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Three questions the New York Knicks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 31-51, missed the playoffs. Again.

I know what you did last summer: Last weekend, the Carmelo Anthony era came to an end in New York as he was traded to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott (plus a high second-round pick). The Carmelo era came to an end because former team president Phil Jackson poisoned that well, but that and a stupid pissing match with Kristaps Porzingis cost Jackson his job this summer as well. A new front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry then went out and overpaid for Tim Hardaway Jr., bringing him back to NYC (after the Hawks did the work of developing him). The Knicks also revamped the point guard spot letting Derrick Rose walk and adding Jarrett Jack (free agent) Frank Ntilikina (No. 8 draft pick), and Ramon Sessions (free agent).

THREE QUESTIONS THE KNICKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Kristaps Porzingis, are you ready to lead a team?
Anthony was traded for one primary reason… well two primary reasons: He wanted out (thank’s, Phil), and the Knicks wanted to turn the page and make this entirely Porzingis’ team, getting him out of ‘Melo’s shadow. Well, they got their wish, now it falls to Porzingis to prove he is ready to lead a team — and I don’t mean Latvia in EuroBasket (where he played well, but it’s not the same thing).

Redo the 2015 draft and Porzingis goes second (behind Karl-Anthony Towns), but that is based as much on potential for who he can be as what he has shown for far — and he has shown plenty. Porzingis has all the tools to be an All-NBA player — he can space the floor as a three-point shooter, he’s tougher than people think and can score inside, he’s athletic and can protect the rim — but now he has to put it all together in one improved package. He’s the man, the Knicks are his team, he has to make the plays — and handle some shot creation (because they will not get it from their point guards). More importantly, he has do it consistently. Anthony isn’t isn’t there to stop the ball and jack up shots, particularly in crunch time, now everything should run through KP. He can score, but he needs to lift his teammates up.

Also, Jeff Hornacek needs to get Porzingis time at center — that remains his future, not at the four. The Knicks have Joakim Noah and Enes Kanter who will get minutes there, Guillermo Hernangómez is probably the best of the group, but KP needs time at that slot.

Another part of this is the Knicks need Porzingis to evolve into an elite defender. (Phil Jackson had hoped Joakim Noah would fill that role, paid him $72 million despite injuries and a declining game, and Noah has not been healthy and is the shell of his old self when he was. That contract is now an anchor.) Porzingis has shown some rim-protecting skills, but they need more than a couple blocks from him now, he must quarterback the defense.

Asking Porzingis to be an All-NBA player this season may be a little much (although he should get close), but he should make the All-Star team in a depleted East. If not, the Knicks have bigger issues.

2) Is Tim Hardaway Jr. ready for his turn in the spotlight? The Knicks needed more perimeter scoring, and they turned to an old friend — Tim Hardaway Jr. The former Knick had gone to Atlanta and developed under Mike Budenholzer into a quality rotation player who can hit threes (35.7 percent last season), defend on the perimeter, and he had the promise of getting even better at age 25. The Knicks believed in that promise, but to get the restricted free agent they knew they had to come in big. They did, paying $71 million over four years to get him, far more than anyone else was bidding. Even the Hawks walked away. It was one of the more head-shaking contracts of the summer.

Hardaway will get the chance to prove those who questioned his contract wrong. He’s going to get opportunities, he’s going to get touches, and he should put up more than the 14.5 points a game he did last season. The challenge is he is now the best shot creator and biggest threat on the Knicks perimeter — he has to do more than just score, and he’ll have to do it with the other team’s best perimeter defender in his face every night.

The Knicks are paying him to be a No. 2, can he step into that role? Can he remain efficient when taking on a bigger load? Can he and Porzingis develop chemistry? Hardaway got paid, now he has to prove the Knicks didn’t overvalue him.

3) Freed from the triangle, can Jeff Hornacek get a young team to buy into his style? The answer to that question may start with another question: What is Jeff Hornacek’s style? He would be quick to say it is up-tempo, with plenty of ball movement and certainly more three-point shooting.

That, of course, begs another question: Can he run that system without a good point guard? The Knicks drafted Frank Ntilikina, and he shows promise, but he is an 18-year-old raw rookie about to make a massive leap in the level of competition he faces. Don’t expect too much from him this season. Journeyman Ramon Sessions is probably the best playmaker on the roster. If needed, Ron Baker is there at the guard spot (another guy the Knicks dramatically overpaid this summer using the room exception).

The Knicks were middle of the pack team offensively last season (18th in points per possession), playing through the strange on-again off-again triangle hybrid offense they used. Freed from that, the Knicks need to be better on that end, with Hardaway providing the outside to Porzingis’ inside. That has to start with the players being unleashed to shoot the three ball, the Knicks were bottom 10 in the NBA last season in threes attempted and three-point shooting percentage, Hardaway has to lead a turnaround in that category.

The biggest question facing the Knicks (or at least 1A tied with do they get any point guard play?) is can they get enough stops? The Knicks were 26th in the NBA in defense last season, and swapping out ‘Melo for Enes Kanter isn’t going to improve things. Porzingis can be a rim protector, but he has to do more and quarterback the defense. Hardaway needs to lead an improvement the defense on the perimeter. Hornacek will talk about coaching offense, but getting this team to buy into a defensive plan may be the biggest key to him keeping his job.

It’s going to be a long season in New York, even in a down East, this is not a playoff team. But Knicks fans want to see steps forward, they want hope. And that starts with this becoming Porzingis’ team.

Karl-Anthony Towns shoots down trade rumors, and was that a dig at Jimmy Butler?

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Karl-Anthony Towns was back on the court for the first time in a month Friday night, dropping 27 on the Pacers and looking every bit one of the best big men in the game (even as he shook off a little rust).

Towns’ name was in the news while he was out, with reports about how the Knicks dream was to trade for him and Warriors were monitoring his situation. There has been zero Towns trade talk around the league — he is in the first year of a five-year contract extension and wants to give the new Timberwolves’ new management a chance to build around him — but that hasn’t squashed the speculation.

So Towns tried to do that after Friday night’s game — and takes a little dig at Jimmy Butler in the process. Via Chris Hine of the Star Tribune.

“I think you’ve been around me long enough to know I don’t go for all the s***,” Towns said. “I just do my job, go home and I know what the real story is. There’s a reason those stories are made because people need to sell papers, sell links and clicks, whatever the case may be. I’m here to be a Minnesota Timberwolf. Very fortunate I have a head coach like [Ryan Saunders], a President and friend like [Gersson Rosas]. I’m not worried about all that nonsense.

“Whatever we have to deal with in house, we’ll deal with in house, but this ain’t the circus like it used to be. This is something that’s going to be done as a family. If we have a problem or anything, we’ll deal with it internally. We won’t have any external forces here adding anything.”

The circus/family comments are clearly a little dig at Jimmy Butler.

The circus was at the start of the 2018-19 season, when Butler wanted out of Minnesota and went full diva to create a massive distraction and force then coach/GM Tom Thibodeau’s hand. Butler was traded to the Sixers, and then last summer left Philadelphia for Miami (where he has played at an All-NBA level). Butler may not have loved how he perceived Towns (and, more so, Andrew Wiggins) commitment to the game, but Towns was no fan of how Butler handled his business. Towns doesn’t like things dealt with that publicly.

Towns was playing at an All-NBA level himself this season before his injury, including shooting 41.5 percent on 8.5 threes a game — KAT has been an offensive force. Rosas, however, has a lot of work to do to build a quality team around Towns. Towns committed to Minnesota with this new contract and, while he may be frustrated with the losing this season, he’s not going Anthony Davis.

A couple of years from now… who knows? That’s a couple of lifetimes away in the NBA. Until then, teams will monitor Towns’ situation and mood, he will shoot down trade rumors, and the cycle will go on.

Somehow, Ja Morant highlights keep getting better (video)

Ja Morant
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Ja Morant is special.

He has already produced a few amazing plays during his rookie year. He has even taken over full games with his flashy play.

But the performance he put on during the Grizzlies’ win over the Cavaliers last night was something else.

Thrice, Morant elevated for show-stopping dunks. He scored only once. But each time, something incredible happened.

First, Morant way up to catch a lob from Jae Crowder, adjusted mid-air and found Jaren Jackson Jr. for a dunk:

Then, less than a minute later, Morant finished a lob from Crowder with a beautiful one-handed slam:

Finally, Morant leaped to posterize Larry Nance Jr., realized that wouldn’t work then threw a spinning behind-the-back pass to Jackson. Though Alfonzo McKinnie blocked Jackson, Morant’s move was dazzling:

If Morant is going to keep putting on shows like this during games, maybe we can forgive him for skipping the dunk contest.

Trae Young gets ankles absolutely destroyed by Dejounte Murray (video)

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The Hawks got Trae Young his desired help, trading for Jeff Teague.

Maybe Young will do his part and step up on defense.

That didn’t happen on this possession against Spurs guard Dejounte Murry.

At least Young continued his breakout season on the other end, scoring 31 points and dishing nine assists in Atlanta’s rare victory in San Antonio.

Tristan Thompson slaps Jae Crowder’s rear end, gets ejected (video)

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What is it about Cleveland athletes slapping butts and getting in trouble?

Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. faces a simple battery charge for slapping a police officer’s backside in LSU’s locker room after the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Last night, Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson got ejected for slapping Grizzlies forward Jae Crowder‘s behind.

Thompson and Crowder got double technical fouls earlier in the game. So, Thompson got ejected with a tech for this incident between free throws.

Though the two are former Cleveland teammates, Crowder didn’t look amused. Crowder doesn’t play.

The Cavs rallied without Thompson, but Memphis won, 113-109.