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  • Monday Musings: A Look Into the Knicks’ Future: Part I — the Guards

Monday Musings: A Look Into the Knicks’ Future: Part I — the Guards

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
Guest columnist Bryan Gibberman kicks off a multi-part series of Monday Musings, which will evaluate the roster by positions, starting with this week on New York’s guard corps.

I couldn’t be happier these past two games happened before this week’s edition of Monday Musings.

We got a glimpse into the future of what the Knicks should be—and an explicit example of why any person defending Jeff Hornacek’s actions as Knicks coach probably also owns real estate on Space Jam‘s Moron Mountain.

The New York Knicks destroyed the Miami Heat by 24 points on Friday and then lost by 13 to the Bucks on Saturday. The Knicks blitzed the Heat behind effective small-ball lineups with Daymean Dotson(!) as the catalyst.  They were a +24 in the approximately 29 minutes Dotson spent at power forward, too.

That being said, Hornacek played Dotson zero minutes at the power forward position in the loss to the Bucks.

(This exemplified why I look forward to never having to watch a game coached Jeff Hornacek ever again.)

We’re going to get away from the negative and talk about the positive in just a minute here.   

The Knicks have a group of young-to-youngish-type players that have the outlines of a good modern basketball team. I completely grasp that reading too much into a late season game is typically a nonsensical thing to do, but what transpired in the Knicks-Heat game wasn’t a coincidence. Enes Kanter, Michael Beasley, Lance Thomas, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jarrett Jack combined to play only 20 of the 240 minutes. Every single one of those players produces an abundance of negative outcomes within the team structure that can’t be made up for by their skills that are useful, like Kanter’s obviously perceptible interior game. What all five of the players listed in this group have in common, though, is creating stagnation on offense, poor spacing, minimal three-point attempts, and the cherry on top: poor defense.

Beasley and Jack combined to play 49 minutes versus Milwaukee and the team only shot 21 threes compared to the 36 triples the Knicks attempted in the victory against Miami. The dichotomy of these past two games should smack any sane person involved with the Knicks in the face to what their path forward as a team should be. Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry have an opportunity to pivot the Knicks towards the modern NBA for the first time since the 2012–13 season and portions of 2013–14 one.  

With Kristaps Porzingis being out for next season, it’s the perfect year for the Knicks to see what this group of nine players plus their first-round pick has. Nonetheless, the guards needing to be prioritized going forward are Frank Ntilikina, Dotson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, and Ron Baker.

Unfortunately, Mudiay is why the G League exists.

He came into the league with the reputation as a great athlete, but he in reality he isn’t. Emmanuel’s entire game needs to be fundamentally taken apart and built back up, to put it in kind terms. The logical bet is Mudiay isn’t an NBA player, things can change, but there needs to be a substantial level of improvement for him to take playing time away from anyone listed above.

Arguably the tougher part to digest, though, is this: Frank is going to be very good, but Frank is as closer to a point guard as the Knicks will need. Both Ntilikina and Dotson’s combined defensive versatility to guard multiple positions and potentially rebound are going to give the Knicks a unique ability to run an all-switching defense if they find the right bigs to play with them (Thunder backup Jerami Grant should be a top target for the Knicks this summer to make the versatility a reality).

The more defined positions are a bit more tangible on offense; however, if Dotson and Ntilikina can create value at the guard positions on the defensive glass they could also be key in helping to unlock lineups that feature Porzingis at the 5 spot. This is similar to the concept of what the ’12–’13 Knicks did with Carmelo Anthony at the 4: the Knicks were the fourth-best defensive rebounding team in the league that season, and it had a lot do with their guards and wings. According to NBA Stats, J.R. Smith ranked fifth, Jason Kidd sixth, and Iman Shumpert 24th in defensive rebounding percentage for guards that played 20 minutes or more.

Damyean and Frank are developing into elite defensive rebounders for their positions, and that’s a path towards mitigating Porzingis’ poor work on the glass, despite his tall stature.

Meanwhile, obviously this sounds contradictory after singing Frank’s praises, but Trey Burke gets to keep starting and playing until this stops.

Peep Burke this season versus Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” year:

What Burke’s doing is bonkers.

I’m firmly in the camp that he’s going to eventually regress, as most players who go on these stretches do, but at worst he’ll be a good guard off the bench.

Burke’s transformation on New York is stunning, even despite his promising collegiate shooting percentages and a 28.3 usage figure while plugged into the best offense in the country, Michigan, that season (per KenPom’s numbers). New York’s next coach should balance out the amount of possessions initiated by Burke and Frank than how Hornacek does now, but there’s nothing wrong starting next season with this duo in the first five.

Nevertheless, this leads to another situation where Hardaway Jr. is going to have to play the 3. Personally I’m fine with it, outside of a few matchups, you can survive with a smaller player at small forward. Timmy is a vehicle that drives your shot profile in a positive direction. Hardaway attempts 69.8 percent of his total shots from the combination of three-pointers (47.6) or inside 0-3 feet from the rim (22.2), per Basketball-Reference. He was by no means perfect this season, but Hardaway held his own playing sometimes as the best player on the team, ever since the injury befallen to Porzingis. Fortunately, that’s not what THJ is or will have as a role in the future. When this Knicks team matures and grows, the hope is you’re pushing him towards the fourth- or fifth-best player on the roster.

The biggest issue with Hardaway’s game this season has been his career-low three-point shooting of 31.7 percent. His career percentage from three is 34.4 percent, so it’s a noticeable dip after signing that four-year offer sheet from Mills. There’s no reason to believe it won’t go back to approaching that level next season, though, with possibly a better-spaced floor as a remedy.

Lastly, we have Ron Baker, and yes he should play 10–12 minutes a night as a fifth guard.

The Knicks had a 105.1 ORtg and 99.6 DRtg in the 258 minutes Ntilikina and Baker played together this season, an uncharacteristically strong NetRtg compared to the overall terribleness of the team this season.

For perspective, that would rank 19th on offense and first(!!) on defense today, per NBA Stats.

The Knicks’ defense—if they played Frank, Baker and Dotson together—would be otherworldly good, and shouldn’t that be the priority when building a team?

Come back next week for Part II of the position evaluation, featuring a discussion of New York’s wings.

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