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NBA Daily: Fixing the New York Knicks

It is nearly April and that means the NBA postseason has begun to take shape. But while a number of teams’ posture for higher seeding, the season is already all but over for others – four to be exact.

Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint for all four teams to right their respective ships. We will continue along in this series by examining the New York Knicks.

Unofficially the 2018-19 season has been mostly inconsequential for the Knicks since opening night. Expectations were low to begin with – a fact that was amplified by a mid-season trade of Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. The Knicks are approaching another make-or-break offseason, which has added pressure considering their championship drought and the rumors of free agent interest.

As far as their current roster, the Knicks haven’t shown much progress this season. They are currently on a slide in which they’ve won only one of their last 11 games, six of which were lost by double figures. But there is still lots to look forward to. The Knicks have the second youngest roster in the league, and their rookies and younger players now have another year of experience under their belts. Additionally, their leadership group projects a thoughtfulness not seen in Madison Square Garden since Donnie Walsh-Mike D’Antoni, which was surprisingly short-lived.

What is Working

Coach David Fizdale is still in his first season as the Knicks’ head coach. While he appears to have struggled getting his system across to the team, Fizdale is still widely seen as an above-average NBA mind who is well-respected around the league. He received clemency this season considering the lack of talent on the team’s opening day roster. Hiring Fizdale was about building a culture. Like him or not, Fizdale will receive at least another season to prove his worth. Further, his connections across the league (and more specifically to the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT) have granted him a relatively high profile. But coaches don’t get terribly long leashes, especially in New York. Fizdale would be best served by a playoff-birth (at least) in 2020.

Dennis Smith Jr. is another bright spot for the Knicks. He came to New York courtesy of the Porzingis-to-Dallas trade at the deadline. Smith Jr. has been a difference maker in New York so far, looking far more like the second-team all-rookie player he was last season. He posted 14.6 points per game on 41.6 percent shooting along with averaged 6 assists per contest in his first 17 games as a Knick. He has sat out the last four. Games with back soreness, which seems to be precautionary – after all, the Knicks aren’t competing for a playoff spot.

Smith Jr.’s shooting must improve, especially from three (29%) and the free-throw line (58.6%), but he is clearly more comfortable in the lead-guard role – one which he’s returned to since joining New York. While he would obviously prefer to remain the starting point guard, a player of Smith Jr.’s caliber is an asset in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.

The two more unheralded of the Knicks’ rookies have also looked significantly better than they were expected to. Allonzo Trier already looks like an NBA veteran thanks to his polished offensive game, averaging 10.9 points per game on nearly 45% shooting and 39% from three. Trier has demonstrated the ability to create his own shot against elite defenders. He has his share of deficiencies, but he looks like an NBA player, and the Knicks have him under contract next season (with a team option) at only $3.5 million.

But Trier wasn’t the only talent the Knicks lucked into in last year’s draft. Mitchell Robinson – the  36thpick in the 2018 NBA Draft – dropped into the second-round thanks to a combination of too limited a body of work (Robinson withdrew from Western Kentucky University prior to the start of the collegiate season in 2017) and poor advice from his former agent to skip the Draft Combine. But Robinson looks like a first-rounder now. His combination of athleticism and length have proven to be huge assets to him and the team; he recently tied a Patrick Ewing’s Knicks’ rookie record for consecutive games with a block (28). He also passed Kristaps Porzingis to set the Knicks’ franchise record for most blocks amongst rookies and he’s among the best in the league at blocking three-point field goal attempts (8 of his 35 blocks in February resulted from three-point attempts). Robinson’s has improved his early-season foul woes. And while it’s still something to work on, Robinson made strong enough progress to affect the game on a regular basis in his first year in the league.

What Needs to Change

The Knicks expect lots of change this offseason.

The team’s youth and lack of continuity is apparent on the defensive end. They rank 26thin adjusted defensive rating and they average the third worst margin of victory per game (-8.86 points).

But it’s not just their defense that must improve; the Knicks also need help on the offensive end. Specifically, the Knicks need more efficient scorers – they are the third lowest scoring team despite generating the 16thmost field goal attempts per game – and they especially need three-point shooters (26thin three-point percentage).

The Knicks also hope to see improvement from individual players, like Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina was still an above-average defender in his sophomore campaign – although receiving far less fanfare for it – but he exhibited no growth on the offensive end. In fact, his PER and win share per game both went down this season from his rookie year. Ntilikina entered the NBA as an 18-year-old rookie with a limited offensive repertoire. And while he’ll enter his third season at only 21 years old, the time for improvement is now. Ntilikina must demonstrate a more consistent jump shot – he shot only 30% from between 16 feet and three-point range – as well as a more deliberate offensive approach. While the latter stems from his philosophical approach to the game, he can realize improvements on the former by repetition and hard work (e.g., Kemba Walker, who shot 31% from deep in his first four season and 38% in his past four including this season).

Kevin Knox also struggled with consistency this season; case in point, Knox’s took 17, 14 and 14 shot attempts in the team’s last three games; however, he shot a combined 16 field goal attempts across the two games prior to those. And this has been the case for much of the season. Knox has shown the ability to be a versatile scorer (ala Jason Tatum or Tobias Harris), but he must work on remaining aggressive and engaged. Fortunately, Knox was the third youngest player selected in the 2018 NBA Draft and has more than enough time to develop an edge.

Focus Area: The Draft

The Knicks will enter the 2019 NBA Draft with as good odds as any other team at securing the first overall pick. Zion Williamson looks to be a transcendent talent around whom any team would love to build. But with the reworked Draft Lottery rules, the last place team has the same odds as the next two in the standings. And regardless if they get the first overall pick or not, rumors have swirled about the possibility that the Knicks could swap their 2019 first-round pick along with other assets for a bona fide star, like Anthony Davis.

In the event that the Knicks keep their pick, they can fall no lower than the fifth overall pick if they finish with the worst record in the league (which becomes sixth if they finish with the second-worst record). Assuming they finish with the worst overall record, their odds of landing each pick are as follows: 14% for number last place, 13.4% chance for second to last, 12.7% for third to last, 12.0% for fourth to last and 47.9% for fifth to last.

This year’s draft is widely viewed as offering three sure things (Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett) and everyone else. The Knicks have approximately a 40% chance at selecting in the top three. If they do not secure the first overall pick, they will likely choose between Morant and Barrett. Either would fit nicely, mostly because the Knicks have limited building blocks. Morant would likely push Smith Jr. off the ball, which hurt his efficiency a bit. But Morant scores the ball and distributes to teammates. Meanwhile, Barrett was slightly underwhelming in Williamson’s recent absence. Still, he is clearly a top-tier talent and if the Knicks end up with the second or third pick, either of these two would represent a strong edition.

If they drop to four or five, their decision becomes significantly more difficult. Cameron Reddish, Bol Bol, Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter, Keldon Johnson, Romeo Langford, Jontay Porter and Kevin Porter – among others – would all warrant consideration with no clear-cut favorite at this point in time.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While the Knicks are in the driver’s seat for the first overall pick, free agency will be the Knicks’ main driver for improvement. The Knicks have only seven players under contract for 2019-20: Damyean Dotson, John Jenkins, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier  – as well as Henry Ellenson’s $1.6 million team option and Lance Thomas’ partial guarantee ($1 million). The Knicks will probably hang onto Ellenson. Unfortunately, if the Knicks seek to maximize cap space they must waive Thomas instead of paying his full $7.5 million, although they have until January 2020 to do so.

The team’s roster was arranged for flexibility, though. They missed on their targeted free agents in 2010, but the narrative around free agency and free agent destinations has changed in the past nine years. The Knicks are now seen as a plausible free agent destination. With that being said, there are rumors about their interest in adding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – or two max-level free agents – to the roster. There are also rumors that suggest said interest is reciprocated. If the Knicks obtain Irving and Durant – or any combination of two stars – they will likely look to turn their young talent into a third star. If they are unable to procure superstar free agents, they should remain the course instead of overpaying for lesser players. The most interesting scenario, though, is if the Knicks win the draft lottery AND sign Irving and Durant. What they do with the first pick (presumably Williamson) will reveal a lot to their fans and other franchises around the league.

The Knicks still have ten games left this season. Their younger players must remain locked in and continue learning as much as possible from guys like Lance Thomas and DeAndre Jordan. Next season will be here soon enough and the roster will likely see a tremendous amount of turnover. Hopefully for the Knicks and their fans, this is among – if not THE – last time for a long time that the offseason is more exciting than the regular season.

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