The Knicks are committing crimes against basketball
The Knicks are an even bigger disaster than we imagined. The Knicks are even worse than the memes suggest. On media day, New York Knicks team president Steve Mills declared the team’s offseason was actually executed as planned. And it wasn’t hard for anyone to call bullshit. Just three months earlier, Mills issued a statement pleading for fans to keep faith after not landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Of course it wasn’t the plan to instead ink anyone who’d accept a ballooned, short-term salary, positions or skill sets be damned. Mills was lying, or at least engaging in strategic delusion in the name of self-preservation. Yet somehow, that reading gives Mills and the rest of the organization too much credit. It doesn’t take long watching this team to realize things are a whole lot worse than even the most reductive Knicks jokes suggest. Those jokes are true, to be clear. Nothing will change until toxic ownership is removed. The Knicks did sign too many power forwards this summer. This roster is impossible to coach while still giving Mills and general manager Scott Perry enough plausible deniability to suggest head coach David Fizdale is the biggest problem. The young players on the roster are a tad overrated and aren’t fulfilling their draft potential. The product really is the result of years of yo-yoing between plans, all while selling fans on endless pivots and possibilities that never come to fruition. This team is actually so much worse than all of that. The roster Mills and Perry assembled is an endless black hole of self-interest and misaligned incentives that nudges every player to his worst instinct. It belongs in a Breaking Madden experiment, not actual reality. It’s a roster of mediocrity that adds up to a tiny fraction of the sum of its parts. It’s such a disaster that it’s impossible to blame any single factor for its dysfunction, which is ideal for a Teflon team president whose only skill is tossing others under the bus to save himself. The Knicks’ “marquee” free agent signing this summer is the most fitting on-court avatar for all of this. Once upon a time, Julius Randle was a top prospect with a bright NBA future. But after spending his formative NBA years mired in the Lakers’ dysfunction, then a season on a lost New Orleans team where he put up numbers with no impact on winning, Randle has mastered the art of appearing to play hard while not actually playing hard in a constructive way. So far, Randle has imported all of his bad habits and none of the shot-making he displayed in New Orleans. He catches the ball and holds it, triple-threating any potential opportunity away to scan a defense that should’ve already been tilted for him. Even on TV, you can feel the energy sucked out of the other four Knicks players as they stand helplessly waiting for Randle to make a play. No big man in the league averages more seconds or dribbles per touch. What do the Knicks get from all that standing around? Usually, those plays are multiple-dribble moves into traffic that fail to work out.’ Or, contested three-pointers that never seem to go in. (Randle is shooting 21 percent on three-and-a-half three-point attempts a game. You’re open for a reason, my man). Randle is a powerful driver at his best and completes enough of those plays to make you think he’s a force of nature. However, all the starting and stopping he does negates that power. A more decisive version of Randle should be able execute a quality dribble-handoff, using screening angles that takes his partner’s defender out of the play and reacting from there. But Randle instead plays far too upright, so he fails to make contact on screens he sets. Poor screening means no separation for him or his teammates, which further kills the flow of the offense and/or sets him up for another one of those battering-ram drives into traffic. Theoretically, Randle’s speed and strength can be weapons he deploys in conjunction with non-stop movement. In reality, though, Randle only activates the engine when he gets the ball, and by then it’s too late to create anything efficient for himself or a teammate. Any offense with this type of player using the most possessions is committing a basketball crime. The Knicks’ half-court offense is averaging just 81.4 points per 100 possessions through the first 11 games this season, according to Cleaning The Glass. The gap between them and the second-worst half-court offense is wider than the gap between second-worst and 10th-worst. In fact, no team has been below 82 points per 100 possessions on half-court possessions since the Process era 76ers of 2014-15. Worse, half-court plays account for nearly 78 percent of the Knicks’ possessions, third-highest in the league. That means you get a whole lot of this: But even though Randle is an undersized, inefficient scorer who vacuums shots away from teammates and won’t set a screen or space the floor to help someone else thrive, the Knicks’ on-court issues can’t be laid at his feet. That’s because all of Randle’s worst instincts are compounded by the rest of the roster. That includes Marcus Morris Sr., a stretch power forward masquerading as a small forward. Morris thrived in Boston last year because he got to finish plays, not start them. Sixty-nine percent of his buckets were assisted, and nearly 51 percent of his shots attempts came after zero dribbles. Less has always been more for him on either end. He’s been forced to do more this year, which isn’t helping anyone. Only 35 percent of his shots came off zero dribbles this year, which is about as many as off three or more dribbles (34 percent). He’s averaging twice as many assists as turnovers, and watching him run pick-and-roll is excruciating. Young big man Mitchell Robinson’s absence with a concussion means we’re getting a lot of Bobby Portis, a player adept at shooting, but nothing else. Portis’ screens are just slip opportunities for him to get off his own shot, the rest of the court be damned. He occasionally gets hot, but usually he’s running around aimlessly without offering anything defensively. The same could be said of second-year wing Kevin Knox, who also lacks critical basketball instincts. His shooting has improved and he’s athletic, but he reads the game so slowly that he misses opportunities to put himself in position to get better attempts off. Point guards Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr., meanwhile, have similar weaknesses at different stages of their basketball lives. Both function best with the ball in their hands, but that “best” isn’t particularly inspiring and they lack the skill or intelligence to fare well without it. (It’s worth noting Smith has dealt with horrible personal tragedy this season that would affect anyone’s play). Frank Ntilikina is a better off-ball player and seems to have more confidence after a summer in France. But opponents still help off him when he doesn’t have the ball, which is often because the Knicks have so many other mouths to feed. That includes R.J. Barrett, the Knicks’ prized rookie who must feel like he’s playing against 10 defenders whenever he touches the ball. Barrett’s a tough driver and has flashed more of a three-point shot off the dribble than I expected, but it’s hard to generate good looks when the floor looks like this on his pick-and-rolls: There’s a common denominator on this roster: players who know how to function when they have the ball and either won’t or can’t when they don’t. That might improve slightly if Reggie Bullock returns from a back issue and Wayne Ellington overcomes the curse that zapped his talent. Sage big man Taj Gibson possesses some useful good habits, though he’s well past his prime. Young wing Damyean Dotson may deserve more of a look: he actually shoots threes on the move, defends his position decently, and can shift Barrett to small forward, where he’ll have more space to drive. But rotation tweaks here and there won’t do much to create a style of play that actually works for the collective. The roster Fizdale’s been been given and the short-term contracts that brought many of those players to New York are unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects. He hasn’t done everything right, but no coach can thrive in this environment. Even if a new coach finds a root cause explaining the team’s failure, there are too many dominos that must fall for significant change. This is a perfect way to facilitate endless whataboutism in an attempt to uncover scapegoats for the Knicks’ problems. And you wonder how Mills has survived Garden politics for nearly two decades.
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