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Fixing The Knicks Shouldn’t Be This Difficult

It didn’t take long for things to go sideways this season for the Knicks.

Just over a quarter of the way through the campaign, they own both the NBA’s worst record and worst net rating. And before suffering a both encouraging and frustrating 1-point loss to Indiana Saturday, the Knicks got drilled — by 44 points and 37 points — by the Bucks and Nuggets in back-to-back games, ones that sealed the fate of coach David Fizdale.

As this team’s coaching carousel continues to rotate like a fidget spinner,1 it’s only natural to ask who might be best to take on such a tough job after so many seasons of organizational failure. But the better question is what fixing the Knicks would look like on both a micro and macro level.

No one should be naive enough to think that this franchise is an overnight fix away from getting back on track after lying on its side for the better part of two decades. The team floated that thought at times last season — and then failed to land the player or two that would have made that level of contention possible — which has made this year more dismal than usual. Still, there’s a ton of real estate between being the worst team in the league and high-level contention, and it shouldn’t be nearly this difficult for New York to fall somewhere in the middle more often than it does.

What do most winning clubs have that the Knicks don’t? Perhaps the most obvious oversight from a roster standpoint the past few years: a starting-caliber, table-setting ball-handler, one who can break down defenses and create for himself while not losing sight of his younger teammates who are still learning how to play. (The trio of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni from the 2012-13 season might have been the last time the team enjoyed consistently good guard play.) This year’s Phoenix Suns have illustrated the value in finding a smart, capable floor general who can get everyone involved.

By contrast, the Knicks have at times played lineups with no point guard, instead letting talented rookie R.J. Barrett handle the responsibility, or sometimes giving unreliable freight train Julius Randle the green light. Sometimes things work fine, and other times they don’t. But this trial by fire doesn’t always look sustainable or intentional, and that’s largely the problem. (While it likely isn’t the long-term answer, it seems worth trying Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. together more. Smith has struggled badly at times this season, but the skill sets of the two complement each other decently, and the duo has a positive net rating in very limited work — nothing to sneeze at, given how poorly the Knicks have played thus far.)

A more consistent player running the show would mercifully take the ball out of Randle’s hands, where it’s been far too often given the results to this point. The power forward, who joined New York as the club’s biggest free-agent signing this past summer, generally makes something happen. But he forces the action a lot more than he should, dribbling right into the teeth of the defense. Defenders know they can take capitalize on his loose handle in the paint, and Randle turns the ball over more frequently — and scores less frequently — on his isolations than any player who goes 1-on-1 at least three times per game, according to Synergy Sports.

The issues with Randle are symptomatic of many of the Knicks’ biggest problems: They obviously lack a No. 1 option who can both draw defensive attention away from teammates and make something out of nothing when the shot clock is winding down. Randle isn’t that player. Maybe Barrett will develop into it with more time. If not him, whoever the Knicks get with the high-level pick they’re sure to get in 2020 could become that guy.

But Kristaps Porziņģis was undeniably that player,2 and the club — essentially claiming it had no choice but to deal the hobbled star, given his unhappiness — dealt him away. Yes, the choice was likely helped along by the belief that Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving was on the way in free agency. And you could argue that those things were outside of the Knicks’ control. And if you make those arguments, you would be wrong.

Even if the rift with Porziņģis stemmed from his problems with former president Phil Jackson, it was owner James Dolan who opted to hire the Hall of Fame coach to a huge contract without any sort of front-office experience.3 (Dolan repeatedly made the point that he hired Jackson and then got out of his way, to stop from meddling. But that doesn’t insulate him from critique when the hire is that misguided.) And though the idea of coming up empty this summer sounded like an impossibility based on how everyone from Fizdale to Dolan himself spoke last season, it should go without saying that nothing is certain — particularly in this topsy-turvy league, with a team that’s struck out with the highest-level free agents for years.

So, yes: That Porziņģis trade, and the apparent free-agency miscalculation it was based on, were mistakes of the highest order, and they belong to team president Steve Mills, who now finds himself on the hottest of seats. None of this even gets into the front office’s failed hiring of Fizdale, who, for all his pedigree, rarely settled on a rotation or a style of play4 — especially on defense.

Case in point: The Knicks rank among the top five teams in surrendering the most 3-point attempts. But interestingly enough, the other four clubs in that group find themselves in the league’s top 10 in defensive efficiency, while New York ranks 24th on the defensive side of the ball. (If this keeps up, it would mark the 14th time in 18 years that the Knicks would finish in the bottom 10 on D.) What this seems to suggest is that some clubs are smart enough and disciplined enough to know which shooters they can sag off of from behind the arc, while New York is leaving too many shooters5 — and perhaps the wrong ones — all alone.

Fizdale’s shortcomings were on display for anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention. But in fairness to him, the team’s front office also pieced together a roster that was pretty obviously short on talent. Yes, there’s enough talent in New York to win more than this — and to win more than last season — but it’s still awkward, ill-fitting talent that requires some real thought to make lineups work productively. Nonetheless, the team’s brass has previously tried to sell fans on the idea that because free agents were signed to short-term deals, it wouldn’t put the club in a bad position for the future, like the Knicks have done so many times before6.

But that’s the problem here: The club seems to be operating under a false assumption — that doing the least, rather than doing far too much, will improve the franchise. In reality, simply being somewhere in the middle, like a normal NBA team, would be just fine for a change.

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Footnotes

  1. The team has had 12 coaches since James Dolan’s first full season as the team’s owner in 1999-2000, tied for the most in the NBA over that span.

  2. Though he hasn’t looked like it this season. Somehow, Luka Dončić and Dallas have pieced together a historic offense even as Porziņģis has struggled to find a comfort zone since returning to the court.

  3. And if you take the stance that Porziņģis and his brother (who serves as his representative) were being difficult, that’s fair. But it’s also fair to have at least some skepticism about the Knicks, given the last two decades of history.

  4. Players would sometimes go from starting to not playing at all in relatively short order. Last year, it was Ntilikina who often couldn’t get off the bench as a second-year player. This year, it was seemingly Allonzo Trier, and to a lesser extent, Kevin Knox.

  5. Blogger Bryan Gibberman notes this at the 40-minute mark of a podcast discussing Fizdale’s firing.

  6. Mills has suggested the same thing about the team’s first-round draft picks, which the club once gave away like candy.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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