What should each Knick look to do this summer to take their game to the next level?
Want to know the only thing in the word harder than defending LeBron James one on one? Try teaching a room full of eighth graders who are six weeks away from graduation and know that nothing they do from this point forward matters in the slightest. Marcus Morris, I’ll trade places with you any day.
The one nice thing about teaching eighth graders is that I don’t have to go through the aimlessness that is assigning summer homework. When you give summer work, you know damn well that the only kids doing it are the ones who’d probably be better served getting out of the house and breaking a window or two, just to mix it up a little. For the rest of the kids, you might as well be telling them to climb Everest. It’s just as likely to happen.
In the dog days that lie ahead, hopefully the New York Knicks have a slightly higher sense of urgency. All of the positive vibes that came with the Fizdale hire shouldn’t mask the fact that this roster is, um, well, not very good. Like many rosters in the NBA, it is a unit full of incomplete players—guys with definite skills but holes in their games that hold them back.
For some, the summer assignments are easy (Michael Beasley: stay off the weeeeduh; Damyean Dotson: send fruit baskets to the houses of all members of the new coaching staffs; Lance Thomas: watch lots of Draymond Green tape, apparently). For others though, it’s not quite as simple.
Frank Ntilikina: rent Boiler Room and then immediately go to Rucker Park
If you’re under the age of 25, you may not remember this not-quite-classic flick featuring a young Giovani Ribisi and a pre-caricature of himself Vin Diesel. It’s not a great movie, but there’s one scene in it that makes you feel as if you’re Thanos and the world is a finger-snap away from being putty in your hands. It’s when Ben Affleck—in essentially his only scene of the movie—gives the lowdown to a room of hungry young wanna-be stockbrokers. If you’ve never seen it, here’s the best gift you’ll ever get.
I was a tad younger than Frank Ntilikina when I first saw it, but I imagine it’ll have the same effect on him as it did me—he’ll watch it, and after doing so, feel like he’s the biggest swinging you-know-what in the NBA.
That’s where the Rucker comes in. There’s never been a more authentic proving ground in basketball. There’s no room for the kind of passivity Frank often showed this year once you hit the courts on West 155th and Fredrick Douglass Blvd. You go hard or you go home.
Davd Fizdale, who watched Ntilikina from afar this year, knows it, saying his young guard needs to get more aggressive. Sure, he also needs to bulk, up, work on his handles, and get his jumper right, but without a bit more of a scorer’s mentality, none of that will matter. Time to get some dog into the young Frenchman who doesn’t yet have a clue about how good he can really be.
Tim Hardaway Jr.: Purchase a rubber band
Have you ever had a bad habit? Mine is cursing too much (not the best one for a middle-school English teacher to have, although my students seem to appreciate it). NBA players have them too. LeBron bites his nails (gross), Steph Curry chews on his mouthpiece (equally gross), and Chris Paul belittles his teammates (I’m sure he thinks this is perfectly fine).
Tim Hardaway Jr. has a pretty nasty one of his own. Like many an irrational confidence guy before him, he always thinks the next shot is going in. To be a shooter in the NBA, you do need to have a short memory, but Timmy takes it one step too far. Even when he’s clearly not feeling it, THJ has no conscience. He keeps firing away. Sure, a guy like James Harden seemingly does the same thing, but he’s also led the league in both free throw attempts and makes four years running. Hardaway Jr. averages 3.1 per game—good for 72nd in the league.
Even worse, when the three just isn’t falling, instead of getting to the line more, he goes there even less. In the 23 games Tim made either zero or one deep ball this year, he’s averaged 2.2 free-throw attempts, and in only one of those games has he taken more than four shots from the charity stripe.
The frustrating part is that Hardaway Jr. is more than capable of getting to the line when he wants to, and it usually equates to winning. The Knicks were 6-4 this year when Tim got to the line at least six times, and three of those losses came by five points or fewer, all to playoff teams.
This isn’t to say he shouldn’t ever hoist it from deep. The Knicks were a .500 team in the 16 games Hardaway Jr. shot over 40 percent from downtown. When he’s feeling it, his shot is a weapon. When he’s not, it’s more than a hindrance; the Knicks went 11–30 in the games he shot 40 percent or less.
That’s where the rubber band comes in. Hardaway should wear it on his wrist on game days, and his first three-point miss gets a snap. His second gets two…and so on and so forth. If it equates to even one miss per game being replaced by a drive to the hoop (Hardaway averaged only 5.2 a game this season, tied for 119th in the league), it could pay huge dividends for a team looking to him to be a leader for most of this season.
Troy Williams and Ron Baker: buy a bunk bed, and then lock yourself in an empty gym for three months
After a season that ended with a less than inspiring 29 wins, there weren’t many Knicks to end up at the top of many individual statistical leaderboards. Go figure that Ron Baker and Troy Williams were the exception.
Among the 414 players who played in at least 20 games this year, Baker and Williams finished fourth and sixth in deflections per 36 minutes, respectively. Given that new coach David Fizdale has specifically mentioned deflecting passes multiple times as something he expects his defenses to do, it would seem that both the Baker and Williams (who Fiz coached in Memphis) would be guys in line to get a healthy dose of minutes.
There’s only one sliiiiiight issue: neither can shoot worth a damn. Both hit their long range attempts at an identical 33 percent clip with the Knicks last season, which isn’t terrible, but came on just 66 attempts combined in 46 games between the two of them.
For Knicks fans who just watched Philly accelerate their process, you might have noticed Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell playing pivotal roles. If Williams and Baker could up their shooting numbers from distance, those are the types of comps we’re looking at.
If Williams and Baker can spend the entire summer in the gym and hoist 500 threes a day, it would be a game changer. Even if they can just get close to 40 percent from the corners, each will become players Fizdale will loathe taking off the court.
Emmanuel Mudiay: Watch tape of the 2015 NBA Draft (and maybe read a self-help book or two)
He was big. He was fast. He had handles. And oh, could he ever attack the rim.
There was a reason Emmanual Mudiay was at one time considered the top prospect at any position in his draft class, and why even after a mostly uneventful stint in China, a healthy segment of the Knicks fan base was disappointed when the team selected a lanky Latvian over a guy who seemed to be the next John Wall.
It’s staggering to think that this was less than three years ago. Forget getting an asset back; if the Knicks decided to move on from Mudiay this summer after acquiring him from Denver in February, they might have trouble finding a team to simply willing to take on the final year and $4.2 million of his rookie deal.
His stint in Denver (which, much like Utah did with Trey Burke, saw the team draft a possible replacement after a rookie year filled with several positives) did nothing to help his confidence. Being thrust into a role he probably wasn’t ready for in New York didn’t make matters any better. At this point, Emmanuel Mudiay would be better off extinguishing the last three years completely from his memory.
Does he need to work his ass off, as his new coach not so shyly suggested? Absolutely, starting with a jumper that’s clunkier than Frankenstein’s monster. More than anything though, Mudiay needs to get his swagger back. The last three years had to be humbling, none more so than last season. Now it’s time to remember why New Yorkers were so upset the Knicks passed on him in the first place. Go back, re-watch draft night, and remember: you were the next big thing.
Mudiay is still just 22 years old. Crazier things have happened.
Courtney Lee and Trey Burke: Watch every Houston Rockets game from this season
The same assignment goes to two players who had very different years but need to work on the same thing nonetheless.
Before Courtney Lee’s effort started to wane in January (and that’s putting it politely), while he obviously wasn’t the Knicks best player, he might have been their most consistent two-way performer on a night to night basis. The same could be said of Burke once he got his call up to the big leagues. Many complained about his defense, but he tried hard and was generally a pest, and had the ex-head coach praising him for his defensive effort on a nightly basis.
All in all, both players had solid years, but that doesn’t change the fact that their shot profile was something out of the early 80s.
For Courtney Lee, this is nothing new. He’s been in the top 20 percentile of all wings in the ratio of shots he’s taken from the midrange in each of the past five season according to Cleaning the Glass. This season, 28 percent of his shots were long midrangers, a figure that put him in the top 10 percent of wings league-wide.
While that’s bad, in comparison to Burke, Lee might as well be Daryl Morey’s spirit animal. Young Iverson took a whopping 37 percent of his shots from the long midrange, which is in the top percent of all combo guards in the NBA.
On one hand, it’s tempting to say don’t fix what isn’t broken. Each player had an outstanding year shooting the ball (both men had a 56 true shooting percentage) but their lack of threes and shots at the rim in comparison to their peers is borderline archaic.
With Barney Rubble out and the analytics-savvy David Fizdale in, one would figure this might change. Still, it’s going to take a high degree of trust from each player to change something that seemed to be working, even if it is antithetical to everything else we’ve come to know about the modern game.
Enes Kanter: Read Raisin in the Sun, do a book report on Walter
In the classic play by Loraine Hansberry, life puts Walter Lee Younger through the ringer before he finally realizes that some things are more important than money. Family, pride, and most of all, a connection to who you are at your core all take precedence over the number of zeroes in one’s bank account.
Adopting the same ethos is the only chance that Enes Kanter won’t be a member of the Knicks next season.
There’s no doubt that Kanter’s new agent, the well-connected and equally well-informed Mark Bartelstein, has told his client that there is precisely zero chance he’d recoup the $18.6 million he’s set to make this year. If the Turkish big man opts out, he’d surely be banking on a long term deal, albeit at less annual dollars—say, three years and something in the neighborhood of $36 million as an absolute bottom line.
The problem is that finding the team to give him even that much will be tough. Of the teams with the requisite cap space to offer such a deal, the Lakers and Sixers have their sights set on far grander targets, the Bulls and Nets have Robin Lopez and Jared Allen, respectively, and the Hawks have made their tanking plans for the next few seasons abundantly clear.
That leaves the Mavs and Suns. Dallas is known for taking flawed players and playing up their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. They’re also a smart enough organization to know that a player like Kanter, even maximized to the fullest, wouldn’t see the floor in the conference finals currently taking place (if there’s any doubt about that, pay attention to how many minutes Greg Monroe and Zaza Pachulia play in either series).
Then there is Phoenix, who is always ripe for an overpay, and is in need of a big man. They’re also in the pole position for the lottery, and DeAndre Ayton went to school down the block.
The dollars and cents adds up to another season in a Knicks uniform for Kanter, which will make some people very happy, and will make others (excitedly raises hand like the brown-noser in the front row) left counting the days until he is no longer blocking smaller, more modern lineups from taking the floor.
No one should be too upset though. If Fizdale can transform Kanter into even a passable defender, some team might actually covet him at the trade deadline as an expiring contract who could play some backup center in the playoffs. And besides, there are worse players to have stuck on your roster for the upcoming season at a cost that far outweighs their production.
(Was that a subtle enough dig at ‘Melo? No? I’ll work on that for next time.)
Kristaps Porzingis: Get Better
That’s it. Just get healthy. Please. If you don’t, nothing else matters.