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  • Monday Musings: Aggressive Frank, Muddy Mudiay & More

Monday Musings: Aggressive Frank, Muddy Mudiay & More

Photo: Bailey Carlin/TKW Illustration
This week’s Monday Musings deals with a repentant ‘Bockers team blowing out Charlotte AND having time to play the young guys, the Mudiay hurdle, and much more.

Knicks Record: 1–2 on the week, 25–45 overall
Upcoming schedule: 3/19 vs. Bulls (24–45), 3/21 @ Heat (37–33), 3/23 vs. T’Wolves (40–31), 3/25 @ Wizards (40–30)

As the season mercifully draws to a close, the Knicks continue to play out the string. Unlike in years past, though, there seems to be more riding on these last few handfuls of meaningless games than normally would for a team headed to another 50-loss conclusion.

Here’s a look at the top stories surrounding New York at the moment.


1. Frank gettin’ after it

Maybe it was the fact that he was playing against Malik Monk, who’s made no secret of the fact that he thought the Knicks should draft him. Or maybe he’s just pissed off hearing everyone complain about what he isn’t all the damn time.

Whatever it is that got into Frank Ntilikina on Saturday night, the Knicks have to bottle it up, replicate it, and start pouring it in his Gatorade when he’s not looking.

The version of Ntilikina we saw was what many fans have wanted to witness all year. He was aggressive, he was decisive, and he didn’t play like a kid who was looking over his shoulder. He knew it too:

As a reward for his career-high 15-point performance, Jeff Hornacek took Frankie Smokes out of a game the Knicks had in hand with seven minutes remaining so Jarrett Jack could show his fellow AARP members that age really is just a number. You had to laugh. Or cry.

It didn’t matter. In 21 minutes, the Knicks had enough time to remind everyone that they didn’t draft a tentative, uncertain guard who doesn’t have the skills to play at this level. Quite differently, they drafted a teenager who wasn’t raised on the AAU circuit and is still figuring out what it means to get yours in a league where no one is going to give you a damn thing.

Here’s hoping there’s more to come in the next three weeks; Ntilikina hasn’t taken more than 12 shots in a game all year (he took just eight on Saturday). In comparison, Dennis Smith Jr. has taken more than that amount on 40 separate occasions. Donovan Mitchell has taken under 12 shots only 11 times.

This isn’t the way Frank is used to playing, and it never will be, at least not to the extent of his fellow classmates from the 2018 draft. But there’s a balance to be had. He’s talked about finding it all year. This was a step in the right direction.

2. Mudiay muddying the waters

Many would say part of the reason Frank hasn’t found more consistency is the way the coaching staff has used him this year, and especially since the acquisition of Emmanuel Mudiay.

Before the trade deadline, Ntilikina’s assist percentage was 24.7, meaning he got almost a quarter of the team’s dimes when he was on the floor. That number has dipped to 13.5 since the trade—unsurprising given how often Ntilikina has shared the court with either Mudiay or Trey Burke over the last 15 games. Frank’s usage rate has also dropped from 17.7 to 15.8.

The idea of playing the young Frenchman at the 2 has gotten a lot of attention. Some think it’s his long term position, others think it’s evidence that the front office has already given up on a player they didn’t draft. Both are short-sighted.

If Scott Perry and Co. did decide to move on from the second youngest player in the NBA, they’d be giving up on someone that Mavs coach Rick Carlisle called a “foundational” piece for the franchise, for example.. The front office isn’t stupid; they may not know exactly what they have in Ntilikina, but they know they have something good. His exact position is meaningless—in a league where having multiple ball handlers is the wave of the future, Frank’s going to be one of them.

As for him getting the shaft in favor of Mudiay, there’s some logic to giving the former Nugget all the time he can handle at the point guard spot. Mudiay was one of the worst players in the league in Denver, but in New York…well, actually he’s still been pretty terrible.

It’s wise, then, for the Knicks to figure out what they have in Mudiay sooner rather than later. He’s extension eligible this summer, and if New York can decide one way or another whether to invest another year in Mudiay’s development before the end of this season, it’s a win, regardless of what they choose.

Still, there’s 48 minutes in a basketball game. If you let Mudiay run point for half of that, it still leaves more than enough time for Frank and Burke (the latter looking more and more like a solid backup point guard in the league). Ntilikina played just under 30 minutes total in the two games prior to the Hornets win. That simply can’t happen anymore.

3. You play…to win…the game…

A lot of fans checked their phones at some point late Saturday night and—in their drunken stupor—probably let out an expletive or two in reaction to the score. The Knicks, losers of nine straight, won a game. As a result, they fell back to the ninth spot in the lottery odds after finally squeaking past the Bulls for eighth just days earlier. What a cruel world we live in.

Ping pong balls in the NBA Draft Lottery are good; for every Donovan Mitchell, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard, there’s a plethora of late lottery picks you never hear about because they turned out to not be very good at basketball. The higher you draft, the better player you’re likely to get. This much isn’t really in dispute.

That said, maximizing the Knicks’ lottery odds would have meant ending the season on a 22-game losing streak. Such a conclusion to a once promising season would certainly have moved them up a few notches in the most depressing pecking order on earth.

It shouldn’t matter. The win came as a result of strong efforts mostly from players who will be here next year, and a few who figure to be around even longer than that. Scott Perry has talked openly of how hard it is to eliminate a culture of losing once it seeps into a locker room (he should know: he spent most of the last six years in Orlando).

It’s easy to say that one win won’t make a difference, and that more wins would continue to do more harm than good. Both are valid arguments on paper.

But the NBA doesn’t exist on paper. Locker rooms are real workplaces filled with real people that derive value—just like you and me—in knowing they don’t completely suck at their jobs. Hearing Frank after the game shows that there is value to be had in a seemingly meaningless win. It’s not logical; it’s life.

4. Dead man walking?

It’s tough to get a read on where either the Knicks’ players or front office stand as far as Jeff Hornacek is concerned.

The usual grumbling that comes out of a losing locker room has largely been absent this season—a welcome change from years past. Other than the recent news that the men in charge demanded that Mudiay take over as the team’s starting point guard post–All-Star break, the front office seems aligned with the coach as well.

So what are we to make of a man who has befuddled fans with inconsistent rotations and an insistence on playing lineups that are proven to fail?

(Case in point: since Kristaps Porzingis went down, Hornacek has played Enes Kanter and Michael Beasley together for an average of 15 minutes a night. According to Cleaning the Glass, lineups featuring that combo are in the bottom percent of all NBA five-man units in defensive rating and in the bottom two percent of the league in net rating. The sample size of 468 minutes is far from insignificant, too.)

Is it hard to coach a bad roster of mostly incomplete players? Of course. Does the front office want him to try and keep winning games, making the decision to play his vets more understandable? Sure. Is it probably detrimental to play all of the kids together and let the games turn into one bad Keystone Cops routine after another? There’s an argument to be made that it is.

None of that changes the fact that Jeff Hornacek is making decisions that stretch the boundaries of logic. Aside from the back-to-back games relegating Frank Ntilikina largely to the bench and not providing him with many opportunities to run point, he fluctuates game to game in ways that don’t add up.

Troy Williams has been exactly the type of high-effort, defensive playmaker the Knicks claim they want more of on the roster, yet he got only six minutes in the recent home loss to Toronto and, curiously, didn’t get off the bench against Philly last week. The fact that the lack of playing time against the Raptors came off of his best game as a Knick (25 minutes and 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting) only made it more confusing.

Damyean Dotson—the type of player the Knicks should be giving time to, as three-and-D wings don’t exactly grow on trees these days—has cracked the 10 minute mark just once in the last month. Fellow rookie Luke Kornet, a.k.a. cheap labor, didn’t see the court versus the Sixers one game after giving the team 33 mostly useful minutes against Toronto filling in for injured center Enes Kanter.

The point from the last section about locker rooms having a pulse remains, and as such, no one should be calling for all the vets to ride the pine. That said, there has to be not only a better balance but also more consistency to the way these players are being used.

5. Jerami Grant: a player to watch

Too often, fans focus only on how an organization will acquire the next superstar. It’s a star-driven league, and getting one is indeed the greatest challenge for any team. It isn’t the only challenge though, and good organizations show us every day that moves on the fringes are what separate great teams from the ones that fall just (or far) short of expectations. Hitting on players that won’t make headlines but will help you win basketball games is a huge part of the equation.

Zach Lowe spotlighted just such a player in his recent 10 Things column. Jeremi Grant—brother of former Knicks Jerian Grant—has been something of a revelation for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. Lowe details how Grant’s versatility allows him to play everything from a small-ball five to an oversized shooting guard. Fans may see eight points and four rebounds a night and roll their eyes, but make no mistake: Grant is exactly the type of player every team wishes it had.

A young, improving, versatile player hitting the market before the age of 25 is a rarity in the league these days, and he’ll have no shortage of suitors. One would figure his asking price will start above the midlevel exception—at least. The Knicks would be wise to find out what it is.

I recently wrote about the wisdom of bringing Kyle O’Quinn back into the fold if he opts out, as he’s expected to. If they did, it would likely preclude any chance at signing Grant. The two would also be a bit duplicitous on the current roster, as Grant’s versatility is a lot more useful if he’s manning the middle in super-small lineups, and the Knicks still have too many centers than they know what to do with.

Grant would make for a perfect starting frontcourt partner with Porzingis—someone who can man the perimeter on defense but play the role of nominal center on offense as KP feasts from all over the court. O’Quinn would sop up the remaining minuted when either hits the bench.

For now, this would seem to be a pipe dream, as despite his vague wafflings, Kanter seems smart enough not to light money on fire, and should opt in. If, however, there were a chance to salary dump Courtney Lee to open up cap space to sign Grant and retain O’Quinn, it’s an option New York should consider. It would mean another season with too many big men, and that’s without considering Joakim Noah, who still exists, somewhere out there in the ether.

It shouldn’t matter. The front office seems to have its eyes on 2019 and beyond. Despite eating up precious cap space, this move would align perfectly with that vision. Good salary is always movable, and barring a gross overpay, Grant is the type of player who can always be easily traded if need be. Here’s hoping they look into him when the time comes.

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