Grading the team
Now that the Knicks have crossed the midpoint in the season it’s a good time to review the team’s performance. Since this season is more about development and culture building, we did not focus on wins. This aligns with the thinking of the majority of the fan base. What we did was review each player’s performance and analyse how it impacts the rebuild. We grouped the players into categories based on role and also included wins since it is a measure of progress. The value assigned to each category is based on what we feel is important to the fan base. While the fans desperately want the team to win, they understand that they need to be earned the right way, that is by playing the young players. No one wanted the team to win 35-40 wins this season if it is mostly due to the veteran players. That is not a sustainable model for success in the long run and will not help the team reach it’s ultimate goal of competing for a championship. Put simply, wins produced only by the veteran players is fool’s gold. In order for the season to be considered successful, the young core players have to develop, that is why that category accounts for half the possible points(50).
We handed out grades just like you got in school. A grade of C is passing but is not something to be proud of. Unfortunately, most of the grades were below a C. But when you look into the numbers there are actually some positive signs that can provide hope for the future.
Young Core Players
This category requires the highest score since it is the most important to the rebuild. The good news is that 4 of 5 young core players are developing and have proven to have high floors. This means they are not busts and at worst will be solid NBA players. The question is what’s their ceiling? The value assigned to each player is attributed to their ceiling.
R.J. Barrett is youngest player and has the highest ceiling. He has been better than advertised, he has been able to score and has improved his defense vastly since summer league. He graded out at a B, which is extremely encouraging when you consider the issues with the coaching and supporting players. He has been the second best rookie this year behind Ja Morant who was taken ahead of him in the draft. The main concerns with Barrett are things that are correctable. His outside shot and free throw shooting. At just 19 years old he has shown himself to be a leader and a player that can be the face of the franchise.
Of the other three players that have shown improvement, Robinson, Knox and Ntilikina. Robinson has shown the most promise and has been a vital contributor. He also scored a B, his grade would be higher if he expanded his game. While great around the basket on both offense and defense, he still needs to develop an outside shot and some post moves.
Knox has had his ups and downs, but that is expected, especially since he is only 20 years old. His defense which was a concern at the beginning of the year has started to improve, making him less of a liability. While the numbers don’t reflect it, his is outside shot has improved. He is only shooting 33.3% on 3-pointers, slightly down from last season. However, that is due to two factors, less playing time and lack of offensive continuity. Despite this, he is still the 3rd best 3-point shooter on the team this season. He has also gotten stronger which has helped him finish better near the rim. Below is summary of Knox’s FG% by distance from the rim. That is why he ended up with a grade of C, but feel his grade can improve in the second half of the season with more playing time.
Now for the most pleasant surprise, Frank Ntilikina (C). Everyone thought the organization had closed the book on him. They continually brought in players to supplant him as the team’s point guard. After a rough start to the season, injuries to the other point guards forced Fizdale to play him. Once Frank got consistent minutes he started to settle in and show improvement. Despite being forced to play Frank, Fizdale refused to let him run the point, instead relying on other players like Randle to initiate the offense. However, Frank’s role in the offense has increased since Mike Miller took over. We have even seen him on occasion go into ‘FIBA Frank’ mode. While he still has a ways to go on offense, his outside shooting has improved to a point were he is now considered a reliable shooter. That coupled with his outstanding defense has given fans hope that he can develop into a core player.
Unfortunately, there is one player who the team was relying heavily that has been a mitigated disaster. Dennis Smith Jr.’s development was the second highest priority after Barrett’s this season. That is because his potential is through the roof and plays one of the most important positions, point guard. The team has looked considerably better the few times he has played well. Unfortunately, the combination of injuries, personal issues and maturity appear to have derailed his Knicks career. The Knicks ended up with a grade of D because of Smith Jr.. It’s a shame because the outlook for this team would be vastly different if he was playing at a C level.
High Value Veteran
This category only has one player, Julius Randle. Why is he in a category by himself? That is because he was the Knicks only marquee off-season signing. He was only 24 years old when they signed him and is a proven player with all-star potential. He can be a player the team builds around and at the very least would serve as a proxy for what a big-time free agent could expect if they signed with the Knicks.
After an outstanding season opening game, Randle struggled for a while. The combination of Fizdale’s coaching, injuries to the point guard and chemistry with new teammates contributed. He has started to find his role and has learned to coexist better with Morris. The main issue with Randle has been his effort on defense, followed by turnovers. Randle graded out at a ‘C’ because he hasn’t been a bust and can’t be faulted for being misused. Below you can see how Randle’s production as decreased from versus the prior two seasons per 100 possessions. You will notice that his 3-pt shot attempts have increased 50% versus last season and conversely his 2-pt attempts has decreased. His offensive rating (ORtg) is at 103, is his lowest since his 2nd season in the NBA.
Another glaring issue has been on defense. His defensive rating (113) has never been great, but coupled with his decreased offensive productive has been a negative.
To further prove the point that Randle has not been used properly, we included to the left an estimate of how Randle has been used. Randle has been used almost exclusively at Power Forward, and for most of those minutes he has been paired with Morris. The graph shows that Randle before this season has played Center at least 26% of the time, he was only done so 6% this season. This can explain why is he hasn’t been as productive as we had hoped.
Young Role Players
This category is for the two young role players; Dotson and Trier. Both are older than the young core players and have less upside. However, can be valuable contributors on a good team. Dotson has continued to show improvement and is more than a 3&D player. He started the season slow due to offseason surgery on his shoulder. His issue has been getting consistent minutes and part of that is the fault of the coaching staff. Dotson has clearly been the best wing player after Barrett. There is absolutely no reason why Ellington should be getting minutes over Dotson. While his 3-pt shooting has decreased to 31.3% from 36.8% last season, it is due to less minutes per game and lack of offensive continuity. Despite the decrease he is still shooting a higher percentage than Ellington, 30.9%. Dotson is a player that shot 44.3% on 3-pointers in his last season in college and who Jeff Hornachek complimented on his shooting form.
For the 2nd half of the season I would also like to see Dotson get some more time at the three spot. Below is an example of how Dotson’s role has changed, in his first 2 seasons he played most of his minutes at the small forward. This season it has only been 20% of the time.
As for Trier, he has been a walking bucket since the day he arrived in New York. His issue has been playing within the offense. He likes to go one on one too much. His lack of versatility also hinders him, as he is strictly a two-guard and can’t be used at other positions. This has resulted in him being a victim of the numbers game. The reality is that it’s in his and the Knicks’ best interest to trade him. Unfortunately his has gone from a player that could have possibly fetched a protected 1st round pick to one that is only worth a mid to late 2nd round pick.
Young Veteran Players
In this category there are 3 players that are still young and have the potential to be a building block for the future. The rebuild would be accelerated by hitting on one of these players. Bobby Portis is the player with the most potential. He has played well on his two precious teams; Bulls and Wizards. He is also extremely versatile, as he can play and guard all three front court positions. However he has not been consistent on offense and has not been effective on defense. His basketball IQ and maturity have also been a concern.
As for Bullock, he has been hurt, so the jury is still out on him. He has looked fine in his limited time and you can see why he was signed. The goal for him in the second half of the season is to be a consistent outside shooting at small forward and shooting guard.
Payton has been an interesting case. I personally was against this signing as he was someone that could hinder Frank and DSJ’s development. While he has immense talent and is still young, he looks like is a fully formed player. His basketball IQ is low and his defense is a bit overrated. Just because he is aggressive on defense doesn’t mean he is good. His outside shot is also a concern. He has the flattest shot I have ever seen and is only connecting on 22.7% of his 3-pt shots, so the possibility of him improving at this stage in his career looks unlikely.
Older Veteran Players
The players in this category were graded for their ability to provide stability and support for the young players. These are the players that are suppose to be the example for how a professional player should carry himself. The value of the players in this category is the lowest because we don’t expect them to be on the team in 2 seasons. They are simply a stop gap.
While not much was expected from Wayne Ellington, he has been a bit of a disappointment. He was suppose to be a guy that you could plug in at any time and could contribute with quality outside shooting. However he has been inconsistent when called upon.
Taj Gibson has exceeded expectations. He has been a leader and found his way into the starting lineup. He is the ideal veteran role player. He is the quarterback of the defense, does all the little things and doesn’t need a lot of shots or minutes.
Marcus Morris has surprised many with his contribution on offense. He has been the number 1 option on offense and one of the league leaders in 3-pt shooting. However, as I have stated in my last article It’s Time to Move Mook. His production has not been a net positive, it has come at a cost. He is not a good compliment to Randle, some would even say a hindrance. The same can be said for Knox’s development. Having Morris play 30 plus minutes at the small forward has limited Knox’s opportunities to play. While many fans like Morris, he is not a player you want to be paying +$20M a year in two seasons when he will be 32 and the Knicks will have a chance to land some max level free agents with that money. Below are some interesting stats on a per 100 possessions on Morris, aside from 3-pt shooting, his other numbers have decreased. most notably 2-pt shooting (42.8%) and assists (2.3)
The other issue with Morris has been his defense. As stated above, his defensive rating (DRtg) is 114, the worst of his career which has offset his offensive rating (ORtg) 114. As you can see on the graph to the left, Morris has played most of his minutes, 83% at Small Forward, which he hasn’t done in since the 2016-17 season. Last season in Boston he played 97% of his minutes at Power Forward and 0% at Small Forward. You can see why his defense rating is at a career low.
This is the least important category for fans, but not to the front office. While no one wants to tank on purpose, conversely, no one wants to win unnecessarily. That means, no fool’s gold wins. Most teams can win 25 games if they are not trying to tank. The grade for the Wins category is a big fat ‘F’. That is because the Knicks have someone managed to fail at both, developing the players and providing fool’s gold wins. Fans want to see wins like the one against the Miami Heat were Barrett and the other young players contributed and closed the game. Those wins are worth more in the long run than wins against non-playoff teams by the older veterans.
As you can see in the graph, the Knicks rank near the bottom in the important offensive and defensive categories. Leading the NBA in offensive rebounds can’t happen if your not missing a lot of shots. Also being ranked 3rd in 2-pt shot attempts and 29th in 2-pt percentage means your taking a lot of the least valuable shots on the court and being contested when you do. That speaks to a bad offensive system or lack of one.
Second Half Goals
While Smith Jr. most likely is a lost cause, if he somehow miraculously resurrects his Knicks’ career, then he would need to play over Payton. Frank needs to be more dynamic on offense and continue to improve his outside shot. The same for Robinson, we all want to see that 3-pt shot he has worked on. As for Knox, he needs to get consistent minutes and continue to work on defense. Dotson needs to a larger role and average at least four 3-pt shots a game. The team needs to trade either Portis or Morris and hopefully some of the other vets. Randle needs to improve defensive effort and be the leading scorer for the team by taking more efficient shots. Lastly, one of the hindrances was the coaching. having a competent coach like Mike Miller coupled with better team chemistry could help the team improve their grades for the 2nd half of the season. After all, it’s not as important how you start as it is how you finish.
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