David Fizdale gives direction to his team against the San Antonio Spurs on Apr 15, 2017 in San Antonio, TX, USA. Mandatory Credit: Soobum

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Schmeelk: Mixed Grades For Knicks On Midseason Progress Report

John Schmeelk
January 11, 2019 - 5:24 pm
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1. Player Development

This was always the most important aspect of this season. I detailed some of the discouraging recent statistical trends from some of the Knicks youngsters earlier in the week, but a larger bird’s eye view is important to take.

The good news is Kevin Knox, who has flashed enough offensive potential to show he has a chance to be a starter at the NBA level. You see him improve on specific parts of his game that were weaknesses (getting all the way to the basket and the free throw line, for example) and by all appearances he is a hard worker and a good kid. As expected, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially on defense and as a playmaker, but he has started in a good place.

After Knox, it gets murky. A big goal this season was to figure out which young players on the team could be legitimate parts of the future. It looks like Damyean Dotson can be a quality shooter and defender, making him a useful “three and D” type player on a good team. His future role seems fairly obvious.

Mitchell Robinson has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, but his length and athleticism project well as a rim protecting big man that can switch some screen and rolls and finish at the rim offensively. He is raw and it will take some years for him to get there, but his future role in the NBA is not hard to see.

The same can be said for Noah Vonleh, who has proven to be a versatile defender that can guard multiple positions well, hit the open three, and take advantage of mismatches offensively. Vonleh’s expiring contract makes his return difficult but he can play an important role on a good team, much like Dotson and Robinson.  

Allonzo Trier looks like he can be a good bench spark, despite his recent woes since returning from injury. Shot selection and ball movement are issues for him, but on a good team he could become a supplemental scorer off the bench or as a starter. He needs to improve playing off the ball if he wants to be able to start alongside better ball-dominant players.

As Emmanuel Mudiay’s efficiency continues to tumble, there are still fair questions as to what his future is. He needs the ball in his hands to be effective, but is he efficient enough to be worthy of that type of high usage rate? He is probably no more than a back-up point guard, but at 22 there is still room to grow.

MORE: 'The Bank Shot' Knicks Podcast: A Midseason Report

As encouraging as Knox has been, Frank Ntilikina remains a mystery. It was essential for the Knicks to figure out what they had in him this year. At just 20 years old, he is far from a finished product, but I’m not sure David Fizdale and the Knicks hierarchy know where he fits in as a player yet. Part of this is Fizdale’s fault, as he has yanked Ntilikina in and out of the lineup and in and out of different roles. It is also Ntikilina’s fault since his level of play hasn’t forced Fizdale to give him more minutes. His poor shooting numbers are a real problem. This is the most important thing the Knick need to accomplish in the second half of the season. They have plenty of time to do it.

Grade: B -- Ntilikina’s lack of progress drags the grade down, which would have otherwise been higher due to the play of Kevin Knox. Aside from Knox, the Knicks have a bunch of players that would fit well next to a ball dominant scorer, but they do not have that player yet. A healthy, and improved Porzingis could be that player, or it could be someone the Knicks add in free agency. 

2. Develop A Culture Of Playing The Right Way

Aside from developing their youth, the Knicks wanted to develop a culture around defense, pace, ball movement and unselfish play. For the most part, this has been an abject failure. Two fundamentals of good basketball teams are ball movement and defense. The Knicks have the second worst defense in the NBA, with a 113.4 defensive rating. Their 50.2% assist rate is the worst in the league.

Fizdale also seldom seems to punish players for poor shot selection or lack of ball movement, instead awarding aggression even when it leads to bad shots. He also routinely awards playing time to superior offensive players over players that excel on the defensive end. It is an odd way to build a culture that emphasizes two things he doesn’t seem to award playing time for.

The Knicks have shown small improvement in a couple of areas. They play at the 13th fastest pace in the NBA. They also attempt the 21st most three pointers in the league, and shoot 34.4% from there, which is the 23rd best mark in the league. Those numbers aren’t good but they are steps forward from where they were.

Grade: D -- The Knicks play bad basketball with poor fundamentals. The team still seems motivated and they play hard most nights, but that doesn’t mean they are playing good basketball. Granted, Fizdale does not have the horses, but any group of players can play a better brand of fundamental basketball. This grade is as much a reflection on the coach as it is the players. 

3. Acquiring More Cap Space

At the start of the year, the Knicks were a few dollars short of being able to afford a max level free agent with 7-9 years of experience. They have since signed Allonzo Trier to an NBA contract, reducing their space to about three million below that max threshold. They are now nine or so million under the amount they would need to sign a player with the experience of Kevin Durant to a max contract.

The Knicks have been unable to move Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr. to acquire more cap space this summer. If they are unable to move either of these players, they might be on the outside looking in this summer. They have less than month to get it done, or risk having to move those salaries after the season is over.

Grade: Incomplete

MORE: Schmeelk: Knicks Should Trade Enes Kanter

4. Maximize Their Chances At The Top Pick in the NBA Draft

The Knicks are 10-31 and are tied for the third worst record in the league with the Bulls. Their schedule gets much easier from here, with 25 home games remaining, versus just 16 road games. The Cavaliers are 8-34, while the Suns are 10-33. They risk not finishing with one of the two worst records in the league, which would give them at best a 50% chance of selecting 5th or later.

Grade: B+ The Knicks are losing plenty but the Bulls, Suns and Cavs are also epically bad. The quest for Zion will require a very uncomfortable reliance on luck, something the Knicks have had little of.

5. Kristaps Porzingis Getting Healthy

He is progressing, but there is still no word on when he will return.

Grade: Incomplete

It has not been an overly successful for the Knicks by most measures, but they have another 41 games to figure things out.

You can follow John on Twitter for everything on the Knicks, Giants and the world of sports: @Schmeelk