The Knicks are a quarter of the way through the season and optimism abounds around their rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina. It is early enough in Ntilikina’s career that teammates and fans can gush over his strengths, without dwelling on his weaknesses. After all, the kid is just 19 years old, the second-youngest player in the league behind Indiana’s Ike Anigbogu. He has plenty of room for growth.
Ntilikina, AKA “Frankie Smokes,” does not have the hops of Dennis Smith Jr. or the marksmanship of Malik Monk, two players the Knicks passed on when they selected the Frenchman with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft. Ntilikina’s super power is his 7’0” wingspan.
His 6’5” frame and massive wingspan made him an impact player upon arrival in the NBA. Frankie Smokes uses his long reach and keen instincts to disrupt opposing offenses by harassing elite ball-handlers, such as Dwyane Wade and James Harden. The rookie is sixth in the league with 2.3 steals per 36 minutes among players who have played a minimum of 300 minutes (NBA.com) and ranks seventeenth with 3.4 deflections per 36 minutes (NBA.com).
Ntilikina’s defense at the point of attack has helped elevate the Knicks from the 25th ranked defense last season to No. 17 this year (NBA.com) and has drawn comparisons to Knicks legend and broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who like Ntilikina earned playing time during his rookie season with his defense. Clyde has been impressed with the young Frenchman and believes he will be even more effective once he learns to improve his positioning and picks his spots for steals.
Ntilikina’s unflappable demeanor is also reminiscent of Frazier, who did not draw a technical foul over his 13-year career. Ntilikina was tested by none other than LeBron James a couple of weeks ago at Madison Square Garden. James, who openly criticized the Knicks for selecting Ntilikina over Smith Jr., bumped the rookie after making a basket. Ntilikina held his ground and extended his arm, shoving LeBron out of his way, without losing his cool. It was a coming of age moment for the rookie which earned the respect of his teammates and Knicks fans.
The big question surrounding Ntilikina’s game is what kind of offensive player will he be. He is not a brilliant passer like fellow rookies Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons or possess elite speed like Sacramento Kings rookie De’Aaron Fox. However, he does appear to have a high IQ and typically makes the right pass. Coach Hornacek has felt comfortable leaving the neophyte on the floor in crunch time of close games.
The biggest concerns regarding his offensive game are his lack of aggressiveness and poor shooting. Ntilikina is far too content to simply make the next pass, rather than probe the defense. He is averaging just 3.3 drives and .3 free throw attempts per game (NBA.com), woefully low numbers for a point guard, even given his limited minutes.
Ntilikina will likely never be an elite pick-and-roll player, considering his modest foot speed. But he has demonstrated excellent timing on the league’s most essential play and an instinctive ability to freeze the man defending the screener in order to create space for himself or the roll man. As he puts on weight, he should also learn to use his 6’5” frame to create space in the lane to get his shot off and get to the line. However, he must develop more of an attacking mentality in order to benefit from those skills.
The Frenchman rarely looks for his own shot and appears to pull the trigger reluctantly when he does so. That has resulted in abysmal shooting numbers, including 33.6 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from downtown. However, there is reason to believe that his shooting numbers will rise along with his confidence. The point guard shot 48.5 percent from the field and 43.1 percent on threes in 32 games with Strasbourg of the French LNB Pro A League last season (Basketball Reference). He also shot 40 percent from deep in 14 games for the FIBA Champions League.
Chris Herring, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article a couple of years ago which demonstrated that international players typically struggle from behind the arc in their first season in the NBA, only to rebound. Ntilikina’s teammate, Kristaps Porzingis, is a prime example. KP shot 33.3 percent from three in his first season, 35.7 percent in year two and his shooting 39.8 percent on three-pointers in this, his third season. Ntilikina’s shooting percentages should increase in the coming seasons, which will open more driving lanes for him.
Ntilikina also has to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. His turnover percentage of 21.4 ranks in the bottom four percent at his position (Cleaning the Glass). This is not an area that the Knicks should be overly concerned with. Rookie point guards typically struggle with turnovers.
Frankie Smokes has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender, with the ability to switch onto multiple positions. His offensive game has plenty of room for growth and by all accounts, he is a hard-working kid intent on maximizing his potential. He does not have the athleticism or quickness to dominate games on that end of the floor, though with his height and instincts, he could become an above-average offensive player and a solid building block alongside Porzingis.
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s four-year, $71 million contract with the New York Knicks was panned as the worst signing of the 2017 NBA offseason. Hardaway developed into a solid rotation player during his two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, but executives around the league were shocked by the size of the deal. ESPN’s Zach Lowe called the contract “ludicrous,” and his colleague at ESPN, Kevin Arnovitz, reported that the Hawks, who had the right to match any deal signed by Hardaway, a restricted free agent, were thinking somewhere in the area of $45 million to retain the streaky shooting guard.
The signing was made even more confounding by a peculiar chain of events. Hardaway was drafted by the Knicks and played his first two seasons in orange and blue. New York traded the shooting guard to the Hawks during the 2015 draft in return for Atlanta’s first-round pick, Jerian Grant. A year later, the Knicks included Grant in a deal with the Bulls for Derrick Rose. This summer, New York renounced its rights to Rose in order to bring Hardaway back to the Big Apple. NBA fans chalked it up as another boneheaded move by an incompetent Knicks front office.
Then something surprising happened. Hardaway began playing the best basketball of his career.
The Knicks made the former Michigan Wolverine a full-time starter for the first time and he has capitalized on the opportunity. Hardaway is the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, averaging 18.1 points per game. More impressive has been his progress in other areas of his game. Hardaway has been active on the glass and a more willing passer than in years past, averaging career highs in rebounds (4.6) and assists (3.6) per 36 minutes. He has already amassed two double-doubles this season, something he did not do once during his first four seasons in the league.
Hardaway continues to take advantage of his athleticism by getting out on the break and has become more of a scorer, as opposed to just a shooter. His 3.8 free throw attempts per 36 minutes is also a career high. No. 3 plays with tremendous energy and he is not afraid to take a big shot late in the game. Jeff Hornacek often calls Hardaway’s number in the closing possessions of quarters.
There are still significant holes in Hardaway’s game. His shot selection has improved since his first run with the Knicks, though far too often, he still heaves up ill-advised three-pointers or worse yet, long twos. He has not developed the ability to break down defenses off the pick-and-roll, preferring to rely on clear outs instead. His shooting numbers are low this year (41.8 percent from the field and 31.8 from three) though that may be due to a combination of a higher usage rate and New York’s lack of a play-maker at point guard.
Defense was Hardaway’s biggest shortcoming when he entered the league, and Atlanta’s coach Mike Budenholzer would not play him until he could hold his own on that end of the floor. Hardaway no longer looks lost defending the pick-and-roll nor is he regularly caught looking at the ball while his man beats him back door, but he still tends to die on screens and is a subpar defender according to most metrics.
Still, the positives have clearly outweighed the negatives for Hardaway this season as demonstrated by his 16.2 player efficiency rating, which is well above his career average of 13.5.
Does that mean that Hardaway has justified his $71 million contract? Not exactly.
Hardaway deserves credit for working hard to improve his game and exceeding the expectations of most NBA insiders. His contract can no longer be deemed ludicrous. It is not comparable to Joakim Noah’s $72 million deal. The Knicks would be able to find takers if they decided to trade the shooting guard down the road.
However, well-run organizations sign players for below-market value. That way they can afford the additional pieces necessary to contend for a championship. They do not ink players to exorbitant contracts in the hopes that the player elevates his game to live up to the contract.
Hardaway is still too inefficient on both ends of the floor to be among the two or three best players on a contender. Yet, he is being paid like one, which contributes to preventing the Knicks from adding the two or three all-star or near all-star level players they would need to compete for a championship.
Knicks’ management has made a commitment to building around young talent. One of the benefits of young talent is that it comes cheap. Hardaway did not. The Knicks could have used the cap space spent on Hardaway to acquire cheap, young talent and/or draft picks much like the Nets did when they took Timofey Mozgov off the Lakers’ hands with D’Angelo Russell as the sweetener.
Throwing that much money at Hardaway demonstrated a lack of vision and poor understanding of the market. Hardaway’s strong start to the season does not change that.
The New York Knicks are rebuilding. Their plan is to trade Carmelo Anthony and assemble a young roster around centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis. New York should take a cue from the crosstown Brooklyn Nets, who have quietly made some nice moves over the past year in a slow climb towards respectability.
Bring up the Nets to a basketball fan and the first thing that comes to mind is what some consider to be the worst trade in NBA history. In the summer of 2013, the Nets acquired an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics in exchange for first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the right to swap picks in 2017. Due to injuries and lack of production the Nets quickly descended from supposed championship contenders to a lottery team, and those picks became extremely valuable, culminating in the Celtics receiving the No. 1 pick (which they traded to Philadelphia) this past June.
However, Billy King, the general manager who made that deal for the Nets is long gone. Brooklyn hired Sean Marks, a long-time assistant coach and member of the front office for the San Antonio Spurs, one of the best-run organizations in the league, in February of 2016. In the summer of 2016, Marks brought in Kenny Atkinson, a one-time Knicks assistant coach, who was well-respected around the game for his ability to develop young talent, to be the head coach.
Marks lacked draft picks due to the Garnett and Pierce trade so he used creative means over the past several months to acquire assets. In February, the Nets sent Croatian sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to the Washington Wizards for a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2017, shooting guard Marcus Thornton and forward Andrew Nicholson. Bogdanovic, the centerpiece of the deal, signed with the Indiana Pacers as a free agent this summer, and the Nets ended up with the 22nd pick in the draft, which they used to select Jarrett Allen, a big man out of the University of Texas.
Next, Marks used the Nets’ salary-cap space to take on other teams’ bloated salaries, for a cost. Marks was able to swipe D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft from the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. was desperate to shed salary in order to free up cap space to pursue Paul George and other free agents in the summer of 2018, so they parted with Russell in order to unload Timofey Mozgov and the $48 million remaining on his contract. The Nets also sent the Lakers the 27th pick in the 2017 draft.
This past weekend, the Nets were a willing trade partner for another team looking to dump salary, the Toronto Raptors. Toronto was anxious to unload the remaining $30 million on forward DeMarre Carroll’s contract in order to gain greater cap flexibility. The price they paid the Nets was a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second round pick in 2018. The Nets also sent center Justin Hamilton to the Raptors, who Toronto promptly waived.
The Knicks have been searching for a new head of basketball operations since parting ways with Phil Jackson a few weeks ago. New York had talks with David Griffin, the former general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and one of the most respected talent evaluators in the game. But Griffin walked away because the team was not willing to grant him full authority over basketball decisions or allow him to choose his own personnel. Apparently, team owner James Dolan believes that several of the current people in the front office have been so successful over the past several years as to render them indispensable.
Meanwhile, general manager Steve Mills, whose expertise is in business and relationships, not the basketball side of operations, is calling the shots. Mills inked one-time Knick and Atlanta Hawks restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. to an offer sheet for $71 million over four years. Hardaway demonstrated significant improvement in 20016-17 and has molded himself into a rotation player, but is not worth any where near that type of money. Executives around the league were shocked by the offer, and not surprisingly, the Hawks refused to match it.
Hardaway does not fill a need. The Knicks already have Courtney Lee at shooting guard, signed to a cap-friendly four-year, $40 million deal. After signing Hardaway, the Knicks do not have the cap space to add a much-needed veteran point guard to tutor first-round pick Frank Ntilikina (other than perhaps Rajon Rondo) or to take on contracts in exchange for draft picks, as the Nets have done. And good luck finding any takers for Hardaway’s contract if the Knicks later decide to trade him again. (New York traded Hardaway two years ago for the draft rights to Jerian Grant, who was later shipped to Chicago in the Derrick Rose deal.)
That is not to say that the Nets have not offered exorbitant amounts of money to young, restricted free agents. Over the past two summers, the Nets have offered Tyler Johnson $50 million, Allen Crabbe $50 million and $106 million to Otto Porter. However, those offers were within the range of the players’ perceived value, and the teams they came from elected to match them.
The Nets will be a bad team again this season and will not have their own draft pick to show for it. But they are moving in the right direction, something that cannot be said for a lot of NBA franchises, including their neighbors in Manhattan.
The Boston Celtics have had another successful offseason, luring all-star Gordon Hayward to Boston. General manager Danny Ainge has methodically constructed a roster primed to compete now and in the future. He is also flush with assets, including youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder’s cap-friendly contract and a plethora of draft picks, which can be used to acquire additional talent.
Hayward joins Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas to give the Celtics a formidable trio. As Ainge continues to search for top talent, two lingering questions hang over the team: Do the Celtics need a superstar to win a championship? And, if so, do they currently have one on their roster?
The first question hinges on the meaning of the word “superstar,” a vague term used loosely by sports fans and journalists that has been co-opted by sneaker companies and other commercial brands. In a general sense, a superstar is a player who can dominate a game and carries his team on a regular basis. A more precise definition is tougher to nail down.
Some people believe that the term superstar should be reserved for athletes who are capable of being the best player on a championship team. Of course, that is a circular argument for our purposes. It also excludes legendary competitors such as Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
We could use the Hall of Fame as a means for distinguishing superstars, though it would be difficult to predict which current players will be enshrined in Springfield. That approach also would not account for players who performed at a Hall of Fame level the season their team won the championship, but fell short of the Hall. Then there are Hall of Famers like Robert Parrish and Joe Dumars who were great players on championship teams, but were not dominant.
Should we confine use of the word superstar to the top five or 10 players in the game? And, if so, how should those rankings be determined? The best means of assessment may be to look at Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) or All-NBA First Teams.
Since the NBA implemented a salary cap prior to the 1984-85 season, only seven teams have won a championship without a player making the All-NBA First Team: the Detroit Pistons in 1989, 1990 and 2004, the 1995 Houston Rockets, 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2014 San Antonio Spurs and 2017 Golden State Warriors.
Hakeem Olajuwon (All-NBA Third Team) won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year while leading the Rockets to the championship the year before the 1995 championship. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki (All-NBA Second Team) also had an MVP to his credit and had been named to the All-NBA First Team in four previous seasons. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry of the Warriors have three MVPs between them. It is hard to argue that Hakeem, Dirk Curry or Durant were not superstars.
The 2014 Spurs were in a transition period between the end of one of dominant career, Tim Duncan’s, and the rise of another superstar, Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker was named to All-NBA second team, and he and Duncan tied for 12th in the MVP voting. Not exactly superstar numbers.
Now let’s examine PER as a measuring stick for superstardom. Over the past 50 years, only nine championship teams failed to have a player rank in the top ten in PER: the 1968, 1969 and 1974 Boston Celtics, 1978 Washington Bullets, 1979 Seattle SuperSonics, the 1989, 1990 and 2004 Pistons and the 2014 Spurs (via basketball-reference.com).
The 1968 and 1969 Celtics were anchored by the great Bill Russell. The 1974 team had John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. The 1978 Wizards boasted an overpowering front line of 12-time All-Star Elvin Hayes and 1969 MVP Wes Unseld, and the Pistons of ’89 and ’90 were led by Isiah Thomas, a 12-time All-Star.
That leaves just the 1978-79 Sonics, and once again, the 2003-04 Pistons and 2014 Spurs. Based on multiple indicators, it is fair to say that all three teams lacked a superstar.
Dennis Johnson, a defensive standout who won two more rings with the Celtics, is the lone Hall of Famer from that Seattle team. Gus Williams and Jack Sikma had great careers with the Sonics and other franchises, but were never among the elite players in the game.
Four of the Pistons starters, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton made multiple All-Star appearances. Billups, considered by many the team’s best player, is a borderline Hall of Famer. Neither he nor Dennis Johnson dominated.
Duncan and Manu Ginobili were past their prime by 2014. Parker was a great player, but hardly a transcendent star. Leonard would go on to be named Defensive Player of the Year, MVP finalist and All-NBA First Team, but despite being winning Finals MVP, he was not yet a superstar in 2014.
So while it is possible for the Celtics to win a championship without a superstar, it is highly unlikely that they will do so.
Hayward and Horford are very good, well-rounded players, but they are not elite talents. Tatum and Brown could blossom into superstars, though statistically speaking, that is unlikely. That leaves Thomas, who performed like a superstar this season. The point guard averaged 28.9 points per game, including 9.8 points per fourth quarter. He put constant pressure on defenses with a league-high 12.7 drives per game and 8.5 free throws per contest. IT finished seventh in PER (26.5) and fifth in the MVP voting, while being named to All-NBA Second Team.
From an objective standpoint, that is superstar production. However, Thomas needs to prove that he can do it for more than one season, particularly as the Celtics add more talent around him and the ball is in his hands less frequently. That may be difficult for a player who does not provide much value on defense or the boards.
The case against Thomas being a superstar comes on the defensive end of the court, where he appears lost at times in pick-and-roll situations. His diminutive stature (5’9) is also a liability. The Washington Wizards abused him in the post during their second-round playoff matchup with the Celtics. IT’s lack of height could also become a problem offensively against longer teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden Warriors, who will trap him in hopes of forcing turnovers.
Ainge is going to keep dealing, but superstars are hard to come by. There do not appear to be any on the market right now. The Celtics must hope that Thomas can be the superstar they need, and if Ainge is able to swing a deal for another, two is better than one.
Do not be fooled by the name: Derrick Rose is no longer a very good NBA player. The 2010-11 MVP is the latest on a long list of former all-stars acquired by the Knicks on the downside of their careers. (Think Antonio McDyess, Penny Hardaway, Steve Francis, Tracy McGrady and Amar’e Stoudemire.) Like the others, Derrick Rose’s name recognition far exceeds his contributions on the court.
Rose played in just 39% of his his team’s games over the past four years and was not very effective when he was on the court. The explosiveness that once made him the Eastern Conference’s answer to Russell Westbrook was sapped by three knee surgeries in three years, the most serious of which was to repair a torn ACL in his left knee in April, 2012.
Rose is a ball-dominant point guard, whose statistics no longer justify him having the ball in his hands.
His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) last season (13.5) ranked 44th among 77 point guards, and the Chicago Bulls were better offensively and defensively when he was on the bench. (Chicago’s opponents scored 108.5 points per 100 possessions with Rose in the game and 104.4 with him off the court, and the Bulls’ offensive rating was 104.6 when he was in the game, compared to 105.2 without him.)
Rose still has a quick first step, which allows him to get into the lane, but he lacks the propulsion to finish around the rim as effectively as he once did, and far too often settles for pull-up jumpers from 12-18 feet. Defenses go can go under screens on him because Rose shot a dismal 28 and 29 percent on three-point attempts over the past two seasons.
Some in the media have suggested that Rose will benefit from a change of scenery and will be highly motivated in the final year of his contract. Rose needed to get out of Chicago, where the expectations of past accomplishments cast a heavy burden, and he reportedly did not get along with the team’s new star player, Jimmy Butler. However, to suggest that he will be more motivated in a contract year is to ignore the hard work he has put in for the past few seasons. His desire to prove his worth in a contract year may prove to be a negative. And neither change of scenery, nor motivation will repair his damaged knees.
All of that being said, Rose is a significant upgrade for the Knicks, who did not have a starting caliber point-guard on the roster. Calderon, at age 34, is a tremendous liability defensively, and Grant projects to be a backup point guard, at best. Rose can still break down a defense with dribble penetration, which is something the Knicks’ offense desperately needs. His ability to push the ball up the floor should also fit nicely in new coach, Jeff Hornacek’s, fast-paced offense.
Rose is also not much of a risk for the Knicks. The 27-year-old is entering the final year of his contract, which could leave the Knicks with upwards of $60 million to spend in free agency next summer. Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle O’Quinn are the only players on the roster guaranteed money past the 2016-17 season.
However, the Knicks gave up too much for Rose. The Bulls were desperate to move on from the Rose era and build around Butler. They had been trying to trade the point guard for over a year, but there was no market for him. Chicago likely would have ultimately settled for giving him up for free if a team was willing to absorb his contract this season.
Then the Knicks swooped in and gave up two assets for a player who will probably be gone after one season. Lopez was arguably the team’s most consistent player in 2015-16. He is a very good defensive center and his $13 million per year contract is a bargain under the new salary cap. Grant showed some promising signs towards the end of the season, averaging 14,5 points per game in April. He could develop into a rotation player on a good team down the road.
Of course, the Rose trade must be viewed as part of a bigger puzzle. The free agent point guard class of 2017 is expected to be much stronger than this summer, and the Knicks are not done making moves this off-season. They could have as much as $35 million to spend this summer if they renounce their cap holds for Derrick Williams (who just opted out of his contract and became a free agent) and Langston Galloway, which is unlikely.
New York would like to add at least one athletic wing player and now needs a center to replace Lopez. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol are too big men who are likely on Phil Jackson’s radar. Jackson has a close relationship with Gasol, who he coached in Los Angeles, and has complimented Noah’s game in the past. Dwight Howard is also on the market.
However, even with the addition of Gasol or Noah, the Knicks would likely be a fringe playoff team. Jackson talks about building a culture and the importance of stability, yet he sacrificed that for short-term improvement.
Moreover, it remains to be seen how the two ball-dominant players in Anthony and Rose will co-exist in New York. Perhaps more importantly, the addition of Rose relegates Porzingis to a third option, which could curb the promising youngster’s development.
Lopez and Grant were marginal assets and losing them is not catastrophic, but they were assets nonetheless. The Knicks traded them for a player whose name far exceeds his numbers and is not a reliable building block for the future. It’s business as usual at the Garden.