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Tanking power rankings, part 2: What’s most fun to watch about the Knicks this year?

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The losing ain’t it, chief.

https://twitter.com/DukeMBB

Last week we started counting down the 20 reasons we can’t turn away from Team Tank, even during yet another doomed (but not desultory!) campaign. You’ll find reasons 20 thru 10 here. This week, it’s on to the best of the rest.

10) Tim Hardaway Jr.

Ever read Animal Farm? The animals rise up and overthrow Mr. Jones, the farm’s jerk-off owner, and assume power themselves. There’s a horse, Boxer, the biggest, strongest creature on the farm. Throughout the novel Boxer works his ass off for the greater good, like when he’s badly injured in an attack on the farm by a human neighbor. He gives everything he has to the cause, but when he’s weakened and feeble he’s sold off by the jerk-off pigs to be made into glue.

Speaking of which — Tim Hardaway Jr.! Check it out: he leads the team in minutes, points, shots taken, shots made, threes made, threes taken, free throws made, free throws taken, steals, offensive fouls drawn, defensive fouls drawn, shots blocked, and he’s second in steals. But you’ll never mistake him for other players who do-it-all for their teams, like Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden. THJ is a character actor cast in a lead role. He’s Paul Giamatti in Sideways if the wine had gone bad; he’s J.K. Simmons in Spiderman if there’d been no Spiderman or Mary Jane or Green Goblin. He’s Alec Baldwin in...well, anything.

It’s easy to throw food up at the screen when Hardaway’s playing the lead. He’s not supposed to be doing what he’s doing, and we know that. But he’s out there trying, and no one else in the Knicks’ cast can pretend to be ready for that responsibility. Tim knows he’s not supposed to be headlining, either. But if you’ve sat through much of the Knicks this year when he’s out, you know how ugly it can get. Tim scores when others can’t or won’t and he’s among the league leaders in drawing charges. When the Knicks are good again, odds are THJ won’t be a part of it. But I’ll remember his sacrifice. I’ll remember the joy I took watching him play. Because I’ll remember what dreck it was watching when he didn’t.

9) Noah Vonleh

Vonleh is just surprising enough to keep being surprising. When you start thinking you know the fullness of his game, he busts out something new.

It’s not usually the pinnacle of beauty. But it works.

Sometimes it is kinda sweet, too.

He has weeks where he looks like he’s never shot a three in his life. But right when I’m about to right him off, I just can’t quit him.

Every season there are players who impress. They do more than I expect of them. Jarrett Jack. Justin Holiday. Robin Lopez. Pablo Prigioni. They’re no Murderers’ Row. More like a Simple Assault Queue. Vonleh was a ho-hum summer signing who’s turned himself into a guy I’d be cool rooting for the next few years in New York. He’s already a success story. The throwdowns are icing on the cake.

Confession: when the Knicks signed Vonleh in late July, I knew he’d spent time in Portland and assumed he was a big tall white dude. Pretty much any player who spends time in Portland and doesn’t create a specific memory I assume is a big tall white dude. He may have a beard. A tattoo of a pine tree. He vapes. His fiancee orders breakfast for dinner, but only if the restaurant has real maple syrup.

8) Kristaps Porzingis

We’re three weeks from the year anniversary of KP’s ACL tear, and nothing’s been the same. Many of us feel like we’ve been holding our breaths ever since. That’s fair. It’s hard to go from seeing him like this:

To this:

So even though Porzingis hasn’t played in over 340 days...and even though the last time he played in a game that ended with the Knicks at .500 or better was when this happened...

the truth is everything the Knicks have done since or will do for the forseeable future has meaning because of Porzingis. The meaning’s meanings only have meaning because of Porzingis. Every time the cameras find KP in a suit on the sideline, I feel like Batman in The Dark Knight Rises when he’s in that underground prison with a view of the sky and freedom above. It’s just a tease, and teases mean hope and hope means pain...until it’s delivered.

7) Luke Kornet

I love smart ballplayers. Three-pointers are one of the most exciting outcomes on any possession. So are blocked shots. Luke Kornet is smart. He leads the Knicks in three-pointers taken and maken per 36, and has the highest percentage on the team. Only Mitchell Robinson has a higher block percentage. Kornet’s shooting numbers are up across the board from a year ago. He’s assisting more, too! I don’t know what his ceiling is, but I know the Knicks are asking him to do more and he’s doing more more better. There’s a lot to like about Luke Kornet. A lot.

6) Emmanuel Mudiay

If I watched basketball to see winning, I’d watch national games. Hell, the Nets win twice as often as the Knicks and have tremendous broadcasters; I’d watch them this year and much of this century ahead of the Knicks. But the main reason I watch sports in general and basketball specifically is not to see winning.

I watch basketball to be entertained. I want to enjoy what I’m watching. I want to see beauty. Elaine Scarry put it better than I can.

“One can see why beauty...has been perceived to be bound up with the immortal, for it prompts a search for a precedent, which in turn prompts a search for a still earlier precedent, and the mind keeps tripping backward until it at last reaches something that has no precedent, which may very well be immortal. What is beautiful is in league with what is true because truth abides in the immortal sphere. The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labor, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction -- to locate what is true.”

So, cards on the table: as far as offense, I find Emmanuel Mudiay’s game to be beautiful. Not efficient. Perhaps not sustainable. But I find him easy to root for, on a human level, and I’ll take that over guys who can score 50 and may start in the All-Star game. I enjoy watching him push in transition. I grew up watching hours of Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, so I’m a sucker for fadeaways.

Every time Mudiay makes one, my inner 14-year-old lives again. Again: I’m not arguing his merits going forward. I’m saying when I’m sitting through another formulaic defeat, one of the things that brings the most joy is Mudiay with the ball on the go.

What if Frank Ntilikina had never been drafted by New York? Imagine the Knicks had traded away their pick in 2017; it’s easy if you try. Would Mudiay be seen differently? I think maybe, yeah. That’s a matter of opinion. Here’s a fact — these are the Knick point guards I’ve watched over a lifetime before Mudiay:

Maurice Cheeks, Mark Jackson, Greg Anthony, Doc Rivers, Derek Harper, Charlie Ward, Gary Grant, Chris Childs, Mark Jackson redux, Howard Eisley, Stephon Marbury, Moochie Norris, Nate Robinson, Fred Jones, Chris Duhon, Toney Douglas, Raymond Felton, Old Chauncey Billups, Expired Baron Davis, Expired Mike Bibby, Jeremy Lin, Raymond Felton redux, Pablo Prigioni, Expiring Jason Kidd, Beno Udrih, Toure’ Murry, Shane Larkin, Langston Galloway, Jose Calderon, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Jarrett Jack, Ramon Sessions, Trey Burke and Ntilikina.

So yeah. I love watching Mudiay with the ball in his hands. No shame in my game.

5) Mitchell Robinson

We don’t know if Mitchell Robinson ends up the poor man’s JaVale McGee or the rich man’s Hassan Whiteside. Few players on this roster bubble up the excitement that M-Rob does.

He should be back any day now. S’gonna be fun!

4) Frank Ntilikina

We don’t know what Porzingis’ recovery will look like. We don’t know if he’ll be on the team in a few years; if he’s traded, we don’t know what he’ll yield. Kevin Knox? Who knows. But the biggest variable in the equation is Frank Ntilikina...which, from a why-are-you-watching-this-shite-team point of view makes for can’t-miss viewing.

If the pro-Frank crowd and the Frank haters intersect at any point, its in the over-analysis of everything he does on an every-game basis. Frank blocks a shot?

Future Defensive Player of the Year! Frank gets an assist?

That man should be starting at the point. Frank goes Showtime?

That man should be in Canton! Frank assists Porzingis?

Frank:KP > Magic:Kareem. Frank does it himself?

Frank > M.J.

I’ve felt we won’t know what Ntilikina is until at least his fourth year. Doesn’t make for a sexy hot take, but it is what it is. If you can accept that timeline, you can enjoy every step along the way as a picture coming into focus. Maybe it’s a sailboat. Maybe it’s a G.O.A.T. Wherever it ends up, there’s so much invested in the outcome we trip all over ourselves overanalyzing the build-up. Everything he does is sooo saturated with greater meaning. I love it.

3) Enes Kanter

Kanter the player means very little to me. Watching him score is like watching footage of assembly line production: businesslike. Soulless. Meh.

And that’s unquestionably the high point of his game. The less of his defense, the better.

But Kanter the human I find endlessly interesting. Not just for his noble one-man crusade against Recep Erdoğan, one of the great brutalist spillers of blood of our time and a petulant twat who’s issued an international arrest warrant for Kanter. It’s Kanter the employee I think about a lot.

Kanter is resented for opting in to $18M this year that he doesn’t “deserve” by market standards. He’s resented for getting many dollars and minutes despite having no role as this team pivots to the future. He’s resented because he came back to a team that everyone knew didn’t have use for him; he clearly grabbed the money knowing it was his only shot at such a salary, and now he’s resented for wanting to play more, for wanting to be an All-Star, for talking about winning when everything we resent about him points to him caring more about he, himself and him.

I don’t blame him. I can’t.

I don’t like my job. I love the kids I work with. Love teaching creative writing and literature. But the culture and administration is some bullshit. After this semester, my job is over. Poof. Gone. The universe is pro’ly doing me a favor by cutting me loose. But if there were a clause in my contract that let me return next year for money I’ll never make the rest of my life, I’m opting in.

Kanter’s a cog in a cutthroat business. So are most of us. He has more than he needs in life but still wants more. So do most of us. He doesn’t love his place of work, but what’s he gonna do? Go back to school? Start a small business? He wouldn’t know where to begin. You and me, friend. You and me.

2) Kevin Knox

I’m not sure Porzingis will ever be healthy enough. I’m not sure Ntilikina will ever be good enough. So Kevin Knox is not only important. He could end up the Knicks’ most vital draftee of the past five years. Quotes like these make me feel like the groundhog didn’t see its shadow.

Knox’s body isn’t an affront to probability like KP’s. His defense is miles behind Ntilikina’s, but his offense is light years ahead. He’s 19 and impressing in transition, behind the arc, on midrange floaters and pushing to the rim.

Give.

1) Zion Williamson

The last time the Knicks’ tanked their way to a shot at the #1 overall pick, the hot prospect was Jahlil Okafor, then Karl Anthony-Towns. I don’t know if Zion Williamson is this year’s Okafor or KAT. His biggest weakness may be his only weakness, but that weakness is “shooting,” which in the NBA today is like genetically engineering a shark whose only weakness is “swimming underwater.”

Zion inspires not only because he’d represent the first time the Knicks have come out on top of anything since 1973, but because duh.

All the losses. The blowouts. The lineups and minutes that make no sense. The pundits’ punchlines. The haters laughs — or worse, their silence. Zion would change the conversation around the Knicks long before we see change on the court. That’s why he’s the most enjoyable reason to watch the Knicks this year. His arrival would exorcise the demons and reasons that led us to where 60+ losses was the best course of action. Allen Iverson was The Answer. Zion Williamson on the Knicks would nix the questions we’re tired of asking.