Can you believe the 2019-20 NBA season is almost here? OK, not quite almost here. But training camp is almost here and then the preseason and then here we go in San Antonio Oct. 23.
The Knicks are going to look significantly different this season than last. That’s what happens when you go on a offseason shopping spree and turn over roughly half the roster. Oh, and add the No. 3 pick. That leaves a lot of questions heading into the season. Surprisingly, none of them center around how RJ Barrett will play in his debut campaign.
As the season nears, we’ll get through most of the pressing issues about this Knicks team but the first step is looking at what we don’t know about this team. There’s been lots of change and we don’t know how that will play out. Here are seven questions about the Knicks that are top of mind right now, and one observation about the kind of dilemma head coach David Fizdale finds himself in.
Will the Knicks prioritize winning at the cost of youth development? This is the essential question about the franchise for the 2019-20 season. The Knicks should be better and improve on a 17-win team. How much better? We’ll see, but most projections right now have them on the low side of the 30-win mark. There is also a big experience schism on the roster. The Knicks have eight players who can conceivably become rotation players who have two seasons of NBA experience or fewer. They also have seven players who have four seasons or more. The players in the former group represent the Knicks’ future and their building blocks. The players in the latter group are new additions who account for 70 percent of the salary cap and ostensibly signed in New York with some belief that playing time would be available to them. It’ll be on Fizdale to navigate this potential quagmire, but it’s a strategy that should include buy-in and conversation across the organization. How it’s handled could have mid-term consequences for many of the parties involved. It’ll surely be worth watching. How many wins would be worth the primacy of the veterans and a bench full of young players? Or are the Knicks telling us something with their offseason? The franchise gave so many minutes to all their young players last season and then signed veterans who could play over them. Is that an indication of how the Knicks view those players and their futures going forward? Time will tell.
Will Kevin Knox take the leap or get lost in the shuffle? Knox had a difficult rookie season. That has been covered here before. Knox, now 20, is not a finished product, but improvement is a reasonable expectation in his second NBA season. His potential remains and is still sizable. But Knox enters a possibly fraught situation. The team added pieces in the offseason to try to improve the roster, but those additions could nip at Knox’s minutes. Fizdale will have an interesting conundrum, as mentioned above, and no one could suffer or benefit more than Knox. Will the coach tolerate mistakes from a young player if wins are the objective and there are veterans who can placate him in real-time? Knox needs more minutes, more reps, more shots, more attempts at running the pick-and-roll. He’s still younger than six of the players drafted in the lottery in June. Making him earn his minutes is not an inherently troubling philosophy, but that execution will be worth watching.
What will that front court look like? No team has more money committed to the power forward position than the Knicks. The Mavericks, at No. 2 according to Spotrac, will spend $10 million less. New York also has Mitchell Robinson at center. So how will the team split the 96 minutes available at power forward and center? There’s Robinson, Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson. Marcus Morris and Knox could also see some time at what would nominally be the power forward spot. Fizdale has previously professed a desire to play positionless basketball; does that mean a super-sized version?
How much time will Elfrid Payton get at point guard? The Knicks surprisingly signed him this summer at a position where they already have Dennis Smith Jr. Would it be crazy that Payton ultimately jumps him on the depth chart? The Knicks need more ball movement in their offense and need a facilitator. Payton could serve in that role. The Knicks finished last in the NBA in assists per game and 28th in potential assists. They were last in points created off assists. Enter Payton, who if nothing else during his five years as an NBA vagabond can create for guys. A couple things to consider: last season he was tied for 12th in potential assists and 11th in points created off assists, according to NBA.com. (He was one of two players to finish in the top 23 in points created off assists despite averaging less than 30 minutes a night). The Pelicans shot 39 percent on 3s off of Payton passes last season — the highest of anyone on the team (Smith’s teammates shot 36.8 percent on 3s off his passes last year). Which is all to say might Fizdale turn to Payton at times when he wants to give his offense a different look — playing Smith and Payton together seems like a good way to gut your team of shooting — and will that come at the cost of Smith?
Will Frank Ntilikina get his shot? The 21-year-old’s first two seasons in the NBA have been rocky. He is probably the most controversial topic amongst Knicks fans. He has, depending on who you ask, started his career auspiciously because of the defensive acumen he’s shown or pitifully if you look at his shooting numbers. He has proven to be a dogged defender, adept at making life difficult for both point guards and wings. He’s long and intelligent on defense and has displayed not just potential but production on that end. The optimistic view of Ntilikina is that he is already a good defender who needs time for his offense to come around and if it does he’ll be a heady starter. The pessimistic view centers around that offense. He’s shot 35.4 percent on 782 shots over his career. Of the 224 players who have taken at least that many shots the last two years, Ntilikina ranks last in field goal percentage. He ranks 207th out of the 214 players who have taken at least 272 3s over the last two seasons. And despite those numbers, he’s been perceived as not looking to shoot enough. Ntilikina was the lone young Knick to not get free reign last season despite the franchise devoting itself to sifting through the roster to figure out who was worth keeping. That he didn’t was either an indictment of short-sightedness or an indication that he is not good enough yet to even get minutes during a lost season. Both things could also be true. Because of all that, the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft has played the 18th most minutes of all the players in his draft class. The impediment to playing time will only get larger this season, with a deeper roster, still no set position, and questions enduring about his offense. But Ntilikina is also still just 21. The Knicks have until Oct. 31 to decide whether they want to pick up his fourth-year option and pay him roughly $6.2 million next season. Ntilikina is coming off a nice performance for France at the FIBA World Cup, but he’ll have to maintain that once he arrives at training camp.
What’s next for Mitchell Robinson? He can block shots. Like, really well. If he can maintain that and improve as the anchor of the defense, then the Knicks have a player who’s on his way to a future case for Defensive Player of the Year. Robinson would get block-happy as a rookie, jumping for shots, getting out of position, making the kinds of mistakes that rookie centers make. His talent is obvious. His ceiling is, too. More unknowable is what he becomes on offense. A high-level rim-runner seems like the natural projection. Robinson was a catch-and-dunk threat as a rookie and he was good at it. He averaged the third-fewest dribbles per touch of any player who played at least 1,300 minutes. Becoming a better ball-handler would make him less one-dimensional. Robinson has said he wants to add a 3-pointer to his repertoire, but that’s not necessary to make him more dangerous. Just the threat of a jump shot would elevate him as an offensive weapon.
Will Dennis Smith Jr. establish himself as a starting point guard? Smith’s success is not the determining factor whether the Knicks get the better of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, but it’s also not not the determining factor. He is the bedrock talent they got (in addition to two first-round picks and loads of cap space this past summer) in exchange for their erstwhile face of the franchise. Smith is talented, supremely athletic, and it gets lost sometimes that’s he’s only 21 and has been in the NBA for just two years. He still has the potential to one day become a top-10 point guard in the NBA. Point guards take time to mature. Kemba Walker had a worse effective field goal percentage in his second season than Smith last season; Russell Westbrook had a nearly similar turnover percentage through two years; and D’Angelo Russell got traded before his third year. None of these things is a dispositive argument for Smith’s future success but do indicate that it takes time and struggles are common. Smith should get the opportunity to make progress this season and the Knicks would greatly benefit from it. If he does, they can lock in a player at a critical position. If he doesn’t, then the franchise remains on the search for a point guard after investing significant resources over the last few years and must hope Year 4 will be the one for him.
Something to watch for: Don’t make this a prediction or an analysis or anything but a simple review of Knicks history under owner James Dolan. Over the 20 years he’s run the team, the Knicks have had 10 different head coaches. (That includes only the coaches who started a season with the team, not interim coaches ones who got appointed midseason). Eight had a losing record in their first full season. Six have made it to the next season. Of the five coaches who have started their time with the Knicks with two consecutive losing seasons, only one (Mike D’Antoni) has made it to a third season. (Don Chaney had a 20-63 record after taking over for Jeff Van Gundy, a 37-45 record in his first full season, and then went 15-24 to start the following season before being fired.) That’s not to put Fizdale on the hot seat; it’s just to point out the kind of volatility innate to New York if you’re a coach who cannot win relatively quickly. Fizdale endured a 17-win season last year. The Knicks are not projected to reach .500 or the playoffs this season.