In the modern NBA, a great point guard is an important part of a team’s success. Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry are prime examples. And all great point guards traditionally have at least two things in common– they play at least 32 or so minutes per game and they don’t have to worry about their spot in the rotation.
The New York Knicks do not have a point guard. Instead, they have three that share the workload – Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina (maybe four, if you count Damyean Dotson). All three are recent lottery picks and all are relatively young; Burke is 26, Mudiay is 22 and Ntilikina is 20. No one receives a bulk of the minutes consistently, but all could theoretically shoulder the load – or grow into doing so.
Each of the three has a good deal of potential, and each has respective flaws. They all require playing time to continue developing, but nobody receives enough of it. As is, the team is hurting the confidence and trade value of at least one (and unfortunately, the one they’ve invested the most in thus far – Ntilikina), while perpetuating uncertainty.
Knicks head coach David Fizdale’s meritocratic approach to his rotation is fair, but it can pressure players into feeling they can’t make mistakes, which leads to them forcing the action. The breakdown of playing time reads like this: Mudiay is averaging 23.1 minutes per game, Burke has averaged 20.7 and Ntilikina has played 23.1.
Furthermore, there have been six starting lineups through 24 games in 2018-19: Mudiay has started the last 11 games and Burke started the first five at point guard. Ntilikina was a starter for the first 14 games, but never as the lone point guard in the lineup. In fact, Ntilikina didn’t start at point guard for his entire rookie season, despite projecting to be one.
The inconsistent minutes and lineup changes are clearly affecting Ntilikina the most. Ntilikina is a natural facilitator, but he had been looking for his shot a bit more in the first few games. He averaged 7.2 field goal attempts in approximately 25 minutes per game through the first five games, compared to only 3.8 attempts in an average of just 16 minutes per game in the last five when he’s played. And in the past two games, Ntilikina didn’t see the floor at all.
To his credit, Ntilikina remains positive. Before the game against the Pelicans on Nov. 23, he said this about being more aggressive: “I know I can do it. I will do it. I’m naturally a player that makes the right play at the right moment. Most of the time I’m figuring out the NBA style. Before it was more passing and distributing (in Europe). Now in the NBA, the style of play is different. I’m still adjusting, but I think I’ve made a lot of improvements and shown flashes, which is a good thing. Now the goal is to make that be on a regular basis.”
Ntilikina needs more in-game experience to do so. And yet, he has received less over the past few weeks.
But it’s not just Ntilikina who is affected by the time split. Burke’s play has warranted consistent minuets this season. Prior to spraining his knee on Dec. 1 against the Bucks, Burke averaged 19.5 points per game when he played 25 or more minutes. And yet, he logged only 15:04 and 16:20, respectively, in the past two games.
The inconsistent lineups have seemingly left Burke a bit perplexed. He was asked about how disruptive the three point guard rotation has been to his play.
“Sometimes when you want to get out there and you’re not (out there), you can get frustrated as a player. And that’s just the competitiveness of all of us,” Burke said. “So, I think the best thing to do is just to continue to stay positive, continue to do your job when you’re out there on both ends of the court and help this team win to the best of your ability. For me, [Saturday night], I was antsy. I did want to get back out there.”
While he remains upbeat, words like “frustrated” and “antsy” aren’t what you want to hear from a key contributor.
But it’s not just the players’ psyches that need to be considered. The Knicks are presumably at the tail end of a rebuild, having added three lottery picks over the last three seasons. They have the opportunity to assess their roster and develop their young talent in a lower-pressure environment that will be evaporate once Kristaps Porzingis returns. For a team playing in the pressure cooker that is New York, this is an opportunity that comes along very infrequently. They must come out of it ready to compete.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Mudiay is the lone guard who has actually benefited from the lineup changes. He seems to be a Fizdale favorite thanks to his ability to push the pace and finish at the rim through contact. He has eclipsed the 15-point mark three times in the last five games – with his season high (28) coming this past weekend against the Bucks. But even Mudiay has seen his minutes fluctuate. He’s played 36, 35, 20, 22 and 23 minutes in his past five games.
An argument can be made for all three point guards being named the starter and being given the lion’s share of minutes, but only one can have that role. The team could keep one of the three as the primary backup, too; however, that could require whomever they pick to agree to that role since Mudiay and Burke become unrestricted free agents following the season.
But there is no room for a third point guard. The Knicks should decide who to build around prior to the trade deadline and proceed accordingly – or they’ll risk losing one of their young players for nothing.
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