It was all good just a week ago…
As recently as the middle of last week, the New York Knickerbockers were drawing praise from basketball pundits across the land. It appeared the Knicks were on the right track and there were legitimate reasons for New Yorkers to be optimistic.
After having parted ways with Phil Jackson, New York appeared to be closing in on hiring an accomplished general manager in David Griffin. One of the primary reasons why an experienced executive such as Griffin would be interested in the job was because the Knicks had plenty of cap space to work with this summer, and potentially even more in the near future.
Other than the crippling Joakim Noah contract, Courtney Lee was the only other player on the entire roster with a guaranteed contract that extended past the 2018-19 season.
The logical decision for New York going forward was to focus on the future and dedicate themselves to a complete and thorough rebuild. The most important piece was already in place: Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise cornerstone, around which the rest of the roster will be constructed. The Knicks also have Willy Hernangomez locked into an incredibly team-friendly contract and recently drafted Frank Ntilikina, whom the organization hopes will form a terrific partnership with KP.
One crucial step in a disciplined, successful rebuild is maintaining cap space. Even if they did have the room to add a max player this summer, the reality is the Knicks are so far away from being a threat to the top teams in their division, let alone a contender for the championship, that one player wasn’t going to make a significant difference. As a result, the smart play during this free agency period was to stay on the sidelines and patiently wait until value presented itself.
Last summer, NBA GM’s sprinted out of the gates at the start of free agency, offering massive contracts to flawed players. The salary cap was spiking, and impatient teams were looking to make an immediate splash. The Lakers agreed to pay Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years within hours of the start of free agency. L.A. later inked Luol Deng to a contract worth $72 million. The Grizzlies gave Chandler Parsons $95 million. The Knicks handed $72 million to Joakim Noah.
After that initial splurging, the teams that waited were able to secure some solid values. Miami inked Dion Waiters to a two-year, $6 million pact. The Mavericks stole Seth Curry, signing him for two years at less than $6 million. The Spurs got Dewayne Dedmon to sign for similar terms.
This year, front office folks seemed to have learned their lesson (seeing the Lakers being forced to trade away D’Angelo Russell just to dump the contract of the aforementioned Mozgov on the eve of this year’s free agency frenzy, may have scared them straight). There were very few shocking contracts agreed to in the first few days of free agency. Even All-Stars such as Kyle Lowry and Paul Millsap got far less than the max. In addition, far fewer teams were willing to lock up players long term, instead offering a plethora of one and two-year deals.
It seemed the Knicks were prudently protecting their cap space as well. Not only was it in the best interest of their rebuilding efforts to keep their hands in their pockets, but they also did not yet have a general manager in place. Steve Mills was calling the shots in the interim, but the Knicks appeared to be content to stand pat, unwilling to make any franchise-altering decisions until they hired their new GM.
And then, it happened. Late Thursday night, word broke that the Knicks had signed restricted free-agent Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet.
The Hawks had until midnight on Saturday to match it, but it was fairly obvious early on they would never even seriously consider agreeing to pony up that type of money for Hardaway Jr. Multiple NBA insiders reported that the Hawks were willing to pay up to approximately $45 million. The Knicks ended up paying $25 million more than the Hawks were comfortable with.
On top of that, Mills inexplicably felt the need to include a player option for the fourth year and a 15-percent trade kicker. The trade kicker makes the contract incredibly difficult to move. Given the drama surrounding the Carmelo Anthony situation, the Knicks, of all franchises, should be painfully familiar with the complications that can result from such seemingly innocuous details in a deal.
The Hawks formally announced they would not match on Saturday.
Then, on Sunday, word leaked that David Griffin had withdrawn his name from consideration for the GM job in New York.
And, here we are.
It is important to note that Tim Hardaway Jr. is a quality player. He’s only 25 and is coming off the best few months of his NBA career. Hardaway averaged 17.5 points per game over the second half of the 2016-17 campaign. He’s a capable outside shooter, which is something the Knicks certainly need. He was a subpar defender early in his career, but showed significant improvement over his two years in Atlanta. Under the right circumstances, such as the Knicks inking him at closer to $8 or $9 million per season over three years, it would have been an understandable signing.
However, the contract the Knicks offered has a disastrous downside.
First, it is a significant risk to assume Hardaway Jr. will match, let alone exceed, the production he posted late in the 2016-17 season. Prior to this past January, Hardaway Jr. had never averaged more than 13 points per game in any month of his entire four-year career. There is a rather large sample size that suggests that his flaws will prevent him from becoming an above-average shooting guard. And, for the amount of cap space the Knicks invested into him, that’s exactly what they’ll need to see.
For players that absorb nearly 20 percent of a team’s cap space, it’s imperative that they become solid starters, if not stars.
Still, if the Knicks were just one piece away from becoming a true contender, and Hardaway Jr. was the final ingredient that they thought would put them over the top, then maybe it would understandable to wildly overpay for his services. That is clearly not the case.
Worse yet, even if Hardaway Jr. exceeds expectations and things break right for New York, that “best case scenario” likely means the Knicks will win around 35-37 games.
There’s a reason New York has been unable to escape the muck of mediocrity and the Atlantic division basement for the better part of two decades (the Knicks have lost 768 games this century, more than every team in the league except the Timberwolves). It’s because the Knicks refuse to commit to a full-fledged rebuild. Starting way back with the dreadful decision to trade Patrick Ewing at the end of his career, they have never taken the steps necessary to embark on what is an admittedly arduous process.
The Knicks current objective should NOT be winning 37 games next season. The goal should be methodically building a balanced roster that is capable of consistently winning 50-plus games a few years down the road.
In addition, one common theme in the Knicks’ lack of success has been their inability to defend. The Knicks have finished the regular season ranked in the top-half of the league in Defensive Efficiency just once over the last 17 years. Coincidentally, that also happened to be the sole season this century they finished with more than 50 regular season wins and advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
At the end of each disappointing campaign, as free agency approaches, Knicks coaches and front office personnel usually proclaim that their defensive performance the prior year was unacceptable and that they’ll focus on improving that end of the floor going forward. Yet, time and again, the Knicks chase offensive-minded players when they open up their checkbooks. Tim Hardaway Jr. is another such example. Besides the fact that they grossly overpaid for Hardaway Jr.; that that they still don’t have a veteran point guard to mentor Ntlikina and feed the ball to KP and Willy; that they already have a solid starting shooting guard in Courtney Lee locked into an affordable long-term contract; Tim Hardaway Jr. will not improve the team defensively.
And one last point on Hardaway Jr.: If THJ does develop into the stud that Mills obviously believes he will, Hardaway Jr. has a player option for that fourth and final season, which means he can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent in the heart of his prime.
Lots of Knicks fans seem agitated and perplexed as to why so many in the media are ripping the Hardaway Jr. signing. Via Twitter replies, frustrated fans ask incredulously: “Maybe they slightly overpaid, but the Knicks just added a young, athletic player who can score in bunches. How can that possibly be a bad thing?!?”
It seems counterintuitive to fans and casual observers of the NBA, but sometimes when a team signs a good player, it actually results in that team being further away from title contention. Adding a good player on a bad contract can be debilitating.
Landing solid/mediocre players on good/great contracts are how smart teams flesh out their roster.
Due to the constrictions of the salary cap, every single dollar counts. Overpaying by a few million can be crippling. Overpaying by upwards of $20 million can be catastrophic.
For instance, just last week the Celtics were forced to trade away Avery Bradley, one of the game’s most feared perimeter defenders and a rising two-way star, solely because Boston desperately needed to clear $3 million dollars off their books to sign Gordon Hayward.
This past weekend, the Nets traded journeyman Justin Hamilton in exchange for DeMarre Carroll, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2018 second-round pick. This was an illustrative example of how preserving cap space can net a shrewd franchise future assets.
The Knicks’ cap space both now and in the future has been greatly diminished. As a result, New York has far less flexibility. Having financial freedom both this summer and in the years ahead is simply far more valuable than adding an athletic scorer to a terribly imbalanced roster.
Unsurprisingly, we have recently seen other teams secure cap-friendly deals. The Suns just signed promising big man Alan Williams to a three-year, $17 million salary. The Knicks had expressed interest in adding Williams, but didn’t have the cap space to make a competitive offer. (Hardaway’s average annual salary will be greater than the $17 million total Williams will make through 2020). Justin Holiday, who played well on both ends of the floor for the Knicks last season, signed for $9 million over two years. Tyreke Evans will make just $3.2 million next season.
These are the types of low-risk, high-reward contracts the Knicks should have been handing out.
At the very least, New York should have made every effort to hire a permanent GM, allowing him to sign-off on all important decisions. Which brings us back to the loss of David Griffin as a front office candidate. Apparently, Griffin wanted to bring with him a trusted cadre of scouts and executives and to have the final say in basketball-related decisions. The Knicks and owner Jim Dolan inexplicably balked at this reasonable request. Despite the putrid record of the team during the tenure of the front office personnel currently in place at Madison Square Garden, Dolan and the Knicks refused to grant autonomy to a GM with three straight Finals appearances and a championship on his resume.
Knicks fans that have watched this organization operate shouldn’t be surprised. Unfortunately, it’s the continuation of a vicious cycle.
Two common denominators during the decade-plus the Knicks have spent in the doldrums has been too much Jim Dolan and not enough defense.
Less than a week ago, it appeared the Knicks were on their way towards escaping the pitfalls of the past and inching their way towards respectability by committing to patiently building a team the right way.
Yet, just a few days later, here we are…
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.