Big Win, Big Worries
The Knicks got their best win of the season, but also may be on the verge of a colossal mistake.
In this newsletter:
What a win!
It’s ok…be excited. You’re allowed to. We all are.
I’m as guilty as anyone of letting big-picture stuff get me down in a season that ultimately is not going to produce a contender, let alone a playoff team, but that’s the benefit of being a fan - you get to relish the good moments, even if they might not be indicative of anything more than one good afternoon.
But I don’t think that’s the case here. I’d say that of all of their wins this season, yesterday’s against Miami (and really, when does it ever not feel spectacular to beat the Heat) was as meaningful as any, mostly because of who contributed to the victory and the manner in which it was achieved.
I mean, down 10 to a far better team entering the fourth, and they give up several seemingly backbreaking threes while trying to mount a comeback? When is the last time the Knicks won a game like that?
Let’s get to the categories…
One Big Thing
Kevin Knox, remembering how to play basketball
I’ve often said in this space that things are never as bad as they seem when it feels like nothing is going right. For Kevin Knox, yesterday was a good reminder of that.
His day started humbly enough, with a missed free throw, followed by a missed 3-pointer a few minutes later. It looked like more of the same.
And then the snowball started to roll down the hill. An offensive rebound followed by a put-back dunk. Consecutive makes from the line. Then a three. Then another three less than 30 seconds later.
By the time the night was over, Knox finished with 17 points on eight shots, five boards, two assists and four trips to the line. Perhaps most importantly, New York outscored their opponent while he was on the floor (the first time that’s happened in Knox’s last six games) and they did it because of him, not despite him.
My favorite move of the day was this nifty little ditty right here…
…but he also had a nice off-ball moment earlier in the game where he snuck to the basket behind his man (the kind of thing opponents always seem to do to him) for an easy two.
The defense was a mixed bag, but he had a few nice moments of staying with his man (and one really bad blow by from James Johnson which ended up getting him yanked in the fourth).
But you take the bad with the good, especially when there’s more of the latter.
Stat of the Night
Looks like the death of RJ Barrett’s shooting stroke has been greatly exaggerated.
Since his first 10 career games, he’s shooting 68 percent from the line over his last 29, and 70 percent over his last 20. These are positive trends.
Sunday also marked the fifth time this season he’s had double digit free-throw attempts. That puts him at 4.5 trips to the charity stripe per game. Here’s the list of rookies to average five or more attempts per game this century (courtesy of BasketballReference.com):
LeBron, Melo, KD, Luka and Andrew Wiggins are the only teenage wings on the list. Not bad company.
Right now, Barrett is tied with Ja Morant for the rookie lead in attempts per game. Here’s betting he can get above the magic number by the end of the season.
Made Me Smile
Mike Miller has been pretty blatant about why the Knicks had been struggling of late (aside from playing some of the best teams in basketball), echoing the same sentiment in every postgame presser:
They weren’t taking anything away.
Specifically, they weren’t taking away the paint. The formula for New York’s, umm…well I wouldn’t call it “success”…let’s say “basic competence” on defense since Miller took over for Fiz has been their ability to close off the area around the rim.
Against the Lakers, Jazz and Pelicans, they were doing anything but. Yesterday against Miami, they got it back…sort of. The Heat still scored 46 points in the paint (to the Knicks 72…my Lord is New York getting into the teeth of defenses lately…), but 10 of those were of the short midrange variety.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks are still 4th in the league at preventing opponent looks at the rim under Mike Miller, right around where they’ve been hovering since Miller took over.
They’ll need to stay there for this defense to have any chance of staying above water.
Too often, we forget that sports are played by people, with lives, and feelings, and of course, family members.
Julius Randle lost his grandmother recently. From the sound of it, they were close. I always used to struggle to empathize with players in times like this because I never had much of a relationship with my own grandparents, but seeing my daughter with my mom and my wife’s parents now gives me a bit more perspective.
So condolences to Julius and his family, and amazing stuff by him to come out yesterday and play one of his best games of the season. The Knicks needed it in the worst way.
And I bet he felt pretty good about it too.
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And now for a downer. The Drummond trade rumors hit me pretty hard. A lot of people feel due diligence is all that this is, and others feel it would actually be a good move.
In one of the longer pieces I’ve written in some time, I explain why I don’t agree with either…
What Do We Stand For?
If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
- Alexander Hamilton & Malcolm X, among others
Tomorrow marks exactly 30 months since Steve Mills hired Scott Perry as general manager of the New York Knicks, forming the front office tandem that was supposed to guide this team out of the darkness and finally, as we have heard so many times since that day, “build this the right way.”
Here’s the thing about the concept of “right” though: there’s no standard definition for it, especially when it comes to building a basketball team. You just kind of know it when you see it.
There’s a credibility that comes with the moves made by an organization taking the “right” approach. You may not agree with every move, and some of them may turn out to be bad, but there is a discernible plan in place.
On the day of Perry’s introductory press conference, two minutes into Mills’ opening remarks, we got a glimpse into what the foundation of the Knicks’ plan would be - what they would stand for, as it were - from now on:
Another part that’s important of about how we’re moving forward - and Scott and I have spent a lot of time talking about this - is player development. Player development will be focus of our organization. It’s important for us to find ways for our young players to get better.
Early on, that obviously meant developing and building around Kristaps Porzingis, but that went up in smoke due to a combination of factors - a torn ACL, his not liking the Knicks, the Knicks not liking him or his people, a pending criminal investigation, Kevin Durant, etc, etc.
We’ll never really know how big a piece of the pie each of those factors played in his eventual exit, but that distribution is irrelevant at the moment. What matters for the purposes of this conversation is that “developing our young players” shifted to “developing our young players who want to be here.”
Fine. They were still standing for something, even if we did need to ask some very serious questions about why the dude who should have been the focus of every ounce of player development gradually felt that this was no longer an environment in which he could succeed.
But the trade didn’t change the alleged focus: improve the core pieces already here. Add to them, amplify them, support them, all of the above…but always keep the focus where it should be.
Even this summer was defensible through a certain lens. For as much as Julius Randle - the Knicks’ first and most prominent free agent signing - was a less-than-ideal fit for a team desperate to grow the floor, not shrink it, you could talk yourself into it making sense.
I certainly did. Randle isn’t a shooter, but there was an argument that simply having a talent like him to soak up defensive attention was worth the trade off. What he lacked in fit, he’d make up for in other areas (and sure enough, the Knicks have had the 17th ranked offense under Mike Miller’s watch. In some respects, they’ve been proven right.)
So they were still, barely, standing for something.
Even over the last week or so, when we learned of the front office’s desire to acquire “win now” players, you could make an argument that there intentions were pure. Development, after all, is only aided when the kids you’re growing feel like their efforts are paying off in the form of wins.
It’s why, oddly enough, the Laker and Jazz games were the best defense anyone could make of this past summer. You think playing in games like that is helpful to anyone involved? Not a chance, especially when the upcoming draft is maybe the worst of this century, and there is no benefit to tanking in the traditional sense.
When done well, a mix of kids and vets can actually be beautiful to watch. Just turn on a Grizzlies game if you don’t believe me. As we exited this summer, that outcome is what we told ourselves the front office stood for.
But achieving that balance is hard. RJ Barrett isn’t Ja Morant, at least not in the sense that you can turn your offense over to him and say “go.” You also need the right mix of vets - ones that help the cause on the court but also don’t get in the way too much.
Wins like yesterday against Miami are proof that this team isn’t that far off. A good trade deadline would involve some tinkering - a move here or there to further space the floor or add some playmaking, perhaps.
More than anything though, what these kids need is time - both time to grow and time to make mistakes. Just time.
That’s why (well, one of the many reasons why) a trade for Andre Drummond would be the worst kind of trade for this team, and even placing a phone call (or taking a call, if semantics are your thing) begs the question: do they still stand for the thing they claimed to when Scott Perry came aboard?
This might seem like the ultimate in basketball nerd nit-picking on my part. The NBA is about talent acquisition, after all, and Andre Drummond is nothing if not immensely talented. He is somewhere between the 25th and 50th best player in the league, and is perhaps the best rebounder of his generation.
He would also make sense on this roster. The Knicks under Mike Miller, as I spoke about with Dallas Amico extensively last week, have an offense predicated almost entirely on screen-setting to make up for their lack of shooting, and Andre Drummond is a walking, talking, moveable brick wall. Throw in the vertical threat he brings, and it’s no wonder Detroit’s offense scored 117.0 points per 100 possessions last season when Dre, Blake Griffin and sniper Luke Kennard shared the floor (they’re down to 110.5 this season, but Griffin has not been himself).
Andre Drummond also has warts to his game, as SB Nation’s Michael Pina detailed beautifully earlier this season, and as Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press pointed out just this weekend, a few hours before Drummond was ejected for throwing a ball at the back of Daniel Gafford’s head. Stay classy, San Diego.
But Drummond is just 26. He could get better. He could also get worse. 26 is the age Dwight Howard was when he started leaning into his worst tendencies and went from All-NBA force to stinky meme generator. We really have no idea.
And here’s where the conversation turns sour. Drummond is averaging 34 minutes a night, several of which are spent gobbling up possessions on inefficient shots as he nears ever so close to a payday he is quite clearly anticipating with great fervor.
If you think he’s a highly efficient offensive player, ask yourself how a big man with his size and leaping ability can be shooting 53 percent from the floor, or nearly 20 percentage points worse than Mitchell Robinson, who is above 71 percent. Put another way, the difference between Dre and Mitch is more than three times the size of the gap between Frank Ntilikina and James Harden. I wish I was making that up.
Speaking of Mitchell Robinson, if Drummond were to be acquired, there is virtually no way that Mitch’s current average of 22.7 minutes per game wouldn’t go down significantly.
“It’s important for us to find ways for our young players to get better.”
Mitch grew by leaps and bounds over the second half of last season partly because he had more court time for trial and error. He should be going up to 30 a night, not down to 15.
Again: with some guys, all they need is time. A trade like this would be the clearest signal possible that this front office no longer believes Mitchell Robinson is the definitive part of their future.
And to be clear: there is no proof that he is. But the same could be said about all but 50 or so players in this league, and very few of those guys are 21 with barely 100 career games under their belt. We’ve seen more than enough evidence that Robinson is part of the solution, as Tommy Beer explained a few days ago in his recent piece for Forbes.
There’s also the fact that under Mike Miller, who has installed an actual, functional system on both ends, the Knicks are outscoring teams with Mitch on the floor as of Sunday morning- a claim that no other Knick regular can make - and getting demolished by 9.0 points per 100 possessions when he’s off it.
(For those wondering, the Pistons have been better in the minutes Andre Drummond hasn’t played this season than the ones he has. Again: I wish I was making this up.)
And we haven’t even gotten to the worst part: do you think for a second that the Knicks’ front office would acquire Drummond simply to let him walk in the summer?
Anything is possible, but if the Knicks give up something of value for him, even if it’s not much (say, Dennis Smith Jr. and a second round pick, along with salary filler), you better believe they intend on keeping him, maybe not at any cost, but at almost any cost, if I had to guess.
That’s because I think - no, actually I’m quite confident - that there is a grander plan here.
The Knicks thought before this summer that cap space and the grandest stage in sports would be enough to lure stars to their team. They were told, in no uncertain terms, that this is not the case.
So now, perhaps they think getting one “star” - Drummond has made two All-Star teams, and will likely be named to a third this year - is the missing ingredient. That one big name will beget more, either by trade or free agency.
Putting aside the developmental havoc that acquiring Drummond might wreck upon Robinson, not to mention the signal it would send to their young center about the organization’s belief (or lack thereof) in his ability to improve as a player, it would mean a few things:
Primarily, the Knicks would be making a very large bet - four year, $120 million at a minimum, if I had to guess, and possibly quite a bit more in either years or dollars - on a player whose own team has seen him for eight years and used that evidence to decide he is worth nowhere close to that kind of investment.
Ask yourself: why that might be, especially for a city that is as far from a free agent destination as any in the league, and would seemingly have more of a reason to retain and re-sign Drummond, not less?
Also ask yourself: if Drummond was so impactful on winning, and is such a potential drawing card for other free agents, why would not a single contender make a better offer for his services than what everyone seems to agree will be a nothing return from the Knicks?
A trade would also mean that the focus immediately shifts to the next domino, because presumably, James Dolan would only sign off on this plan after being told that more, bigger moves would be on the way (where have I heard that one before?)
Given that there’s not a single unrestricted free agent this summer (aside from one very notable exception who we’ll get to in a bit) that could move the needle and is even remotely on the Knicks’ timeline, that means the trade winds will continue to blow.
Surely New York hopes a real star demands to be moved, whether it be a Damian Lillard, or a Devin Booker, or the true dream scenario, Karl-Anthony Towns (who plays the same position as Drummond, and for whom Minnesota would have positively no interest in receiving Drummond back in a trade).
In lieu of that, the pressure will continue to mount, and they’ll be left to overpay a smart organization for a big name using whatever assets are demanded, whether that be a D’Angelo Russell or a Jrue Holiday or whomever.
All of the sudden, you’ve boxed yourself into a corner: out of tradable assets, too good to get an impactful pick in the draft, and once again hoping against hope that Giannis or Kawhi or whoever decides to grace the franchise with his presence in one of the coming summers to be the final piece to the puzzle.
This corner is one Knick fans who’ve been around for a while know all to well. Isiah Thomas was fantastic at making deal after deal after deal, all the while trying to dig himself further out of the hole. Unlike the rest of the league, James Dolan never realized that he was standing in quicksand the entire time.
That’s because that isn’t really how star-chasing works. Those types of plans only come to fruition given certain, specific circumstances:
a) when a superstar has a desire to play in a certain location for reasons that may or may not be entirely be about basketball (LeBron two summers ago, KD and Kyrie more recently), or…
b) a team has a superstar or superstar-ish player is already in place.
Paul Pierce made the Ray Allen and KG trades sensible. Dwyane Wade drew LeBron James. Steph Curry and Co. sold KD.
I myself have argued that getting incrementally better is the best path for this team, because at that point, the stage that is MSG won’t have to do all the heavy lifting; stars will feel they have a chance to win here as well.
But color me skeptical that Andre Drummond is good enough to sell anyone, especially if he’s taking up somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the cap. RJ Barrett also isn’t Paul Pierce, not yet at least. Someone really good may some day decide to come here to play alongside of him, but that day is not close.
Stars are smarter now. The Clippers realized that two years ago when they dealt away a 28-year-old Blake Griffin that he wasn’t the drawing card that would net a Kawhi Leonard, and in fact would only be an impediment. Stars come to play with other Stars - Capital “S” - who can handle the rock and stretch a defense.
Trading for Drummond - or DeMar DeRozan, who I bet the Knicks will kick the tires on as well before February 6 gets here - with the intention of getting someone on the cheap now and paying him later to be the franchise’s carrot this summer might appear to be getting us closer to the finish line, but I would argue it would be doing anything but.
“It’s important for us to find ways for our young players to get better.”
If they made a move like this, it would signal that the Knicks’ brass no longer stands for what they said they did, and worse, that they think we the fans will fall for anything. And hey, the basketball would get a lot better in the interim, so it might work for a bit.
But it would also go against the approach every smart organization would take if they were in the same scenario. The fact that discussions with Detroit, according to the unassailable Ian Begley, were “more than just exploratory talks” signals to me that they’re giving a Drummond trade serious thought.
It also signals to me that we can no longer have faith in this front office.
If they’ve started to doubt the ceiling of Mitchell Robinson, or even Kevin Knox - who looked as lost as any basketball player on the planet before Sunday night - that’s tantamount to an admission of total and complete failure to establish the foundation of player development that we were promised during that press conference two and a half years ago.
And the fact that they even had discussions about Drummond, in effect, is almost an admission of failure in its own right. Either that, or it’s a signal that they’ve abandoned the original plan altogether because they know they won’t be here to see it bear fruit. I’m honestly not sure which one would be worse.
I have stood up for this front office through thick and thin, even when seemingly everyone else was bashing them for not having a clue. I have done so because I’ve tried to give them the benefit of the doubt at every turn, and see things through their eyes, even if that did require a stretching of the truth as to what should and should not be considered either reasonable or likely or both.
But I can’t do it any longer, not after this. I struggle to see the scenario the likelihood of success of this plan working outweighs simply staying the current course, not when all factors are taken into consideration. It reeks of kicking the can down the road, even if that road goes off a cliff. It is so far off the rails from where this “plan” started 30 months ago that we can no longer see the tracks, and it sure looks like the two men executing said plan are afraid of the train coming full speed ahead behind them.
That’s also not to say that it couldn’t work. Maybe Drummond still hasn’t reached his peak. Maybe he re-signs on the cheap. Maybe he cleans up the blotches in his game, further improves his passing, and becomes a legit top-15 player. Maybe the right star does become available via trade, and the Knicks are a 45-50 win team as soon as next season. Maybe it’s enough to convince one of the league’s very best to give them a shot 18 months from now.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
Or maybe none of that happens, and the baseline of competence which this front office has not yet abandoned - cap flexibility, picks, and some interesting young players - goes up in smoke, and we all get the privilege of reliving 2004 to 2010 all over again, when as much time was spent digging us out from beneath the rubble as there was burning down the house.
There is, of course, another path, and it’s not all that complicated.
For starters, keep bringing along your kids, because hey, you never know what might happen if you give a kid more than 18 months to show what type of player he’ll become. It took Frank Ntilikina almost two and a half years, but he’s finally starting to look like a complete player. Kevin Knox just remembered how to play basketball again. It happens.
Then, this summer, on top of another top-10 pick in an uninspiring draft but still one full of NBA contributors at the top, sign the type of player that acts as a rising tide for the rest of your roster, not one getting in the way of one of the few ships that has consistently ridden the crests of waves.
Fred VanVleet hasn’t made an All-Star team. Casual fans probably still think of him as Toronto’s undersized sixth man. Meanwhile, he’s started 31 games for the fourth place Raptors and is one of only two players in the league averaging over 18 points and seven assists while shooting at least 38 percent from deep on more than six attempts per game. The other is James Harden.
VanVleet obviously isn’t Harden, but he’s only 25, an impeccable worker, as clutch as they come, and can do a lot to open up an offense. Rather than spend $30 million a year on a player at a position of relative strength, why not do so at position of great need without giving up anything other than cap space?
Well, it would require waiting for one thing, and chance for another. And if this season continues going the way it’s going, the current front office may not be around to make any decisions this summer.
Who’s to say they’ll make the prudent decision in the meantime. It’s why I wrote what I did on Friday about the dangers of employing a front office operating out of fear.
If they trade for Drummond, it will certainly equate to a few more wins, maybe even enough to make James Dolan consider keeping them employed for another year.
Knick fans deserve better. If I had Dolan’s ear, I’d implore him to ask his decision-makers some of the difficult questions I raise here. What’s the plan now? What intel do we have that this will be the first domino to fall of many? How is that intel different from what they were told before the summer?
Maybe this is a bit too much to make of due diligence. But I’ve been watching this team for a long, long time, and my antennas are pretty reliable.
I really hope that I’m wrong. But something tells me I’m not.
Almost three weeks until the trade deadline.
It can’t get here soon enough.