Recently I was watching the Bucks lose to the Cavaliers, and was paying particular attention to the work put in by Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (20 points, five assists off the bench). Midway through the fourth, Brogdon drove baseline and found a flashing John Henson. It looked like regular, competent point guard stuff until you examined it a little closer and appreciated the small details: the way he had to fend off LeBron James the whole time; how he kept his dribble and didn’t get flustered when he got caught under the rim; the way he saw Henson and waited until Tristan Thompson sagged away from him for half a breath. Watching Brogdon is like watching someone drive a car through town and seamlessly join the flow of traffic — it’s mundane until you stop to consider that the car is several tons of deadly metal and most players with Brogdon’s experience are basically still on their learner’s permit. I felt a strange heat prickle across my scalp, looked down to see my hands balled into quivering fists, and realized I was enraged.
The Knicks have failed in many interesting ways over the past 16 years. The splashy, embarrassing failures — Phil Jackson gaslighting Carmelo Anthony through his friend’s blog, the Andrea Bargnani trade, Charles Oakley getting dragged out of the arena by security during a nationally televised game — get most of the attention, and rightly so. But push through the flashing lights and back-page headlines, and look at the Knicks in the larger context of the league and it becomes hard not to ask the question: Why can’t the Knicks find a point guard?
The position is historically stacked. In the Western Conference alone, there’s Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, and James Harden — all are future Hall of Famers. Then there are under-the-marquee names like Dame Lillard, C.J. McCollum (who showed play-caller chops when Lillard sat earlier this season), Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, the meaty Eric Bledsoe, and pro’s-pro George Hill. Plus, there are incomplete but generally solid contributors like Patrick Beverley, Ricky Rubio, and comet-streaking-across-the-sky Yogi Ferrell.
In the East, there’s Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, and Kemba Walker. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career began the transition from long-limbed prospect to religious experience when Jason Kidd started playing him at point guard last season. There’s also Goran Dragic, Avery Bradley, Jeff Teague, Marcus Smart, and post-Linsanity Jeremy Lin.
Thomas’s career path is emblematic of the point guard glut. He was taken with the final pick in the 2011 draft by the Kings. Sacramento dealt him to the Suns because it’s a low-functioning shipwreck. Then the Suns sent him to Boston because they had literally too many point guards. The Celtics now have Thomas, Bradley, Smart, and Terry Rozier in their backcourt rotation.
Brogdon’s an interesting case. His college profile (four-year player and therefore considered suspect, not particularly fast, [extremely Dick Vitale voice] just knows how to play), an unlucky (for him) wealth of current options at his position, and the fascination with franchise-altering unicorns conspired to drop him to the second round in a draft that was weaker than a nine-volt battery in the back of a junk drawer.
If I want to get really mad, I think about the backup point guards who, in a perfect world where Derrick Rose’s cachet and salary don’t affect lineup decisions, would start for the Knicks. Shaun Livingston? Yes. Marcus Smart? Yes. Patty Mills? Yes. Lou Williams? For sure. Corey Joseph? Why not. Brandon Knight? Unfortunately, yes.
This is especially galling for fans of the Knicks because the point guard is such a storied part of the local basketball lore. Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, God Shammgod, Kenny Smith, and Kenny Anderson were all city famous before they became NBA famous. The blustery winter winds blow even the most accurate jumpers hither and yon. Fans of the city game are programmed to value players who can handle, get to the rim, and get everyone involved. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, the team rarely acquires those kind of players — or gets them past their prime, or doesn’t develop them properly. Forty-three players have manned the point position for the Knicks since 2006. This list of luminaries includes Eddie House (washed), Mardy Collins (Larry Brown loved him, of course), JR’s brother Chris Smith (worst player in the NBA), Larry Hughes (I literally forgot about him), Sergio Rodriguez (I was convinced D’Antoni would turn him into a player), Alexey Shved, Sasha Vujacic (still on the team!), and many more. Here are the 10 best.
The Best Knicks Point Guards of the Past 10 Years
1. Stephon Marbury
Steve Nash’s back-to-back MVP awards in 2004-05 and 2005-06 signaled the arrival of the point guard era. At the time, New York’s lead guard was the talented but mercurial Stephon Marbury, product of Coney Island and Abraham Lincoln High School. Six-foot-2, greasy-quick, and ruggedly built, he attacked the paint like a running back, tucking the ball into the crook of his arm and cradling it against his midsection. Maybe there were guys who did that move before him, but Steph was the first I remember seeing. His dribble moves, his crossover, and the flair he’d put in his passes were pure playground. And he could jump into the clouds and yank down the thunder. When he joined the Knicks, Steph was the first player since Oscar Robertson with career averages of 20 points and eight assists per game. I was 1,000 percent behind the move that brought Steph to the Garden.
As it turned out, Steph was all too aware of the random statistical link to the Big O. If it was the fourth quarter and Steph was sitting on four or five assists, he’d invariably start slinging ill-advised passes, and scowling when his teammates missed shots. Conversely, coming down the stretch, if he needed eight or 10 points to get 20, anyone else could forget seeing the ball. Steph lived to average 20 and eight. Perhaps not coincidentally, since forcing his way out of Minnesota, Marbury found himself on teams that generally lost more games than they won, and in infuriating fashion. Never forget that after surviving Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace, Larry Brown was finally broken by Marbury.
Mike D’Antoni arrived in New York for the 2008–09 season, bringing with him the promise of high-octane ball. He immediately made it clear that Steph was not part of his future plans by benching him for the season opener. By the end of November, Marbury was publicly agitating for a buyout, which was finalized in February 2009. Steph was later seen eating Vaseline on the internet before embarking on a lucrative career in China. At the time — the toxic fumes of the Isiah Thomas era still wafting through the Garden — pushing Steph out seemed like the right move. Now, though, after seeing what he’s done with James Harden, I wonder what might have happened if D’Antoni had at least tried to let Marbury drive the sports car. That’s what a normal team would do. But we’re talking about the Knicks, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.
2. Jeremy Lin from February 4 to February 23, 2012
I hesitate to even put Lin on this list since Linsanity is its own category of event, like a once-a-century planetary alignment or Constantine’s vision before the battle of the Milvian Bridge or falling in love on a cruise ship. When people say “Linsanity,” they’re referring to a span of 20 days starting in early February 2012. At that point, the Knicks had lost 11 of 13. Mike D’Antoni’s options at point guard were Iman Shumpert, Toney Douglas (maybe the most frustrating Knick of the past five years), a totally washed Mike Bibby, and, in a pinch, Landry Fields. With nothing left to lose, D’Antoni handed Lin the keys. The rest was Linsane.
Lin scored more points over his first five starts (136) than any player since the NBA–ABA merger. I’ll never forget the roar the city emitted when Lin spun around Derek Fisher like a stream flowing around a rock for two of his eventual 38 points in his third start. The league was buzzing about him by that point, and New York had won three in a row over the Nets, Jazz, and Wiz. And unlike the previous three Knicks opponents, the Lakers were aware of his existence. They were trying to stop him. But they couldn’t. It was a moment when everything seemed possible. Two games later, against the Raptors on the road, game tied at 87, he cleared everyone out for a game winner that was so hero ball they’ll talk about it in Valhalla.
Then the unraveling began. Carmelo came back from injury. The Heat went at Lin like Jordan and Pippen torturing Toni Kukoc in Barcelona. D’Antoni resigned. Lin missed the end of the season and playoffs due to injury. It ended the only way it could, in the most Knicks-ian fashion: Carmelo side-eyeing Lin’s pockets, Daryl Morey ambushing New York at summer league with an unrestricted free-agent offer sheet for Lin, and the Knicks not matching.
3. Old Jason Kidd mere months from retirement
Thirty-nine-year-old, non-ambulatory Jason Kidd being the third-best Knicks point guard of the past decade is the perfect symptom of New York’s struggle with the position.
Just before losing Jeremy Lin, New York swung a deal for the aged backcourt genius (three years starting at just over $3 million per year). The Knicks are, to put it mildly, infamous for giving multiyear golden parachutes to old, broken-down players with big names [Cut to: Joakim Noah waking up from anesthesia and immediately logging into his Chase mobile banking app]. The deal for Kidd was the best version of that. The idea was that Kidd, who couldn’t really move anymore but was still capable of making plays by sheer brainpower, would take the pressure off Lin and provide invaluable mentorship to the young guard. Then the Rockets swooped in for Lin, and it was Jason Kidd’s show. Well, and Raymond Felton’s. But really Kidd’s. New York won a shocking 54 games that season, and Kidd’s influence — and knockdown 3-point shooting — was a major reason. Even in run-down, half-retired form, Kidd was a near-bottomless well of veteran tricks, leg kicks, bullshit bank shots, sumptuous dry-aged passes, and black magic savvy. He was essentially the coach on the floor. Heck, I wish he was the Knicks’ actual coach right now.
4. Ray Felton
The 54 games of the 2010–11 season before the Carmelo Anthony trade were a joy. Amar’e Stoudemire had his epic run of 30-point games. Danilo Gallinari was in full, young-rooster pomp. Wilson Chandler was doing a little of everything. And there was Raymond Felton, pulling the strings. He was merely thick then, not the rotund, cupcake-chugging bowling ball that he became in Portland and beyond. He averaged 17 points and nine assists for the Knicks before being shipped off as part of the Melo deal. No moment was better than his game winner against the Raptors in December 2010 that touched every piece of the rim before going down.
5. Pablo Prigioni
Two things about Pablo always stood out: No Knick has ever turned down as many open layups for passes to 3-point shooters or cutters than he did, and there has never been anyone better at lurking in an opponent’s blind spot to steal inbound passes. I wish he had come over from Europe at 28 instead of 35.
6. Later Ray Felton
This is the part of the list where it becomes un-fun. When he shared the backcourt with Jason Kidd during the 2012–13 season, Felton was solid. The following year, with Kidd gone, Ray became the focus and founding member of something my friend Seth named F.A.R.T.D.O.G. The Friendly Alliance of Really Terrible Defenders of Opposing Guards. In 2014, Ray saw his shooting percentage slip under 40 percent, caught a gun charge, and was later traded to the Mavericks as part of a deal for Jose Calderon and Shane Larkin, who, together, would take F.A.R.T.D.O.G. to previously unimaginable levels.
7. I don’t know … Derrick Rose?
Could it be? Is it really this bad? I think it is. This season Rose:
- Came to the Knicks in the midst of a civil trial for sexual assault.
- Up and disappeared at one point under circumstances that are still unexplained.
- Said, “Shit, do I have a choice?” when asked about playing the triangle offense. (This is the correct response.)
- Officially inherited the F.A.R.T.D.O.G. franchise last week when he didn’t use New York’s foul to give on DeMar DeRozan, causing coach Jeff Hornacek to stare into the darkness of the human soul for two seconds that felt like forever.
- Wants a max contract.
Rose is putting up decent numbers — 18 points, four assists, 46 percent shooting — that fall apart at the slightest application of analytic rigor or eye-test scrutiny. His man-up defense is essentially negligible; opponents are shooting less than a percentage point (0.8) worse from two-point range with Rose as their defender. Which is fine, actually. The 2017 draft is loaded with point guard prospects. Trust this process.
8. Chris Duhon
Duhon, whose most memorable NBA moment is dancing in response to a travel call, is the Knicks’ single-game assist record holder, with 22 against the Warriors in November 2008. Based purely on that, Mike D’Antoni should go to the Hall of Fame.
9. Nate Robinson
I mean, he won back-to-back slam dunk titles. That is legitimately something. My favorite Nate moment was when he shot at the wrong basket in a game against the Nets, causing Mike D’Antoni to fly into a rage. The best part of the video is when Eddy Curry walks over to Nate to be the voice of reason.
10. Ron Baker?
Christ, could it be?
Just for contrast, here are the best three point guards of the Knicks’ Atlantic division rivals over the same amount of time:
Raptors: Kyle Lowry, Young Jose Calderon, Carlos Delfino/Greivis Vasquez
Celtics: Rajon Rondo (top-five point guard in the league version), Isaiah Thomas (currently a dark horse MVP candidate), Avery Bradley
Sixers: Jrue Holiday, Andre Miller, Lou Williams
Nets: Deron Williams, Jason Kidd in his prime, Devin Harris
Most of those guys would be the best Knicks point guard of the past 10 years.
Early in the Knicks’ Sunday afternoon loss to the Warriors, color analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson began talking about New York’s point guard woes. Van Gundy spent 13 seasons with the club as an assistant and head coach. Jackson won Rookie of the Year as point guard for the Knicks in 1987. They know of what and of where they speak. Courtney Lee had just taken a 3 after missing my large adult son Kristaps Porzingis. Jackson said, “There’s the benefit of having a true point guard: You would know Porzingis has struggled, and you would find a way to get him going off a play or a pick-and-roll.” There are five solid point guard prospects in this year’s draft. New York is projected to select around 10 or 11, which would place them in a position to select France’s Frank Ntilikina. Who knows if they will. The biggest question for any incoming player this offseason will likely be: Do they fit the triangle offense?
Knicks president Phil Jackson won 11 titles with the system, making it famous and infamous in the process. Implementing the triangle (and rehabilitating its reputation) is clearly one of Jackson’s major motivations. This is great for the short-term mission: tank for a high pick. As for the long term, I find it ominous. Historically, when the Knicks have a good point guard, they win. Clyde Frazier propelled New York to its only two titles. Doc Rivers and Derek Harper ran the team in its 1990s heyday. Jason Kidd helped the team to 54 wins. Heck, put the Linsanity run in there. Good point guard play is a rising tide that lifts the entire franchise. And one of the features of the triangle offense is it de-emphasizes the role of the point guard. Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams won a combined 11 titles with a series of caretaker point guards.
“Chasing a point guard, where it becomes just an obsession, isn’t necessary,” Jackson said last season. “It’s not necessary. We can play the game without that.”
Looking at the top teams in the NBA, I don’t think you can. Not anymore.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly categorized Jrue Holiday as an Eastern Conference point guard. He plays in the Western Conference.