By Brendan Campbell (@campbell_soup3)
If you are a fan of the New York Knicks, you have been disappointed so far this season. That is a fair sentiment. 4-16 is not a good record. The team is on pace for less than 20-wins for the second year in a row, far below the 30-win season many hoped for. Instead, fans are left grasping at ever-elusive glimpses of hope and squabbling over who is to blame for this mess. Let’s take a step a back to analyze what has gone right and wrong so far this season, and how it will affect the franchise going forward:
Frank Ntilikina has taken a step forward. I wanted to label Ntilikina’s progress a leap, but the point guard suffered a back-injury Sunday night against the Boston Celtics. The young guard has had a short leash with Coach David Fizdale (lest we forget Ntilikina’s 16 starts in 2018-2019 compared to Emmanuel Mudiay’s 42!), but hopefully Frank’s progress so far this season will earn him a place in the starting lineup going forward. Averages are up across the board, and the French Prince is playing with newfound confidence on offense. On defense, he continues to be a nuisance to opposing teams’ guards, highlighted by the first year in his career that he has averaged more than 1 stocks (steals + blocks) per game (he is averaging 2 per game, per basketball-reference.com). I’m not sure he has showed enough offensively to project as anything more than someone like Shaun Livingston (that is, 3x NBA Champion Shaun Livingston, excuse you), but there is no doubt his future looks brighter than it did a year ago.
- RJ Barrett is good, maybe very good. Barrett is fourth amongst all rookies in scoring, second in assists, and tied for second in rebounds. He has made improvements on his originally abominable free throw shooting in the last three weeks and has visited the charity strike more than any other rookie. It’s the numbers that make him nationally relevant, but it’s watching him that really gets me excited. Barrett has already proven to be smarter with the ball than he was last year at Duke; the spacing of the NBA suits him well. The 19-year-old Canadian has mastered certain sorts of Giannis-Jr. driving tactics: he will attack rhythmically only to slow down right before he is ready to shoot, letting the defender scoot by him as Barrett throws his shoulder into the opponent’s chest to draw the foul and get a shot off. Additionally, Barrett has showcased a good deal of left-to-right euro steps, and has a keen ability for finishing with his offhand. Bright things are ahead for this kid.
- December 15th is soon. NBA players signed last summer are not able to be traded until, you guessed it, December 15th. While offloading the Knicks’ veterans right when the market unofficially reopens would give Fizdale no shot at making anything of this roster (as if he has thus far), fans can get excited that pieces could be moved to net young players or more draft capital. I wouldn’t expect much in terms of trade value from the likes of Bobby Portis, salary filler in the Otto Porter Jr. trade last year, or Taj Gibson, but Marcus Morris Sr. going scorched earth from three and Julius Randle being only 25 may entice some NBA franchises eager to push for the playoffs. Please keep in mind the hope of trade value as we discuss the bad and the ugly.
- Every time Julius Randle sizes a defender up from the top of the key, my life expectancy decreases by 3 months. Randle has struggled to acclimate to a more featured role in the Knicks’ offense, and sometimes deludes himself into thinking he is playing a pickup run at LA Fitness, taking on opposing defenses one-on-five. He has shown smarter flashes recently, and he was able to effectively pick apart the Sixers double teaming scheme during the first half of Friday’s matchup. While fans might be upset that he is still under contract for next year, remember that Randle only just turned 25, and that the Lakers did not know what to make of him originally, it was only last year that he broke out. Ideally, as the season progresses, Randle will establish himself more as a pick and roll player than an isolation savant.
- Mitchell Robinson will not stop fouling. Part of what makes Robinson so electric as a player is his never-ceasing hustle. Not many NBA players leap as high as they can to contest multiple three-point attempts a game, and even fewer centers do. But the argument could be made that Robinson is the Knicks’ most important piece, so the Knicks need him to stay on the floor. His 6.3 fouls per 36 minutes ranks sixth in the NBA. That is very bad.
- The lacking in-game coaching has led to multiple second half collapses. Putting aside the blame game temporarily, this team is not talented enough to will itself to victory in the second half against good teams. Fizdale has proved ineffective at managing rotations as well as in-game scenarios. Moving Knox into the starting lineup after he received his first ever Did-Not-Play Coach’s Decision was bizarre. Late game collapses against the Celtics, the Sixers twice, and the Raptors (not that late in the game, but an epic collapse nonetheless), have left onlookers questioning how long Coach Fizdale will be with the team. What has made this experience all the more demoralizing is how the Knicks are able to go punch-for-punch with good teams through the first two quarters, only to squander the team’s lead when opposing coaches ramp it up a notch during the final stretches of games.
- Where does the organization go from here? How long will the Knicks be the most valuable franchise in basketball if sub-20 win seasons become the norm? The roster does not make tons of sense. The kids are talented but not being given ample room to develop (we miss you, Allonzo Trier!). Blame shifts from the coaching staff to the front office and back with every changing news cycle. Organizational upheaval has become the norm for the New York Knicks, but fans are left with no recourse but to hope that changes are coming.