The Knicks have a bench unit loaded with potential. Which role does each player serve for the team?
It’s hard to believe, but we are just about two months into the season. By now, you can get a gist of where your team stands. The Knicks have had some serious ups thus far, most notably the mini-streak at the start of the season. But there have also been some downs. Recently the energy has begun to dip. We are starting to see the bad habits that have plagued this team arise once again. Remarkably, the Knicks stand in a similar position to where they stood a year ago – or each of the previous three seasons for that matter.
Crazy stat: This'll mark 3rd straight yr the Knicks have been at .500 mark or better 20 games. They simply haven't sustained. Worth watching
— Chris Herring (@Herring_NBA) November 25, 2017
The early part of the season has never been the issue. It’s when injuries start to pile up. It’s when the grind starts to fatigue the inexperienced guys and simply wear down the older guys. This is something all teams deal with. The difference between the successful teams and the lottery dwellers is the successful teams typically know who they are.
Teams come in all shapes and sizes, but for the sake of time they are usually placed in two pools. One is having a starting unit with such immense talent that you can gloss over your flaws. Any team featuring LeBron James is in this category, but this tier also includes teams that have overestimated their stars, like the Pelicans, and to a lesser extent, the Timberwolves and Wizards.
The other model is one most teams ought to follow. Instead of looking to add as many top tier guys as possible, you put together the best roster you can. The Spurs and Warriors are the gold standards of this method. The Celtics have also adopted that strategy, and to great success – they lost one of their top guys and arguably look better thanks to the development of their youngsters.
Right now, the Knicks are Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, Tim Hardaway Jr., and a big question mark after that. Scott Perry has not had nearly enough time to build something here, so patience is paramount. But in order to build something meaningful you have to know what you’re working with.
They have one franchise talent on the roster with KP. Until they can prove New York is a free agent destination, that star tally will likely stand at one. That means the Knicks will have to build out a roster, not a big three, four, or whatever other teams like the Thunder and the Wolves are building.
Last season, we trimmed some fat from the bench unit. This season, we will see what was left over or added and see what Perry and the team can make of it. The great thing is this group of guys genuinely like each other. That is an important aspect in all of this, so in that regard, the Knicks are in good shape. For the purpose of this article, the starting rotation is considered to be Porzingis, Hardaway Jr., Enes Kanter, Courtney Lee, and Jarrett Jack.
We’ll assess the rest of the bench pieces and cast them into roles. A great bench is like an orchestra, with different pieces blending together to form one harmonious sound. Got it? Cool. Let’s take a look.
The Spirit Animal: Kyle O’Quinn
Close friend of the The Knicks Wall podcast, Jerry Ferrara, summarized Kyle O’Quinn best – he is New York. If you were to travel to any basketball court or gym in any of the five boroughs, chances are you’ll run into someone similar to O’Quinn. The jovial giant who should solely focus on rebounds and layups, yet can’t contain the urge to stray away. He talks some shit from time to time but always backs it up the best he can. He is also a throwback to when the Garden was Eden.
O’Quinn has been a bargain for the Knicks, as well as a folk hero in MSG. Hornacek has called his number early and often thus far. O’Quinn is the first big off the bench every night, and plays a good chunk of minutes with the starters.
His ability to pass, rebound, and extend his offense to the elbows makes for a good person to share the floor with. When he gets rolling, he’s like a jumbo Swiss army knife. His only problem is he gets too careless with passes at times or morphs into a matador on defense. These are not rare issues (especially on this team) that can be overlooked by hustle.
The MSG faithful love him and for good reason. When he’s on the floor, he is always doing something. When you look at his per game stats, his effectiveness may seem pedestrian, but in a vacuum, his stat line makes more of an impact. Per 100 possessions, he averages 18.3 points, 19.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.1 blocks. Given his effectiveness, reasonable price tag ($4 million with a $4.2 million player-option for next season), and locker room presence (KOQ is well-known as the locker room jokester), he is another player He Who Must Not Be Named got right.
The Glue Guy: Doug McDermott
You can give this title to Lance Thomas and I wouldn’t blink an eye. So far this season though, I believe McDermott has begun to position himself as the top bench guy. He’s given us that Steve Novak hysteria when gets hot from deep, mixed with the grittiness of rookie season Landry Fields.
Through the first three seasons of his career, McDermott was simply looking for a home. Hornacek has given him that, in addition to a concrete role. In return, McDermott has looked a lot more like the Dougie McBuckets that tore it up in Creighton. McDermott’s greatest asset is and always will be his jumper. This season, his effective field goal percentage is a career-best 55.4 percent. He is usually the second man off the bench every night, and it’s because he possess the same traits Ron Baker does; only McDermott has considerably more NBA-level talent in his bones.
Our own Harrison Liao did a great breakdown, so go here for in-depth analysis. But in short, this guy does whatever you need him to do. He can linger by the three-point line or he can relentlessly cut to the basket. On defense, he’s constantly moving, so when he does get beat it’s not due to poor effort.
Hornacek has taken a liking to McDermott for these reasons. There are some occasions when McDermott plays the four while Porzingis mans the five. The Knicks closed with that lineup against the Hornets in a comeback victory, and something he should look back into.
The elephant in the room is what happens beyond this year. McDermott is a talented 25-year-old who is set to hit free agency. Assuming the price is right (~$10 million a year) it should be a no-brainer to keep him. But that’s in the future. For the present, McDermott is rapidly establishing himself as an indispensable piece to the bench.
The Lunch Pail Guy: Lance Thomas
There will always be a special place in my Knicks memory bank for Lance Thomas. I’m still not sure why he has grown on me, but he has. His teammates seemed to always love him and it’s not difficult to realize why.
The moment I changed on him was last year when the team played a home-and-home against the Bucks. Giannis was well on his way to becoming the cyborg he is right now, and Lance was trusted to stop him with the game on the line. The first night at MSG, Giannis did what countless other stars have done to the Knicks in the past by nailing a game-winning shot. The next night in Milwaukee, Lance had to come back and try and stop Giannis again with the game on the line. Instead of getting a game-winner to the grill for a second straight night, Lance stuck to him like glue and got a game-sealing steal. He has been my dude since that night.
That is also a microcosm of what he brings to this team. He assumes the role that no one else wants to fill. He is also the best on-ball defender on the roster, unless you want to give Courtney Lee the nod. Hornacek has played Lance late in games because of his defensive prowess. Against the Hornets, he helped seal the win by clamping Kemba on the perimeter. This is the role every team needs, mainly because no one else wants it.
Irrational Instant Offense Guy: Michael Beasley
Just as you can find a Kyle O’Quinn at any court or gym, you can absolutely find a Michael Beasley. He’s the uber-talented guy who should easily be playing D1, but didn’t try at all in school, so he plays pick-up at 24 Hour Fitness. As far as talent is concerned, Beasley can likely go toe-to-toe with some of the game’s best; at least that’s what he tells us. To be honest, I believe him to an extent.
Strictly scoring the basketball there is no discussion. The man truly is the Walking Bucket. When Porzingis missed the game against the Rockets, Beasley stepped in and dropped 30. Against the Blazers, he came in for mop-up duty, but instead helped lead a mini-charge (seven points and seven boards in 14 minutes). I believe his scoring has a place on this team.
He’s the only man on the bench that can create his own shot. McDermott and Lance do a great job getting open. Beasley is open when he sets foot in the building. Will he drive you nuts from time to time? No doubt. But when Hardaway Jr. and Porzingis sit, there is not much offense on the floor. If properly managed Beasley can hold down the scoring while the starters get a blow. What does properly managed look like?
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) November 26, 2017
I think the woke Beasley can manage to contain himself to a similar playing style if given the minutes. The number eight has a long tradition of effective scorers with eccentric personalities. Beasley is no different.
The Hype Man: Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah is not going anywhere, so why not make the best of it? As a personality, we love him. As a contract, we loathe him. What’s done is done, so the best Noah can do until he is inevitably waived is bring some energy. He did just that against the Trail Blazers, briefly igniting the lifeless crowd.
For three minutes, Noah packed in a burst of two points, one block, one rebound, and around 100 claps. His best use is to mentor Willy Hernangómez and the other young guys on defense, but when he’s at his best when he serves as a human form of Red Bull.
The Miscast Prodigies: Willy Hernangómez & Frank Ntilikina
Two of the Euro Knicks that deserve more, but also have a lot to prove. Let’s start with our French Prince, Frankie Ntillmatic. The kid with more AKA’s than Desus & Mero has found his way to folk heroism rather quickly. For me, the moment he “shoved” LeBron was the moment I knew he was deadass-enough for New York. If LeBron wanted to, he could have shoved young Frankie into Penn Station. That’s not the point. The point is Frankie did not back down.
Now for the basketball stuff. He’s a pro-level defender already, which is great. His offense, on the other hand, has been borderline horrific. It has mostly been due to cold feet, but his shooting numbers have been underwhelming (38.4 effective field goal percentage). Hornacek has eased Frankie into the fold, and each game the rook has looked a better. As long as the philosophy remains consistent, Frankie has given us no reason to doubt he can ascend to the starting role by the end of the season.
Willy is a different story. Hornacek has used Willy as much as anyone who has used a water cup for water. The reason has been his defense, which is fair. The good news is the team plans on keeping him up with the main roster. Even better news is that he has played in the team’s last four games.
The only way to improve his defense is to be on the floor. Otherwise, you get more performances like this:
Given the log jam at center, Willy’s minutes will be scarce, but injuries to Porzingis or Kanter will open up the minutes. It’s up to Willy to fulfill his destiny as Marc Gasol-lite.
The Cavalry: Damyean Dotson, Ramon Sessions, Ron Baker
The end of most benches are made up of young guys still gathering their footing. My hope is that Ramon Sessions is shown the door soon so that Trey Burke or someone else can contribute. Damyean Dotson is the player I care about most at the end. He’s flashed a similar skill set to what Hardaway Jr. flashed during his first stint in New York.
He can hit from the perimeter and can move without the ball. A majority of his minutes will come in garbage time, or in Westchester, but his development is something to keep an eye on. If McDermott bolts for a different team next season, he may be best suited to fill those shoes. If McDermott stays, the bench sorely needs another scorer, a role that Dotson could potentially take on.
As for Baker, he’s fun, but barring any major changes will spend a majority of his time in slacks, for better or worse. The team has not shown much interest in using him after the first three games, which is puzzling given they handed him a legitimate NBA contract this summer. For now, he’s a good person to have at the end of the bench in case of an emergency.
The Second-in-Command: N/A
Every unit needs a leader, and the major problem with this unit is there is no leader. Whether it is an extra starter (i.e. Manu Ginobili, Andre Iguodala) or top reserve (i.e. Ish Smith, Rodney Hood), the Knicks do not have a leader for the second unit. Brandon Jennings played that role pretty well in his short stint last season. Since he left, New York has been devoid of such a player. Frankie is too young and destined to start at some point this season anyway. Jack would be a nice candidate, but someone with a little more left in the tank would be ideal.
One possibility is Trey Burke. I circle back around to Burke for good reason. He’s been great in the G League (24.0 points, 6.1 assists, 1.8 steals per game, shooting 49.5 percent from the field), and most importantly, he’s still young. He may never be a starter in this league again. Keeping that in mind, the next best position for him could be as a floor general for a second unit. Plus, I also want a Burke-Hardaway Jr. reunion. Sue me.
The pieces for the bench unit are mostly there for the Knicks. The glaring missing piece has been that leader in the second unit. Assuming Frankie is ready to make a mini-leap of some sort, this hole can eventually be filled. But then again, the kid is 19 years old, so alternative choices may have to be made.
The overarching message, however, is that the Knicks are in good shape from a team-building standpoint. Perry will no doubt put more of his print on this team moving forward, but he was given a nice starting point from the previous regime. Now it’s on him to sprint from the blocks and finish the race strong.