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Knicks Still Stuck in the Middle

The Knicks are stuck in the NBA’s unenviable middle, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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With the NBA trade deadline just a week away, the Knicks find themselves in an unenviable position. Despite being ten games below .500, with a 23-33 record, New York is just three games behind the Detroit Pistons, who currently hold the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the Knickerbockers are also just 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic in the standings. This is significant because Orlando has the fourth-worst record in the NBA, which means that if the regular season ended today, they would most likely end up with a top-four pick in the draft, in addition to having the fourth-best odds (approximately 11.9 percent) to win the draft lottery.

The Knicks are once again trapped in the NBA’s equivalent of “no man’s land.”

They aren’t good enough to be considered anywhere near a top team, or even a playoff participant. Yet, they haven’t been bad enough to secure a top pick in the upcoming draft. If you are an NBA organization, this in-between, middle-ground is the one place you don’t want to be.

New Yorkers don’t know if whether they should be wishing for wins or praying for ping pong balls.

It’s an undesirable, unappealing predicament the Knicks have been stuck in for the better part of two decades. Remarkably, New York has not had a top-three pick or advanced past the second round of the postseason since 2000. In fact, the Knicks have had only one top-five pick and won only one playoff series this century.

The losing would be far more palatable if the Knicks had a clear plan for the future. For instance, teams such at the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are currently stuck in the same situation, but they are stocked with young, promising players on the rise and are clearly building towards the future.

The Knicks’ path has no such clearly discernible destination. Do Phil Jackson and the Knicks’ front office feel they are in the early stages of a rebuild? Or do they believe they are just a piece or two away from being a real contender? Because Phil chooses not to speak to the media and only communicates via cryptic, emoji-infused tweets, we can only speculate as to his true feelings on the topic.

Nonetheless, with the NBA trade deadline rapidly approaching, Jackson and company have some important decisions ahead of them. The first step in the process is making an honest assessment of the roster. That will help shape the direction they chose to pursue. Do the Knicks aggressively shop Carmelo Anthony in hopes they can find a deal he would agree to? Anthony having a no-trade clause in his contract certainly makes it a more difficult proposition. However, Melo agreeing to a trade seems more likely today than it has in previous weeks and months. Has Anthony grown tired of dealing with a team president who has been disrespectful? After seeing the way owner James Dolan handled the Charles Oakley situation, badly besmirching the reputation of the Knicks franchise, might Melo be more open to putting New York in his rear-view mirror?

And with Kevin Love sidelined for six weeks due to knee surgery, might Cleveland now be willing to considering exchanging Love for Anthony? It could be argued that Anthony gives the Cavs a better chance to win a title this season, given the uncertainty surrounding Love, as there is no guarantee he’ll be close to 100 percent by the time the postseason begins. From a Knicks perspective, it would be a no-brainer. The rest of this season is far, far less important than the long-term health of the franchise. Trading a 32-year old former All-Star with a no-trade clause and a history of knee issues for a 28-year old current All-Star coming off a relatively minor knee surgery is an easy decision.

Even if the Knicks aren’t infatuated with Love’s game or are concerned how Love might fit alongside Kristaps Porzingis and the rest of the Knicks core, Love has far more value than Anthony on the open market. Love could easily be flipped this offseason or next February (the Celtics would certainly be interested), which could jumpstart the Knicks rebuild. Also, moving Melo would increase the likelihood of the Knicks obtaining a top pick in the 2017 draft.

However, based on how adamant Anthony has been about wanting to stay in NYC, the most likely scenario is still him remaining with the Knicks the rest of the season and beyond.

And assuming Melo stays put, the Knicks have very few other assets that are attractive to other teams. Kristaps Porzingis and rising rookie Willy Hernangomez should be considered off limits.

The Knicks would surely love to trade Derrick Rose for a player or a pick that would help the team down the line, but it’s unlikely that another team would be willing to give up anything of value to rent Rose for a couple of months.

Courtney Lee and Kyle O’Quinn are the two Knickerbockers who could draw interest from other clubs if New York made them available. Lee is a solid two-way player signed to a relatively affordable four-year pact. Kyle O’Quinn, who actually leads the Knicks in PER this season (20.9), is also signed to a discounted contract. O’Quinn will make just $4.1 million next season and then has a player option for $4.3 million in 2018-19.

However, it’s unknown if the Knicks would be able to improve their roster by moving one of those two. Part of that calculation is determining which direction the Knicks are headed in.

Even if Jackson and the Knicks stand pat at the deadline, New York will have to address a similar, fundamental question this summer: Do they commit to a “win now” mindset, as they did this past offseason when they traded for Derrick Rose and signed veteran center Joakim Noah to $72-million four-year contract?

Or, are they willing to take an immediate step backward to take two steps forward in the future?

******

This is an incredibly important summer for Phil Jackson.

He was hired back in May of 2014 and was immediately hailed as a savior by long-suffering fans. He was a former Knick who had been part of their championship days of yore and, although he had never been an architect of a team, he was arguably the most successful coach in the history of the league. He entered New York with had a giant stockpile of trust among the Madison Square Garden faithful.

However, as we sit here today, the patience of those same fans has already worn quite thin. The Knicks are 72-148 since Jackson took over. On the surface, the team doesn’t appear any closer to the promised land, or the playoffs for that matter, than they did on the day he arrived.

If you dig a bit deeper, that’s not entirely accurate. Phil was responsible for drafting Porzingis and Hernangomez, and not for trading away any of the team’s future first-round picks. Nonetheless, fans want to see a return on their investment, sooner rather than later. In an interview with ESPN in the wake of the Oakley fiasco, Jim Dolan was asked about the fans who boisterously blame him for the Knicks’ mounting losses. Dolan said, “Ask Phil,” before laughing awkwardly.

It is worth wondering whether this added external pressure will force Phil’s hand this summer.

Instead of rebuilding around a core of Porzingis, Hernangomez and the 2017 draft pick, might Jackson swing for the fences and commit the majority of his cap space to an aging veteran in hopes that the Knicks can crack the 40-win plateau for the first time in his tenure?

That might not be what’s best for the long-term health of the franchise, but that all-important criterion hasn’t always been the deciding factor during Dolan’s reign as owner of the Knicks.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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