Let’s exorcise our demons of yesteryear with a look back at the worst moments of the previous season—everything from worst collapse, worst injury, and worst scandal.
It’s the dog days of summer and everyone’s itching for a fix of NBA basketball—especially Knicks fans. The 2017–18 season didn’t amount to much besides firings and heartbreak if you consider all 82 games and the events that transpired between them. But it may not be time to leave the past in the past just yet. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for growth when we retrospectively analyze the 2017–18 NBA season.
I remember when I was run out of my own hometown, and one of my father’s old family friends, Rafiki, gave me some pretty life-changing advice while I was contemplating going back: the past can be painful, but you can either run from it or learn from it.
The 2017–18 season was riddled with hiccups, but what can we take away from some of those god-awful moments?
The Terrible Moment: Worst Loss
Claiming the worst loss is a messy business because the metrics for “worst” can vary from person to person. For the purpose of this piece, I’m calling the November 13th lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers the worst loss for the Knicks last season. What could have given them a huge confidence boost, at least in terms of going 2-2 against a perpetually NBA Finals-bound Cavaliers team, ended in heartbreak. Heartbreaking losses are, essentially, just metaphors for a season as a Knick fan. You find your team up against a superior team, but eventually watch the lead dwindle away until the final moments, just to see LeBron James seal the deal with a late-game three-pointer. Porzingis struggled early on, and unfortunately never quite found his rhythm. Kanter’s 20 points and 16 rebounds couldn’t even save them. It was sad. I cried the whole night.
The Lesson: The team can’t live and die by Porzingis—and won’t
Once, after a pickup game gone awry left me feeling down, a good friend of mine told me, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson” and I’ve taken it to heart. The Dalai Lama and I don’t have much time to hoop nowadays, but that quotation can be applied to this heartbreaker in November. The teams’ reliance on Porzingis was illustrated in two ways: that defensive possession on James and his lackluster shooting the entire game. His 20 points, seven rebounds, and one assist on 33 percent shooting is reminiscent of the stat line Carmelo Anthony posted during his time as a Knickerbocker.
Porzingis shouldn’t have the weight of the entire team on his shoulders, especially after ACL surgery. For that game, guard Tim Hardaway Jr. stepped up and posted 28 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists on 50 percent shooting. He did it all that night, and shouldered a large chunk of the offensive load. Obviously, the front office took the need for another premier offensive threat seriously this past draft, because Kevin Knox looked like the real deal in his summer league stint. Although he may not be as balanced offensively and defensively as Porzingis, Knox projects to be a real offensive talent. If the Knicks are looking to build, molding a raw player like Knox is a great start.
The Terrible Moment: Worst Poster
This year we’ve got two nominees for worst poster. We’ll review them both.
The first we’ll review is a foolish play by Ron Baker in New Orleans. Darius Miller, guarded by forward Michael Beasley, makes a pass to Anthony Davis in the left corner. Porzingis makes a bad swipe and gets beat by Davis on the way to the hoop. And who comes flying in to prevent the easy two? No other than Ronald Delaine Baker. Let’s see how he fared:
Every time I see that clip I remember being a kid and hanging with my friends Bobby and Tre (as my brother Ricky tagged along). One hot summer day, Bobby asked us, “Y’all wanna see a dead body?”
Ron Baker is indeed that dead body.
Public embarrassment from being posterized is one thing, but Baker suffered a fractured orbital bone. Baker got dunked on so hard that Davis literally broke his face. When it comes to extreme posterizing, that one may have been the worst I’d seen, perhaps since DeAndre Jordan’s on Brandon Knight. That is, until the Knicks faced the Bucks in early February.
A crime just as heinous, was the murder of Tim Hardaway Jr. by the outlaw known as Giannis Antetokounmpo. Find the Greek Freak’s horrific crime below.
That was downright awful. It gave me the same level of anxiety as losing my kid in public (don’t judge me). Poor THJ tried to stop a fast break between Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo, and was vaulted over. You can even pick up a humiliating poster of the ordeal online. To make matters worse, that was the same game Porzingis suffered his season-ending injury.
That fateful night, everything changed for New York. The energy around the team, still hoping to secure a playoff spot or at least fight for something close to it, did a complete 180. The team unwillingly pivoted to another tanking season, and left the future of the entire franchise in question.
The Lesson: Good Defense will (typically) prevent humiliation
When it comes to playing team defense in the current era, trust and accountability are imperative, considering most teams have at least two players capable of getting hot in their starting lineups. For the Knicks, both on-ball defense and help defense have a long ways to go if everyone enters training camp with the same tendencies they had last season.
Baker’s misfortune seems like a failed attempt at being the hero and preventing a layup, but a more balanced survey of the court proves different. After KP got beat, he decided to collapse in, and left his man on the perimeter wide open in the process. Whoever his man was is unclear, but Anthony Davis could have just as easily dished the ball to the three-point line for an easy triple. However, Baker didn’t think that that play all the way through, and apparently neither did Kyle O’Quinn, who also left DeMarcus Cousins wide-open in the corner. Although Cousins only shot 35.4 percent from three last season (according to Basketball-Reference), both Baker and O’Quinn illustrated perfectly how disjointed their defense is. There wasn’t much strategy or even a contingency other than to simply “get in his way.” The three-ball is becoming more and more important to teams’ offensive schemes, so the Knicks ridding themselves of a glaring oversight would be in their best interest before the season begins. In short, don’t leave shooters open. Period.
It sounds noble, but the Pelicans ended the play with three points, and the only thing the Knicks got out of it was a broken face.
And what we can learn from the Tim Hardaway Jr. poster? When you’re in front just foul. Foul quickly.
The Terrible Moment: Worst Team Scandal
It was a season chock-full of strange shenanigans between Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley, but strangely enough, the Knicks didn’t have too many embarrassing moments off the court. However, the one they did suffer has had unrecoupable consequences.
During a heated practice, head coach Jeff Hornacek and center Joakim Noah reportedly needed to be physically separated. No one is saying that the spirit of Sprewell had possessed Noah, but it was reported that his displeasure was rooted in a lack of playing time. Following the incident, Noah was quite literally banished from play for the rest of the season. He still hasn’t returned to the team, even after Hornacek’s departure, and most recent reports make it clear that it’s unlikely he’ll be in a Knicks uniform again. The team is currently weighing its options to free themselves from the remaining years on Noah’s contract. It’s their biggest hurdle when it comes to clearing enough cap space to sign an All-Star caliber player in the coming years.
The Lesson: A rebuild is delicate
Drafting Porzingis seems to be the only lasting positive effect Phil Jackson has had on the Knicks. Even in that instance, everyone has been willing to give the credit elsewhere, but what have the Knicks learned? Well, the same thing they should have learned from acquiring Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets, as well as the trade for Andrea Bargnani from the Raptors: sudden, drastic changes can lead to disaster.
The ‘Melo trade, first and foremost, gutted the team. Then, when presented with another opportunity to at least compete, the team hindered themselves for years to come by trading a first-round pick, Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, and Quentin Richardson for Bargnani. The Knicks Wall’s Matt Spendley recently argued that Bargnani, at least statistically, wasn’t that bad when he played, but his lack of availability, coupled with the cost of a first-round draft pick, was still far too high of a price.
What stands out even more, was the team simply handing away Novak, an integral member of those playoff teams.
Far too often, the front office has scrambled to make changes that have ruined the franchise for years to come. Novak may not have been the scorer Bargnani was touted to be, but he didn’t have to be; he excelled as a sharpshooting forward in small-ball lineups for New York. Going forward, retention and careful, short-term deals with short-term consequences should be a tenant for the front office. So far, Scott Perry’s low risk philosophy has pleased everyone. Hopefully, they stick with it.
The Terrible Moment: Worst Collapse
Issues in one game are usually symptoms of a larger problem, and the Knicks collapses against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Washington Wizards last season are the closest thing to lesions I’ve seen outside of a hospital.
In both games, Hardaway Jr. went off. He scored 37 points against the Wizards in February and 39 points against the Wolves in March. Then, the team gave it all away, getting outscored in the last quarter that eventually led to the Knicks losing by five or fewer.
These losses are a little different than the “heartbreaker” against the Cavs. Instead of hope being crushed, the team became a swirling vortex of embarrassment. What could have been a nostalgic moment of, “Remember when Hardaway went TF off in those two games?” turned into a “wasted” bout of excitement. That’s actually a another pretty accurate metaphor for being a Knicks fan.
In each of those games, we both saw pedestrian assist numbers. Last season, the Knicks ranked 13th in assists per game with 9.8, yet were 21st in assist percentage. This firmly places the 2017–18 Knicks as a mediocre passing team. Even when Hardaway Jr. was hitting on all cylinders, the Knicks struggled tallying just 21 assists against the Wizards’ 31. As a symptom, the poor assist numbers may have plenty to do with poor shooting, but knowing that doesn’t give any clear answers either.
The Lesson: Passing needs to improve
When you look at THJ’s stat lines what do you see? I see pride, I see power, I see a bad ass motha who don’t take no crap off nobody. But it’s not about what I see, it’s about what you see.
I also see Trey Burke posting a 45.3 percent assist percentage during Hardaway Jr.’s hot game against the ‘Wolves in 31 minutes of action. Easily the best ball handler on the squad, Burke had a decent scoring game as well with 15 points. The value of chemistry between old running mates can be romanticized a bit much, but it’s proven true for the two Knicks who were the best players on Michigan’s most recent Fab Five.
We’ve beaten Trey Burke’s stats, 12 points and 4.7 assists on an efficient 50 percent shooting, into the ground, but it stands to reason that he does have a positive impact on the team with his ability to drive. This is just one facet of his game, but with a tenacious and physically gifted rookie in Kevin Knox, as well as the addition of Mario Hezonja, Burke will have a couple more targets to improve his assist numbers.
Ntilikina should look to do something similar by utilizing his long arms and newfound French Post skills to force the defense to collapse on plays where his defender is outmatched, or rather, outsized. Knox, if he is indeed given the chance to act as a ball handler, could have even better passing options. Frank might hit an open three in the corner. The point is, the Knicks can’t rely on someone getting hot whether it’s Porzingis or Hardaway Jr. Everyone needs to get involved.
The Terrible Moment: Porzingis’ injury
As stated earlier, that game against the Bucks was demoralizing for more than one reason. Porzingis’ season-ending injury was unexpected and his return is still a ways away. While the front office denies tanking for fear of reprimand by Adam Silver and waning sales, it’s clear that the Knicks won’t win very much in the upcoming season. The tragic injury tailspun the season into a series of losses reminiscent of the year Porzingis was drafted.
What we can learn from it
There isn’t a lot to learn from a misfortune, but the Knicks can use Porzingis recovery time to truly craft a balanced offense designed to foster growth in their players. This past season, Porzingis wasn’t just the sole player—he was a crutch. He complained, “I’m tired,” because he had a 31.1 percent usage percentage (eighth overall) while doubling as an elite rim protector on defense. The guy couldn’t catch a break.
With a roster filled with more potential than skill, Fizdale has the opportunity to create a culture from the ground up. He gets both a warm welcome and a clean slate going into the season. Even when Porzingis returns, he may be added into the mix as a primary gun, but this time under better terms, as Hornacek more or less used Porzingis as a blunt instrument last season. Fizdale could truly unlock his potential, and utilize him more efficiently than ever before.
Last season was filled with many more valleys than peaks, but that doesn’t mean the Knicks are a lost cause. Actually, hardship and adversity are when growth occurs, not when everything is going the way it should. “Losing builds character” may just be a corny adage folks use when kids get beat on, but it holds a grain of truth. The Knicks lost a lot, but if they can learn from their mistakes, they’ll be contenders in no time.