The 2019 Knicks Asset Rankings
The night before Monday's Toilet Bowl for the ages in Cleveland, Lance Thomas reportedly called a team dinner to lift the spirits of a Knicks team that had just tied the franchise record for consecutive losses. The dinner was not about what must be done to get a win, but rather to bond and improve team chemistry. "We might be losing games, but we’re NOT losing our spirit," Thomas told Rebecca Haarlow.
That ethos is the embodiment of a top-tier tanking squad. No one involved in this year's Knicks team — players or fans — is here for the results, instead we're here for the journey, and following that clutch loss in Cleveland to go a game up on Phoenix in the win column and 2 on the Cavs for the league's worst record, I sure as hell ain't losing my spirit.
This season is about next season, all that's left to do this year is grow the value of the team's current assets. Depending on how free agency shakes out there might not even be a single asset left on this team come the start of next season: everyone's off the books except for Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr. (There are also team options and non-guaranteed contracts for Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson respectively, who are also likely gone if the Knicks are as intent on opening two max slots as they say they are.) All four of those guys are pieces that will be the subject of Anthony Davis trade talks come July, and along with this year's first-round pick serve as enough ammo to have a serious shot at the Brow. Either way, I must say it's quite liberating to look at the team's cap sheet and see nothing but young talent under contract past this season. Yet as we saw with the KP trade, no player is safe — every young piece is only that, the blurry image of something until the Knicks are a contender. As the year winds down one loss at a time it's worth taking stock of what exactly the Knicks are developing as trade chips going into what promises to be a pivotal summer.
Tier 1: The Cream of the Crop
It's safe to say that the Knicks maximized their return with the 36th pick, selecting a 7-footer with elite shot blocking instincts and cementing themselves as the winners of the Melo trade. (The "We want Kanter" chants were giving washed Playoff OKC Melo a run for his money, but neither compares to even a single Mitch block or lob.) In a Post-KP world Robinson is the new main attraction, and undoubtedly the main reason I tune in every night. Just one Robinson block on a James Harden step-back jumper is enough to tolerate a whole game of Allonzo Trier isos and DSJ bricks. Just about every player in the league knows this shot from Harden is coming, but how many can actually stop it?
Mitch seems to be on the trajectory of a Clint Capela or Rudy Gobert: a late pick who was eased along in their first year before becoming an elite rim runner (Capela) or rim protector (Gobert). Robinson isn't quite the rebounder of either one yet: Gobert and Capela average 19.5 and 18.2 rebounds per 100 possessions respectively, while Robinson sits at just 12.5. (It's worth noting however that Mitch's rebounding is on the rise as of late, and ever since the arrival of DeAndre Jordan is improving before our eyes.) Plus, his greatest skill comes from swatting — around the rim or on the perimeter — where he is averaging 5.6 blocks per 100 possessions compared to Gobert's 3.3 and Capela's 2.7. Now, Robinson hasn't played even close to the same amount of minutes as either guy, and in fact both Capela and Gobert averaged 5.0 blocks per 100 possessions in their limited rookie seasons, but neither has ever posted a block percentage on the level of Robinson. This year's league leader is Myles Turner, posting an 8.8% clip, however that would be Robinson if he played more minutes (minimum to qualify is 1500 minutes), whose percentage is at 9.9. Mitch's shot blocking ability certainly passes the eye test, and the fact that he's also able to block three-pointers makes finding a player comp even more difficult. In drafting him, the Knicks made a bet on his freakish athleticism that's already paying off. Robinson should spend the rest of the season soaking up all the advice he can get from the veteran Jordan, who he's already surpassed in rim protection but could use help from in regards to positioning for rebounds and lobs as well as screen setting. Jordan is one of the best in the league at creating opportunities from screens, and given Robinson's massive frame there's no reason he shouldn't be able to follow a similar mold. Check out the way Mitch is able to free up a Knox slash to the hoop thanks to his imposing body:
Or when he screens on the ball, giving an explosive guard in Kadeem Allen the chance to torch the slow-footed Chriss:
Fizdale's offense often feels stagnant in many areas, particularly off-ball movement, but it has shown a propensity to embrace the pick and roll — more so than with Hornacek last year. In Robinson, Fizdale has been gifted the perfect prospect for all things screening; any lob even remotely in his area is a slam. The sky is the limit for Mitch, and many Knicks fans would have a hard time parting with the Louisiana product for anything less than AD. You got a good one, Knicks. Let's see how you handle this 7-foot alien.
2019 First Round Pick (14% of Zion)
After years of half-assed or half-season tanking the Knicks finally seem poised to maximize their first-round odds for a 14% chance at what could instantly become their best asset. Feast your eyes:
With two more games against Chicago as well as one more against both Phoenix and Cleveland, the Knicks now control their tanking destiny. If there was ever a handful of games to bust out a Smith Jr.-Mudiay backcourt to fulfill a Fizdale fantasy, these four are them. Post-trade deadline, the roster really looks like a glorified G-League team, so why not embrace that identity and let G-League studs Isaiah Hicks and John Jenkins get some burn? (Jenkins already looks like one of the best shooters on the team, he might actually be able to help the Knicks with that thing called spacing.) Oh, and shoutout to Lance Thomas, the unsung captain of the All-Tank team:
Of course, even with the worst record there's still a 48% chance of landing the fifth pick, which is actually more telling of every pick after that; imagine having the third-worst record in the league and picking seventh. These new odds are sure to produce some surprises, and for now all the Knicks can do is shoot for the best possible odds fueled by a roster that would make The Process proud.
There's no way around it: Knox has been bad thus far his rookie season. The counting stats aren't terrible because he's been given free reign on offense, but Knox gives Frank a run for his money when it comes to efficiency. The Knicks have an offensive rating of 101 points per 100 possessions with Knox on the floor, per NBA.com, and a subsequent net rating of -13. Now, the culprit of such nasty numbers is somewhat of a chicken or the egg debate considering that the team overall has a net rating of -9, and at this point I'll blame the system more than the 19-year-old. There hasn't really been a single skill Knox has gotten better at as the season has gone on, yet there's no denying the mold of a gifted scoring wing. He's a rhythm scorer that needs some structure on offense to be effective, and so far Fizdale's system has benefitted attackers like Smith Jr. and Trier who can create something out of nothing, as opposed to Knox who would look better on a team that emphasized movement and cutting. At this point, Knox can't do much off the dribble and it's fair to wonder if that will ever be a key part of his game — he's averaging just 4.6 drives per game, good for eighth-most on the team. If getting to the basket isn't his thing, that's fine; there are plenty of wing scorers that can fill it up despite offering little in the form of dribble penetration (see: Kyle Kuzma, Klay Thompson, Nikola Mirotic). And with his high release, it's easy to envision a career in which Knox becomes an above average shooter with the threat of going off on any given night. Although that player may be in there somewhere, he's got a long way to go before we see it, and given my aforementioned gripes with Fizdale's offense, I'm unsure it'll ever happen on the Knicks. If this team does hit the free agency jackpot then the patience for a project like Knox will assuredly wane, which is why it may behoove the Knicks to look to trade him this summer, as it may be when his value is highest. Between Knox, Robinson, and this year's first rounder, the Knicks have three assets that are as valuable as anything else in the AD trade talks short of Jayson Tatum. Knox is on the the first year of his rookie contract and there's an argument to be made for Mitch's contract as the best bargain in the league at 4 years $6.5 million. The Knicks reportedly sniffed the market for about a month before dealing their previous blue chip asset, and with an uncertain prospect in Knox it would be wise to do the same.
Tier 2: Not Donovan Mitchell, Twice
Is this what competence feels like?
I always felt like it was no coincidence that whenever Frank seemed to be going through a rough patch or random benching, trade rumors would invariably surface from teams interested in the Frenchman. Despite somehow managing to top last year's woeful shooting numbers with even worse splits this season, Ntilikina's defense remains superb, which, as noted in Tommy Dee's Frank Deep Dive is born out in the numbers: he's shut out the likes of Damian Lillard (10 possessions), George Hill (17 possessions), and Tyler Johnson (13 possessions). For comparison's sake, take DSJ (I'm sorry), whose opponent averages 15.3 field goals per game, the most on the team. Smith Jr.'s defensive shortcomings are well documented, and it's clear that opponents are trying to exploit him as a result. On the other hand Frank surrenders just 7.2 field goal attempts a game, and if it was possible to factor in all the times that Ntilikina has stifled opponents enough that they don't even take a shot, there would be no debate who the team's best defender was. Not to mention his 7′ 1″ wingspan, which makes him tailor-made to defend potential mismatches or pick and roll switches. Frank's defense is never going to be his problem, it's if he can develop his offensive game enough to be passable that will determine his future with this team. To do that, he's going to have to improve his ball handling, which has been a knock on his game dating back to the draft. That, combined with his lack of explosiveness makes him easy to defend, and severely limits his upside on that end. He doesn't need to be Russell Westbrook, but an improved handle would help showcase his above average passing instincts and perhaps even improve his shooting, as defenders would have to respect the threat of penetration. Despite the dreadful 42% true shooting percentage, Ntilikina actually has decent form on his jumpshot, and given that he's a more team-oriented player that plays according to the flow of the game, consistent minutes would undoubtedly improve his efficiency. Unless the numbers somehow get worse for Frank, it's hard to imagine his value dropping any lower; how he looks post-All-Star Break won't make or break his career, but it will likely play a large factor in his future with the Knicks.
Dennis Smith Jr.
If you were to ask, "what does the opposite of Frank look like?" Dennis Smith Jr. would be your answer. The Knicks' newest flashy guard is the inverse of Ntilikina in several areas: he's got hops, can penetrate, can't play defense, and turns it over a lot. Although I wasn't exactly stoked about DSJ's arrival, I will say his ability to get to the basket has been impressive:
He's averaging a team-high 16.3 drives per game through his first 6 games with the Knicks (the next highest is Mudiay, at 10.3), and that skill is going to have to be the driving force for the rest of his game. He's got an ugly jumpshot and isn't a particularly good playmaker, so developing into an elite slasher is his best bet. One positive note: Smith is averaging 6.0 free throw attempts per game thus far with the Knicks, up over 3 attempts from his career average of 2.9. If he can fix the hitch in his shot and keep that up, there's hope for DSJ to become an Eric Bledsoe-type player. Either way, Smith's future with the team remains unclear: if they do upgrade at point guard this offseason then Smith is likely the odd man out (he needs the ball in his hands way more than Frank), however it shouldn't be too hard to find a suitor given that he's still on his rookie contract. Whatever happens, I'm here to embrace the DSJ experience while it lasts; it's like having a more explosive Mudiay, A.K.A. Fizdale's wet dream.
Tier 3: Ballin' on a Budget
Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson
Little was expected from either guy entering this season, but each has showcased a dimension of the game that has a place on a winning team. For Trier, it's his one-on-one play, which he's shown in big moments such as this play when he displays his composure and explosiveness against a veteran defender in P.J. Tucker:
God knows how many mid-range crunch time bricks we've seen from Melo and even KP over the years, so to have a youngster take it to the cup was refreshing to say the least. Despite the nice finish, Trier will have to work on his tunnel vision. Check out the ball hoggery here as he looks off both corners, which includes DSJ raising his arms asking for a pass he's never gonna get:
As for Dotson, his best skill is his three-and-D, which has a place on every NBA team and hopefully is embraced more by Fizdale next season as a complementary piece alongside whatever volume scorer they end up with. (It would've been Porzingis, but now it's anyone's guess. My money's on the CEO of Thirty Five Ventures.) If either Trier or Dotson is back next season, cool, I like keeping around young talent on bargain contracts. But if not, totally fine too. Think about The Process in Philly: how many Tony Wroten's and Isaiah Canaan's did the Sixers have to go through before finding valuable assets such as T. J. McConnell and Robert Covington? In the midst of a rebuild, it's easy to grow attached to certain young players as keepers, but there's a good chance the contending Knicks look nothing like the team we see today. We've seen many roster transformations thus far and will probably see many more before that day comes, and for now the best thing to do is enjoy that sweet, sweet player development.