***Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog written by Tyler Cunnington.***
The New York Knicks are a different team than they have been in YEARS. One with a ridiculously young roster, megatons of potential across the board, and most importantly, a coach that cares.
Yes, it has only been four games into the season and yes, they’re 1-3. However, in their last two games, they nearly took down the Boston Celtics and fell short to the Milwaukee Bucks. Against the Celtics, the absence of Gordon Hayward certainly helped New York out, who would not have been able to manage both Irving and Hayward come the 4th quarter. After mounting a comeback versus The Greek Freak and company, going basket for basket in the third quarter, the deep ball eventually buried them in the fourth quarter and the Bucks ran away with it to win by nine. Additionally, if not for the red hot Khris Middleton dropping 30 points on 7/8 from beyond the arc (Middleton is shooting 65% through the first three games.), the Knicks could have found themselves winning on the road versus an Eastern playoff contender.
Using that as a segue — one thing this group has going for them is their defense. There’s a lot of upside. They are 14th in the league in points allowed per game, 5th in steals per game, and 5th in points allowed off of turnovers. Frank Ntilikina, Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr. and off-season addition Noah Vonleh have all shown the ability to stay with their man and disrupt opposing teams’ offensive flow, which is a credit to their improving overall team defense. Kanter has been the anchor of the defense, providing rim protection in the paint especially without Kristaps Porzingis, who has been out since February with an ACL injury.
However, 20-year-old 1st round pick Ntilikina out of France (thanks to Phil Jackson before his timely departure from New York) has also developed more since his rookie campaign, showing flashes of great awareness and IQ on the defensive end. By the end of the season, Ntilikina could very well be a primary defender for the Blue and Orange, if not a year from now. In fact, the French Prince (a name donned by NBA Twitter) was ranked as one of the best pick & roll defenders of the 2017 season. Ntilikina’s wingspan and long strides help him get around quickly while covering the passing lanes. Vonleh has used his size, strength, and stamina to stay active in the paint and guard from the perimeter as well as provide a spark off the bench (Vonleh averages 17 min. per game). Note that there’s been no mention of the Knickerbocker’s second round pick Mitchell Robinson, who possesses potential to become a great rebounder and rim protector, or the 2018 first rounder Kevin Knox, who has great length as well. Robinson, however, has been limited after injuring his ankle versus the Hawks in the season opener and hasn’t been 100% during his minutes since — and Knox, who faces a similar issue after spraining his ankle early versus the Celtics two games ago, has been ruled out for three weeks. Both rookies must improve their footwork in order to make the basic steps towards being a good defender, but with Knox turning 19 years old this season, and Robinson coming off a year with no organized basketball – there is PLENTY of time for growth in all facets of their games, not just defense.
The Knicks continue to trend in the right direction this season because of a roster that has bought in to the philosophy of new head coach David Fizdale. The former leader of the Memphis Grizzlies seems to have found a new home at MSG and the players – and fans – have already taken a liking to the new hire. The faster paced offense, running the court in transition, and tenacity on defense are all new styles implemented by Fizdale, ideas that are nothing new to the NBA, but are to the Knicks — which is telling of the success the Knicks have had the past couple of seasons (among other issues and front office decisions). In fact, Fizdale did not start Knox (among other reasons, too, I’m sure) in the season opener because of his defense, and it’s been made clear to players you will need to play both sides of the court to earn your minutes. (And I love it). Getting the ball past mid court quickly, spending more time on the offensive end, and thanks to Kanter and Vonleh, and the newly added offensive rule that adds 14 seconds to the shot clock if the shooting team grabs the rebound – the Knicks have been getting up more shots and scoring more points as a result. Transition has become a new weapon to the Knicks as the youth of the roster allows for speedy breakouts, and athletic finishes — Fizdale also allows any player to bring the ball up. As soon as the Knicks can fully harness their shooting ability (specifically the three ball, especially in the absence of Courtney Lee), it will become even more lethal.
When set in the half-court, the Knicks have found several names on offense that can contribute with double digits in either points or rebounds. Enes Kanter has averaged a double-double every game, including a 17 point, 15 rebound performance against Boston. He’s a force on the boards, and in the paint – even flashing a newly added outside range after hitting a three pointer versus the Celtics as the game went basket for basket during the 3rd quarter. Whether it was wide open or not, the newfound range is an encouraging sign for the big man. Noah Vonleh played well versus Boston, notching 13 boards along with seven points, and scored 11 points and five rebounds against Milwaukee while also covering Giannis in many situations. Trey Burke shows versatility in his shots, slashing to the basket one possession and working the pick and role, while also hitting 16 footers and beyond. Burke put up a stat line of 19 points, five rebounds and four assists versus the Bucks, and nearly a double double with 11 and nine versus Boston. Hardaway has 104 total points which is the third most in the league, and barring an improvement in shot selection and field goal percentage, could sneak in as an All-Star reserve. Shooting guard Alonzo Trier has been a pleasant surprise for the Knicks as the undrafted rookie has already thrown down a soaring poster dunk versus Atlanta, shown range from beyond the arc, and displayed the ability to isolate and score (hence his twitter handle ISO_ZO). Other names that over time can develop a solid offensive game include center Noah Vonleh and second year guard Dameyon Dotson (who scored 14 pts last night). What’s encouraging about the Knicks offense is how much the young players can develop while also establishing their roles on offense without too much pressure to win. On top of it all, they are missing the All-Star talent, and heart of the team, Kristaps Porzingis. The upside of this Knicks team must excite the fans watching at home because, everything that can be accomplished without the Unicorn is an added bonus.
This season is essentially a showcase to garner any free agent interest this Summer. With Kristaps Porzingis fully healthy next year, if the Knicks can perform well this season (“Well” being anywhere from 25-35 wins, or above a .500 record), it could make for an intriguing 2019-2020 campaign with the playoffs in its sights.
The New York Knickerbockers have only played four games, and it may feel like the usual style of losing, but do not fear. This organization is on its way out of the tanking phase. In a few season, the Knicks should return to the exciting brand of basketball many fans remember from years past, whether it was #Knickstape at the start of the decade, or the 1990s. Regardless, fans should not lament another Knicks season but rather welcome it – there’s plenty to look out for this season and you don’t want to miss the start of a new era at MSG.