The Ultimate Question
The Knicks will play a game later this week. Giddy Up. Let's ask the overriding question that perpetually hovers over this franchise.
Not bad, huh?
I’m always looking to improve the look and feel of the newsletter, and with the help of Ernie Parada, the designer of the KFS logo and man responsible for what you see above, I was able to do so! Expect some more where this came from in the coming days, weeks and months, and if you want to support the work of an independent artist (and a Knicks fan!) check out his website, Hellgate Industries.
Also, today’s edition is free to everyone to celebrate the first week of preseason! If you’re reading this but aren’t yet a full subscriber, you can change that by clicking here:
Now onto the newsletter…
News & Notes
The Knicks released the first half of their schedule:
Analysis: Those Cleveland games feel like traps, but otherwise I expect to go undefeated.
On the trade front, after much speculation last week, Ian Begley reports that the Kings have been asking for draft compensation for Buddy Hield.
Analysis: There’s draft compensation and then there’s draft compensation. I doubt Sacramento is holding out for a future first when it comes to Hield, but who knows. Either way, if something hasn’t happened on the Hield front by now, I doubt it will before the season starts.
In potentially related news, according to Steve Popper, some scouts and executives around the NBA remain interested in Frank Ntilikina if he came at a low cost. Popper notes that there’s no indication the Knicks are interested in moving him.
Analysis: I hope Steve is right, and that the Knicks are intending on keeping Frank so they can actually play him, and maybe even keep him around for a while. I would be pleasantly surprised if that were the case.
A reminder that the deadline to extend Ntilikina is the day before this season, and we’ve gotten no indication such an extension is coming. On that note, Stefan Bondy made a good point in a column this week, reminding us that if the Knciks don’t extend Frank now, for New York to keep his rights, they need to extend him his qualifying offer, which will be for over $8 million. Considering they neglected to extend a QO of just $2 million to Damyean Dotson less than a month ago in an effort to maintain maximum cap and roster flexibility this offseason, I think any assumption they will maintain their rights to Frank would be unwise.
This is especially true because the cap hold for Ntilikina once they extend that QO won’t be $8 million, but rather $18 million thanks to salary cap rules. That means their cap would be tied up for that amount for as long as the QO remained on the table (and remember, if New York rescinds the offer - which they can do at any time - Frank becomes an unrestricted free agent, free to sign with any team). Point is, the qualifying offer path is fraught with peril.
That said, there are other ways to keep him in orange and blue. The team could obviously negotiate an extension at the very start of free agency next summer, and instead of that hellacious cap hold, he’d instantly go on the books for whatever his 2021-22 salary would be.
This assumes, of course, that a) they haven’t already traded him and b) he wants to stick around. If we’re using tautology language, I wonder whether “If A then not B” applies here. After the way the organization has jerked him around over the last three seasons, he may want out the first chance he gets, especially if they continue to resist the notion of playing him at the point.
Or, perhaps, New York falls in love with Ntilikina and vice versa, in a way the parties haven’t since the day he was drafted, and he decides to stick around. He’d have to really want to be here though, because if this situation makes it to the summer, Frank is savvy enough to know that New York won’t tie up its cap sheet for very long, and he could wait them out until they rescind his rights and allow him to enter the market untethered.
In short, while Ntilikina not signing an extension now certainly isn’t a death knell on his time in New York, it’s significantly lowers the odds that he’ll be the one to break the Curse of Charlie Ward.
For anyone hoping the Knicks might be an eventual salary dump home for Brooklyn’s Taurean Prince, according to Zach Lowe, “The Nets have shown no inclination to salary dump Prince, let alone attach a pick to do so, sources said.”
Analysis: Thinking the Knicks could get the Nets’ 2021 first just to take on Prince’s contract always seemed a little fanciful.
Mitchell Robinson has changed agents yet again, this time moving from Klutch to Wasserman.
Analysis: I wrote my piece on Mitch last week. I’d echo all of that now, and add that I think it’s possible he may not be completely in control of the decisions that are happening around him, including this one. Like I said, he is not the most mature sort when it comes to running his own life.
That said, I would not read too much into this, especially to the point of thinking this is grounds for moving him. At some point, Mitch will get a handle on his affairs. In the meantime, I’ve seen no indication he has ever let off the court dealings affect his play (which, in fairness, needs to mature in its own ways), and I don’t expect that to change. He’s in good hands with this staff, and his talent more than dictates a continued investment by the Knicks.
Nothing earth-shattering from yesterday’s media availability. Thibs has settled on neither a rotation nor a starting lineup, but did say both will likely change over the course of a season and he expects everyone on the roster to get time when all is said and done. He also sung Frank Ntilikina’s praises, noting that while they’re still getting to know each other, he likes the Frenchman’s size, defensive versatility, and work ethic. Lastly, Obi Toppin says he’ll be happy to play whatever position Thibs puts him at, including the 5 or (gulp) the 3.
And finally, for those who care about such things, James Harden did not attend the Rockets’ first team practice thanks to his failure to timely quarantine following Lil Baby’s Birthday Bash.
Analysis: This is fine.
Knicks Film School is BACK, BABY!
Kris Pursiainen and I got together to break down some tape of Obi Toppin in what we hope will be a regular occurrence, soon to be featuring player spotlights from actual Knick games.
Tweet of the Weekend
Let’s first update our big board before I go through a few observations from the last week:
Ziaire Williams was a house on fire in his first game for Stanford, both putting the ball on the floor and draining a silky smooth jumper in a way that 6’8” guys simply aren’t supposed to do. Since then, he’s cooled off considerably, including going 0-for-10 from deep over his last two games. Even so, with the occasional glimmer of stuff like this, it’s hard not to get excited, especially considering the defensive versatility and acumen he’s already shown:
Jalen Johnson, like Williams, had his best outing in Duke’s first game and has struggled a bit since, getting into early foul trouble against Bellarmine. He’s had a few moments and looks like an adonis at 6’9”, 220, but hasn’t really popped in a significant way and has been unimpressive on the whole. Since the monster 19/19 outing over a week ago, he’s more or less been just another guy for Duke.
Cade continues to chug along. He remains in a tier by himself.
The battle for No. 2 thus far seems to be between Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley.
The injury Suggs suffered in the only game that top-ranked Gonzaga played this week looked bad at first, but sure enough, Suggs came back, and even though he didn’t score much, he made his presence known in myriad ways. Plus, he gives you a little bit of the razzle dazzle:Haven't seen Suggs spot-up shooting yet but playing off the ball, seems to have a comfort level/timing cutting for buckets
As for Evan Mobley, the guy is just very clearly a physical freak. The shooting touch seems legit, and the fact that he can put the ball on the floor at that size is, well…
It’s pretty clear a center is going to be taken very high in the draft once again. Oh, and he’s a monster on defense and he can make this pass without hesitation:
FSU is definitely going to do the point-power forward thing with Scottie Barnes, and it is definitely going to be fun to watch.
Last and least, Kentucky stinks. They’re 1-3 and just got their doors blown off by an 0-2 Georgia Tech team. Boston has struggled, just as his team has (although finally making some 3-pointers had to feel good after going 0 for the first three games).
We’re here. The Knicks will play a basketball game this week. What a journey it’s been. So much has happened since that OT win in Atlanta (do you realize Moe Harkless played 41 minutes that night? Good times, good times…), but here we are, ready to witness the next step of a franchise that always seems to get paper cuts when it tries to turn the page.
It’s only been nine months since Leon Rose officially took over, but so far, all fingers remain unbloodied. We’ve also been duped before (don’t lie…you thought Phil Jackson struck gold with that Cleanthony Early pick. Gold, Jerry, gold!)
So to finish off my Five Most Important Questions for the 2020-21 New York Knicks, I ask the simplest but most significant one of all:
Have They (Finally) Figured it Out?
Of all the words I’d use to describe Kevin Knox’s tenure with the New York Knicks, “steady” is probably at the bottom of the list.
He came with massive promise attached to his 6’7”, 215 pound frame - promise we saw on display almost immediately in Vegas - but that quickly devolved into an inconsistent mix of flashes and follies. Then last season was filled with small, barely discernible steps forward on defense that were overshadowed by an offensive malaise - one brought on by a combination of diminished role and dwindling confidence. As he sits on the eve of what feels like a make or break season, all hope is not lost, but no one feels particularly great about where things stand. A happy ending would be the most pleasant of surprises.
In so many ways, Kevin Knox is the perfect avatar for a franchise that has a lower winning percentage than any team in the league this century. They have had talent, both on the court and off. They have experienced several bouts of competence and even genuine success, yet their failures are the stuff of lore - comedic in the scale and breadth of their tragedy. Every step forward feels inevitably accompanied by two steps back. The only certainty is inconsistency, and the only true organizational tenet has been discord.
So it is fitting that Leon Rose inherited both the Knicks and Knox at the same time, with his issues, their issues, and theirs, his. Knox was but one of several puzzle pieces scattered about a table with the stability of a house of cards. Not only did the pieces not fit, but many had seen their better day. In that sense, Rose faced three distinct challenges when he took over:
Either fix the table, or dispose of it all together, and replace it with something built to last.
Swap out the irredeemable puzzle pieces for ones that hadn’t yet lost their shape and color.
Acquire more pieces to complete the picture, including those ever valuable corners - never easy to find.
Past regimes before him have gone about completing these steps in different ways, but they almost all had one very important quality in common: they started at the end.
16 days into his Knick tenure, Isiah Thomas traded assorted salary flotsam and the two first round picks (one of which would become Gordon Hayward) for Stephon Marbury and the very expensive carcass formerly known as Penny Hardaway.
After seven and a half months in New York - and 19 and a half months before LeBron James chose his next team - Donnie Walsh dumped both Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford for nothing more than cap relief. Z-Bo would go on to make two All-Star teams and an All-NBA Team in three separate seasons, and Jamal Crawford would win the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year Award three times and score over 11,000 points. Donnie’s white whale, meanwhile, swam south.
Five months into his stewardship, Glen Grunwald - perhaps with the urging of a certain harmonica player - made the Melo trade.
10 days after stepping up, Steve Mills put the Heisman on David Griffin and signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four year, $71 million offer sheet.
The only one who didn’t make the list, Phil Jackson, committed arguably a more egregious error than trying to secure his cornerstone as one of his initial moves. He traded away Tyson Chandler, who at that time was just a year removed from an All-Star nod and the All-Defensive First Team, for 33-year-old José Calderón, a bunch of nothing, and the pick that became Early.
So in a sense, with Rose already over nine months into his tenure, he’s accomplished something no one else has: He has resisted the itchy trigger finger.
It’s not like he hasn’t had his chances to pull it. Russell Westbrook was there for the taking, as was Chris Paul. Gordon Hayward would have likely felt better about being obscenely overpaid in New York than in Charlotte. Heck, we know Rose pined for Obi Toppin, but he was willing to take the chance he would fall rather than overpay to move up. Even something as minor as staying fiscally conservative when it came to Malik Beasley or Jerami Grant deserves some praise.
The reason why none of the above moves transpired, I would posit, is that Rose took care of Step 1 before moving directly to the end of the list. It’s been so long now, but it’s worth remembering that instead of trading for a Marbury or a Melo, Rose’s first move was trading for the NBA’s ultimate nerd king.
Brock Aller (who I’m 97.5 percent sure actually exists and isn’t a manifestation of the fears of opposing general managers - the NBA’s version of Keyser Soze, if you will…) might not bring organizational stability by himself - see: Cavaliers, Cleveland - but he’s an awfully good start. As David Griffin told Mike Vorkunov back in May:
Brock can rank the order the value of every piece of paper in the NBA. Not in terms of how good a player they are, but in terms of how useful their contract is. He will make sure that if he has anything to say about it, every deal your organization signs has a level of optionality that some teams don’t think of. That’s the benefit of him. You’re not going to do better than him in terms of contract structure.
Brock Aller was the first leg of a brand new table. I’d argue that Walt Perrin, Worldwide Wes and wunderkind Alex Kline are the other three, with Tom Thibodeau the tabletop - only as strong as the supports lifting him up.
(Yes, Kenny Payne, Johnnie Bryant, Mike Woodson and the recently hired Darren Erman are the hinges that connect to the legs to surface area, there to ensure that Thibs’ abrupt ways don’t upend the stability that his coaching acumen should ensure.
Don’t fuck with my analogy game.)
So Step 1, both in theory and in practice, seems to be checked off, at least for now. Nothing is certain, and Scott Perry looms as the axe ready to split this whole operation in two, but by and large, it seems things are headed on the right path, at least off the court.
But the next NBA game that is won outside of that 94 by 50 foot rectangle will be the first. New York still has yeomen’s work ahead when it comes to putting out a competitive roster, let alone one that the rest of the league fears is a handful of moves away from contention. They have some pieces, but no sure things. Since I’m not one for pulling wool over anyone’s eyes, a few reality checks:
The player who the advanced stats indicate is their most reliable piece, Mitchell Robinson, is not even assured a starting job, and if we’re just going on past performance, this isn’t completely nuts.
Julius Randle, the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and pre-eminent shot creator, is someone most fans would be happy never having to watch again.
The player they want desperately to replace him with, Obi Toppin, just went 8th in a draft with low upside at the top and few sure things.
Finally, their prize asset RJ Barrett, made the team 6.7 points per 100 possessions worse last season, which ranked in the 16th percentile league-wide.
I bring all this up to emphasize a salient point, and one that simply can’t be glossed over: Leon Rose was not tasked with making a simple roster adjustment or tweak; the situation he inherited required a complete overhaul. No one here deserves the designation of “untouchable” or “cornerstone.” Not yet at least.
From this perspective, that Rose didn’t jump to Step 3 is even more amazing, and should give us all that much more confidence that he will be diligent in the task at hand. So far, it seems, so good. Moving on to Step 2…
If the difference between the 2019 and 2020 off-seasons could be boiled down to one concept, it is that the primary acquisitions of Steve Mills (the carpet under the table…you’re kind of stuck with him) and Scott Perry all needed the ball in their hands to offer any value whatsoever. Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis not only all played the same ideal position, but they collectively took up 44 percent of the salary cap to do the same thing: get the ball and make something happen.
Yes, all three offered some theoretical positives if they were in ideal roles: (barely) passable switching on defense for Morris, a bit of ball movement from Randle, and floor-spacing for Portis. Unfortunately, whether it was due to a lack of accountability, pressure to justify their contracts, or outright poor coaching, all three leaned into their worst ball-stopping tendencies. In the locker room, if any of the three had the intended galvanizing effect on New York’s youth, they sure hid it well.
Leon Rose, however, seems to have taken a different tack in executing his version of Step 2. The closest thing to a ball-stopper he signed was Alec Burks, and according to Cleaning the Glass, only nine wings who played at least 1000 minutes last season had a higher assist percentage than the 18.0 Burks sported in Golden State: Luka, Booker, Beal, Butler, Kawhi, LaVine, Paul George, Bogey and Andrew Wiggins. Not terrible company.
The other acquisitions - Payton, Rivers, Noel, MKG, and Omari Spellman - seem comfortable being cogs in a machine rather than the engine.
But as I spent many words on to end last week, this team currently has no engine, or at least one that isn’t a gas guzzler. That is why Leon Rose is likely going to have to leave the box for Step 3 unchecked, at least for now.
That is fine. It will get a bit ugly at times, but it’s better than the alternative.
Anyway, as today’s College Corner reminded us, the Knicks are about a half a year away from finding out where they’ll select in a lottery that is chock full of brand new models just waiting to be driven off the lot.
As an aside: I have trouble believing that it is an accident the Knicks find themselves so well-positioned for the 2021 Draft. For all the talk and speculation about how desperate Leon Rose was to bring stars back to the Garden, the Knicks sure didn’t act like a desperate team over the last several weeks. That, in and of itself, means that we can answer today’s question in the affirmative, at least in easily erasable pencil.
But (famous last words) now comes the hard part. It just doesn’t seem like it because so many before him have failed at what Rose just accomplished: not doing anything stupid. Next up is showing that the infrastructure is strong enough to make up for a talent deficit, especially on the perimeter. Past try-hard success stories - the 2017-18 Nets, the early Stevens-era Celtics, Spida’s rookie year Jazz team or even last year’s Grizzlies - all had a guard that unexpectedly popped in a big way. If Thibs can turn Frank or DSJ into something legit, the statue in his honor will be built before the season is over.
For now, every sign of progress that we needed to be on the lookout for has been present, at least in outline form. Maybe the Knicks haven’t finally figured it out, but they’re sure doing a decent impersonation of a team that has. If they come out and play like a team that believes it ought to be in every game and refuses to accept defeat before tip off, maybe we can start going over that “Yes” in pen. Only then, as Austin Rivers put it, will the real hoopers start making their way back to the Garden:
That era of people not wanting to come here? Our job is to change that. You know what I mean? We got to make it attractive.
One step at a time though. We’ve had high hopes before. Maybe this time, finally, we won’t be let down before we’ve had a chance to get comfy.
First game tips on Friday. Let’s see what they got.
That’s it for today! See everyone tomorrow for another edition IF you are a full paid subscriber. If not, what are you waiting for!
Thanks again for reading! #BlackLivesMatter