The writing was on the wall from the time the Knicks traded for Emanuel Mudiay, and in the weeks since, it’s become more and more obvious that the New York Knicks don’t see Frank Ntilikina as their point guard of the future.
While it may sting to recall that Dennis Smith, Jr. and Donovan Mitchell were both on the board when the Knicks selected Ntilikina, the suggestion here would be to not declare the drafting of the Frenchman to be a mistake. Admittedly, that was suggested in this very space in the not so distant past.
As we speak, the Knicks find themselves to be a team in transition. While it’s true that this designation can be used to apply to the team every year, the truth is that the hiring of Scott Perry once again was the hitting of the reset button in Gotham City.
Trading Carmelo Anthony was the first major step toward the teardown. In order to build things back up, the Knicks will need more much than Kristaps Porzingis. They’ll also need to add a lot more than Tim Hardaway, Jr.
In the end, if there’s one thing that the Golden State Warriors have taught us, it’s that it takes 10 to tango in the NBA today. Winning teams no longer follow a model where they are primarily built around one or two players and subpar supporting casts. Each of the NBA’s top teams are teams that have the franchise pillars surrounded by at least four other excellent contributors whose value far exceeds those of an average player of their position.
Just because Ntilikina might not be the second coming of Mark Jackson doesn’t mean that he can’t be one such player. So long as the physical tools are there, it’s not impossible to make the transition from point guard to shooting guard or vice versa. We’ve seen plenty of players do it, though with mixed results.
What got Ntilikina drafted so highly in the first place wasn’t the belief that he would be a 20-point per game scorer at the NBA level, it was the fact that he had a fairly rare combination of good point guard instincts and shooting guard size. From the beginning, he was considered to be a combination guard at the NBA level, though the admitted hope for the Knicks was that he would be the point guard of the future.
That Trey Burke and Mudiay each now have the opportunity to steal the distinction from Ntilikina shows the Knicks made a mistake in thinking that the 19-year-old would be their floor general, but not that he could still be an effective player for the team.
As a basketball culture, particularly when it comes to critiquing the draft picks of front offices, the propensity is to apply a narrow standard by simply comparing the player that was drafted to players to were drafted later in his class. If a player drafted after the drafted player goes on to prove to be the better pro, it doesn’t mean that the drafted player was a bad pick. He just happened to not be the best player in his class. And that’s okay, because no scout can ever say that he has always been able to correctly predict who each of his potential prospects would be in the future.
A fairly good example of the point can be found with the 2011 draft class.
Kyrie Irving was selected with the first overall pick, and after six full seasons, it’s fair to see that he was the best choice.
In total, the class featured six players who have gone on to be named an NBA All-Star, five of whom have also been named to an All-NBA Team.
Joining Irving on the list are Kemba Walker (ninth selection), Klay Thompson (11th selection), Kawhi Leonard (15th selection), Jimmy Butler (30th selection) and Isaiah Thomas (60th selection).
Aside from those six, though, in hindsight, we’ve since learned that the 2011 draft was absolutely loaded. Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valaniunas, Brandon Knight, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Kenneth Faried, Nikola Mirotic and Reggie Jackson are some of the more talented players in the class.
In some order, Vucevic, Harris and Thompson would probably be considered the best players in the class, with Knight, Valanciunas, and Jackson getting some credit, as well.
Obviously, there were six grand slam picks, a few home runs and some base hits.
Although the grand slam pays bigger and more immediate dividends, the base hit still counts.
To suggest that Harris or Nikola Mirotic were “bad” picks because both were selected before Jimmy Butler applies a standard that only uses hindsight. The fair way to judge the performance of a talent evaluator is to sum up the total impact players that were drafted in the years where he was in control and simply determine his strikeout ratio.
Sure, it’s best to get the best prospect, but the best analogy to apply to that situation would be to give five farmers access to 60 different sets of apple seeds with the directive that they each sift through the options and choose the seeds that they believe will grow into the most fruitful tree.
Some farmers may have methodology that helps them more effectively gauge the potential of the seeds, but at the end of the day, the reliance will be on a predictive forecast.
Just because Tristan Thompson isn’t a better pro than Kawhi Leonard doesn’t actually mean that Thompson was a bad pick, he just wasn’t as good of a pick as Leonard.
For the Knicks, the same logic should be applied to the drafting of Ntilikina. When a player has “it,” it simply doesn’t take that long to recognize. Almost immediately, he will show you game-changing potential, and before long, it’ll become second nature.
After about 60 games, the flashes should have been clearly evident and the consistency should at least begin to show signs of coming around.
We just haven’t seen it from Ntilikina yet, and apparently, neither have the Knicks.
In the end, it doesn’t mean the Frenchman was a bad draft pick, it just means he wasn’t the best.
While the Knicks will certainly hope to maximize their extra base hits and have one or two grand slams, Ntilikina, at least to this point, can’t be considered to be a strikeout.
But for Scott Perry’s sake, he should hope that his first swing of the bat results in some runs being driven in, because, just like Ntilikina’s stint as the team’s point guard of the future, his tenure could be over in short order if he doesn’t pay some immediate dividends.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”