Through half a season, Jimmy Butler has been exactly what the Minnesota Timberwolves needed — and more.
If the Timberwolves match their current pace — 26-16 and out in front in the Northwest Division — then the franchise will notch their first 50-win season since 2003-04. Beyond making the Western Conference Finals, it was also the last time Minnesota made the postseason at all, anchored by Kevin Garnett’s monstrous, MVP-winning campaign. That season, Garnett tallied a remarkable 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game — all averages that now stand as his career-highs after 21 years in the NBA.
Today, those are lofty shoes for any superstar to step into, but head coach Tom Thibodeau hasn’t been shy about praising his new franchise centerpiece.
“[Jimmy Butler has] played unbelievable, he’s playing at an MVP-level and he’s changed everything for us,” Thibodeau said. “Like his drive, it’s not really what he’s saying, it’s what he’s doing. And for me, it’s just watching his growth. He’s a perennial All-Star, All-NBA, an Olympian, all those things, but the biggest area of growth has been his leadership.
“I think the mark of a great player is not only to do great things himself but to also bring the best out of all his teammates and he’s done that.”
At 28 years old, Butler is averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals over a staggering 36.9 minutes per game. As the franchise’s new grizzled veteran, Butler had been tasked with reversing the fate of a Timberwolves’ roster that ranked 26th in 2016-17 for defensive efficiency at 109.1. After shipping off Ricky Rubio for a single first-round selection, signing prominent free agents Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson and trading Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for Butler last summer, Minnesota had an entirely new identity to shape around the remaining pieces.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins were two of those teammates, and both are essential to Minnesota’s quest toward permanent revival. Towns and Wiggins, both 22 years of age, were back-to-back No. 1 overall picks and Rookie of the Year winners in consecutive seasons — but despite some significant individual achievements, the duo has come up empty-handed in terms of team success thus far.
For Towns and Wiggins, Butler’s much-needed arrival meant giving up some touches on the offensive end, but for a team that is already just five wins behind their total from last season, the trade-off appears to have been well worth it.
“I think whatever your situation is, you have to make the most of it. I think the most important thing is getting the playing time,” Thibodeau said. “In Chicago, we had Jimmy Butler, we had a 60-win team, so he didn’t play a lot and he came in the lockout season — so no practice, no summer league — but he still found his way. And so for Karl and Andrew, it’s a lot different — it was a team that wasn’t very good, so they were able to play through their mistakes and learn that way.
“Now as the team has gotten better — and Butler has done so many amazing things for us, just to change our organization — I think they’re sacrificing some of their individual statistics but their contributions to winning are far greater this year than they were last year.”
As usual, Thibodeau is correct.
Both players are averaging about five points less than they did last season, but with their summer acquisitions, the overall results have been positive. The Timberwolves are 7th in scoring (108.4), 5th in field goal percentage (47.5 percent) and 4th in offensive rating (110.2), in some cases only trailing a group of the NBA’s perennial contenders. The defensive side of things is where Minnesota has struggled, and the franchise carries a middling 19th-rated defensive efficiency of 106.8, slotted in around many non-playoff teams. As Thibodeau said recently, “Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses.” The unit has improved in recent weeks — plus, they rank 3rd in steals per game at 8.9 — but it’s still not enough to inspire confidence against conference powerhouses like the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets quite yet.
While Towns’ defensive plus-minus is currently at 1.4, which would be a career-high, it’s also an undeniable bounceback after posting a miserable 0.2 in that category last season. Likewise, Wiggins definitely still has work to do, but he’s no longer worthy of FiveThirtyEight’s “Least Defensive Player” title and that’s a worthy start to the climb in of itself. Hailed as a defensive guru, Thibodeau isn’t fully satisfied with the pair but understands that they’ve begun to swing to pendulum back the other way.
“I know how passionate Karl is about the game and how hard he’s working, so I see the improvement defensively,” Thibodeau said. “I think right now, we’re not where we want to be, but he’s blocking shots, he’s getting a lot of deflections, he’s seeing things better . . . Obviously, you’re going to be a lot better playing against a team or player the 40th time than you were the first time.
“I think he’ll continue to grow, I feel the same way about [Wiggins],” Thibodeau continued. “It has to become important to do it on every possession and can’t take plays off or you can’t take a game off. Just understanding what goes into it is really important.”
Butler, who was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team three consecutive seasons from 2013-16, has undeniably been a catalyst for transformation in Minnesota, both for those new and old. Still, Thibodeau knows the Timberwolves have a long way to go.
Thibodeau will often talk about the Warriors’ rise to prominence, noting that their uptick in defense is what took them from just prolific scorers to back-to-back-to-back NBA Finals. The Timberwolves — and every other team for that matter — have tried to emulate the Warriors’ blueprint and come up empty-handed. But teams are always evolving, and it’s simply unreasonable to believe that adding Butler and Gibson would immediately build a brick wall for the opposition to fruitlessly run through.
Crafting an elite defense takes time, and Thibodeau, the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2011, is certainly no stranger. In fact, Thibodeau led the Bulls — along with Butler, Gibson and prime Luol Deng and Joakim Noah — to finishes in the top five for defensive rating in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). There’s room to grow in Minnesota and Thibodeau hopes that this is just the beginning.
“[With] Boston, when Kevin, Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] left, they went through a little bit of a lull,” Thibodeau said. “Then they got the defense going again and there were steps that they made along the way, so I think we have to do the same thing. We have to understand how important it is to play defense and that’s why I think Jimmy and Taj have really helped our younger players.”
Adding Gibson to teach Towns the intricacies of hard-nosed defense was always going to be key, but Butler is still the linchpin in Minnesota. Just as Garnett’s growth once coincided with the strongest stretch of basketball in Timberwolves history, Butler is the leader that can recreate those past successes for the franchise. And just as the Celtics needed Garnett’s fiery passion to put that 2007-08 roster over the top on the defensive end, Butler can be that guy too.
When asked about Butler and his expectations following that offseason blockbuster, perhaps inspired by his visit to the TD Garden — where he was the associate head coach from 2007-10 — Thibodeau didn’t shy away from drawing comparisons to those Celtics teams once again.
“We were fortunate, we had Kevin, Paul and Ray, and they weren’t gonna let anything get in the way of the team winning a championship,” Thibodeau recalled. “And it wasn’t necessarily the things they said, it was more what they did. Like when we got here, those three guys, every practice, they were leaders — they were the first ones up in every drill, they didn’t want to take practice off, they weren’t gonna let anything get in the way of winning a championship.”
After 42 games, it’s clear how much Butler has done for this Minnesota squad. They’ll likely surpass their win total from last season sometime this month, and although the Timberwolves are not yet a defensive juggernaut, it’s headed in the right direction. By continuing to defensively craft Towns and Wiggins, Butler — with the help of Gibson, of course — has galvanized a talented, blossoming team in Minnesota. Only time will tell if Butler can help the Timberwolves reach new heights, but Thibodeau has found his spiritual successor to Kevin Garnett and things appear brighter than ever.
After all, in Thibodeau’s own words, it’s not what leaders say, it’s what they do.
And Jimmy Butler is doing everything.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.
With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.
It’s been nearly two years since the Chicago Bulls kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.
That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.
So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?
What is Working
Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.
The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.
He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.
Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.
There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.
More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.
What Needs to Change
The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.
Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.
Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.
The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.
And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.
Focus Area: The Draft
As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.
Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.
Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.
Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.
Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.
Focus Area: Free Agency
While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.
Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.
Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.
The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough
Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.
NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?
As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.
Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.
The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.
This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.
Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.
A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.
Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.
Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.
Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.
Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.
Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.
For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.
It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.
The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.
This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.
There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.
Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.
Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.
But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.
Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.
Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.
First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.
The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.
Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.
The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.
It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.
Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.
Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.
Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.
To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.
For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.
It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?
Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.
The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?
By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.
This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.
There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.
That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.
NBA Daily: Fixing the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with the rebuilding New York Knicks.
It is nearly April and that means the NBA postseason has begun to take shape. But while a number of teams’ posture for higher seeding, the season is already all but over for others – four to be exact.
Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint for all four teams to right their respective ships. We will continue along in this series by examining the New York Knicks.
Unofficially the 2018-19 season has been mostly inconsequential for the Knicks since opening night. Expectations were low to begin with – a fact that was amplified by a mid-season trade of Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. The Knicks are approaching another make-or-break offseason, which has added pressure considering their championship drought and the rumors of free agent interest.
As far as their current roster, the Knicks haven’t shown much progress this season. They are currently on a slide in which they’ve won only one of their last 11 games, six of which were lost by double figures. But there is still lots to look forward to. The Knicks have the second youngest roster in the league, and their rookies and younger players now have another year of experience under their belts. Additionally, their leadership group projects a thoughtfulness not seen in Madison Square Garden since Donnie Walsh-Mike D’Antoni, which was surprisingly short-lived.
What is Working
Coach David Fizdale is still in his first season as the Knicks’ head coach. While he appears to have struggled getting his system across to the team, Fizdale is still widely seen as an above-average NBA mind who is well-respected around the league. He received clemency this season considering the lack of talent on the team’s opening day roster. Hiring Fizdale was about building a culture. Like him or not, Fizdale will receive at least another season to prove his worth. Further, his connections across the league (and more specifically to the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT) have granted him a relatively high profile. But coaches don’t get terribly long leashes, especially in New York. Fizdale would be best served by a playoff-birth (at least) in 2020.
Dennis Smith Jr. is another bright spot for the Knicks. He came to New York courtesy of the Porzingis-to-Dallas trade at the deadline. Smith Jr. has been a difference maker in New York so far, looking far more like the second-team all-rookie player he was last season. He posted 14.6 points per game on 41.6 percent shooting along with averaged 6 assists per contest in his first 17 games as a Knick. He has sat out the last four games with back soreness, which seems to be precautionary – after all, the Knicks aren’t competing for a playoff spot.
Smith Jr.’s shooting must improve, especially from three (29%) and the free-throw line (58.6%), but he is clearly more comfortable in the lead-guard role – one which he’s returned to since joining New York. While he would obviously prefer to remain the starting point guard, a player of Smith Jr.’s caliber is an asset in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.
The two more unheralded of the Knicks’ rookies have also looked significantly better than they were expected to. Allonzo Trier already looks like an NBA veteran thanks to his polished offensive game, averaging 10.9 points per game on nearly 45% shooting and 39% from three. Trier has demonstrated the ability to create his own shot against elite defenders. He has his share of deficiencies, but he looks like an NBA player, and the Knicks have him under contract next season (with a team option) at only $3.5 million.
But Trier wasn’t the only talent the Knicks lucked into in last year’s draft. Mitchell Robinson – the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft – dropped into the second-round thanks to a combination of too limited a body of work (Robinson withdrew from Western Kentucky University prior to the start of the collegiate season in 2017) and poor advice from his former agent to skip the Draft Combine. But Robinson looks like a first-rounder now. His combination of athleticism and length have proven to be huge assets to him and the team; he recently tied a Patrick Ewing’s Knicks’ rookie record for consecutive games with a block (28). He also passed Kristaps Porzingis to set the Knicks’ franchise record for most blocks amongst rookies and he’s among the best in the league at blocking three-point field goal attempts (8 of his 35 blocks in February resulted from three-point attempts). Robinson has also improved his early-season foul woes. And while it’s still something to work on, Robinson made strong enough progress to affect the game on a regular basis in his first year in the league.
What Needs to Change
The Knicks expect lots of change this offseason.
The team’s youth and lack of continuity is apparent on the defensive end. They rank 26th in adjusted defensive rating and they average the third worst margin of victory per game (-8.86 points).
But it’s not just their defense that must improve; the Knicks also need help on the offensive end. Specifically, the Knicks need more efficient scorers – they are the third lowest scoring team despite generating the 16th most field goal attempts per game – and they especially need three-point shooters (26th in three-point percentage).
The Knicks also hope to see improvement from individual players, like Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina was still an above-average defender in his sophomore campaign – although receiving far less fanfare for it – but he exhibited no growth on the offensive end. In fact, his PER and win share per game both went down this season from his rookie year. Ntilikina entered the NBA as an 18-year-old rookie with a limited offensive repertoire. And while he’ll enter his third season at only 21 years old, the time for improvement is now. Ntilikina must demonstrate a more consistent jump shot – he shot only 30% from between 16 feet and three-point range – as well as a more deliberate offensive approach. While the latter stems from his philosophical approach to the game, he can realize improvements on the former by repetition and hard work (e.g., Kemba Walker, who shot 31% from deep in his first four seasons and 38% in his past four, including this season).
Kevin Knox also struggled with consistency this season; case in point, Knox took 17, 14 and 14 shot attempts, respectively, in the team’s last three games. However, he shot a combined 16 field goal attempts across the two games prior to those. And this has been the case for much of the season. Knox has shown the ability to be a versatile scorer (ala Jayson Tatum or Tobias Harris), but he must work on remaining aggressive and engaged. Fortunately, Knox was the third youngest player selected in the 2018 NBA Draft and has more than enough time to develop an edge.
Focus Area: The Draft
The Knicks will enter the 2019 NBA Draft with as good odds as any other team at securing the first overall pick. Zion Williamson looks to be a transcendent talent around whom any team would love to build. But with the reworked Draft Lottery rules, the last place team has the same odds as the next two in the standings. And regardless if they get the first overall pick or not, rumors have swirled about the possibility that the Knicks could swap their 2019 first-round pick along with other assets for a bona fide star, like Anthony Davis.
In the event that the Knicks keep their pick, they can fall no lower than the fifth overall pick if they finish with the worst record in the league (which becomes sixth if they finish with the second-worst record). Assuming they finish with the worst overall record, their odds of landing each pick are as follows: 14% for last place, 13.4% chance for second to last, 12.7% for third to last, 12.0% for fourth to last and 47.9% for fifth to last.
This year’s draft is widely viewed as offering three sure things (Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett) and everyone else. The Knicks have approximately a 40% chance at selecting in the top three. If they do not secure the first overall pick, they will likely choose between Morant and Barrett. Either would fit nicely. Morant would likely push Smith Jr. off the ball, which hurt his efficiency a bit. But Morant scores the ball and distributes to teammates. Meanwhile, Barrett was slightly underwhelming in Williamson’s recent absence. Still, he is clearly a top-tier talent and if the Knicks end up with the second or third pick, either of these two would represent a strong edition.
If they drop to four or five, their decision becomes significantly more difficult. Cameron Reddish, Bol Bol, Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter, Keldon Johnson, Romeo Langford, Jontay Porter and Kevin Porter – among others – would all warrant consideration with no clear-cut favorite at this point in time.
Focus Area: Free Agency
While the Knicks are in the driver’s seat for the first overall pick, free agency will be the Knicks’ main driver for improvement. The Knicks have only seven players under contract for 2019-20: Damyean Dotson, John Jenkins, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier – as well as Henry Ellenson’s $1.6 million team option and Lance Thomas’ partial guarantee ($1 million). The Knicks will probably hang onto Ellenson. Unfortunately, if the Knicks seek to maximize cap space they must waive Thomas instead of paying his full $7.5 million, although they have until January 2020 to do so.
The team’s roster was arranged for flexibility, though. They missed on their targeted free agents in 2010, but the narrative around free agency and free agent destinations has changed in the past nine years. The Knicks are now seen as a plausible free agent destination. With that being said, there are rumors about their interest in adding Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – or two max-level free agents – to the roster. There are also rumors that suggest said interest is reciprocated. If the Knicks obtain Irving and Durant – or any combination of two stars – they will likely look to turn their young talent into a third star. If they are unable to procure superstar free agents, they should remain the course instead of overpaying for lesser players. The most interesting scenario, though, is if the Knicks win the draft lottery and sign Irving and Durant. What they do with the first pick (presumably Williamson) will reveal a lot to their fans and other franchises around the league.
The Knicks still have ten games left this season. Their younger players must remain locked in and continue learning as much as possible from guys like Lance Thomas and DeAndre Jordan. Next season will be here soon enough and the roster will likely see a tremendous amount of turnover. Hopefully for the Knicks and their fans, this is among – if not THE – last time for a long time that the offseason is more exciting than the regular season.