David Fizdale reacts to a call in the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum.

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Schmeelk: Are The Knicks Winning The Right Way?

John Schmeelk
November 26, 2018 - 1:50 pm

When the Knicks season started, both the Knicks front office and even head coach David Fizdale made it abundantly clear that the focus of the 2018-2019 season would be player development. Any wins that came along with that development would be welcome, but the primary goal would be maximizing the opportunities for the young players that would form the foundation of the franchise to learn, get better and gain experience.

The Knicks last three wins against three potential playoff teams (Celtics, Pelicans, Grizzlies) are laudable, and Fizdale deserves credit for getting the youngest team in the NBA to win those games. The Knicks' player development program deserves credit for the improved play of guys like Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh. The team has also been fun to watch. Is it fair to ask, however, whether the Knicks have forgotten their primary goal of developing their players of the future in favor of hunting wins?

New York's starting lineup still features a lot of young players. Emmanuel Mudiay is 22. Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh are just 23. Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the dinosaurs of the group at 26-years-old. Trey Burke has been a very high usage player off the bench, and he is also 26. These players’ ages aren’t the problem, it is their contracts. Only one of the above six is signed beyond this season (Hardaway), and it would be hard for the Knicks to resign any of the others given their future cap situation.

The Knicks are amassing cap space at the chance to land a maximum level free agent this offseason. They already have enough for a player like Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving, but are several million dollars short for an older player like Kevin Durant. They can only afford even a Thompson-level max player if the team renounces the rights to all their impending free agents, including the five players listed above.

Each player’s situation is a little bit different (Vonleh + Hezonja - Non-Bird Exception, Burke - Early Bird Exception, Mudiay + Kanter - Full Bird Exception), but the fact remains that it is unlikely any of them are back with the team next year. Vonleh would be the best option to bring back if they can work it out financially. If the Knicks do resign any of them, they will likely be forfeiting any chance of finding a maximum player in free agency. Generally, it does not behoove NBA teams to spend salary cap space on bench players or role players that jeopardizes their chances of landing a culture-changing star. It is a star league, and the Knicks need one, especially given the questions around Kristaps Porzingis’ injury.

So, who exactly are the Knicks developing these players for? Why are they prioritizing their playing time and usage at the expense of players on rookie contracts that will likely be on the Knicks for years to come? It is possible they are auditioning them for a potential trade. Winning games, looking like an improving franchise and giving players that were abandoned by other teams a chance never hurts the team’s reputation in the eyes of the league’s players and agents either. But if all of those players are gone in 8 months and the Knicks are out of the top five in the lottery, was it all worth it?

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In the past three games, Frank Ntilikina is averaging 18 minutes per game (and 14 in his last two). He has played primarily off the ball, with Trey Burke dominating most possessions they share the floor together. Kevin Knox is averaging 14 minutes per game in his last three contests, but has only logged 16 in his last two. Mitchell Robinson is averaging 13 minutes per game, but that is partly due to foul trouble. Damyean Dotson hasn’t played a minute in four straight games. Those are the Knicks last four draft picks, and they control all of them long-term.

Allonzo Trier has played more (24 minutes per game in his last three), indicating Fizdale’s decisions have everything to do with him trying to prioritize performance. There is an argument to be made for showing young players they need to play well to earn their playing time, but that doesn’t help them develop their basketball skills.  

Kevin Knox has certainly struggled, but it was only last summer that Fizdale talked about how he was going to have Knox start, take his lumps and even do things like guard the other team’s best player. He talked about how he was going to throw the young guys out there and let them fail. He did, for a while, but then he moved on to different young players that the franchise is unlikely to retain long-term to try to win games. 

I sympathize with Fizdale. No one wants to lose. He has coached the heck out of the team to scratch out these wins against good teams. It bodes well for the future. The last couple games, however, have begun to look like shadows of what we saw from Jeff Hornacek for much of the last two seasons. Last year he kept playing Kyle O’Quinn, even though it was very unlikely he would not return. Until the final couple of weeks, he ran his offense through guys like Kanter, Burke and Courtney Lee. None of those decisions benefitted the Knicks' future. Are they winning the right way? 

It’s something Fizdale should consider with every decision he makes. Even if it might cost the team a few points or even victories (which would also help their lottery odds), Kevin Knox needs to play twenty minutes a game. Ntilikina needs to get more time on the ball as a point guard to see if he can play there in the future. Dotson needs another extended run to see if he can become a valuable three-and-D wing.

These are real questions the Knicks need to figure out the answers to. Whether or not Trey Burke can continue to hit an unsustainable percentage of mid-range jump shots is not one of them. Nor is how many double-doubles Enes Kanter can accumulate. This season is about the Knicks' youth that will be here for the foreseeable future, not a bunch of guys who will be wearing a different jersey at this point next year. David Fizdale and the Knicks organization would be wise to remember that.

You can follow me on twitter at twitter.com/Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports.