It’s a basic principle: If your favorite team isn’t going to be good, then you want it to at least be fun. After nearly two decades of dysfunction, the New York Knicks are finally leaning toward the latter. They’ve handed the reins to a collection of talented kids they’ve drafted and discovered, in the belief that, in the long run, youth will be served.
“Good” hasn’t been an option for the 2018-19 Knicks. It fell off the table six months before opening night, when Kristaps Porzingis met Giannis Antetokounmpo at the summit and came down with a torn left ACL. With their 7-foot-3 hope for a brighter future knocked out of action for the foreseeable future, the Knicks’ odds of competing for a playoff berth this season, even in the East’s depressed lower tier, dropped to nil.
Losing Porzingis was a crisis, but it also created an opportunity. Freed from any expectation of success, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry did something that hasn’t happened much at Madison Square Garden of late: They just, like, chilled out for a second.
Following the ruinous tenure of Phil Jackson, Mills, a holdover from the pre-Phil era, and Perry rightly concluded the Knicks were staggeringly far from contention. New York hasn’t come close to being good in five years, even when it’s tried. So why not try to be a better kind of bad?
Once Enes Kanter exercised his $18.6 million player option for 2018-19, the Knicks lacked the salary cap space to hunt for free-agent help this summer. (Shouts out to the $72.5 million deal that Jackson gave Joakim Noah and the $71 million deal that Mills gave Tim Hardaway Jr.) Locked out of a shopping spree, the franchise instead embraced its somewhat-self-imposed transitional phase. The Knicks hired David Fizdale, respected for his player development work as an assistant in Miami before his brief (but eventful!) first head coaching stint in Memphis. They’re treating this season as a sandbox, devoting playing time and roster spots to young players who might fit well next to Porzingis whenever he returns. They proclaimed that they were done doling out future draft considerations for present-day talent, no matter how shiny the trade centerpiece may be.
The Knicks still aren’t good. They’re 4-8, with three wins over the dreadful Hawks and Mavericks, and they’re ranked 21st in the league in offensive efficiency and net rating. But everybody knew the deal going in, so they can relax and try to have a little bit of fun while we bide our time. It’s a novel concept in New York.
The playing-for-next-year Knicks have been a surprisingly pleasant watch, both in terms of the players’ individual styles and the overall drama of their games. They rank fifth in Mike Beuoy’s NBA Excitement Index, a metric that tracks in-game swings in win probability. The heavy fluctuation underlines both the rub and the silver lining of bad young teams: They’re rarely competent enough to slam the door once they’ve got a big lead, but they’ve also got the legs and energy to explode their way out of the holes they’ve dug. As a result, any game can turn into a roller-coaster ride.
Veterans can play important roles on young teams, and they’re also known quantities; we get what Lance Thomas and Enes Kanter bring to a roster. The Knicks are in search mode, which means that the only player older than 26 to get rotation minutes this season is Thomas, and he has barely played in the past three games. Instead, the team has invested in the players who might still be in New York beyond next summer. They’ve carved out playing time for Allonzo Trier—undrafted in June despite a track record of getting buckets at Arizona—to build on his strong preseason, show he can cook quality NBA defenders with his polished off-the-dribble game …
Trier sent him to the baseline from the free throw line pic.twitter.com/nYnujkygyr— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 8, 2018
... and earn his way into the rotation. Through 12 games, the 22-year-old is averaging 11.9 points in 24.5 minutes on 50-45-86 shooting splits.
Frank Ntilikina, the French prospect drafted eighth overall in 2017, has worked on expanding his game. He’s still inconsistent on offense, but he’s been given the chance to work through it so long as he keeps harassing ball handlers into submission. Ask Trae Young how Frankie Smokes is doing on that score:
Frank Ntilikina held Trae Young scoreless into the third quarter— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 8, 2018
And it wasn’t from contesting a lot of shots. It was from Frank playing like an All-Pro cornerback, draped all over his man, giving no space or opportunity to make a play happen
KNICKS FILM SCHOOL pic.twitter.com/GV5McvdIOe
Ntilikina’s shooting remains an issue; save for an uptick on “floater-range” shots outside the restricted area, his heat map still largely runs ice-cold. But he’s started every game this season, averaging nearly 28 minutes. That’s because getting him as many offensive reps as possible should be a top priority before he resumes his partnership with Porzingis (one that was a net positive last season).
Without an obvious no. 1 option on offense, Hardaway has assumed the vacant role. He’s doing pretty well:
Hardaway is one of just 11 players leaguewide averaging more than 36 points and four assists per 100 possessions used this season, and while a skeptic might suggest that somebody has to put up numbers on a bad team, a glass-hall-full sort would note that they don’t have to do it efficiently. He’s taking and making more 3-pointers than ever, getting to the free throw line at the highest rate of his career, and dishing assists on a larger share of New York’s possessions while maintaining a microscopic turnover rate—all aspects of his game that needed to advance, and ones that will pull defensive attention away from Porzingis. Or, perhaps, they will increase his trade value and help the Knicks gain more financial flexibility to go after this summer’s biggest prize.
Most importantly, the Knicks are trying some stuff—specifically with four former lottery picks who had yet to click. Trey Burke looked like a home run last season but hasn’t shot as well thus far; Emmanuel Mudiay and Mario Hezonja, two of 2015’s first seven picks, have been hit-or-miss. But Noah Vonleh, drafted ninth overall by Charlotte in 2014 before uninspiring stays in Portland and Chicago, has impressed Fizdale enough to earn a starting role. He’s been a voracious rebounder with knack for drawing fouls. His combination of activity and versatility on the defensive end has helped New York allowed 13.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor:
Watch Vonleh on this play pic.twitter.com/G5CJzRATgr— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 1, 2018
NOAH VONLEH PULLS UP HIS SHORTS AND PLAYS DEFENSE pic.twitter.com/aVL4YqGmWi— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 6, 2018
The Knicks’ new starting lineup of 6-foot-9 Vonleh and 7-foot-1 rookie center Mitchell Robinson up front with 6-foot-6 guards Hardaway, Ntilikina, and Damyean Dotson in the backcourt, is huge. They can take away airspace, contest shots, and plug up passing lanes with quickness and plus wingspans at every position. In that group’s 74 minutes, the Knicks have allowed just 99.4 points per 100 possessions and forced turnovers on 17.5 percent of opponents’ plays; those are the kind of elite defensive numbers rarely seen in the World’s Most Famous Arena this century. (Porzingis can’t do everything.)
Robinson, in particular, has shown flashes of something special. At 20 years old and coming off a year away from competitive basketball, the second-round pick is still sashimi raw; he’s able to be exploited in pick-and-roll coverage like many rookie bigs. But he’s already shown the motor, awareness, and length to block shots others can’t; an advancing sense of how to make himself dangerous in the half court; and some stuff you just can’t teach:
Bigs who can set screens and dive hard, space the floor vertically as lob threats, move their feet on the perimeter, and provide a deterrent at the rim are worth their weight in gold. Look at how valuable Clint Capela is to the Rockets, or how vital JaVale McGee is for the Lakers. Robinson has a long way to go before he’s in that class; opponents have feasted at the rim when he’s been the defender in the neighborhood. But he’s displayed enough tools to give the Knicks hope that he can develop into that kind of contributor.
Even with 2018 top pick Kevin Knox, who wowed onlookers at summer league and scored in double figures in his first two games of the season, having missed most of the season with a left ankle sprain, there are honest-to-goodness reasons to be excited about what the Knicks are building amid the losses they stack. (And honestly, with New York owning its own first-round pick this summer, the more losses, the better; I mean, did you see Duke?) Porzingis’s injury afforded Knicks brass the cover to toss aside the hoary and endlessly frustrating canard that you can’t rebuild in New York. The construction project’s still closer to its beginning than its end. But what’s already starting to come into view—all that these dudes can already do, and all that their development could make possible if the Knicks can commit to staying patient through their growing pains—looks pretty damn exciting.