MADISON, NEW JERSEY – AUGUST 11: Ignas Brazdeikis of the New York Knicks poses for a portrait during … [+]
The Knicks started February on fire (relatively speaking), winning four straight games. For New York, that can nearly be classified as a historic hot streak, as it equaled their longest sustained surge since December of 2017. The Knicks haven’t won five in a row since way back in 2014.
Considering the eighth seed in the East this season could be captured by a team that wins around 35 games, it made sense for New York to roll with their veterans, in the hopes that somehow the Knicks could remain within distant shouting distance of the postseason. At least into March. However, the ‘Bockers have now lost three straight and once again find themselves 20+ games below .500. Worse yet, the Knicks embark on a three-game road trip Monday, in which they’ll have to play three contests in four nights. The trip starts in Houston against the high-powered Rockets and ends in Philly against the Sixers, on the second night of a back-to-back. Odds are New York will be 25 games under .500 at this time next week.
With just 26 games remaining in the 2019-20 campaign, it’s time for head coach Mike Miller, and acting Knicks president Scott Perry, to concede that the rest of this season should be devoted to the players that will hopefully serve as the franchise’s foundation.
Specifically, that means more minutes for the young guns, and less for the grizzled vets, especially those who are highly unlikely to be on the opening night roster next October, such as Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. Portis’ contract has a team option at $15.8 million, which New York will almost certainly decline. The Knicks will also likely part ways with Ellington, who has an $8.2 million team option.
Mike Miller is an understandably tricky position. He’s well aware that this will likely be his last, and only, opportunity to prove he’s a quality NBA head coach. There are already rumors circulating that Tom Thibodeau is a serious candidate for the job. On Friday, Miller again reiterated that he plans intends to lean on his vets, despite the Knicks continuing to slip further and further out of contention. “I talk to (Scott Perry) every day. We talk about personnel, we talk about player development, we talk about everything, every day. Multiple times, sometimes. We are in agreement, as we go through this, that we are high-level trying to develop players. And as we do that, the approach that we’re taking is that their minutes are quality minutes,” Miller said. “They’re bringing value to the team when they’re out there. We think that’s helping them develop and moving them forward.”
“Again, we’re looking at development in a lot of different ways and not saying it’s just about, you just need 25 minutes a game to develop. I think there’s more to it, there’s more ways that we can help these guys grow then doing that. They’re getting experience and they’re getting opportunities and they’re learning. We’re seeing growth.”
It’s a justifiable rationale, but arguably not what’s best for the long term health of the organization.
For an opposing point of view, here’s what Raptors coach Nick Nurse told reporters last month when asked if young players need to get minutes to develop. “Yes,” Nurse said. “I’m a firm believer that they need to be playing. They gotta play. How do you get any better if you’re not playing? I am a big, big believer that if they’re not getting minutes with the big club that they gotta go down and play as many minutes as they can get down there.”
Like Mike Miller, Nurse made his bones coaching in the G League. And the Raptors are inarguably one of the NBA’s premier franchises when it comes to developing young talent. Last season, they famously became the first team in league history to win a championship without a single former lottery pick on their roster. Pascal Siakam, who spent time in the G League as a rookie, won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season and is blossoming into a legit superstar. The team’s third-leading scorer, Fred VanVleet, was an undrafted free agent. The Raps’ fifth-leading scorer, Norman Powell, was drafted 46th overall in 2015.
Speaking of the G League, it’s time for the Knicks to call up their 2019 second-round selection, Ignas Brazdeikis.
The Knicks were surprised Iggy dropped to 47th overall last June, and traded up to grab him. As a freshman at Michigan, not only did Brazdeikis average 14.8 points and 5.4 rebounds, he also posted impressive advanced statistics. Per Synergy data, Brazdeikis scored 1.19 points per Spot Up possession, which placed him in the 92nd percentile of all NCAA players. According to Basketball-Reference, he was the first freshman in Big Ten history to score more than 500 points, grab more than 200 rebounds and knock down more than 50 made 3-pointers. Only five other freshmen in NCAA Division 1 history tallied at least 500 points, 200 boards and 50 treys, while also shooting above 39% from downtown. Those other four frosh are Kevin Durant, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen.
Brazdeikis also opened some eyes with his impressive play at the Las Vegas Summer League back in July. Over New York’s final four games in Vegas, he averaged 18.0 points (on 55% shooting), 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 dimes and 2.8 made 3-pointers, while shooting a scorching 57.9% from downtown. He then carried that strong play into G League competition this season. On the year, he is averaging a team-high 21.5 points to go along with 7.5 rebounds, 3.0 dimes and 1.8 trifectas. He’s currently the only player in the G League averaging more than 21 points, seven boards and 1.5 triples.
Scott Perry and company unearthed a gem in the second round of the 2018 draft when they scooped up Mitchell Robinson. It’s time to find out if Iggy can potentially develop into a rotation player on the NBA level as well.
Speaking of Robinson, not only should Mitch Rob see a dramatic increase in playing time over the final two months of the season, but he should also be encouraged/coerced to expand his approach on the offensive end.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 21: Mitchell Robinson #23 of the New York Knicks looks to pass during … [+]
The good news is Robinson is shooting a scorching 73.1% from the field. (Coming into 2019-20, Wilt Chamberlain was the only player in NBA history to shoot over 72% from the floor for a full season.) However, of the 279 field goals Robinson has attempted, 269 of them have been either dunks or layups. Remarkably, he’s attempted only two shots outside of the paint this entire season, and none beyond ten feet. In the 118 career games he’s appeared in, he’s attempted a grand total of two jumpers. This is frustrating because he’s shown a nice touch from the free-throw line. This past offseason, he spoke frequently about his desire to expand his range all the way out to the 3-point arc. We’ve witnessed him knock down plenty of long-range jumpers in practice and pregame warmups. Now is the time to see if it translates to game conditions.
If Robinson is going to elevate his game, he needs to expand his range. Obviously, Mitch Rob jumpers shouldn’t be a staple of the Knicks offense, but if defenders back off him and dare him to shoot 15-footers, Robinson should absolutely let some fly. Doing so would open up the paint for his teammates, by drawing opposing centers away from the rim. Again, the Knicks are racking up losses anyway, they may as well find out if their “center of future” is equipped to increase his impact offensively. (Of course, the first prerequisite to logging more minutes is staying out of foul trouble, which has to be an area of focus for Robinson as well.)
The Knicks also have what they hope is a mini-Mitch Rob down on the farm in their G League affiliate. New York inked Kenny Wooten to a multi-year, two-way contract back in January after his impressive play for the Westchester Knicks. In 27 appearances (19 starts) this season, Wotten is averaging 7.7 points (on 65.1% shooting), 6.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocks in under 25 minutes a night. He ranks second in the G League in blocks and leads the league in block rate (13.2%). Wotten is averaging a whopping 5.3 swats per-36 minutes.
Two other players on the Westchester Knicks deserve a look down the stretch as well: Kadeem Allen, who has played well in limited time with the big club, and Lamar Peters, who leads the team in assists at 6.7 dimes per game. Peters also leads the team in 3-point shooting, averaging 3.8 made treys per game, while shooting an impressive 42.3% from behind the arc. Peters is currently the only player in the G League who has attempted more than 240 trifectas and is shooting above 42% from downtown.
Meanwhile, Dennis Smith Jr. has had an absolutely awful season in New York. Incredibly, per Basketball-Reference, Smith is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to attempt more than 200 FG’s in a season and shoot below 35% from the floor, below 30% from 3-point territory and below 50% from the free-throw line. If the Knicks don’t feel DSJ is a part of the franchise’s future, they should find out if they have a prospect that is capable of potentially developing into a backup point guard.
CLEVELAND, OHIO – JANUARY 20: Frank Ntilikina #11 listens to Head coach Mike Miller of the New York … [+]
Lastly, it’s not solely how many minutes each player logs; it’s essential to experiment with different combinations. For the second year in a row, the Knicks’ best two-player lineup has been the pairing of Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson. In the 273 minutes they’ve shared the floor together this season, the Knicks have outscored their opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions. That’s an impressive number for a team that’s beaten as badly as the Knicks are on a nightly basis.
For some context, consider this: In the 278 minutes that Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox have shared the floor this season, the Knicks have been outscored by 23.2 points per 100 possessions. (That’s the worst Net Rating of any two-man lineup in the NBA this season, among players that have logged at least 270 minutes together).
The moral of the story is to run Frank and Dot together more often. Also, get creative and consider utilizing Ntilikina’s defensive versatility. For instance, consider playing Ntilikina at PF in some matchups, see if he is effective in that role. And, as for Knox, his regression has been almost as pronounced as Smith’s. Give Knox a chance to start for a couple of weeks in a row, but if he fails to improve his production, and his intensity/effort on both ends of the floor, then it might make sense to consider sending him down to the G League in hopes of building up his confidence. His minutes could go directly to Brazdeikis.