In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.
In 2017, having traded their most acclaimed player the month before opening night, the New York Knicks were sentenced to lottery tanking by most NBA fans, including their own. Despite a winless preseason and 0-3 start to the regular season, they’ve managed to pick themselves up enough to flirt with a .500 record and a playoff spot. But doubters gonna doubt.
They’ve played a million games at home; the road will ruin them.
They’re just gonna trade the veterans for future assets anyway.
They’re not deep enough to survive injuries.
They’re too young.
But what if the ship is being righted, and the Knicks have successfully identified, incorporated and/or developed players who can do things others didn’t know they could do? What if a critical mass of players exceeding expectations (in today’s gilded age, nothing exceeds like excess) makes us say “Hey!” In a good way?
I’m not talking about players we expected greatness from. Kristaps Porzingis should make the All-Star team and could make an All-NBA team, but he doesn’t make the “Say Hey!” team; his leap to superstardom, while welcome and wondrous to witness, ain’t exactly coming out of left field. I came thisclose to including Courtney Lee, who’s setting per-game career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, three-point percentage and free-throw accuracy. But two facts gave me pause.
One, there is no statistical difference in how the Knicks fare with Lee on or off the floor. Whereas most of his career he’s been a net positive, this year his rating is literally a 0.0. Somehow, Lee appears to have as much of an impact on the Knicks play as I do.
Two, Lee is 32. I’m not sure his production is up because we’re seeing newfound abilities, or because he’s simply getting more reps and so far handling them with aplomb. Is it sustainable that Lee maintains this performance over the last 45 games? I’m inclined to say no.
I’m also not talking players like Doug McDermott, whose minutes align with his career norms and whose shot attempts are down while his shooting percentage is up; that’s a reasonable corollary. Ditto Hardaway, whose rebounds and assists are up and whose defense has been a welcome sight, but whose shooting percentages are down a bit as his attempts are up. Today, the spotlight is on the ironies, the paradoxes, and the straight-up WTFs.
A loose cannon. A grizzled vet with the face and moxie of a pit bull. A grizzly bear. A Ron Baker. All led by a man who, were there memes for “You versus the guy she told you not to worry about” featuring Terry Stotts as you, would be the guy she told you not to worry about.
Let’s meet the 2018 Knicks Say Hey! team.
A comparison of two players’ per-36 averages this season.
Player A is making $26M this year and putting up lesser numbers despite working alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Player B makes $2 mil, and is not.
The numbers don’t seem to know how to make sense of Michael Beasley, which is sooo Beas. He’s posting one of his better true shooting percentages as a pro, yet his offensive rating is one of his lowest ever. His average shot comes eight feet from the hoop, the shortest mark of his career. As the league emphasizes three-pointers, your favorite player’s favorite player and ex-Buck bucks the trend.
Want a great Beasley stat? This season, seven out of every eight 3s he’s hit were assisted by teammates. That means only one out of every eight 3s was unassisted (stay with me). Why is that remarkable? Because this is the first season Beasley has hit an unassisted three-pointer in FIVE YEARS!
One reason the self-proclaimed pseudo-Melo has found such success: Beasley’s played a career-high 93% of his minutes this year at the four-spot. Maybe the mercurial scoring machine has finally found a home, right where Melo could have rode off into the sunset.
I was going to exclude Jack because his productivity isn’t exceptional compared to the rest of his career. But his competence at the point is exceptional compared to most of the point garbage this team’s trotted out this century. Jack is 13th in the NBA in assists per game, with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 3:1; he’s on pace to set a career-high in points generated via assists. No Knick’s averaged 6+ assists a game since the Mike D’Antoni juiced-up stats spectacular was on Broadway.
Like Beasley, there are anachronisms in Jack’s game. His shot attempts near the rim and beyond the arc are down from his career norms; from 10 feet out to the three-point line, they’re up. There are countless possessions where the opponent’s defense makes it clear they don’t fear him taking a three-pointer, much less making one. In the clip below no one runs out to contest; as soon as Jack lines up, everyone readies themselves for the rebound. Yes, it’s a three in transition, a scenario that may yield this response from the D no matter who’s shooting. But more so, it’s a Jarrett Jack three. Period.
I used to dream of combining Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell into one player. Now I do that with Jack and Frank Ntilikina. If you could mix the rookie’s length and athleticism with the vet’s IQ and rhythmic command, you’d have one hell of a point guard. For now, the Knicks are fortunate to have a heck of a competent one. This team followed a winless preseason with an 0-3 start before Jack took the reins. I don’t know how far he can lead them. But without him, they may have fallen too far at the start for the rest of the season to mean much.
Kyle O’ Quinn
Per 36 minutes, Kyle O’Quinn leads the Knicks in defensive rebounds, he’s second in shooting percentage, third in rebounds and third in blocks. He’s the only Knick who’s top-three in both offensive (3rd) and defensive rating (2nd, trailing only Joakim Noah, who’s played just 33 minutes this year). He also commits the most fouls on the team, a shade over six per 36 minutes, so even when he’s making mistakes, they’re errors of aggression, which, you know, if you’re gonna fail, maybe that’s how you fail better.
O’Quinn’s performance in the win at New Orleans was typical of his season so far. He hit all three of his shots, grabbed 4 rebounds, blocked two shots, was second on the team in plus/minus (+5), and committed 5 fouls. All in 15 minutes.
O’Quinn is a bit smaller, younger, and certainly cheaper than any of the Knicks’ bigs besides Willy Hernangomez. Those qualities would seem to make him an appealing trade option for teams looking to soup-up their their playoff bench. Except O’Quinn can, should, and probably will opt-out of the $4.2M he’s due next season to become an unrestricted free agent. As long as Noah and Hernangomez are off the radar, O’Quinn has a place in the Knick rotation. Pragmatically, they’re best served getting something - anything - for him sooner rather than losing him later for nothing. Romantically, he’s a Knick for life and the darling of their 2021 championship ceremony.
Also, O’Quinn is undoubtedly the Say! Hey! team’s Mr. T.
Is there a more polemic Knick than Ron Baker? Some people see a gritty workaholic, pulling himself up against the odds to become a solid pro, one whose effort makes up for his shortcomings. Others see a white mascot with zero business on this roster and even less business making the money he does.
The shortcomings are legit. Baker is a combo guard who’s out of his element driving to the basket, hitting just 36% of his shots within three feet. He has no touch around the basket.
Watching him try to create shots for himself is like watching my two-legged dog try to jump up onto my bed. You know it ain’t happening, but you’re not sure if that’s funny or sad.
You know how when some people trip and fall, they really wipe out? Baker’s turnovers are like that. Somehow more flagrant than the usual. He’s like the Kramer of turnovers.
But I think Baker gets extra grief because when small unathletic white guys struggle, it understandably rubs a lot of us the wrong way. Langston Galloway’s two years older than Baker and has never cracked 40% from the field; their career AST/TO ratio is virtually identical. When Galloway left the Knicks for the Pelicans, some Knick fans were disappointed. I doubt Baker leaving will cause many tears to fall.
I’ve always considered Matthew Dellavedova the best-case scenario for Baker’s upside. Asking him to create for himself, and often for others, is a bridge too far. But park him behind the arc or in the corner and pair him with playmakers and he can do things. Last year Baker hit just 24% of his corner threes; this year he’s hitting 80%.
His overall three-point accuracy is up from 27% to 43%. Assists are up. Turnovers are down. His defensive metrics are up across the board (defensive rating; defensive box plus/minus; defensive win shares). He’s taking more threes while taking fewer shots from every other range. If you’re no good shooting from close range, don’t. Stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.
Baker will never be a big-time player. But contextualize him properly and he can help you win.
If I may...
That’s Hall-of-Famer Red Holzman’s record as head coach over his first four years, all with the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks. Holzman, the only coach ever to lead the Knicks to a title (or two titles), had a winning percentage of .409. So far as Knick coach, Hornacek is 49-69, a winning percentage of .415. He’s made his share of head-scratching moves and earned his skeptics. Bill Parcells went 3-12-1 his first year with the Giants. No one could see Holzman was a legendary coach until he had a team full of legendary players. So any judgment cast on Hornacek today is served with a heaping helping of presumptuousness. Still, the odds are against Hornacek ever having his number retired in the MSG rafters like Holzman’s 613. Instead, let’s consider another ex-Knick coach.
In 2008 the Knicks hired D’Antoni, who’d established a successful system for five years in Phoenix. He’d been fortunate to coach a two-time MVP in Steve Nash and the pre-Knick pre-mortal incarnation of Amar’e Stoudemire. So what? Name one successful NBA coach who did it all with scrubs. D’Antoni came to New York, served two years probation coaching a rudderless team that had cleared the decks for the 2010 free agent bonanza, enjoyed about 50 games getting to cook his recipes with his ingredients, and then James Dolan let fear override love and sold the farm for Carmelo.
The team’s ethos was subjugated to the jab-step whims of the single-most antithetical player in existence to that ethos. Imagine hiring a Michelin chef renowned for his pasta dishes and suddenly telling him to cook burgers. These days, D’Antoni has the Houston Rockets on a 60+ win pace as, quite possibly, the only team that can hang with Golden State over seven games. They’ve put him in a position to succeed, not by asking him to do what he doesn’t, but by letting him do what he does. Funny, right?
It is easy - and I 100% admit to doing this—to look down on Hornacek for seemingly kowtowing to Phil Jackson’s Triangle fetish last year instead of throwing his window open and yelling that he’s mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore. He doesn’t yell. He’s not histrionic. To call his quotes “vanilla” is an insult to the bean. Whatever his endgame is with Hernangomez, the process - one few trust - rubs many the wrong way. His play-calling after time outs is uneven. The team is dead last in three-point attempts. As the rest of the league embraces 3<2, the Knicks too often resemble a knife at a gun fight.
On the other hand, last year the Knicks ranked 23rd in field goal percentage. This year they’re 8th. Last year they were 13th in opponent field goal percentage. This year? They’re 4th. Their defensive eFG% has risen from 14th to 8th. These changes aren’t simply the result of upping or slowing the pace; New York’s pace is identical this year to last. They’re dribbling less and passing more, both positive traits: per Yaron Weitzman two weeks ago, “Only five teams throw more passes per game than the Knicks, and only four average fewer dribbles per touch.”
A year ago, the only Knick to play 1000+ minutes and end the year with an assist percentage over 15% (and end the year a Knick) was Derrick Rose. This year four Knicks are on pace to do so (Jack, O’Quinn, Hardaway and Ntilikina); if Baker and Noah’s minutes were higher, they’d qualify, too. The team is shooting better, passing more, dribbling less, and defending more effectively. Some of that is the absence of Anthony, and Rose. Some of that is this being a better team. Some of the credit has to go to the coach. Is Hornacek the man to trust with a title contender? Dunno. Is he trustworthy with a developing young squad? Maybe he is.
The Knicks make us think and say all sorts of things. A lot of the time, those feelings and words aren’t fun. So far, this team is. And that’s due in large part to the unsung. The castaways. The Say Hey! team.