Heartbreak & Bullsh*t
The Knicks had a game taken away from them. It doesn't feel great. Plus, thoughts on Norman Powell and a ranking of the Knicks tradable assets.
Game 43: Knicks 100, Sixers 101 - “No Words”
I love writing these recaps.
Truly, I do.
Trying to put the emotions of a huge game into words, capturing the ebbs and flows, re-litigating the biggest moments, all while blending in big-picture analysis…it is a challenge I live for. It is what I love most about this newsletter. I get to share these moments with the other crazies who take this stuff as seriously as I do, and I know I won’t get laughed out of the room for doing so. It is my home. My safe place.
But what happens when your home is no longer a haven. What happens when someone comes in and takes the one thing you hold most dear and discards it as if it were meaningless? What happens when you no longer feel safe in your home?
That’s what it felt like to try and write about this game. I wanted no part of it. Zero. For all the positive signs and encouragement we can take from it, reliving a game like that, with an ending like that, is the ultimate in masochism. It’s the one game in 100 I wanted no part of recapping. I just wanted it to go away.
And, in a sense, that much alone should provide a level of comfort. Here we are, 43 games into a season that was supposed to be about nothing and instead we sit on a Monday morning and are into our feelings about something. That should make it easier.
But it doesn’t.
Is that unwarranted? Leon Rose’s first year on the job was supposed be about nothing more than setting the table for future entrees, and here we are complaining about a waiter who spit in our food. At least we have food, right?
I wish I could take that glass half full approach. God knows it would be easier that trying to put into words the gut punch that just occurred. Up 100-99, the Knicks were in overtime thanks in part to a miraculous shot by their All-Star and in part to some of their most inspired defense of the season, having held Philly to 25 points over the previous 15 minutes. They gritted their way to this point in the game when they had positively no business doing do.
Then again, they probably had no business being seconds away from going above .500 three months into a campaign they were supposed to finish last. But here they were, because isn’t it always where these Knicks seem to be: in a fight to the end, talent and expectations be damned.
But how in the world do you feel OK about a game decided by a whistle on a play like this?
I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I love the fight, love the fact that this game was yet another sign of proof that this Knicks team is for real. I love the passion with which Julius Randle has taken the leadership mantle. I love the progress being made on a nightly basis by a 20-year-old star in the making. I love the fact that we get to sit here and watch basketball games in late March and actually care about basketball games in late March.
It’s all wonderful. But it doesn’t lessen the sting of that ending. Not close. Not for me, and if you’re reading this newsletter, I’ll go out on a limb and say not for you either.
These are the games that stay with you. The ones you felt like you had…but didn’t. The ones with the highest of highs…
…and the lowest of lows.
In the end, whether you’re simply a fan or an All-Star like Randle, you just want the players to decide the game, and that didn’t happen last night.
Will the last two minutes report say the officials screwed up by saying Randle extended his arm under the hoop? Did Thibs actually challenge, and the refs just missed it, saying afterwards that he didn’t make his challenge in a timely fashion? Would it have been nice if Randle’s final shot went down to render this moot?
All are besides the point. The Knicks played well enough to win a game they always play just well enough to lose. That’s what made it hurt so bad. These are the statement games good teams use to put a stamp on their season - to assert to the best of the best that “We’re here now. Beat us, probably; take us lightly, never.”
But because of a whistle, this game isn’t that, and instead serves as another almost, maybe, coulda, but didn’t.
A word on Julius…
Julius Randle did not have his best game as a Knick.
Far from it, in fact. He had 24 on just 7-of-23 from the field, had five turnover to just three dimes, and missed eight shots to just three makes over the last 13 minutes of this one, including what would have been game-winners to conclude regulation and overtime.
And yet…this is perhaps as good an example as any of a game the Knicks aren’t anywhere close to being in without him. A team that plays defense as well as Philly does vs a team with as few weapons as New York is a mismatch. Clear as day. It’s why so much of this game late was either Julius, Alec Burks (20 points on 8-for-17 shooting, plus four dimes in another fine effort) or occasionally RJ trying to create something from nothing. Bullock had no daylight. Quickley was 4-for-12. There were no other threats to be found.
But Randle again put them on his back. His misses late were looks he’s more than earned and ones you felt comfortable with. It happens. The Sixers are that good at making life miserable. And the makes? All 3-pointers, all at times when the Knicks were desperate for any semblance of offense. Oh, and his five steals were a career high.
The above play - the spin move into a pass to Mitch - resulted in zero points (work off that rust soon please, big guy) and didn’t show up on the stat sheet, just like so much of what Julius does, including being far more than a passive bystander in what remains a top-four defense.
Everything good about this team’s play continues to emanate from him. Just in case you forgot.
A word on RJ…
The leap continues…
Another night, another game with half a dozen moments that make you want to call up all of your NBA fan friends and go “See? See!?! It’s happening! It’s HAPPENING!!!”
It’s still not perfect, and he’s still not what you would call an above-average secondary offensive option on a good team, but the signs are yet again present. This one saw him net 19 points on 9-for-17 shooting, eight tough boards and four assists, including a beautiful drive and dish to Reggie Bullock for a 3-pointer at the beginning of OT.
And the defense, well…
You love to see it.
Mitchell Robinson made his return and he looked a bit rusty off the bench but also like the Mitch we all know and love. His presence was felt and overall was a positive.
Nerlens Noel has an outstanding game at both ends, including a “no, no, no, YES!” jumper in the fourth.
Reggie Bullock played 47 useful minutes. Get that man a beer.
Frank came back down to earth, but seemed to steady the ship in the first quarter. The Knicks scored just eight points in eight minutes with Quickley at the helm, and it appears that he might be best suited for the bench after all.
Obi Toppin played seven minutes. The less said about them, the better.
Fresh off the presses, we had some intel from both Shams and Zach Lowe to start off our Monday:
According to the Athletic, the Knicks, along with the Heat and Pistons, are “among the teams to show interest” in Victor Oladipo. As Kevin O’Connor reported for the Ringer over the weekend, the asking price is a good first rounder or a good young player, but Charania notes that “teams around the league wonder about whether Houston settles for second-round compensation.”
Lowe also brings up Oladipo’s name in connection with the Knicks in saying they are “investigating” how to use their remaining cap space. As I explained last week, while the space doesn’t go bad after Thursday afternoon, it sure does decrease in value a lot.
As for a potential deal, Lowe points to the possibility of something like Kevin Knox and Elfrid Payton plus a heavily protected first for the former Magic, Thunder, Pacer and current Rocket (maybe not a great sign when you’re about to be on your fifth team in five seasons?), noting that he’s “skeptical the Rockets are getting much better for Oladipo now.”
Last thing on Vic: Lowe openly asks something I raised on today’s pod, which is how much Houston's overall dysfunction is draining Oladipo's game. It’s a good question, and raises the possibility that this may be, if not a diamond in the rough, certainly an undervalued asset.
Lowe also points to a probable buyout of Austin Rivers if the Knicks can’t trade him before Thursday.
Here are the names you should get used to hearing between now and Thursday, many not in connection with the Knicks, but who are generally on teams’ radars: Kyle Lowry (linked to Miami and Philly), Norm Powell, Harrison Barnes (linked to Boston), John Collins, Aaron Gordon (linked to Houston), Bogdan Bogdanovic (linked to Boston and Golden State), Kelly Oubre Jr, Evan Fournier, Lonzo Ball (linked to the Bulls and Hawks), Myles Turner, Marcus Smart (linked to Atlanta), Spencer Dinwiddie, Devonte’ Graham, Richaun Holmes, Lauri Markkanen, Gorgui Dieng, Andre Drummond, and finally a player I would love the Knicks to kick the tires on: Aaron Holiday.
Today’s question comes via Twitter DM from Matt Meyers:
Quick: Without thinking too hard, how many other players besides Norm Powell do you think are currently averaging at least 19 points with an effective field goal percentage above 60?
The correct answer: four. Not a bad group either, with MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, All-NBA possibilities Zion Williamson and Zach LaVine, and Rockets big man Christian Wood.
Powell’s off-the-charts efficiency is the top reason why he’s come out of nowhere to suddenly make New York’s oodles of cap space a lot more interesting this summer. He took a dip as a shooter over the first few years of his career, but as the volume on his 3-pointers has increased from 2.8 to 5.3 to 6.4 per game over the last three seasons, his accuracy has reached a new high. After two straight seasons as a 40 percent shooter, this year he’s at 44.6 percent from deep - second in the league to Joe Harris among players taking at least six threes per game.
Before you get too excited, remember of course that not all bombers are created equal, and while 81 percent unassisted rate on 3-pointers is in the top quarter of the league for wings according to Cleaning the Glass, almost all of his self-created long balls consist of a few dribbles around a screen and then firing away:
In other words, you’re not getting the third Curry brother, nor does he give you the sort of elite movement shooting of a Joe Harris or JJ Redick.
As far as Things That Make Thibs Go Hmmmm, Powell drives it 8.1 times per game - pretty good for an off guard. He also rebounds his position well (3.6 per 36 minutes), but isn’t one for assists. You may have noticed his very Melo-ish achievement last week of putting up a 40-spot without a single dime, and his assist to usage ratio is in the bottom fifth of the league for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass.
In short, while Powell is a super efficient scorer, he’s probably not a guy who’s going to materially alter the complexion of an offense he’s on. That’s not to say he isn’t a valuable player - he absolutely is, and I’d love if he were a Knick - but in terms of cost, either via trade in the next three days or as a free agent this summer, I’m not sure he’s quite worth it.
My guess as to the price tag: a first round pick plus Knox or Frank, and then a contract in the Fred VanFleet range this offseason. Both are too rich for my blood.
Ranking the Knicks Tradable Assets
The trade deadline is three days away! Woooooooo!!!! LOUD NOISES!!!
Is something going to happen? Probably not anything notable…not because the Knicks can’t or don’t want to deal, but if I had to guess, because they’re trying to keep their powder dry for when a bigger name becomes available.
To that end, on paper at least, the Knicks are as well-positioned to swing a huge trade in the next 12 to 18 months as any team in the NBA.
Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Maybe. For one, they don’t have the best collection of picks, where Oklahoma City and New Orleans are in a class by themselves. They also don’t have the best single draft asset, where Minnesota’s top-three protected pick owned by the Warriors stands alone. And if we’re talking about a collection of movable rookie contracts that a team wouldn’t mind parting with for a star, I’d probably go Miami, simply because it’s easy to see them dealing Tyler Herro, whereas RJ Barrett isn’t going anywhere.
But when you put everything together - their own picks, incoming picks, and young players - then consider that they have more cap space and less long term money than anyone, and throw in the fact that they do still happen to play in one of the two or three most desirable markets in America, I think there’s at least an argument that they should be at or near the top of the list.
Cool beans. Kudos to Leon Rose, Worldwide Wes, Brock Aller and the rest of the Knicks front office for getting to Scrooge McDuck it atop this venerable gold mine.
Now, as I’ve been fond of saying, comes the hard part. The pressure to start cashing in these chips and turning them into something better isn’t quite here yet, but it’s coming.
If that seems premature, think again. For one, the days of the Knicks being dog shit on a door mat might be over. But they also might not be over. Is this the real Julius Randle? Will the Thibodeau Effect wear off at some point? Will there be a second-half cratering as the schedule gets harder? Reasonable minds can differ.
That last question probably doesn’t matter where the current trade market is concerned, only because there’s no player out there worth putting New York’s unprotected 2021 pick on the table for anyway. Moving ahead to future firsts though, there’s enough uncertainty about the sustainability of what the Knicks are building that they are nearing an interesting inflection point: will their own future picks ever be held in such high regard around the league as they are right now, or will they continue to be competent and competitive, thus lessening the value of whatever future picks they put into deals?
Say this to any Knick fan above the age of 25 and you’re likely to induce heart failure, or at least a heavy bout of sweating. Between the Isiah Thomas Error and the Melo trade, enough damage was done to make any sane person fearful of trading away a future pick ever again, and justifiably so. But extracting maximum value out of New York’s future picks is at least a question the front office has to be asking.
Ditto for any young player on the roster. Obi Toppin has played 32 games for the Knicks, or eight more than another eighth overall pick Jordan Hill did before Donny Walsh traded him to Houston in a cap dump ahead of the summer of 2010. It’s also 19 fewer than the 51 games another former Knick, Chauncey Billups, played for the Boston Celtics before they dealt him away despite taking him 3rd overall just the previous summer.
That’s the thing about dealing rookies: you never know if you’re unloading a bum or selling low on a future Finals MVP. Had anyone suggested dealing Kevin Knox after his 32nd career game, as he was coming off Rookie of the Month honors and a 16-game stretch averaging 17 & 7 on nearly 38 percent shooting from deep, they’d have been laughed out of the room. Now? Not so much.
All this is to say that outside of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, anything and everything should be open for discussion. There’s a thin line between being a savvy GM and a scared one, and while I’m not suggesting the Knicks should go out and deal Toppin and multiple future unprotected firsts for Kyle Lowry, I also don’t think they should close themselves off to potential opportunities that might present themselves in the next six days.
As for how freely the Knicks should dangle said assets, that depends on several factors, but in the end, it’s going to depend on how valuable other teams view their stuff.
Let’s get into what that viewpoint might be with a ranking of every one of New York’s tradable assets, starting from the least valuable all the way up to the best ones:
Tier 3: Stuff
Was one of three players in the G-League this season to average 20 points, nine boards and three assists, but he looked to be a long way away defensively and shot barely 25 percent from deep. He only makes $1.7 million next season, but that’s nearly double the league minimum, and it’s unclear whether he’s all that much better than a G-Leaguer a team could pick up off the street.
2023 Utah 2nd rounder
Even if it is the double draft, Utah’s going to be very good for a very long time.
New York’s own future seconds
Following the upcoming draft, when Philly owns their second round selection, New York owns all of its own seconds moving forward, so that’s good.
2026 Minnesota 2nd rounder
A sneaky good asset from an organization that can never seem to get out of its own way.
2024 Cleveland or Utah 2nd rounder (most favorable)
2023 Detroit 2nd rounder
If this does wind up becoming the double draft, when high schoolers can become draft eligible after their senior year, this pick probably bumps up a tier.
Tier 2: (Kinda) Real Stuff
The list of players who had their role and minutes gradually reduced over the course of their first three seasons to come back and have a meaningful NBA career is a short one. Ben McLemore had a brief resurgence with the Rockets, but that seems to have been short lived, and even he had an uptick in his numbers as a second-year player. If you can think of any others, feel free to @ me.
I’m not saying that Knox has officially entered “bust” territory yet, but if you’re a team that can either have Kev or what’s likely to be the 31st or 32nd pick in this draft, it’s not a tough decision. If he’s anything, it’s likely to be an off-the-bench floor spacer. Considering he’s due close to $6 million next season, there’s a significant question as to whether his production will even be worth it.
I’ll be honest: I had him below Knox before the stare.
The Magic game was a reminder that while Knox may never be able to help an NBA team win games, Ntilikina certainly can, right now, even with the question marks about his play.
That said, any team trading for Ntilikina would probably want to be confident they can sign him for a fair number moving forward. His qualifying offer is $8.3 million, which is more than he’s worth, and if he signs it, it does nothing to ensure he sticks around for more than a season. Any team trading for him would also have to contend with a rather significant cap hold of $15.4 million if an extension can’t be worked out early on in free agency.
In short, mean mug aside, his value is still someone limited (and yes, I write this in the sincere hope that he remains past the deadline, and in the irony or ironies is the one to break the Charlie Ward Curse).
2021 Detroit 2nd rounder
The Rockets and Wolves are starting to make be worry that this might not wind up as the top pick of the second round.
2023 Dallas 1st rounder (Top-10 protected)
After a disastrous start to the season, the Mavs’ pick this year is now slated to be 20th, and with Luka’s extension impending, they’ll be motivated to make the most of their cap space this summer, so it would be a mild surprise if they weren’t a top six team in 2022-23, when Luka will be entering his prime.
Tier 1: Real Stuff
I’m being kind by putting him in this tier, but he’s about a month away of similar play to what he’s showing now to dropping down.
With Randle’s emergence, I actually don’t think nearly enough conversation is happening around whether it makes sense to sneakily try and move on from Toppin before this deadline. While I myself have written about all the ways the Knicks could still have Obi play a significant role on the same roster as Julius moving forward, that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy or likely for myriad reasons.
I just don’t know that his value is still high enough to make it worth moving on from him right now. Crazy shit happens and the worst thing you can do in the NBA is trade a rookie before he’s had a real chance to prove himself, and Toppin hasn’t had it.
Kenny Payne possibly departing before he gets a full offseason to work with Toppin also looms large.
2021 Dallas 1st rounder
Would be a massive upset if this ended up in the lottery. I’d sign up for 16th right now, happily.
2022 - 2024 New York 1st rounders
The toughest assets to slot.
There’s a clear sense that Leon Rose is not looking at this as a five-year plan. One gets the idea that one way or another, the Knicks are going to figure out a way to improve their roster this summer, perhaps even by using these very picks, which only adds to the complicated nature of where to rank them here.
Yes, this is the Knicks, and thus exists the allure that maybe they bumble their immediate future to the point that one or more of these ends up in the high lottery, but with Thibs, Randle and RJ here for at least next season, plus all the cap space and tradable assets, I think this is a fair spot to put these.
(As an aside, barring a trade for a no-doubt-about-it star player, I doubt they deal away any of these picks unprotected anyway, so this exercise is more theoretical than anything. That said, I bet Minnesota said the same thing around this time last season.)
2021 New York 1st rounder
Right now, the projection models have the Knicks as something between unlikely and really unlikely to wind up as one of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. Even if they finished as the 7th or 8th seed and don’t advance past the play-in tournament, they’d still wind up in the lottery.
Given how the 7th through 10th and maybe even the 11th seeds in the West are a decent bet to finish with a better record than New York, there’s a scenario where the Knicks finish 9th or 10th in the East, lose the play-in, and still wind up with the 10th or 11th best lottery odds, which equates to something between a one-in-seven to a one-in-10 chance at a top-four pick.
All this is to say I’m putting an immense amount of respect on Immanuel Quickley’s name by putting him higher than this selection.
What can I say…I’m a believer.
He’s getting really close to being taken off this list altogether and moving into RJ/Julius territory as an untradable core piece.
2025 - 2027 New York 1st rounders
Uncertainty wins the day if you’re a franchise with the track record the Knicks have over the last two decades.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans also probably deserve mention here, although it seems like the Hawks want to add to their young core, not break it up.
Please God don’t let this happen.
One other thing to consider: Seeing how reluctant Thibs is to play unproven young players, thinking that they’re going to use all three of their picks in this draft on players who they’ll then incorporate into their rotation is lunacy. At some point, one or more of these babies is getting dealt. It’s just a matter of when.
I’m not including expiring (or potentially expiring) contracts for players entering unrestricted free agency here, so no Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Elfrid Payton or Austin Rivers, just because I want this list to carry over into the summer as well, when all of the players/picks listed will still have value.