On a Team Going Young, the Knicks’ Vets Have Some Wisdom Left to Pass to Porzingis, Ntilikina & More
Lance Thomas is now the Knicks’longest-tenuredd player. The 29-year-old swingman found success as a Knick after being a throw-in from the 2015 deadline trade which moved J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland. Prior to that, Thomas was the recipient of several 10-day contracts before ultimately signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Suffice to say, Thomas was nothing particularly special until he found a place where he could make good use of his talents.
A Brooklyn native, Thomas was a NCAA champion during his time at Duke University. The Knicks’ MSG Network broadcast never let us forget that. The championship pedigree gave him a slight bump in appeal. He started off his career on the New Orleans Pelicans/Hornets as an efficient scorer (47 percent and almost nine points per game in three seasons) The Hornets/Pelicans were awful though! Led by former Knicks’ draft pick-turned coach Monty Williams during Thomas’s stint, the Pelicans/Hornets did their own share of tanking in the post Chris Paul era. Playing in the stacked Western Conference, the losing was palpable, however, the result of tanking was Anthony Davis.
Having played on a lowly team in the midst of finding its identity, Thomas is a perfect fit for this imperfect, transitional period the Knicks are approaching. What do the older, veteran players on New York have to provide a young, developing team?
Lance Thomas is the longest tenured ‘Bocker, let’s see him grow into a vocal leader for younger players
Thomas missed games last year with injuries to his foot and then a fracture to his face. When he did play, getting into a groove as a perimeter shooter was rough. Thomas ’health this season is key, considering leading a team of youngsters is first and foremost about actually playing with them.
Given the Knicks are going to be heavily dependent on Kristaps Porzingis, the veterans on this roster are going to have to be diligent in monitoring their wear and tear. KP is no stranger to missing time himself. Obviously, you can’t avoid or predict freak injuries like the elbow to the face Thomas took. What you can do, however, is be proactive about making the most of your minutes.
If he’s not fully healthy, I’d prefer Thomas rest and be in the ears of Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Doug McDermott, and even the eclectic Beasley, who’s a year younger. In the preseason, we saw Ramon Sessions beckon Frank Ntilikina to sit next to him. That instruction from a veteran is a big deal when you’re getting beat up night after night.
We don’t know how much interaction players have with each other outside of Instagram posts and Snapchat stories. Although from here onward, Thomas’ voice lends itself to being pragmatic in conveying patience to young guys who are here to win games.
Courtney Lee: a mentor to young wings, or perhaps a viable trade asset
The one thing I struggle with when it comes to Courtney Lee is how much more valuable he is as an asset. When he’s on fire, he’s a bright spot on the floor. With the Knicks’ current situation, the fact of the matter is Lee is the type of veteran asset a fringe contender would love to have.
Lee recently turned 32. Having already played with contenders, this is a point where many players are on the deal where it’s the last major money to be made in the league. It’s also the age where a lot of them have a “fork in the road” moment — either take less money to get a ring or squeeze money out of a franchise seeking a consummate professional.
The Knicks offer Lee intriguing upside: playing with KP and Frankie Smokes for the rest of his career. Damyean Dotson is the other young Knick who showed promise in the preseason. Tim Hardaway Jr. referred to the rook as a “sponge”; after his 17 point performance, Dotson made mention of his locked-in behavior from watching Lee. Sporting a six-foot-nine wingspan, Dotson has the length to mature into a good-borderline-great defender. Lee taking Dotson under his wing and teaching the details of defensive schemes can cement that Knicks’ goal of shifting to a more defensive-minded franchise. Even Hardaway Jr. can learn a thing or two from Lee. The problem is Lee’s due nearly $25 million over the next two seasons. Once the Knicks have a plan in place, the combined salary in Lee and Joakim Noah’s contracts don’t give New York many options in free agency for a competitive small forward.
Assuming Lee can string together games where he’s proficient as a shooter, he becomes an attractive player for teams making a second half push for the playoffs. In receiving late firsts or stocking up on second round picks, Lee’s most important role as a Knick could be facilitating a trade that sets the future up for spry players to run with KP and Frank. (Preseason darling Kyle Kuzma, for example, was a late first round pick yielded by Brooklyn in the infamous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade with Boston before that pick headed to L.A. in the D’Angelo/Brook Lopez deal.)
Noah’s motivation can influence the bigs
I’ve previously discussed how integral Noah is to KP’s growth exclusively and to the team as it pertains to the media. Every team has that old head that’s there to keep his foot on the other guys’ necks. It’s easy to poke fun at Noah’s clapping. But every New Yorker knows when you want to get your point across, you clap with authority.
On the court, Noah demonstrates hustle and grit. If he can play effective minutes like David West and Vince Carter, Noah can certainly help the big men weather the storm.
Willy Hernangómez has a great career ahead of him, but right now, all he and KP know is losing. That’s not a mentality you want a young player to get used to. You don’t want him to become a cynic or jaded by it either. Both Noah and Thomas can show the bigs how to manage the space between optimism and sacrifice. This emotional maturity will be critical when it comes to both of them hitting free agency without the shackles.
Ramon Sessions is guiding the future point guard
Sessions has averaged almost 11 points per game in the span of his decade-long career. At his best as a player, he held a 46 percent field-goal percentage, per Basketball-Reference. He’s not going to “wow” you, but it’s hard to say if Frank will be the type of guard that wows people, too. For now, Sessions is here to help the Knicks’ future guard adjust to NBA offenses and learn to read defenses. With the speed and athletic ability of guards today, you have to be able to see a move from Irving, Lillard, Curry, or Westbrook before they even commit to it. That type of foresight comes from being under the tutelage of someone who’s done it.
The Knicks are a good case study in showing how you can’t rely solely on trades to get through a rebuild. The league’s unpredictability doesn’t exist without veterans who understand the necessary evil of tanking. The Spurs don’t have Tim Duncan without a lot of losing (Ed. note: Dominque Wilkins’ singular season in San Antonio!). The Wizards don’t get John Wall and then Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. without being bottom-dwellers. We joke about #TrustTheProcess, but let’s be clear: it hasn’t panned out because nobody can stay healthy. If those three lottery picks play even 40 games together this year, then those dreadful seasons were worth it to Philly fans.
That type of success is what the Knicks have been chasing for over a decade. With a new regime and willing veterans, this team can position these contracts into prosperity. Lance Thomas has an opportunity to be more than a player who’s “just there,” while Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah, and Ramon Sessions can impart wisdom on the rooks that’ll carry them through what is sure to be a rough two to three years.
— James Woodruff, staff writer