Coming off their fifth straight losing season, with their fifth head coach poised to lead them over that time, the New York Knicks seem to be heading into a pivotal transitional year with several questions to answer by the season’s end. Even if it doesn’t come in the form of wins or playoff contention, it figures to be an important year in which significant progress — or the lack thereof — might be measured in others ways. Here’s a look at what New York will need to address the most:
1) Can Fizdale Change the Culture?
More than anything, the Knicks have lacked the consistency of having enough two-way players in recent years. At times, the offense has clicked at the expense of defensive lapses, or the defense has intensified while ball movement and cohesiveness lacked at the offensive end of the floor. After past Knicks head coaches all repeatedly preached the right things in that regard — but failed to reliably get their players to exhibit the same — New York’s latest head coach, David Fizdale has similarly made many statements which have sounded good to Knicks fans’ ears.
As he showed during his brief 101-game stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, Fizdale believes in committing to defense first while maintaining an efficient, balanced offense, and instilling a gritty team mindset in line with what made the 1990s Knicks beloved by their fans.
Talking a good game like his predecessors is one thing. Getting this year’s group of Knicks — particularly without their best player (injured fourth-year forward Kristaps Porzingis) for most of the season — to walk the talk will be a much greater challenge.
While there shouldn’t be too much emphasis placed on preseason results, it might be worth noting as the Knicks (who went 3-2 in the preseason) didn’t quite demonstrate a paradigm shift from regular season results over the past few years. Fizdale’s willingness to be defensive-minded translated into New York allowing 109.2 points per game (ranking only 19th in the NBA) in the preseason and the Knicks continued a past trend of fouling too much, with opponents taking 29.2 free throw attempts (12-most in the NBA).
On the plus side, New York held opponents to 42.8 percent shooting (good for 13th in the league) during the preseason, while allowing just 27.3 percent shooting from 3-point range (third-best in the NBA preseason).
Offensively, the Knicks ranked just 19th in scoring with 108.2 points per game on just 42.5 percent shooting (ranking in 23rd). But of particular note was New York continuing a bad trend of past years in which the Knicks would often pass up the 3-point shot despite results saying the team should do otherwise. Sure enough, New York, despite ranking ninth in the preseason accuracy (at 34.7 percent) from behind the arc, was tied for only the 28th-most attempt (24.2 per game) from that distance at time in league history when the 3-point shot is tied to team success more than ever. Following what the Knicks’ prior head coach, Jeff Hornacek, had said (though the percentage often said differently), Fizdale claimed that the relatively low number of 3-point attempts were because that shot wasn’t a good one for his team. Yet the preseason percentage in the top ten suggests differently.
If that type of percentage continues during the regular season, it’ll be up to Fizdale to allow the Knicks more freedom with shooting 3s. That, along with having New York truly be committed to effort, communication, helping and execution on a regular basis defensively, and consistently sharing the ball, while passing up good shots for better ones offensively, would not only pay dividends now, but perhaps for years to come. For a team with a lot of young pieces, in what is expected to be a very challenging season in terms of positing wins (if not in individual player growth), following through on all of the aforementioned checklists both offensively and defensively could finally change the overall culture from the past in ways that could carry over to the future, when the Knicks might finally be in position to contend. With this year’s focus realistically on player growth, doing things the right way this season would only help the team come together if and when New York can add difference-making star free agents or other moves in an attempt to go to the next level next year and in years to come.
2) Will Ntilikina Become the Starting Point Guard the Knicks Thought They Drafted?
Although former team president Phil Jackson is no longer around to make the decisions, his 2017 drafting of Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina is still resulting in a major determination for the club to make. At present, New York isn’t sure what Ntilikina is. The Knicks are rightfully confident in his defense, but (Fizdale included) they’re not sure if the former eighth overall pick who was selected with the confidence that he’d become the team’s fixture at the starting point guard spot for a decade or more is up to that task. New York believes Ntilikina might be better off the ball after the Belgian native born to Rwandan parents, who grew up and honed his skills in France, failed to show the same offensive potential in his rookie season last year as some of the other promising young point guards selected in his class.
To move forward with making their cap space and free agent decisions count next summer, the Knicks need to know what they’ll be doing with what has become the most important position in the NBA. While other spots are certainly significant, the point guard spot is becoming more akin in the NBA to the importance of the quarterback in the NFL (there’s a reason it’s called the “quarterback of the offense” in basketball, after all). As such, it might be asking a lot for Ntilikina to make a big leap in only his second year. But with the offseason timetable the Knicks will be on next summer, New York will need to know sooner than later: is it going to be Ntilikina at the “1” running the show, or not, after this season?
3) How Will the Knicks’ Young Players Develop?
The 20-year-old Ntilikina isn’t the only young player whom the Knicks will have to learn a lot more about this year. Coming off an impressive bounce-back season a year ago, 25- year-old guard Trey Burke is New York’s most intriguing young guard from an offensive standpoint. And 22-year-old point guard Emmanuel Mudiay has lost some favor in the rotation, but still holds some promise as a former seventh overall pick selected by Denver.
Knicks draft picks Damyean Dotson and (especially) Kevin Knox are two homegrown players New York are counting on to show some growth. A 24-year-old, 6-foot-6 second-round selection with a good shot and an ability to play tenacious defense, Dotson could develop into a solid and important rotation player off the bench. Knox, taken ninth overall in June, is being counted on for much more. At just 19 years old, Knox had a very impressive summer league but struggled during the preseason. Knox figures to be part of the Knicks’ future regardless, and New York is hopeful he’ll eventually be a staple (and even perhaps an All-Star) at the small forward position for many years to come. While he has plenty of time to develop, the Knicks are counting on Knox to show enough this year that he could be a potential drawing card to ultimately play alongside possible primary free agent or trade targets.
Taken 27 spots after Knox (at No. 36), 20-year-old, 7-foot-1, 240-pound center Mitchell Robinson impressed the Knicks in summer league action with his energy, shot blocking, defense, athleticism and ability to run the floor well. The expectations out of Western Kentucky allowed Robinson to slip to the second round in the draft, but the possible upside intrigues the Knicks, who are eager to see what Robinson can do in his rookie season and how much they might be able to begin counting on him thereafter.
Though he won’t be on the roster at the start of the season, 22-year-old shooting guard Allonzo Trier demonstrated the good shooting ability he showed in college as one of the better surprised of the preseason. On a good Arizona team, Trier averaged 14.8 points, then 17.2 and 18.1 on 46.6, 46 and 50 percent shooting, respectively, before signing with New York as an undrafted free agent. He’ll start out by likely continuing to impress in the G League, with the Westchester Knicks, but at some point, Trier will use probably make the most of his two-way contract to land himself back on New York’s roster where he may again open some eyes with his ability to fill up the hoop often in short spurts off the bench.
Finally, there are yet four more young Knicks who New York will try to continue to work into the mix and learn more about. Will guard 25-year-old guard Ron Baker show what made him a standout player at Wichita State and evolve his skillset to show that he’s more than just a high energy, tough, scrappy fill-in off the bench?
Already coming to the Knicks with four years of NBA experience on three prior teams, 24-year-old power forward Noah Vonleh is hoping he finally has a longer-term home in New York after the former McDonald’s All-American had a very good lone year in college at Indiana and was drafted ninth overall in 2014. Vonleh has a high motor in a powerful body, and isn’t afraid to mix it up in the paint to grab some boards. If he can play solid defense and can add some occasional buckets, he could increase his playing time over the year and force New York to think about using him more in the longer term.
If not Vonleh, former North Carolina standout Isaiah Hicks could have a chance to fill a similar role at the same 6-foot-9 height and age as Vonleh, but at 20 pounds lighter.
And then there’s 23-year-old Luke Kornet, who after a good four-year career at Vanderbilt, showed late last season, as a rookie with the Knicks, a good stretch-four shooting touch from the perimeter, especially for a 7-1, 250-pound big man. That role could prove valuable off the bench especially against smaller opposing reserve forwards, but Kornet will have to improve his defense and perhaps his rebounding to get more playing time.
4) What Will Mario Hezonja Add?
The Knicks weren’t very busy this past offseason, but their biggest signing of the period was Croatian small forward Mario Hezonja. A 2015 fifth-round selection of the Orlando Magic, Hezonja never lived up to what the Magic had hope for him. But he’s only 23-year-old and in his fourth NBA season. If he improves, Hezonja can give the Knicks another shooter. However, his defense will need to be better than what he showed with Orlando for Hezonja (who is on a one-year deal with the Knicks) to increase his minutes enough to show that he can become part of New York’s plans beyond this season.
5) Will Kanter and Hardaway Jr. Show Enough to Fit into Future Plans?
Even the Knicks didn’t expect starting center Enes Kanter to be an efficient walking double-double, nor provide the tremendous locker room leadership and always have his teammates’ backs on the floor when they traded for him before the start of last season. But that’s exactly what they got, to the point where New York is forced to make a tough decision with Kanter. Will all of the previously mentioned qualities (should they continue), along with a needed improvement defensively, keep Kanter in a Knicks uniform after he becomes a free agent next summer, since New York will need a productive big man to place alongside a presumably healthy Porzingis and perhaps Knox? Or will Kanter’s hefty $18.6 million salary this year be too much of a deterrent to the Knicks wanting to negotiate a longer-term deal and the likely higher per-year rate Kanter will be seeking?
Fellow veteran, guard Tim Hardaway Jr., in his second stint with New York (after the Knicks drafted him with the 24th pick in 2013) is similarly a player for the Knicks to ponder in the longer term. Hardaway Jr. shows enough production to make New York want to keep him around, yet also enough cold stretches of play to wonder if he’s worth the $17.3 million-$19 million he’s due to earn each year over the next three seasons. Of course, there isn’t the same free agency consideration as with Kanter, but if Hardaway Jr. doesn’t show this season that he’s worth the money, the Knicks might want to consider trading him.
6) When Will Porzingis Return and How Will He Look?
The Knicks have already seen enough from their fourth overall pick in 2015 to know that when healthy, Porzingis has the ability to become that ultra-rare, two-way franchise cornerstone whom the Knicks can build around. After missing 60 games over his first three seasons, that’s far from a certainty. Porzingis, who tore his ACL after 48 games least season, still faces a long road back and realistically won’t return to the Knicks’ lineup until sometime around February. That wouldn’t leave much time before the end of the season for Porzingis to feel comfortable with doing what he was able to do on the floor before. If he can’t show that, it could hinder New York’s ability to land suitable free agents or possible main pieces via trades to complement Porzingis. So, if not to save an unlikely playoff run, it’s might still be important for Porzingis (who became a restricted free agent on Monday, two days before the start of the season) to come back from his debilitating injury and at least be able to show enough flashes of what he demonstrated in the past.