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  • The New York Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn Conundrum

The New York Knicks’ Kyle O’Quinn Conundrum

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
What will the Knicks do with Kyle O’Quinn in the offseason? What CAN they do? And how will O’Quinn, who’s carved out a niche with his hometown squad, control his own destiny?

Like many good Catholic boys in the tri-state area, I spent my four years of college life in the friendly confines of Fordham University’s Bronx campus. I have so many wonderful, lifelong memories from that time, most of which I don’t remember, but perhaps the spot where more of those memories occurred than anyplace else was Pugsley’s Pizza.

Pugsley’s was a bit of an anomaly. It was a free-standing building set about 30 feet back from the street, with the space in between occupied by what can only be described as a cross between a used car lot and a junkyard. “Kitschy” doesn’t begin to characterize the inside, which is to say the walls were covered with a mish-mosh of random paraphernalia. The level of flair would put Jennifer Aniston to shame.

Sal Pugsley, the owner, is impossible to properly portray using only the words in the English language. If there were a picture accompanying “old-school pizzeria owner” in the dictionary, that dude would play the straight man next to Sal.

The pizza was…good. Very good, even. It wasn’t great by any means, but it was dependable and consistent. You knew what you were going to get, you were always happy with it, and when combined with everything else that Pugsley’s was, it just made it special. I’m sure every campus across the country has their own such place, but to anyone who’s been lucky enough to enjoy it’s confines, Pugsley’s is one of a kind.

Kyle O’Quinn is the Pugsley’s Pizza of the New York Knicks.


I know, I know…we all love Kyle. How can you not? Even if he never got into a game and our only exposure to him was limited to seeing his exploits from the bench on the rare occasions a Knicks player does something exciting on the court, we’d all be hooked.

Some guys wave towels. O’Quinn is a human wild ‘n’ wacky inflatable tube man. He’s also a chameleon. One minute he’s an Irish step dancer, the next he’s a cameraman on a Hollywood set, and the next he’s operating heavy artillery. If our parents got half as excited when we did something good growing up as Kyle gets for his teammates, then the psychotherapy profession would cease to exist.

It comes as no surprise that drumming up support for K.O. has become a cottage industry amongst the most fervent members of the fan base for a while now. Sadly, it seems as if those days have been coming to a close. There is a tacit acceptance that O’Quinn will opt out of his 2018–19 player option, dip his toe into the anxious waters of free agency, and quickly find a new home for his wacky exploits.

At first glance, you could question his wisdom. Winter is here for NBA salaries, and nowhere is it colder than in the land of traditional big men, who may be huddled up somewhere far north of the wall come late July. Still, O’Quinn is making a scant $4.2 million. Ron Baker (love you Ron, get better soon!) makes more.

It’s tough to gauge exactly where Kyle’s market value lies. Going by last summer’s signings is a bit precarious, as there was still some residual Monopoly-money-type-spending happening after the 2016 cap spike. It’s instructive to see that Dewayne Dedmon’s contract of two years, $14 million—lauded at the time—is still seen as good value. Dedmon stretches the floor out to the three-point line but is an inferior player in just about every other area.

Debating O’Quinn’s actual on-court impact is tricky. For starters, he only averages 17 minutes, a hair under seven points, about five and a half boards and two assists per game. ESPN’s PER has him as the 18th best center in the league, but it also has Enes Kanter third, JaVale McGee 10th, and the immortal Willie Reed 19th.

The more interesting stuff with K.O. comes when you quantify all the stuff that fans watching him game-in, game-out see on a nightly basis. His passing, for instance, is elite at his position. According to Cleaning the Glass, O’Quinn’s assist rate of 17 percent is in the 90th percentile for all big men this season. Proving that the offense moves through Kyle more than you might think, his assist to usage ratio is in the 93rd percentile of bigs. In other words, that means O’Quinn passes very effectively relative to the duration of time he has the ball in his hands.

Just look at this dude… it’s like watching Magic Johnson with a beard:

What about when he shoots it? The big guy checks that box too—O’Quinn’s points per shot attempt are in the 85th percentile for his position, aided by his shooting a semi-scorching 71 percent on shots at the rim. Throw in his block rate of 3.5 percent (92nd percentile among bigs) and you realize that everyone’s favorite bench jester is actually, you know, good at basketball.

To put this all into context, the only three centers in the NBA with a higher assist ratio than O’Quinn are Nikola Jokic, Al Horford—widely regarded as the two best playmaking pivot men in the game—and Pau Gasol, who’s not too shabby himself. Of those four, O’Quinn’s true-shooting percentage of 63.6 is easily the highest. Maybe it’s not an accident after all that, according to box score plus-minus stat (BPM), K.O. has been the best Knick two seasons running.

So how high a dollar amount should we be thinking about for the bearded one? Kelly Olynyk is a backup center who doesn’t bring much (other than abjectly dirty play) on defense but is someone opposing teams game plan around when he’s on the court. That’s not the case with the lovable Queens product. As a result, O’Quinn won’t sniff the four years and $50 million the Heat gave Olynyk last summer, but it’s a ceiling that Kyle can at least gaze out into the distance and point towards.

It’s fair to say that an appropriate annual average value for Kyle’s forthcoming salary is somewhere in the range of $7–9 million, depending on the length of the deal. Welcome to the NBA, where the bad times mean eating your lobster out of a paper plate.

So yes, he’s not opting in. That leaves the Knicks with a simple question: is Kyle O’Quinn worth bringing back?

As with any free agent, the answer lies in the nitty gritty, and really comes down to the NBA’s eight-letter word: Cap Space. (Technically two words. Let’s move on…)

As you can see from the Knicks’ current salary cap situation, O’Quinn’s deal would likely mean very little for the year ahead, as it would take New York from just under the projected cap to just over the threshold. Even if they had more to spend, New York wouldn’t figure to be suitors for any primo free agents, what with them rolling around on the ground attempting to snuff out the flames from the trash fire that the 2017–18 season has turned into.

Could things change? Of course. Enes Kanter could get some Bernie Madoff–level financial advice and opt out of his own player option. They could also find a team willing to give up a small asset for Courtney Lee, although the likelihood of matching salary not coming back in the deal is quite low. If you think Joakim Noah’s contract is moveable, I’d like to speak to you about some investment property I have stretched across the East River. The views are spectacular.

So basically, absent Kanter opting out, the Knicks will not be buyers.

For argument’s sake, let’s say Enes does test the free agent waters in the hopes of landing in Los Angeles so he can co-star alongside LeBron in America’s next great buddy comedy, Turkey for Dinner (Thursday nights on FOX!).

In that case, the temptation for the Knicks would be to make a play for one of this summer’s mid-tier restricted free agents. Julius Randle’s name has been tossed around, as has Marcus Smart’s (or maybe that’s just me playing catch with myself). Debating the merits of either player is for a different column on another day, but it’s reasonable to suggest New York’s interest would be warranted:

Chart courtesy of @KnickFilmSchool

Even if that were the case, we see here that signing O’Quinn to a market-value deal (let’s say three years, $26 million) wouldn’t impact their ability to put out an offer sheet starting at $11.5 million annually. Such a number would be both smart for the organization and high enough for the home team to at least think about not matching.

Now that we’ve gone through all that, it’s again worth pointing out: the likelihood of all of these dominoes falling is slim at best.

The real concern with a new O’Quinn deal lies with the team’s financials 16 months from now, not this summer. If New York re-signed K.O. to even the market-friendly deal we’ve proposed, it would virtually eliminate the possibility of them having max cap space to work with in the summer of 2019:

Chart courtesy of @KnickFilmSchool

If the Knicks made no other signings, stretched Noah, held off on inking Porzingis to his extension past the rookie-scaled contract, waived Lance Thomas, renounced Emmanuel Mudiay’s cap hold, and moved Courtney Lee for no returning salary, an O’Quinn extension means they would just be able to offer a max contract to someone with seven to nine years of NBA experience, like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, for example.

Unfortunately for some time now, if free agency were a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, the Knicks hippo is the malfunctioning one that catches balls slower than Paulie from Goodfellas answers the door from an upstairs bedroom. It hasn’t gone well.

Are we really to believe that an All-NBA-caliber free agent is going to come to a 20-something-win Knicks team? It’s possible. The NBA on TNT asking me to anchor their post-game coverage for the NBA Playoffs is also possible. However, I am not waiting by the phone.

Still, when you’re one of 30 teams competing for one prize, “possible” is a thing that you don’t discount lightly. Is it worth taking “possible” and turning it into “only if you pull off Aly Raisman–level salary cap gymnastics” for a backup center who, should you ever be lucky enough to get to an NBA Finals, probably wouldn’t see the court for more than 10 minutes a game.

This is ultimately what the Kyle O’Quinn question comes down to; even all those fancy stats we went through, by themselves, wouldn’t justify the risk. But O’Quinn’s presence on this team moving forward is about way more than just stats.

He is, in short, the heart of this Knicks team. For a losing roster that’s part of a losing organization, that might not mean as much as Tim Duncan meant to the Spurs or Dirk means to the Mavs, but it means something. O’Quinn has never made an effort to hide how much he likes playing for the team he grew up rooting for, or how nice it is to be close to his family (I still shed a tear at his Beginnings episode every time it’s on. Don’t act like you haven’t).

After Lance Thomas, Kyle O’Quinn is tied with Kristaps Porzingis as the longest tenured Knick on the team. Roster continuity is an under appreciated tenet of success in the NBA. Unless you can build a super team over the course of a long July weekend or you employ a wizard for a coach, having the same guys around to foster institutional memory has enormous value.

Well who the hell would want to remember or reinforce anything from the last three seasons? It’s a fair question. It’s also fair to ask what it would say to the team’s current and future core if the front office didn’t prioritize someone who is clearly part of the solution, not the problem, in every sense of the word.

If you’re still undecided, two bits of logistical minutiae: first, while bringing back O’Quinn on a fair, market deal might not make him an asset, it also wouldn’t mean he couldn’t be moved. If the Knicks did find themselves in a situation where they needed to move money fast, finding a taker for the remaining two years of O’Quinn’s deal likely wouldn’t be impossible (especially if the final year were only partially guaranteed, something that is becoming more palatable in the NBA’s current financial climate).

Second, and most importantly, the Knicks future currently lies with a large Latvian who is not only walking already but has apparently taken a vow of chastity in his quest to return to the court even more mythically powerful than before.

However, perhaps the practice of sending this very tall human running out to recover on shooters behind the three-point line on a regular basis isn’t the wisest of ideas. It was a bit silly before the ACL tear; after it, it seems downright foolish.

When he returns, whether he likes it or not, Kristaps Porzingis is going to have to get cozy with the idea of playing more center than he ever has before. There will also be times, of course, when it makes sense to play him alongside another big.

Enes Kanter, bless his goofy soul, does not see himself as a part-time starter, and his contract demands (whenever he does hit free agency) will reflect as much. Our own Harrison Liao did a fantastic job explaining why Kanter’s long-term fit alongside KP is a clunky one. This should come into play when considering O’Quinn, too.

It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Porzingis and O’Quinn start games alongside one another, taking turns defending the perimeter against small-ball fours, before Kyle gets the quick hook in favor of an undersized power forward of New York’s own (Troy Williams and everyone’s favorite tweener, Lance Thomas, come to mind). When the Unicorn hits the bench, O’Quinn returns to man the middle in the former’s absence.

It isn’t a no-brainer by any stretch. As wallets tighten league-wide, there will be seven-foot bargains to be had, many of whom can probably offer a reasonable facsimile of what O’Quinn brings to the table at half the cost or less. Some might even be able to space the floor a bit. Hell, Luke Kornet could probably give the team 15 good minutes a night in the few years before Porzingis takes on playing center full time. They also may be in a position to draft DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Marvin Bagley III—any of whom would change the equation in the frontcourt.

This is exactly the type of tough decision Scott Perry was brought aboard to make. Signing a Troy Williams or a Trey Burke to a multi-year, partially guaranteed minimum deal after they’ve proven they belong looks great, but it’s nothing more than a sign of basic front office competence. For the Knicks, that’s progress, but there’s still plenty that needs to be done.

We’ve heard this brass talk about culture for months. They not only want it to mean something, but they want fans to believe it’s more than just a tag line. That it has meaning. They want us to think things have changed.

If O’Quinn is the next Knick out the revolving door, those words become that much harder to sell. Time to step up and put your money where your mouth is.

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