The New York Knicks and a partisan divide

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The New York Knicks lost their fifth straight Sunday, falling 106-94 to the Philadelphia Sixers in a game where the Sixers largely toyed with the Knicks for the fourth quarter. It’s not a surprise, downing sub-.500 teams by double-digits is kind of what Philly does this season. That’s their bread and butter.

But of course, the big question surrounds the star-laden, always controversial Knicks. And there are a million questions about them right now. From Jeremy Lin to Carmelo Anthony to Mike D’Antoni and back again, the furor surrounding why this isn’t an elite team in the league has once again reached a fever pitch. And the answers from Knicks fans (and Knicks, shall we say, opponents) is so contentious it rivals that of the politics of our time. It’s not enough to have one view of what’s wrong with the Knicks. It must be the only view.  Nuance is largely lost in a sea void of context, filled only with noise and anger over simplistic facts.

The Knicks have a large payroll.

The Knicks are not winning.

The Knicks have stars.

The Knicks are not playing well.

From there, the debate becomes fascinatingly narrow in the scope of discussion. What follows is an attempt to dispel some myths and explore some realities of what is wrong with the New York Knickerbockers. Consider that the questions involved are hyper-cartoonish exaggerations of attitudes and that most fans have more common sense. Not all. But some. So forgive the straw-man action in the name of entertainment.

The Knicks can’t win with Mike D’Antoni, because he just doesn’t care about defense.

So, I can understand how there are some things which are interpretative. Numbers don’t say everything. You have to put things in context. However, let’s at least try these two numbers.

New York Knicks defensive efficiency: 8th in the NBA overall.

New York Knicks offensive efficiency: 22nd in the NBA overall.

Efficiency is basically how many points you score vs. an estimated number of possessions. If you want the flat numbers, via Synergy Sports, they’re 21st in offense and 12th in defense. The myth that the Knicks are bad is based not on what is happening, but what has happened before. Mike D’Antoni’s past teams were bad at defense, so they are bad at defense now. That becomes “Mike D’Antoni teams are all bad at defense.” But the reality is that whether it is the effect of defensive assistant Mike Woodson, D’Antoni, Tyson Chandler, or just the players playing better, this team has been fine on defense. Have their been issues during the losing streak? Absolutely, otherwise they wouldn’t be losing so consistently. They surrendered 110 plus-efficiencies to San Antonio and Milwaukee.  But the defense itself isn’t what needs work.  The problem is the offense.

Linsanity is over.

Was Jeremy Lin going to keep up the super-effective pace he had to start his emergence? No, I don’t think anyone expected that. Teams get scouting reports, and usually they’re pretty effective if you keep to the same strategies that have worked for thirty years against certain player tendencies. Throw in fatigue, tougher competition, the target on the back, and standard probability, and you have what we’ve seen. Against Philadelphia, Lin scored 14 points on 18 shots, had seven assists and six turnovers. And yet, he had 20 and 13 against Milwaukee and 20 and 4 against the Spurs. He’s going to have turnovers. That’s a product of D’Antoni’s style and his inexperience. But there’s nothing that we’ve seen to illustrate that Lin is what the problem is, or that him starting is what needs to be changed.

It’s hard to believe also that there’s something limiting his ability to function with Carmelo Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire. Lin uses a world of pick and rolls on every possession. There’s no reason to think that if there’s a problem with the offense, it’s on Lin. There are adjustments that need to be made but you can’t identify Lin refusing to provide passes to either superstar, especially given his comfort with Tyson Chandler.

Carmelo Anthony is a selfish cancer who doesn’t fit and makes the Knicks worse.

Or,

Carmelo Anthony simply doesn’t fit in this system and so the system needs to change.

People will sometimes say “No NBA player is selfish. They all want to win.” That’s not true. At all. On any given night in the NBA I can give you some pretty compelling information and evidence regarding why a player is specifically angling towards a box score boost. But Carmelo Anthony isn’t that guy. He plays at too high a function, has had too much mentorship throughout his career from greats in the game, and has succeeded at too high a level to take that kind of attitude. Go watch the Wizards sometime and get back to me (apologies to John Wall, Trevor Booker, and Chris Singleton). Anthony isn’t “selfish.” He just has tendencies. The trick is to get him out of those tendencies and into ones that fit with this team.

I’ve outlined a lot of this work here.  Most of it involves getting Anthony in a position to score without the ball. When he’s moving through the flow of the offense, he’s finding high-percentage opportunities and converting. When he’s running in isolation the defense is triangulating to stop him with multiple defenders. When he’s floating off-ball he’s essentially hanging out on the perimeter waiting for passes that never come. There has to be ways to clear the defense off of him with the attention driven to Lin and Stoudemire/Chandler.

Saying the system should change? Well the reality is it probably will. The Knicks are 120 percent more dedicated to Carmelo Anthony than they are to Mike D’Antoni. Despite all the good work D’Antoni has done when given a roster that in any way resembles the kind of team he’d build, he’s going to be scapegoated. Phil Jackson looms in the distance and honestly? The Triangle, as many problems as I have with it, is perfect for this roster, at least its stars. Tyson down low, Amar’e at the elbow, Melo on the perimeter. What happens to Jeremy Lin? Exactly. But the point remains that will make Melo happier. But as far as whether D’Antoni should adjust to Melo or if Melo should adjust, were the Knicks successful early on trying to run the ball through Melo, and were they successful when Melo was out and their offense became more about ball movement with Lin as primary creator?

Amar’e Stoudemire is done

This one is tricky. There are so many complicating factors here.

1. Everyone gets to have a slump year. It just happens, and to overreact to it is not smart, long-term.

2. Conditioning is a huge part of this game and Amar’e clearly wasn’t prepared for the end of the lockout like a lot of stars who are struggling this season weren’t.

3. There’s nothing to suggest that Amar’e’s issues are related to his knees, the big injury question mark that has followed with him since microfracture surgery years ago. The lack of explosiveness is cited as related, but there are any host of reasons, specifically the above-mentioned conditioning that would suggest there are other reasons for the struggle.

But there’s also nothing to make you 100 percent confident he’ll get back to MVP-candidate Stoudemire. He played a lot of minutes last season and has taken a lot of wear and tear over the past few seasons. The concern has to be that eventually he won’t recover. Stoudemire’s game needs his explosion to the rim, and without it, he doesn’t have enough versatility to be efficient enough to sustain that kind of a role in the offense. With so many years left on his contract and with how much the Knicks have invested in him towards their future, this is one fear that’s legitimate, but not at all a certainty.

He just doesn’t look like the same player.

It’s the schedule, stupid

Since the All-Star Break, Cleveland, Boston, Dallas, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Philadelphia. Those are not pushover. Those are not the Nets (who New York is 1-1 against in the Lin era anyway). You want to try and break in a bunch of new pieces? That’s not the run to do it against. After a murderous game Monday against the Bulls, on the road on a back-to-back, things get a little easier. There are still tough games like a back-to-back set against Indiana and another Sixers contest, but there are some lower teams. There will be better chances to adjust, if they can.

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There will continue to be partisan talks about what is wrong with the Knicks as if it is one thing. It isn’t. They were good without Melo and have not been good with, but that doesn’t mean the two are necessarily related. Lin has been good but not amazing but that doesn’t mean he’s back to a fringe player. And Amar’e has struggled but that doesn’t mean he’s done. What is clear, though, is that this performance won’t stand, and there will be repercussions if they can’t work through their problems, together. That’s the big component. It’s the world’s biggest stage and filled with a lot of egos. But there will have to be sacrifice from everyone from ownership to coaching on down to Steve Novak to make this thing work.

They’re not dead yet, but the blood loss is a problem that seems to get worse.

 

Knicks won’t rush Kristaps Porzingis or future building plans

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kristaps Porzingis is back with his teammates, though the New York Knicks don’t know when he’ll be back on the court.

Joakim Noah won’t be back, though the terms of his departure still are being negotiated.

So while there are questions, the Knicks also feel they have certainty with the way they are building their team.

They insist their future first-round draft picks will be used to select players for their own team, not to be dangled in trades that could land them an established player.

“We’re committed to following a plan and not just shifting and pivoting because we see something that we think is attractive and might fast track something,” Knicks president Steve Mills said Thursday. “I’ve seen that happen and go wrong too many times and that’s not what we’re going to do.”

It’s happened in New York, where the Knicks traded young players and future assets in 2011 to acquire Carmelo Anthony, rather than sign him the following summer as a free agent with the cap space they had. This time, they say they will wait for the summer of 2019, when Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard could be among the free agents – even if one of them suddenly became available by trade now.

“We don’t want to jump at the shiny things,” coach David Fizdale said. “We want to make solid decisions and be patient with this process.”

They will be patient with Porzingis, their All-Star forward who is still recovering from a torn ACL in February. He is back in New York and working out with his teammates, but faces more testing and rehab before the Knicks know when he can play.

“As he meets certain milestones, we’ll continue his rehab process,” Mills said, “all toward the direction of when he feels 100 percent comfortable and we feel 100 percent comfortable that we’re not taking any risks with him, then he’ll be ready to come back.”

Not so for Noah, despite the two years left on the $72 million deal he signed in 2015. He has been away from the team since clashing with former coach Jeff Hornacek last season. The Knicks remain in discussions with Noah and his representation to determine how he’ll leave the club.

“The hope is that we can come to a resolution that is both advantageous to both Joakim and to the Knicks, and so that’s where it sits right now,” general manager Scott Perry said.

Porzingis is eligible for an extension this fall, but the Knicks seem prepared to wait until next summer. That would allow them to have more salary-cap space in July if they try to sign a player they won’t mortgage any of their future for now.

“We feel comfortable with our organization and where we’re going and what we’re developing here,” Mills said, “and we think that when it’s time for us to go after free agents, we’ll be a place to attract free agents and we shouldn’t use our draft picks like that.”

 

Report: Numerous teams interested in possible Jimmy Butler trade

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The sudden Jimmy Butler trade drama: Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Monday Butler and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau were set to meet in Minneapolis but that got moved in Los Angeles last Monday, but that got moved to Tuesday, where Thibodeau thought he could patch up the Butler/Karl-Anthony Towns relationship enough to get them on the same page for training camp, but then Butler asked for a tradespecifically to the Clippers/Nets/Knicks (with Los Angeles in front), but Thibodeau doesn’t want to trade Butler and would rather quit than move him for a rebuilding package of picks.

Whew.

(And we didn’t even get into the Andrew Wiggins drama or the Towns’ girlfriend drama.)

This makes for a very interesting media day Monday in Minnesota (where everybody will deny everything), however, little has been resolved. Butler wants out and Thibodeau doesn’t want to trade him. Eventually, Thibodeau is going to have to come around on this (or be pushed out for someone who does) — Minnesota can’t afford to lose him for nothing in free agency considering all they gave up.

But the Timberwolves don’t have to trade him where he wants to go — they just need to get the best deal for themselves. From Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic:

We have seen this before, Oklahoma City taking a swing at Paul George (that worked out), Toronto rolling the dice with Kawhi Leonard.

I could see a team such as Miami putting together a veteran-heavy package (Thibodeau still wants to win) such as Josh Richardson and Kelly Olynyk, or Richardson with Justise Winslow and some other salary and picks, and seeing if that inspires Thibodeau. (The Clippers may well be able to put together the best veteran package, based around Tobias Harris.) The Suns have been big game hunting and could come in (Trevor Ariza can’t be traded until Dec. 15 but he could be a part of a deal). Philadelphia could roll the dice. There are others.

All of this is a while off — Thibodeau isn’t there yet. There’s a lot of drama between now and then.

DeMar DeRozan tells Serge Ibaka when he plays Raptors he’ll “probably go for 50”

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Serge Ibaka has a cooking show on YouTube called “How Hungry Are You?” Seriously. You can see an episode above. That was much higher on the list of things I did not expect than Bert and Ernie possibly being gay.

New Spur DeMar DeRozan went on the show with his former teammate, presumably to learn how to make some Tex-Mex meals so he can blend in better in San Antonio, when the topic of when DeRozan playing the Raptors for the first time came up. DeRozan was joking around, but I think he meant this:

“Probably go for 50 (points). I’m gonna foul you out. I’m gonna foul (Jonas Valanciunas) out. I’m telling you.”

DeRozan wasn’t done with the cooking references, either.

While 50 is a big number, if DeRozan is on your fantasy team you want to play him the week of Jan. 3 when the Spurs play host to Toronto — he is going to go off on his former team. You can bet Gregg Popovich will have a few special plays in mind and his teammates will be getting DeRozan the rock all he wants.

DeRozan did not want to be traded from the city he loved and repped for his entire career, he wanted to stay and win there. It didn’t work out that way, Toronto rolled the dice on Kawhi Leonard (which was not a bad gamble for the franchise). That said, DeRozan landed with a great organization and a team that can win some games in the West. The fans in San Antonio will love him, too, he can be a leader there.

And leaders step up when motivated. For DeRozan, that will be Jan. 3, 2019.

How far can contrarian, big, defensive Jazz go in the West this season?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the Jazz as the focus

We know the NBA buzzwords, the trends. Small ball. Offense over defense. Play fast. Teams have to have men who can spread the floor with their three-point shooting. Teams want undersized power forwards who play more like wings. The offense is to run a pick-and-roll to force a switch, then isolate and let your best shot creator attack the mismatch.

The Utah Jazz are none of that.

They are contrarian, a throwback. And they are one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

Utah is defensive team that starts a twin towers front line where neither can really step out and space the floor with their jumper. Utah’s starting power forward, Derrick Favors, is a power forward in the classic sense. They run a motion offense, and only 5.3 percent of their offensive attempts came out of isolation last season. They don’t play at a high pace, they prefer a game that grinds down, physically but also mentally.

They are not following the small ball trend, and that’s a conscious decision.

“Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…” Jazz coach Quin Snyder told NBC Sports last season. “Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Utah plays the way it plays. And with that, most pundits have them as a top-four team in the West (Vegas books have them with the fourth highest under/over win total in the West at 48.5), and some around the league wonder if the Jazz can beat a diminished Rockets’ squad this season.

However, does their style also have a ceiling? Utah’s defense stymied Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season, but the spacing and pace of the Houston Rockets proved to be too much — it was hard to keep Rudy Gobert on the court against those smaller lineups, and Houston’s switching defense stalled out the Utah offense.

If the question is “can we beat Golden State and Houston the way we play?” then 12 teams in the West — and 28 teams across the entire NBA — are asking that same question. Utah believes it can, or it can at least threaten them, by just doing what they do better.

If the Jazz are going to live up to a top-four slot, a few things have to happen, and it starts with Rudy Gobert staying healthy. He missed most of the first half of last season with knee injuries — not chronic things, but both times because a player fell into him — but once he was back and right Utah went 29-6 to close out the season. He won Defensive Player of the Year because of how dominant he was during that run.

Obviously, the reason for the hot finish was Utah’s incredible defense: After the All-Star break it allowed just 96 points per 100 possessions, by far the best in the league. That defense could get better this season: a healthy Gobert all season, plus full seasons out of Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale, plus players with another season in the system.

The surprise for the Jazz last season was a respectable offense (16th in the league), which came about because rookie Donovan Mitchell played like an All-Star, 20.5 points and 3.7 assists per game. Mitchell impressed everyone, but sometimes players with strong rookie campaigns plateau their second season, not growing and making the next leap some expect. Utah, to take a step forward, needs him to grow.

Around him there are solid veterans who knew how to play the game — Gobert running the rim, Joe Ingles spotting up at the arc and moving the ball to the right man on closeouts, Ricky Rubio figuring out how to adjust to the motion offense then thriving in it as a distributor (after the All-Star break he averaged 15 points a game, shot 40.9 percent from three, and had 5.6 assists a night), and Derrick Favors getting his buckets.

Utah didn’t make big moves this summer but believes it has added some firepower. They re-signed Dante Exum over the summer and believe (more than anyone else) he is healthy and ready for a breakout year. They drafted Grayson Allen, who showed at Summer League he’s more than a spot-up guy. They get a full season of the solid Jae Crowder.

Utah is counting on continuity.

That and defense will alone not be enough. The Jazz need health, and they need the offense to get better — a few more easy buckets in transition would help. The Jazz were 19th in the NBA in percentage of offense that started in transition (stat via Cleaning The Glass) and while that’s not bad for a team that wants a defensive game, a few more easy transition buckets a night help.

The Jazz also need to better handle switching defenses — the elite teams they want to challenge in the West switch a lot, and to beat them in a seven-game series Utah has to score more comfortably against the switch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a James Harden back-it-out-and-isolate play, but to do it in the context of the motion offense requires precision and ability to exploit the smallest mistake the Jazz did not have last season.

The Jazz are going to be the Jazz this season — contrarian, grinding, and a nightly defensive force. That can take them a long way, especially in the regular season.
If it can get them where they want to go in the playoffs is a much tougher question.