"First annual." What a cocky thing to say. How many "first annual" events turn out to be one-time only occasions? And, yes, I know it should be “inaugural” if we’re being grammatically correct, but why would I start now? Plus, I’m feeling cocky. So, what gives me the audacity to welcome you to my first annual New York Knicks Midseason Manifesto? Partly to blame is a 6’11” Turkish man who keeps me up at night. No, this isn’t some smut book your mother reads on the beach. I lose sleep because I have no idea how he could be affecting the future career of a 7’3” Latvian man; nevermind the 7’ tall Spanish man who has become something of an afterthought.
Now this really is beginning to sound like your mother’s smut book. After reading all that, you should understand why I am so skeptical of ‘the second annual’ .
Let me take a step back. I am a lifelong New York sports faithful who has enjoyed the perks of being a Yankees fan, while also suffering the perils of Knicks fandom. This past year I’ve crept into the basement of Yankees twitter fame thanks to my best good friend, @Jomboy_, being an incredibly passionate and technologically gifted Yankees fan. Depending which metric you use, we now have the second-most popular Yankees podcast, “Talkin’ Yanks”, on iTunes. I figured if there are some people who want to hear me blabber about the Yankees, then maybe some of those same people want to hear me blabber about The Knicks. “Talkin’ Knicks” was formed with my peers Tom Piccolo, Kenney Pun and Greg Pun. We cover The Knicks with our podcast ("Talkin' Knicks"), on twitter @TalkinKnicks and website at www.alotofbasketball.com
“You know ‘Melo is trash, right?” “No, he’s actually a Hall-of-Famer who has only played with hot garbage teammates during his career.” This debate raged among Knicks fans since the epic 2011 trade that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York, until he was mercifully traded to Oklahoma City this past September. In that deal, the Knicks received Doug McDermott, a sharp-shooting collegiate star who had had a lackluster NBA career up to that point, and a second-round pick. The final piece of the trade was Enes Kanter, the Turkish gentleman I mentioned above: an offensively gifted center who uses his touch around the basket and offensive rebounding prowess to create havoc on that end of the court. He is also the player who became a meme after his head coach was caught on video saying that he can’t play Kanter because of his defensive liabilities. With no Carmelo or Phil Jackson in the picture, this season felt like a fresh start in New York.
Hope is the reason that the NFL draft is now a three-day long event (See Eagles, Vikings and Jaguars in this years conference championships). For some teams, it’s the hope that they can win the title this year. For others, it’s the hope they can have the year that leads to the year. For years, the Knicks’ hope hinged on Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson being able to recruit a super team of sorts. Alas, their best acquisition was either Tyson Chandler or potentially Courtney Lee (when this franchise takes off again we should wear ‘Courtney Lee Died For Our Sins’ shirts). Any way you slice it, those guys are not near the level expected for the NBA super teams of today. Luckily, in one of Phil’s most critiqued moves, they drafted Kristaps Porzingis, the Latvian fellow I previously mentioned. He is now known around the league as “The Unicorn” for his unique combination of size and skill, which gives him the ability to shoot the basketball and protect the rim.
Kristaps brought hope back to the Garden. Now it was just a matter of time.
With hope comes questions. How good could Kristaps become? How long will it take for him become that? Who from this current roster can be a part of that timeline? Two guys jumped out: Wily Hernangomez, the second team All-Rookie center from Spain and final member of the smut book from the introduction, and Frank Ntilikina, a 19-year-old “French Prince” point guard who turned out to be our Uncle Phil’s parting gift to the franchise. Despite Wily’s accomplishments during his rookie season, the Spaniard had serious questions around his defensive capabilities and his value in a league that is getting further away from the use of traditional centers. Ntilikina, essentially a complete unknown, offered the rare skill set of being a versatile guard on offense with the length to be special on the defensive end of the court. With so much unknown about the upside of this season’s Knicks squad, the fanbase was left with two schools of thought entering the season: tank for another cornerstone player in 2018’s much-hyped draft class or try to compete in the bottom of the East playoff picture, while gaining experience and potentially appealing to upcoming free agents?
All teams live in fear of entering NBA Purgatory. Whether you are in the bottom tier of the playoffs or the bottom tier of the lottery, it’s difficult to get the caliber of players you need to compete for a championship in the NBA. I guess teams for the past 20 years have also lived in fear of becoming the Knicks? Sorry - that’s off my chest. The tanking route made some sense. It was the Unicorn’s first season as the go-to option, and our best option at point guard was *hopefully* a 19-year-old French guy who nobody had seen play basketball. You’d think losing would come easy. You take some lumps, develop everyone and get another high lottery pick to keep this ship going in the right direction.
Before the season, one of the arguments for trying to sneak into the playoffs was that it would be great experience for the young guys. That usually gets quickly countered with, “Is getting swept by Cleveland great experience?” I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think a taste of success is a bad thing and, most importantly, with Porzingis’s struggles with management, I think a taste of winning would quell any rumors of him wanting to leave New York.
After a 0-3 start to the season that had every Knicks faithful looking at mock drafts, the team came to life, thanks to the help of (surprisingly) serviceable point guard play and Kristaps Porzingis proving he can be a star in this league. Over the first 2 months of the season Porzingod put up 25.8ppg, 6.8rpg, 2.1bpg while shooting 40.2% from the three-point line. Jarrett Jack and Frank Ntilikina had become basketball’s version of a TV buddy-cop comedy with the old vet mentoring the young buck who doesn’t know the rules yet. Jack provided a stabilizing force, while Frank showed flashes of what the future could behold. With Tim Hardaway Jr. seemingly underachieving, yet still playing solid basketball, whispers of the 6th spot in the East traveled around the Tri-State Area. Regular contributions from Kanter, Lee, McDermott, Kyle O’Quinn and Lance Thomas made the Knicks seem like a versatile, deep team with one of the best home court advantages in the league. Things peaked with a home win against the top-seeded Celtics that brought The Knicks to three games above .500, with a 17-14 record. I hate to show off my math proficiency, but that meant Los Knicks were on on a 17-11 stretch with a blossoming superstar. Fans who looked at the franchise like it were an ex-girlfriend who had broken their heart too many times starting to fall back in love. Just like that, the ex- girlfriend started showing her true colors yet again. The THJ injury forced bench players into roles they weren’t ready for, and the team’s inability to win on the road led to Knicks fans back to consuming adult beverages and sending 3am “You up?” texts to Mike D’Antoni.
All of the positive storylines had been flipped in less than a month’s time. Our once-in-a-lifetime superstar now was tired, unable to handle the rigors of an NBA season. Enes Kanter had gone from the heart and soul of the team to a guy who couldn’t play in the fourth quarter. The “new NBA” had created this evolutionary play he could not defend: the pick and roll. There would have been a missing person report filed for Wily Hernangomez if Kristaps hadn’t included him in his Instagram stories here and there. Ron Baker was playing meaningful minutes. Ron Baker was playing meaningful minutes. Ron Baker was playing meaningf-- sorry, just had a ‘Westworld’ type freak out there. Our knight in shining armor was Michael Beasley, who had resurrected himself from an inefficient ball hog to a surprisingly efficient ball hog. Predictably, none of this led to wins, and Knicks fans returned to yelling at each other, screaming “Tank!” or “Fire the coach!” or “I think the Giants should draft Rosen”.
A New Hope
Let’s see how quickly Disney comes at me for that title. I’m not going to tell you guys what you should think, but I am going to lay out some concepts that I want you to take into account when you form your opinion. The start of the season was like a backhanded compliment. It was kind of nice, but not really. It was great to see that ability from Porzingis but his hot start likely played us out of a top-eight pick in the draft lottery. It is near impossible to see us finishing with a worse record than the Nets, Hawks, Magic, Lakers, Grizzlies, Kings, Suns or Mavericks. That’s without mentioning the (surging!) Bulls, (stagnating!) Hornets and (plummeting!) Jazz. Barring Kristaps and THJ sitting out most of the second half and Ron Baker playing a lot of the second half, you can expect the Knicks will be hovering around spots 10-13. Which, hey, let’s not be too pessimistic! Be happy we have our first-round pick and trust your front office to find the right talent.
On the other side of the coin, in recent history, a .500 record in the East gets you in or around the 8th seed and this year looks to be no different. The Knicks sit five games back from .500 and three games out of the playoffs after a crushing loss at Memphis where the referees looked like they had a little queso on the Grizz to win that game. The leapfrog upward into the playoffs is seemingly just as difficult as getting a better pick in the lottery. Barring a significant injury or slump it seems tough to catch any of the teams ahead of us in the East. But, there is something to be said for playing competitive basketball throughout the season. You never know what can happen. If an injury to another fringe playoff team occurs, the Knicks could be in position to take advantage and gain valuable experience from playing in meaningful basketball games. Developing a competitive, winning culture matters, both internally and externally. Most free agents won’t even give a second look to teams that still have the stink from a purposeful tank on them. As I pick myself up, let me put myself back down by saying that if the upcoming flurry of road games finds the Knicks out of contention for that eight seed, you’d be foolish not to eye the standings and think about increasing your odds for a better draft pick.
After months (and paragraphs) of flip flopping, where do I stand on all this? As I said, I’m fine with competing until any realistic chance of a playoff berth is out the window. That being said, three games out of the playoffs in January should not spook or entice fans to go into full tank mode, especially knowing the odds of climbing into a good lottery position are low. My position has changed on the one thing I would like to see this year and how I am viewing the team. Kristaps, Ntilikina and THJ are going to be a part of the future of this team. I can’t confidently say that about anybody else, even our former all-rookie center, Hernangomez. What I want to see is a fourth piece that I can say confidently is going to grow with the core mentioned above for the next three seasons. We have veteran players who can help other teams now. Trading them off for future assets may not hurt the Knicks, either, as their absence would allow for more minutes for younger guys. Courtney Lee and Enes Kanter have clear value to contenders but also have contracts that will scare other GMs from giving up enough value to make it worthwhile. Hernangomez and O’Quinn are young guys on good contracts; could a package of O’Quinn and Lee be enough to get that 4th piece to develop? Would Hernangomez be the piece that seals a three-team trade? Does a GM have the stones to buy into what Michael Beasley has been doing to run a contender’s second unit?
I don’t know. This is why I’m not in the Knicks front office (yet). What I do know is the pieces are there to make *something* happen. Having a core four heading into the 2018 draft would mean that the Knicks organization could point to five young guys who we know are building blocks for the future. I can’t remember the last time that kind of sentence was mentioned involving the team that plays at the Mecca of basketball. I can’t tell you it will lead to NBA titles, I can’t tell you it will lead to Eastern Conference Finals, but I can tell you what it will lead to: