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X’s and Uh-O’s: Breaking down plays from Knicks-Clippers

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What can we learn? Can we learn anything? What does it mean to lear, anyway?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, the Knicks lost to the Clippers. If you lose, don’t lose the lesson. Let’s look back at six plays from that game that offer hope, cringeworthiness, and a reminder how badly teams who “must” trade a star player often fare (if the past 48 hours haven’t reminded us already).

Good point guards make good players gooder

Remember this?

John Starks was able to fly in for The Dunk because B.J. Armstrong thought Starks was going to use a Patrick Ewing to go left; Starks was a better shooter going left than right. That threat freed him to use his superior right dribbling hand to blast to the hoop. Misdirection makes the world go round.

Kristaps Porzingis has been up and down this season. The first month he was playing at an All-Star level; injuries, inconsistent play, and foul trouble plagued him afterwards, but he’s shown glimpses of rising from the ashes. The numbers are equally all over the map: he’s shooting more threes (33% of shots this year from downtown; 27% last year), shooting them better (33% in 2015-16 to 38% in 2016-17), and has improved from 29% on corner threes to 50%. He’s also dunking more (52 his rookie year; 61 already this season). Threes and throwdowns are the coin of today’s roundball realm, so that’s good. He’s also committing more fouls, taking more midrange jumpers (10-16 feet), and his rebounding numbers and PER are down, too. That’s not. Since the numbers don’t tell us anything definitive, mira the clip below. In particular, watch Austin Rivers, defending Derrick Rose, after Rose crosses midcourt and carries the ball goes right.

Like Armstrong with Starks, Rivers thinks Rose is going to use a pick from a big to go left. Instead he heads right, where DeAndre Jordan is waiting. Rose is below-average from every shooting distance beyond 0-3 feet, but he was hot in this game, hitting 10 of 18 shots, so Jordan treated him like a threat and met him at the three-point line. Rose is out there with KP, Carmelo Justin Holiday and Courtney Lee, four of the Knicks’ best five three-point shooters; as soon as Porzingis sees Jordan focus on Rose, KP cuts down the wide-open heart of the defense. The other defenders won’t leave their assignments because one of those assignments is Melo and the other two, Lee and Holiday, are in the corners, where both shoot 47%. Porzingis is free for the open slam; he could have held back and taken a wide-open three, too. Imagine a future where he plays with a great point guard every night.

Imagine there’s a point guard
coming in this draft
Imagine that the Knicks pick him
Clarence Gaines ain’t daft

You may say that I’m a dreamer
but I’m not the only one
Give us Fultz, Ball, Monk or Ntilikina
and KP will have such fun

Guards who draw fouls are pretty cool

Nearly five years ago, this happened.

In some ways, Rose has had a bounceback season in New York. He’s on pace for his healthiest year since pre-ACL and shooting better than he has since his second season; perhaps coincidentily, he’s taking fewer shots per game than he has since his rookie year.

In other ways, Rose plays like someone who’s suffered a number of debilitating injuries and is nearing his one last chance to earn nine figures. Since coming back from the ACL tear his free throw attempts have halved. He’s on an expiring contract and everyone and their sister knows his current employer isn’t going to re-sign him, so when, a few years ago, Rose said

I got no problem with that. To some owners and fans, athletes are soap opera characters: the actor is disposable; all that matters is the role they play. On a human level, I support Rose prioritizing Rose. Strictly recreationally speaking, his avoidance of contact is rivaling Charles Oakley’s post-ups and Howard Eisley’s inability to lead a fast break in the all-time Knick Hall of Shame. Look.

Willy Hernangomez comes to set a pick on Raymond Felton, but slips it and rolls into the paint. Rose doesn’t pass, but again, he was having a good shooting night. It’s when he stops his dribble and squares to shoot that the agita hits. Felton bites on the pump fake, but Rose has no interest in faking the shot and getting to the line, nor taking the jumper after getting Felton in the air. Instead he kicks it back out to Brandon Jennings behind the three-point line. That’s like getting your chess opponent in check, then pulling your attack back so they can reset their pieces. As true today as it’s been for DECADES: I. Want. A. Le. Git. Mother. Fucking. Point. Guard.

How much weight should Kristaps Porzingis gain?

KP has already nearly doubled his and-1s from a year ago, so the weight he added last summer has paid dividends. Offensively, he enjoys a size advantage against any 4 and can take any 5 out on the perimeter. Defensively, he’s poor defending pick-and-rolls or quicksilver guards. He’s also 7’3” and 21 years old, so duh. No one wants him to gain so much weight that it slows him on offense or so much muscle that it distorts his shooting form. But sometimes, the strength disparity is glaring.

If you freeze the clip at the 0:03 mark, right as Rivers goes into his spin move, Porzingis appears (to my non-coach’s eyes) to be in good position. He has Jordan behind him, seemingly in position to box him out once the shot goes up. But as Rivers rises, Porzingis ends up more likely to box Rose out than Jordan. It’s nothing dramatic or highlight-worthy; maybe Jordan gets away with a little shove. But that’s the sort of thing you’d like to not see happening to your franchise center...if he ends up a center. If traditional positions go the way of bitcoin, chalk this up to GenX kvetching and get off my hybrid analog/digital lawn.

How good a passer can Porzingis be?

In his prime, Dirk Nowitzki’s assist percentage was nearly 18%. Patrick Ewing got as high as 14%, and Ewing was known as a black hole on offense (given the other guys usually around him, this was understandable). Porzingis was not renowned for his passing at Sevilla and his assist percentage in NY so far is just 7%. He’s never going to be a triple-double machine, but if he could up his assists while reducing his turnovers, he’d be closer to Dirk than Ewing. Ever heard Dirk accused of being a black hole? His assists weren’t much higher than Ewing’s, but he had a positive AST/TO ratio throughout his career. That’s important for the guys who touch the ball the most.

Porzingis has shown some vision when making the kinds of passes that choreographed play presents, like when’s single-covered in the post and has time to see a double-team coming. The next step is one he’s yet to master: passing out of unexpected coverages. He’s like a young quarterback seeing more complex defensive schemes.

Two missed opportunities here after Porzingis gets the pass from Holiday:

1) He doesn’t recognize Mindaugas Kuzminskas open cutting to the basket, despite being covered by two guards who are nearly a foot shorter than KP.

2) When he gets the pass he brings the ball down to his waist level, which allows noted ball hawk Jamal Crawford (cough) to strip the ball and create a scrum between KP, Crawford, Rivers and Felton. Little dudes’ll win them scrums every time. Watch Carmelo when he gets entry passes. He holds the ball high until he’s had time to read the defense; only once he knows it’s safe will he lower it. Hopefully Porzingis is seeing that. That awareness going forward would turn a lot of these kinds of clips into highlight-reel assists.

Be careful what you wish for

The Knicks find themselves navigating the rough waters of “Oooh, you gotta trade your star ASAP!” Orlando, Denver, and soon Sacramento can tell you how well that usually works. Trading a star rarely nets another in return, and when the market smells blood and knows you’re a “motivated seller,” the market offers dimes on the dollar.

Not to pick on Austin Rivers...

Actually, he is the millionaire son of a millionaire who coached the Boston Celtics. I’ll pick on him some more.

If there’s a good Carmelo trade to be made, it’s more likely to materialize this summer than this trade deadline. Moving him now, just because message boards, sports radio and all us instant gratification gods want something shiny and new to talk about, is more likely to yield bricks than Broadway magic.