The Knicks are one of the few franchises lacking at point guard, save for a handful of stretches in team history. That’s still the case.
“The great point guards make everybody else better,” Stephon Marbury once said (maybe).
One takeaway from the New York Knicks’ improved offense as of late has been point guard Elfrid Payton. He put up 14 points, four rebounds, and five assists on 7-of-14 shooting against Golden State, then went for 16 points (7-13 FG, 13 in the second half) and a +19 in Sacramento. In interim head coach Mike Miller’s debut—a one-point home loss to Indiana—Payton posted nine points, seven assists, and three steals in 17 minutes. In the loss to Denver on Sunday, Payton registered 10 points and 11 assists with zero turnovers (though a -14).
After the Kings game, Miller said about Payton, per the New York Post: “Talk about a floor general—he was moving guys around, great job of clock management. He knew exactly where he wanted to go and kept us organized.”
Elfrid with a great pass ahead to a streaking RJ for the transition bucket pic.twitter.com/HdlaPdh1A4— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 14, 2019
The offense has undoubtedly looked more structured, and they’ve executed better in second halves as a result.
At 25, Payton is the most experienced point guard on the roster, and his return from injury offers another reminder of the potential impact of competent point guard play. (He was also largely responsible for some of the best basketball the Knicks played all season: the third quarter on opening night in San Antonio.) For the vast majority of the season, though, that has come few and far between, despite having four point guards on the roster.
That issue isn’t new to this year’s team, though. Payton’s recent bouts of fundamental orchestration had me thinking about the great Knicks point guards—but that train of thought lasted about one stop on the 7 line. Despite New York City’s legacy as a feeding ground for upstart point guards, they rarely end up actually playing for the ‘Bockers. My colleagues at The Knicks Wall even pointed out the other day that New York’s best floor generals of the decade are, precisely, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, and maybe Chris Duhon.
So, let’s look back on the Knicks history with point guards:
Dick McGuire wound up being a Hall of Famer who averaged 8.0 points and 5.7 assists per game for his career (it was a simpler time) and had his number retired by the Knicks.
In eight seasons in New York (1949–57), he made five All-Star teams and his deft passing and early-NBA handles (I’ve been told) sparked the team to three consecutive Finals appearances from 1951–53. Per his New York Times obit, “McGuire was a master of cutting and feinting and finding the open man. His nickname was Tricky Dick, a nod to the blind feeds and needle-threading bounce passes that became his trademark. His philosophy was the epitome of old-school team basketball; he preferred passing to shooting.. in passing, ball-handling, driving, setting up teammates and instinctive grasp of basketball movement, McGuire was supreme.”
To this day, McGuire ranks third all-time on the Knicks career assists list. Plus, he had a sweet set shot—the “home-team rooters love it.”
Walt “Clyde” Frazier
Clyde is far and away the best point guard in Knicks history, and the only true superstar player at the 1 the franchise has had. (I’m classifying his “Rolls Royce” backcourt mate Earl Monroe as a 2 guard).
Frazier made seven All-Star teams, seven All-Defensive first teams, and won two rings, of course, including arguably the greatest championship performances in the history of the sport—36 points, seven rebounds, 19 assists, and six steals in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals (aka “The Willis Reed Game”).
In 10 seasons with the Knicks, Clyde put up a 19.3 points, 6.3 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game as one league’s lockdown defenders. His average of 13.2 Win Shares per season from 1968–69 to 1974–75 was elite. Clyde was the oldest of nine and played quarterback and catcher in high school, so it’s no surprise that he excelled at leading a basketball team. Per his NBA.com Legends profile, “Frazier developed his playing philosophy very early on, according to his high school coach, and carried it with him to the pros: aggressive defense takes priority and hitting an open man is more productive than taking a wild shot.” Clyde’s size, versatility, and pick-and-roll savvy would translate well to the contemporary game. If only.
Micheal Ray Richardson
“Micheal Ray was a guy who played just like I played,” said Magic Johnson. I wrote a little about Micheal Ray when I picked my 1980’s All-Decade team. After Clyde’s departure, the Knicks took a flyer on Richardson with the fourth pick in the 1978 draft and, for a short period of time, it seemed like he might be fill Clyde’s Pumas. He played his first three-plus seasons in New York, which featured three All-Star selections and 18 triple-doubles. He led the league in assists (10.1) and steals (3.2) in his sophomore campaign, and basically posted 18, seven, and seven in 1981–82. At 6’5″, he could play three positions, set up his teammates, rebound, and carry the scoring load when necessary. He was traded in 1982 for Bernard King (defensible).
Richardson was banned from the league by David Stern in 1986 for violating the league’s drug policy, and his shortened career is one of the more regrettable (basketball) casualties of the early ‘80s NBA.
Brooklyn’s own has a case for the second-best point guard in franchise history. He was good right away out of St. John’s and filled a much-needed void for the team as they built around Patrick Ewing. Jackson won Rookie of the Year (the last Knick to do so), then made the All-Star team in his second year, leading the 1988–89 Knicks to one of their best regular seasons ever.
In Game 2 of that year’s Eastern Conference semi-finals, Jackson stuck his tongue out at Michael Jordan. Shockingly, this annoyed MJ, who turned the series around, averaging 41.3 points in the final four games.
Still, Jackson helped turn the Knicks into a playoff team and set up the franchise’s winning ways of the 1990’s before being dealt in 1992. The Knicks won 55% of their games over the five seasons during his first stint in New York (he returned in a limited role in 2000–02). Jackson sits fourth on the NBA’s dime list and second in Knicks history. The Knicks could use a dependable point guard like Jackson running the offense right now, as long it’s not actually Jackson doing it from the sidelines.
One of the most underrated players of his era, Harper was integral during his two-plus seasons in New York. He was a key cog on the 1994 Finals team, though his best NY season came in 1996 when he averaged 14.0 points per game and started in all 82 games. His Knicks stint came towards the end of his career, but Harper still delivered two of his finest defensive seasons (by Defensive Win Shares) while in New York.
Charlie Ward (and Chris Childs)
Two tough-nosed players I will always associate together from the late ‘90s Knicks.
Ward was never close to an All-Star, but the Heisman Trophy winner held down the fort. He played nine years with the Knicks and was a starter on the 1999 Finals team. He was a good three-point shooter for the era (36.4% career) and a gritty perimeter defender. Ward’s career high single-season scoring average was just 8.7 (2003–04), and he didn’t exactly pile up the assists, but he was perfect for the Van Gundy Knicks. For a defense-first team with other capable wing scorers, Ward could reliably play within the offense and make open shots. If you were to compare him to say, oh I don’t know, a quarterback, he would be slapped with the honorary Alex Smith “game manager” label.
Although, like Jackson, he may have cost them a playoff series—by initiating a legendary brawl with the Miami Heat in the 1997 Conference semi-finals.
Childs was primarily Ward’s backup from 1996–2001 and embodied the personality of those teams. He’s most fondly remembered for fighting Kobe Bryant and almost Michael Jordan. That’s leadership. (Also, basketball used to have a lot of brawls).
Ahh, Steph. Where to begin? Starbury is the most purely talented point guard the Knicks have had besides Clyde, but the stats and skills didn’t translate to wins. His Knicks tenure also saw about as much organizational dysfunction imaginable, and it’s hard to know how much of that is fair to pin on Marbury, though he certainly didn’t help the cause. From 2004–09, the New York native feuded with Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, and Mike D’Antoni (and probably more)—the latter of whom finally excommunicated him from the team.
Despite the above (possible) quote, Marbury never displayed an ability or the intangibles to make his teammates better, which was an issue because the front office was unable to construct a talented roster around him. In his best individual season for the Knicks, 2004–05, Marbury averaged nearly 29 and 11 assists per 100 possessions, good for 11.7 Win Shares. But Lenny Wilkens’ primary starting five for that team included Kurt Thomas, Tim Thomas, and Nazr Mohammed, so I can see why Steph was disgruntled. The Knicks never won more than 33 games in a season with Marbury.
Linsanity is the most exciting development in modern Knicks history. I still don’t totally understand how nobody (not just the Knicks) recognized his talent.
As with everything in the James Dolan era, though, things did not end well. Dolan was hurt that Lin pursued a lucrative contract offer from a better team, and he moved on to Houston. Lin is not a traditional point guard, but it would have been intriguing to see him get a crack as the Knicks point guard for a few years.
Raymond Felton (and Jason Kidd)
Have to throw these guys some love. When looking at the Knicks’ year-by-year Relative Offensive Rating, the top two slots are occupied by squads with Raymond Felton. The 2012–13 team, with Kidd, produced perhaps the best offense in franchise history, and the 2010–11 squad was boosted by Felton’s 17.1 points and nine assists in the 54 games he played in New York before the Carmelo Anthony trade.
Kidd’s positive impact in his lone (final) season in New York was evident. His late-career sharpshooting, ball movement, and tendency to push the pace were major factors in the 54-win season that still means so much to Knicks fans. Kidd usually started alongside Felton, and despite posting just a 6.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, his 5.4 Win Shares was fourth on the team (Felton’s was 4.2). Yes, Carmelo was the main reason for all the success, but the play of the backcourt allowed the team’s offense to flourish. Plus, When the Sandman is referring to the team as “Jason Kidd and the Knicks” at a Madison Square Garden concert, you know you’re making an impact.
Overall, the Knicks haven’t had many above-average offensive seasons in their history, but when they have, it can often be traced back to smart point guard play. After those two Felton seasons, the next eight spots on the that aforementioned Relative Offensive Rating List was recorded by teams featuring Mark Jackson, Clyde Frazier, or Dick McGuire running the show, plus one Dick Barnett team (also a great player, but more of a combo wing). Over the past 40 years, they’ve employed just one elite-level talent at the most sport’s important position.
The Knicks offense have been historically bad in recent years, and the carousel of journeymen running point has been a crippling culprit. As recently as 2015–16—a team with ‘Melo and KP—the Knicks started José Calderón 72 times. Derrick Rose, Ramon Sessions, inbound-pass thief Pablo Prigioni, Trey Burke, washed Chauncey Billups, Jarrett Jack, and others have made unremarkable cameos.
Now, with Miller saying he’s going to stick with a three-person point rotation, the carousel will keep spinning. “We really feel we have three guys we can go with that bring different things to the table,” That’s good in theory, but it also kind of feels like the classic “two quarterbacks” conundrum. It’s a trick spot for a coach on an interim basis and a front office on the hot seat: Payton has shown he can run the offense more effectively and probably win more games than his counterparts, but the organization is likely (and understandably) more interested in developing Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.
Maybe one of them will step up and solidify the offense—and the starting job. Or, maybe LaMelo Ball will be the answer. I’m sure that will go well.