By now you’ve probably heard about ESPN’s 35-win projection for the 2016-17 New York Knicks, and you’ve taken the requisite time to process and “harrumph” that number.
But something stuck out to me in Kevin Pelton’s pithy explanation for why the real plus-minus system rates New York as only marginally better than last season:
“The Knicks would certainly be disappointed if they improved just three wins after spending freely this summer, but RPM rates Derrick Rose (minus-2.3) as a replacement-level contributor at this point and is skeptical of New York's weak bench.”
I’m begging you, dear reader, to please ignore the Derrick Rose stuff for now. That is a whole different can of worms. Instead, I want to focus on the weak bench. Even if you are a believer in the second unit Phil Jackson put together this summer, it’s easy to understand why projection systems would be wary. There isn’t a whole lot of proven players on Phil’s backup roster.
Let’s break down the guys on guaranteed deals who will make up the Knicks’ bench. Players with no NBA experience are in italics:
Brandon Jennings, Justin Holiday, Sasha Vujacic
Lance Thomas, Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Maurice Ndour
Kyle O’Quinn, Willy Hernangomez, Marshall Plumlee
That’s four NBA rookies, three of whom played in the Spanish League last season ... and two of those guys (Ndour, Hernangomez) couldn’t earn consist minutes with Real Madrid. Kyle O’Quinn crapped out in his first year in New York. Lance Thomas exceeded all expectations last season (and then got hurt). Their biggest bench acquisition (Jennings) is coming off an Achilles tear, Justin Holiday is best known for being the end-of-the-bench guy for the 2014-15 Warriors, and Sasha Vujacic is best known for being Sasha Vujacic. Objectively speaking, it’s a cause for concern. Even if Phil uses the 15th roster spot on a veteran — please let it be a point guard! — it’s still a mostly untested group.
On the other hand, screw objectivity! What the hell has objective analysis ever done for a Knicks fan, especially when the back half of the roster is concerned? O’Quinn objectively looked like a solid backup when they acquired him in 2015, as did Kevin Seraphin. Neither of the guys did jack. Instead, their best reserve was Thomas, a dude they cut the previous winter.
Remember all the preseason praise for solid, under-the-radar signings like Jason Smith, Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih? Who the hell had ever heard of Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland before they arrived on American shores?
Here’s what really excites me about the Knicks’ bench: Vujacic aside, the oldest player is the 28-year-old Thomas. The rest of New York’s bench mob consists of dudes in their early-to-mid-twenties — unproven, yes, but also intriguing. Let’s say just two of the Kuzminskas/O’Quinn/Ndour/Hernangomez/Holiday quintet actually turn into contributors next season. That would mean two more players that actually have a future with this club. It would (hopefully) give the front office a chance to stop recycling 75% of the roster every season and actually build a stable rotation.
So, yes, there’s no logic to the Knicks’ bench, assuming they’re planning on contending this year. Who cares? Logic and the Knicks’ bench never really went together well anyway.