It’s safe to say that the New York Knicks have been one of the early-season surprises to this point. The club enters play on November 9 having gone 6-5 through its first 11 games and has played a good brand of basketball to this point.
What’s most interesting, however, is the quandary that the club faces with the impending return of Joakim Noah.
Phil Jackson, Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony have all moved on and, in many ways, so has the team. Courtney Lee and Kristaps Porzinigis are the only two starters who returned from last season’s club and they have each played a significant role in the team’s early success, Porzinigis especially.
Through the first 10 games of the season, Porzingis has put up MVP-caliber type numbers and spearheaded two double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks in as many games. It’s a bit too early to anoint him an “MVP candidate” (MVP talk shouldn’t begin until January, at the absolutely earliest), but it’s not too early to declare that his partnership with Enes Kanter is one that has been especially productive. Kanter, acquired from the Thunder in the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City, has complemented Porzingis well. Kanter, known for his good footwork and excellent post game, has given the Knicks some offensive versatility playing alongside Porzingis on the front line.
Although 7-foot-3, Porzinigis is an extra long perimeter player who has mostly made his mark \by being a midrange assassin and taking slower-footed big men off the dribble. Kanter, on the other hand, has been productive as a back-to-basket player and an offensive rebounder. Kanter is averaging 14.9 rebounds per-36 minutes, with 5.9 of them being on the offensive end. What’s been most incredible about Kanter, though, has been the effort he’s shown on the defensive side of the ball. He’s done an admirable job of challenging shots, showing on pick-and-rolls and taking up space on the interior.
In other words, Kanter has done for the Knicks what Noah was signed to do and, at least last season, has mostly failed to accomplish.
Without him, the Knicks have been able to tinker with lineups and may have found a formula and a duo that works.
Now, Noah may be crashing the party. The former All-Star has been serving a 12-game drug suspension that will end on Monday, but with the Knicks already having 15 players on its roster, his return to the active list will require someone to go. It’s fair to question whether or not releasing one of the 15 players currently under contract is even worth it, though, considering that not even 23-year-old Willy Hernangomez can find consistent playing time. To this point, the bulk of the team’s front court minutes have gone to Porzingis, Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn.
“We’re going to have to address the roster. We’ve been working through the process for a few weeks. By Sunday at 5 p.m., there’ll be a resolution one way or another. Whether it’s a trade or waive an individual,” general manager Scott Perry told the New York Post.
Still, Noah is under contract through the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, and he’s due to earn about $55 million between now and then. For the Knicks, the best case scenario would be him coming back, proving he can still be productive and generating some interest from another team that feels he could possibly be an answer for them on the interior. Like Rose and Anthony, there’s little question that Noah has outlived his usefulness in New York. Should be remain, he’ll simply be an $18 million per year veteran mentor.
To this point, the Knicks have done just fine without one.
For Jeff Hornacek, the return of Noah raises two interesting questions: first, which player on the current roster seems most expendable? While Ramon Sessions’ name has been mentioned, most teams like to carry three point guards they can trust in the event of an injury. Should Frank Ntilikina or Jarrett Jack go down for any extended period of time, Sessions would come in handy.
Mindaugas Kuzminskas would seem to be another possibility, but he has shown himself to be a somewhat capable contributor when given opportunity, but on a Knicks team that suddenly has an infusion of pieces that seem to work well together, like Hernangomez, Kuzminskas hasn’t been able to find consistent opportunity.
Now, in the middle of it all, here comes Noah—a piece who has outlived his usefulness in New York and one whose presence will probably do nothing but take playing time away from some of the club’s younger pieces that could utilize the repetitions more.
As an individual, it’s impossible to not root for Noah and admire the way that he competes. Not too long ago, he was an All-Star and considered to be one of the more versatile centers in the entire league.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for is consistency of effort each night,’’ Perry said. “That this team will compete and try to defend and play together. We’ve seen some positive things heading in that direction during this time. But we got a long way to go. We’re just barely getting out of the gate. We got to continue improving upon some of the things we showed thus far.’’
Whether or not Noah can regain his old form, and how much opportunity he is even given to do so may go a long way toward determining how much improvement the Knicks are actually able to make.
How much does Noah have left in the tank? Can he find a way to be a meaningful contributor on a team that has seemingly moved on without him? Or will he be a $55 million bench fixture for the next three seasons?
It’s just the latest in the interesting storylines revolving around the 2017-18 New York Knicks—a team that has already been full of surprises.