With Carmelo Anthony finally traded last summer, the 2017-18 season marked the beginning of the Kristaps Porzingis Era for the New York Knicks. Things went great over the first month of the season. Porzingis looked like an MVP candidate and role players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter chipped in admirably.
The Knicks eeked out close games with a surprisingly efficient offense (fifth in fourth quarter offensive rating from Oct. 17 through Nov. 17).
Then, Porzingis went down.
Then the chirps about head coach Jeff Hornacek got louder.
Then Jarrett Jack happened, and kept happening, and kept happening.
Suddenly, the hot start was but a distant memory and the harsh reality settled in again — these Knicks weren’t going anywhere.
If there’s a bright side, the Knicks have more of a direction than they’ve had in recent years. Porzingis is The Guy; Frank Ntilikina is going to be good, even if there are questions about his best role as of now. There’s a new sheriff — well, head coach — in town, one that should give a sense of identity to a perpetually bad team.
Here to talk to me about the state of the Knicks is Sara Peters of Bleacher Report. You can follow her on Twitter at @3fromthe7.
7. Kristaps Porzingis looked like he was ready to make a leap before having his season cut short with a major injury. What stood out to you the most?
My neighbors were probably concerned about me early in the season because all the times I shouted “Ooooooo daaaaaaamn!” at a swirling Olajuwonesque slam, a monstrous block, or even three blocks in one play (poor Cody Zeller).
What impressed me were a few massive improvements he made over the previous season. Kristaps Porzingis was creating his own shots with a much more confident post game and was dominantly defending the paint without getting in foul trouble. In November, 38.7 percent of his made field goals were unassisted and he only committed 2.7 fouls per game. His power, mobility, size and skill were all being put to best use.
When he started to struggle is when Hardaway went down. Without a major perimeter threat to draw bodies or spread the floor, he didn’t have the same freedom, the same space. And of course on the road…well, they all ate hamburgers laced with tranquilizers or something.
6. Frank Ntilikina was a relative unknown coming out of last year’s draft. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers this year but looks like he could become one of the best defenders at his position in the near future. How did you feel about the pick at the time and how do you feel about him now?
I managed to resist the seductive enchantments of Dennis Smith Jr’s offense (and Malik Monk’s). Frank was my top choice because of his exceptional defensive intelligence, which is extremely rare in a rookie. I’m even happier with him now than I was then…but is he a starting point guard? I’m not convinced of that yet. I am impressed with his character, ability to play both backcourt positions, overall growth, and defense, which is just as good as advertised.
5. Jeff Hornacek is out — David Fizdale is in. How much blame do you place on Hornacek for New York’s lack of success during his stint?
Jeff Hornacek was given a difficult roster to manage and then he managed it horribly. As a leader of people, he utterly failed – the Joakim Noah situation is the perfect example. As a tactician, he made missteps. For example, when Hardaway went down, he left Porzingis to shoulder the entire burden – or Michael Beasley, when Porzingis was not on the floor – instead of finding ways to work other backcourt players, like Courtney Lee, into the offense. And when the defense was failing, the blame was always on the players for a lack of effort, never on the coaching staff for a lack of direction.
4. How excited are you about Fizdale?
When the Memphis Grizzlies fired Coach Fiz, I was tempted to put a poster of him on my wall like the one I had of Lou Diamond Phillips when I was in seventh grade, but I didn’t dare to dream so high. Once the Knicks fired Hornacek and started interviewing, it was between Fizdale and Mike Budenholzer for me – Budenholzer actually had the edge because of all he’d done for Hardaway’s development. But I’m delighted with Fizdale.
The Knicks have sorely lacked for defense, which was the defining characteristic of the Grindhouse when he coached the Memphis Grizzlies. But what the Knicks have been even more desperate for is an identity. For years, nobody’s really been able to answer a question like “Who are these Knicks? What’s this team about?” Fizdale has a strong personality and passion – he’s not wishy-washy. And I think that’s what is needed now.
Will MSG be the new Grindhouse or will it be something else? I don’t know, but it will have a character. The team will be more than just a set of co-workers showing up to the office. And the fact that Fizdale has already started building relationships and spending free time with players before the offseason is a sign of that.
3. Enes Kanter has become a bit of a fan favorite. All signs point to him opting out this summer but he clearly wants to be back. On the flip side, Porzingis may be best utilized at center. How would you like to see the Knicks approach Kanter’s free agency?
I’m not actually convinced that Porzingis is best at center. Playing the 4 gives him more freedom to use his wide gamut of skills. Nevertheless, it’s hard to decide whether to pay Kanter… and/or Kyle O’Quinn, who also has a player option. I know the smart business decisions for both Kanter and O’Quinn are to waive the options, but I wouldn’t be gobsmacked if they both – Kanter especially, since he’s making a helluva lot more than KO – pick them up. If the prices were right, I might just keep them both and see what an emotional, defense-first coach can do with two emotional players who compete on that end. I’m glad I’m not the one who has to make the call.
2. The Knicks have the ninth pick in this year’s draft. Who would you like to see them take?
In the draft, I think you should prioritize talent over fit, so ultimately they should be leaning towards the best player available. That said, the Knicks need to bolster their wing defense and three point shooting and I’m not hopeful about the options for those in the free agent market.
Also, as much as I like Collin Sexton (and I do), the Knicks shouldn’t go slobbering over any point guard unless they are committed to cutting ties with at least one of their current guards right now.
Depth and healthy competition between teammates are great things but it’s hard to maintain team spirit when you’re four-deep at one position – especially at that position.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that I would love for them to look closely at Khyri Thomas, who won the Big East Defensive Player of the Year twice at Creighton – where they call defense “Khyrifense” – and Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, who shared that award with Thomas once.
1. What needs would you like to see the Knicks address in free agency? Who are some potential targets?
I have blueprints for trap doors in the parquet floors at the Boston Garden so I can steal Marcus Smart from the Boston Celtics. I think they’ll probably match any offer for him, because he is one of the most elegantly hardscrabble, triumphantly annoying, gloriously destructive players that’s ever existed.
If the Knicks do decide to let Kanter and O’Quinn walk and play Porzingis at the 5 more, then I’d consider bulking up their frontcourt with a few energetic bruiser like Montrezl Harrell or Quincy Acy (who’s added a three to his game since he left the Knicks). I also now have a hard time imagining life without Michael Beasley.