Who should be in the Knicks starting five this season? Whoever can still be helping five seasons from now.
I’m all-in on the New York Knicks newfound faith in tanking. The catch-all definition of which, I think, is lose lots of basketball games in exchange for transcendent young talent who win you lots of basketball games. Sounds like a good deal; no wonder so many teams around the NBA are joining the disarmament race in a frantic plummet to the bottom.
Except, that all sounds a bit simple. If it’s that easy, then why are Orlando (five consecutive lottery picks), Sacramento (11 consecutive lottery picks), and New Orleans (Anthony Davis–archetypal tanking jackpot) still unimpressive teams? It’s because tanking is merely the philosophical first step to the practical challenge of rebuilding. Successful rebuilds involve accompanying big, correct decisions with seemingly insignificant small decisions that also prove to be correct. The intersection of a successful tank and a successful rebuild is all in the details.
The Knicks have a big Latvian decision that they got right on the roster already in Kristaps Porzingis, and they may have a medium-to-big decision that they got right in rookie Frank Ntilikina. That all depends on your level of optimism about the young Frenchman and his ultimate place on the wide spectrum of uber-long teenage point guard development curves. Will the French Prince be more Giannis Antetokounmpo or more Dante Exum? Time will tell.
This season, there are a number of small decisions to watch that could contribute to whether Knicks fans will have to endure a multi-season tank, or, preferably, a steady rebuild. These decisions come in the form of a starting point guard, small forward, and center. Assuming Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. are locks to start at shooting guard and power forward, the starting lineup has yet to make itself clear.
It could be a good idea to hold off on starting Ntilikina at point guard immediately, given the unavoidable expectations intrinsic to the googly-eyed hope that comes with the start of the season when anything is possible. The Knicks aren’t winning many games this season, no matter how good Ntilikina is out of the gate. Better to leave him on the pine for the first quarter of the season, where hopes and expectations are likely readjusted. The fans and the media should also soften by this point, embracing the cozy-comfort of the tank, allowing the rook cut his teeth against the NBA’s premier point guards without too much uproar.
The open starting spots at small forward and center are the interesting discussions. Competition is fierce at both spots. Willy Hernangómez, Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, and Joakim Noah are the candidates at center. The rest of the roster is left to jostle for the remaining wing spot. Between Courtney Lee, Ron Baker, Damyean Dotson, Lance Thomas, Doug McDermott, Michael Beasley, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas, a starter will appear.
These aren’t franchise-defining decisions, but they have repercussions for the rebuild. The competition at both positions can be broken down into three groups:
Group 1: Players who have trade value this season (who can be flipped for future assets). Kanter, O’Quinn, Lee, and Thomas.
Group 2: Players who have developmental value (are already assets by virtue of their age, on court potential, or contract). Hernangómez, Baker, Dotson, and McDermott.
Group 3: Veterans with neither trade value or developmental value (they can’t be dealt for anything and aren’t helping much on the court). Noah, Beasley, and Kuzminskas (Although Kuz could be traded, he just doesn’t have much value as a completed player at 28 years old).
Based on these groups, it’s difficult to find a justification for Noah, Beasley, or Kuzminskas getting minutes because all this achieves is stifling another players’ trade value or development for no real reason. I’m ruling out Noah’s potential defensive impact that could come with a general resurgence because its value is limited to on the court this season, a season when the Knicks are trying to be bad (or trying to develop young players). And you still can’t trade that horror show of a contract.
Lee or Thomas at the three would make sense from a trade-stock perspective. It also helps that they may be the two best defenders on a roster barren of defensive talent. Neither has the type of remarkable defensive ability to affect the win total, but their presence may make it a little less painful to watch the Knicks patrol their own hoop. Coach Jeff Hornacek will likely devote some minutes to lineups with three guards on the floor at the same time, a feature of his Phoenix days, which is where Baker and Dotson can find minutes.
Doug McDermott should get plenty of time at small forward in Hornacek’s uptempo offense. He can shoot the lights out, plus he has great size, and the offensive system should suit him better than either he played in for the Chicago Bulls or Oklahoma City Thunder. His upside offensively outweighs his defensive limitations, and the Knicks will have a decision to make after this season considering that they won’t be signing him prior to the rookie extension deadline.
This leaves Beasley and Kuzminskas as the odd men out. Both are stretch fours in the modern NBA, but the minutes at that spot are monopolized by a certain Mr. Porzingis. Until KP eases his aversion to playing center, there will only be a handful of backup power forward minutes available. Both guys are also a victim of the McDermott acquisition, who’s better offensively and younger than both of them.
At the 5, Kanter and Hernangómez are the only viable candidates at starting center. Playing Kanter increases his trade value, and he will rack up empty numbers for a tanking Knicks team. Teams will look at Kanter in January if he’s averaging 20 and 10 in an environment where his terrible defense will be heavily diluted by the defensive woes of the team as a whole.
Hernangómez can contribute to a Knicks team that peaks in KP’s prime years. As a Knicks draft pick, the front office should lock up that talent on a team friendly deal as he progresses (like the one Hardaway Jr. gets in an alternate Knicks-verse where the organization is semi-sane and doesn’t have the patience of a sleep-deprived seven-year-old). The ice-cold market for traditional bigs and the increasing scarcity of cap space league-wide will help here.
The Knicks have a lot of players battling for minutes. Picking between them involves weighing their relative value to a successful rebuild. This leaves Noah and Beasley as deadwood and O’Quinn and Kuzminskas as slightly-less-deadwood. The small forward minutes should go primarily to Lee, Thomas, and McDermott. The center minutes primarily to Kanter and Hernangómez.
Having a plan is a significant step for a Knicks franchise that has bought into its own exceptionalism and refused to accept that the realities (lots of losing) of rebuilding apply, despite being in New York. The tank is here, which is fun when you spend hours watching YouTube highlights of Luka Doncic or Michael Porter Jr., but as Orlando found out, tanking can quickly turn into Mario Hezonja, Aaron Gordon, and awkward memories of Victor Oladipo; decidedly not fun.
There is a chance that the Knicks trot out Beasley and Noah in the starting lineup on opening night in OKC, which would be entertaining–anything Beasley related is entertaining–in a sadomasochistic type of way, and particularly effective as an opening tanking gambit. It would in no way, however, help the Knicks five years from now, when hopefully they’ve stopped tanking, and are successfully rebuilding with the help of small, yet impactful decisions made this season.
— Jack Huntley, staff writer