Five "Cool" Things to Look Forward to From The Knicks This Season
The Knicks are an indispensable part of the NBA media's daily discourse: whether they're used as a distraction from one of the decade's most important international sports stories, a convenient punching bag for pundits and politicians alike, or as validation for how much better another franchise is doing in relation to the Knicks, it's clear that this team will always own significant mental real estate in the minds of even their harshest critics. Head coach David Fizdale encapsulated this sentiment beautifully, with a clap back that "The Servant" wishes he could come up with in his wildest burner dreams:
Win or lose, people are gonna talk about the Knicks. There's no other way to spin last year's Knicks team as anything other than hot garbage, which helps explain the constant berating by media personalities, but with a new season rapidly approaching there are actual, legitimate reasons for optimism! Winning cures all, and while this Knicks team has a pretty hard ceiling of 35-40 wins, that's still a hell of a lot more wins than last year, and enough to quiet most of those stale and lazy #lolKnicks takes. Andrew Claudio articulated this point excellently in a recent piece, saying that all it took was one 39-win season for the Kings to go from a laughingstock to a trendy, upstart team, or the Nets one playoff berth to be an attractive destination for marquee free agents. Now just imagine how that hype would be amplified at the Garden. The Knicks may have missed out on stars, but they're far from lacking in personalities and competitors, giving this squad the potential to be one of the most endearing Knicks teams in quite some time. Here are five reasons to care this season:
The Young Players Could End Up Being the Team's Top Producers
Aside from ping pong balls, last year's Knicks had very little to be hopeful about. Mitchell Robinson was still an NBA infant — albeit a precocious one — while Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina's shooting percentages did little to inspire confidence in their development. But last year's team was so far removed from anything close to good basketball that it's hard to make any decisive conclusions. Knox was asked to do too much on offense, and his 28.8 minutes per game ranked second on the team behind Tim Hardaway's son. A reduced role could only help at this point, and based on one preseason game it looks like a squad filled with competent NBA players will allow him to hone in on the parts of his game where he is most effective. Given his excellent frame for a wing, improvements in off-ball movement, spot-up shooting, and defense (ambitious, I know) could all go a long way. Then there's FIBA Frank, the French Prince's alter ego who clamps down on overrated Celtics point guards and drills cold-blooded jumpers Sam Cassell-style. If at least some of that aggressiveness and confidence can transfer over to the new season, then he should certainly have a longer leash from Fizdale than last year. Nonetheless, leaps from Frank and Knox would be great but far from a sure thing, and talking about them fails to include the franchise's newest rookie savior or their highest profile offseason signing. Want to know a fun fact? Julius Randle is only 24-years-old. He figures to be the focal point of the offense, and plays like these have me counting down the days until October 23:
Randle still has plenty of room to grow on offense, and if he could improve his willingness as a passer it could unlock a lot more of his game — Fizdale has talked about using him as a point forward, which makes sense when he can grab rebounds and initiate the offense in transition. At the very least, this year's Knicks team includes lots of young talent that's worth watching on intrigue alone; a welcome change from the days of bad Knicks teams that heavily featured guys like Jose Calderon and Lou Amundson.
The Bench Will be as Formidable as the Starters
After failing to land the biggest names in free agency, the Knicks front office moved quickly to lock up several serviceable, quality NBA players. It's made for a much deeper team than in year's past, however choosing five starters from this new group is a tougher proposition. Let's say that Marcus Morris, Randle, and Robinson are all locks, and after that it's probably fair to assume something similar to the preseason opener lineup, with Elfrid Payton and R.J. Barrett joining them. (Payton in the starting lineup is already giving me strong Mudiay vibes from the standpoint of giving big minutes to a guard with not much of a future on the team.) That leaves a bench of over five guys who probably feel that they deserve decent rotation minutes: Dennis Smith Jr, Knox, Wayne Ellington, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Ntilikina, Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson, etc. With Fizdale at the helm, this really could go one of two ways: if the gameplan on offense is as iso-heavy as last year, then the on-court product will probably look something like five individual player showcases, with everyone doing what they can to increase their value so to maximize their next contract. But if it turns out that last year was just one long Mudiay-led tank job, then perhaps there will be a greater emphasis placed on ball movement this season. The Knicks won't have anything more than a mediocre starting lineup, but the pieces are there for one of the league's deeper benches.
They Might Actually Play Defense This Year
The new season isn't officially underway until the Knicks claim that defense will be a priority and then proceed to play very little of it. This year it was Elfrid Payton who kicked the year off when he told Marc Berman about the team's optimistic defensive aspirations. Similar to their depth, the Knicks' defense could go both ways: on the one hand the team features several above-average defenders capable of guarding all types of looks, with Ntilikina on the perimeter, Morris on the wing, and Robinson and Gibson down low. But at the same time a good defense will require several questionable defenders such as Knox, Portis, and Payton to take a leap forward this season. Last year, the Knicks had the fifth-worst defensive rating in the league, meaning that even an improvement to league-average will be much easier on the eyes. One of the most fun players to watch during the preseason has been Taj Gibson, and it's refreshing to see an established veteran patrol the court with a purpose. Centers have an outsized influence on a team's defense, and between Robinson and Gibson the Knicks have two capable bigs to protect the paint.
Their Shooting is Much Improved
No skill is more in-demand in today's NBA than shooting. It's the equivalent of oxygen for good teams, and its value league-wide has adjusted accordingly. To compete, you can't live without it, and the Knicks' league-worst offensive rating last season can be explained in part by their inability to take (and make) the three ball. Last year's Knicks ranked 22nd in 3-pointers attempted and 28th in 3-point percentage, a sound combination to secure the maximum number of ping pong balls for May's draft lottery. Of the team's eight offseason signings, five of them shot 34% or better from three last season. Wayne Ellington stands out as the type of shooter that the Knicks haven't had since Steve Novak, and figures to be even more versatile than Mr. Discount Double Check. Ellington is of the J.J. Redick elk, and having a player that influences the offense simply through his movement will be sorely needed on a team full of veterans and journeymen looking to prove themselves. Moreover, guys like Morris, Portis, and even Randle will help space the floor and make things easier for non-shooters like Smith Jr. and Barrett. They won't be the Warriors on offense, but the fact that the front office identified and addressed the team's shooting issue is certainly an encouraging sign.
Last season after the All-Star break when it was clear that the team's only objective was to pile up losses, I'd have this habit of exclusively watching Mitch whenever he was on the floor. Few other players on the team mattered past that season besides the Block-ness Monster, and in his final seven games of the season in which he was finally awarded the starting center job Robinson lived up to the hype and averaged 11.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks on 78% shooting. There's a whole season ahead of us to gush about Mitch's game-changing two-way impact (just think if Rudy Gobert could guard point guards) and however this season turns out we can take solace in the fact that the potential face of the franchise is already here and growing stronger by the day.