-hype former lottery picks. Guard Trey Burke was an unexpected hit last season, coming up from the G-League to post a 13-point, five-assist line with a 56% true shooting percentage, and look like an honest-to-god NBA point guard for the first time in his career. They’ve doubled-down on the plan since, taking on Denver’s Emmanuel Mudiay in a three-team deal at last year’s trade deadline and signing Noah Vonleh and Mario Hezonja in free agency.

These are the kinds of players you want to take a chance on when you’re a team in New York’s position — if they hit, you have a potential future contributor for relatively cheap, and if they don’t, you gave up very little for the chance. Hezonja is the most intriguing prize: a scoring wing who turned on the jets almost right after the Orlando Magic declined his fourth-year option. He won’t play a lick of defense, but a 6’8″ wing with the potential to put some points on the board, at 23 years old and on only a one-year deal, has virtually no downside. Mudiay is 22 years old and Vonleh is still somehow only 23, and though they haven’t consistently showed NBA production, their flashes of potential are worth chasing. The team can’t get any worse, right?

Though there’s always a little bit of James Dolan-induced weirdness when it comes to the Knicks, the franchise is in a better long-term position that it has been at any point this decade.

They’re just going to be very bad this year, in the meantime.


Most Valuable Player: Kristaps Porzingis

The 2017-18 season was supposed to be the big breakout for Kristaps Porzingis, and it sort of was… right up until it wasn’t anymore. His February ACL injury complicated a season that, on the surface level, looked like a star turn, but on closer inspection, got quite a bit more confusing. We know for a fact that Porzingis is a star, but exactly what kind of star still seems uncertain.

Where there was improvement, it was LOUD improvement. His three-point percentage rose to nearly 40%, largely unprecedented for a player of his size. He allowed the lowest field goal percentage as a primary defender in the league among players who played at least 20 minutes per game (49%). Had he played enough games to qualify, he would have had the second-most blocks per game (2.4) in the league, behind only Anthony Davis. His unique talent and skillset is eminently clear.

What isn’t clear is how much further Porzingis can go — and how much the Knicks have been holding him back. For as much as his 2017-18 season impressed on a basic stats level, advanced stats don’t quite seem to agree. Overall net rating pegged Porzingis at a perfect 0.0 last year, meaning the Knicks were exactly the same with or without him on the court. Net rating is hardly a catch-all stat, of course, but for a player of his caliber, it’s a strange result. He also struggled with scoring efficiency to an extent, with a merely average 53.9% true shooting percentage, but as a player with a usage rate over 30% on a terrible team, that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Unfortunately, clarity will be hard to come by when it comes to Porzingis this season. He’s unlikely to see the court until February at the earliest, and even then, it’s not like the Knicks will have much to play for when he does. If they have any sense, they’ll bring him along slowly, which means Schrodinger’s Latvian will most likely be remaining in the box for at least one more year.

X Factor: Kevin Knox

After being booed at this summer’s draft by Knicks fans who hoped for Michael Porter Jr., Kevin Knox has restored his image in New York with some swiftness. Nobody generated more hype during Summer League play than he did, and for good reason — in a league dominated by two-way wings, he looked like a star.

That said, stardom remains far from assured. Knox was largely anonymous for Kentucky last season, struggling to score with efficiency and find a defensive role all season long. Knox didn’t excel at any one thing in college, and he was inconsistent to the extreme, sometimes stringing together impressive 20-point outings only to vanish thereafter. He opened NCAA Tournament play with an impressive 25-point performance against Davidson, only to follow it up with 21 points combined across the next two games against Buffalo and Kansas State.

This didn’t really change in Summer League, despite the buzz surrounding him. Though the raw scoring numbers looked impressive, especially a 29-point performance against the Lakers, he didn’t shoot better than 40% from the field in any game he played and shot a merely average 35% from behind the arc. Against the Celtics in his second game, he managed 15 points on a miserable 5-of-20 from the field.

None of this is to say that Knox is a bad prospect — Summer League rarely means anything in the grand scheme of things — but he’s not quite as far along as you might think. His late rise on draft boards was surprising, perhaps due to the success of Jayson Tatum as a rookie in Boston last year, who falls into a similar theoretical archetype of player. Knox has nice upside, but Knicks fans may need to be patient — things could be ugly before he starts to hit his stride.

Don’t Forget About: Trey Burke

I’ve rooted for Trey Burke since his thrilling NCAA Tournament run with Michigan, where he was bombing threes left and right and absolutely punishing teams who gave him any amount of space. During his 42-point, 12-assist performance in Charlotte last March, it sometimes felt like you were watching THAT Burke all over again.

While the Charlotte game was an obvious outlier with regards to his season as a whole, it opened some eyes to a Burke Renaissance that had already been in progress — since the end of February, the new and improved Trey Burke had been drilling midrange jumpers, passing with confidence, and even posting a blistering 60% effective field goal percentage in the fourth quarter. In nine games as New York’s starting point guard, Burke put up 19 points and eight assists per game on a 55% true shooting percentage.

Obviously, those stats will come back down to Earth this season. Nine starts and 36 total games don’t erase over 270 previous appearances that didn’t impress nearly as much. He’s also tiny — more J.J. Barea than Kemba Walker — and won’t be defending anybody in an NBA game. The superstar Burke we saw at Michigan isn’t suddenly back, in other words.

It’s clear that Burke has figured some things out, though, and it’s not a stretch to imagine him contributing as a bench player this season. If that happens, he’s certainly the first success of the Knicks’ newfound reclamation program.


Second Opinion

James Holas, BBallBreakdown + Real Ball Insiders (@SnottieDrippen)

Putrid.

Horrendous.

Gross.

Depressing.

These are some words you can use to accurately describe the last five years of New York Knicks basketball. More damning than the words are the numbers — the Knicks have won a mere 35% of their games since that magical 56-win 2012 season, totaling 264 losses in their last 410 contests.

The Knickerbockers have become punchlines, a symbol of athletic failure and fan futility; not many outside of the most die-hard New York fans are expecting anything but more of the same hapless losing this season.

Not so fast.

Things actually started to turn around quite a while back, when the Knicks shocked everyone by drafting talented unicorn Kristaps Porzingis back in 2015. The Knicks circus continued around the Latvian big man with superstar potential, but the seed was planted. Phil Jackson turned out to be a terrible choice to run the show, but last summer, James Dolan rectified one of his many, many missteps by parting ways with the Zenmaster. Jeff Hornacek was embattled from the moment he took the reins, and he never seemed to find his coaching rhythm or voice under the meddling of Phil Jackson. Out with Hornacek, in with the confident, bombastic David Fizdale; the young, energetic coach showed plenty of fire during his time with the Grizzlies and I expect him to be the culture-changer New York desperately needs.

Finally, 6’9” 19-year-old Kevin Knox is the latest glimmer of hope in the dark apocalyptic wasteland that’s been Knicks over the last five seasons — Hell, since 2001, if we’re keeping it 100. Other than that brief two-year oasis of competence from 2011 to 2013, the Knicks have been atrocious since Y2K.

Knox will join Porzingis to form a young, dynamic, athletic duo capable of dragging the denizens of Madison Square garden back to relevance and contention — or so the Knicks hope, at least. Injuries are threatening to derail the European unicorn (Porzingis has missed 48 games in the last 2 years) but the bedrock for something less-than-terrible is in place. Kristaps can step out and hit the three, handle the ball a bit, and has the length to be a real deal rim-deterrent. In Knox, the Knicks just might have the steal of the draft — he’s damn near Durant-like in stature (he’s listed as 6’9”, but at 19, could still be growing), aggressive, and fits the mold of the prototypical multi-positional swing-forward. Knox has all the tools to join Porzingis as a dual sun around which a modern offense orbits.

Fizdale cut his teeth for 13 seasons as an assistant coach, then did about as well as humanly possible guiding the injury ravaged ‘16-’17 Grizzlies to a playoff berth and two wins over the second-seed Spurs. Coach Fiz’s brash style didn’t fly with vets in Memphis (okay, didn’t fly with Marc Gasol), but on a young team like the Knicks, his bravado should serve as a rallying point, a touchstone that helps these guys reach their potential.

There’s still a ways to go. Outside of Kristaps and Knox, point guard Frank Ntilikina enters his second season as 80% potential, 10% production, and 10% question marks; no one is quite sure what he’ll be as a pro yet. Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. are making almost $36 million this season to be all-offense, no-defense role players flanking the Knicks youngsters. Courtney Lee doesn’t fit the age of this roster, and Mario Hezonja and Emmanuel Mudiay are both reclamation projects that were startlingly bad lotto picks in recent years.

There are still tons of issues to sort out in the coming months (and years) for the Knicks, but there’s also a foreign feeling in the air around the team: Kristaps, Knox, and Fizdale bring a breath of hope and optimism. I don’t expect a ton of wins for this New York squad, but they SHOULD be fun. Chin up, Knicks fans, there’s better days ahead.


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