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Was Elfrid Payton promised the starting point guard spot?

Is Payton the point guard who was promised (the starting job)?

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks
“A promise is a promise.” - Elfrid Payton, perhaps.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The battle for which Knicks point guard will get the starting nod has been discussed ad nauseum ahead of the 2019-20 season, but apparently Elfrid Payton may have won the war before it even began.

Payton signed with the Knicks in early July, after the front office supposedly chose not to meet with major free agents because they totally knew all along that the plan was to bring in a boatload of newbies with a wide range of talent levels.

Upon signing his two-year, $16 million deal (the second year is a team option), Payton joined Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. as potential starting point guards on the roster, but according to a new report from Marc Berman of the New York Post, the newcomer was “all but promised” but the starting gig.

Before we dig into whether or not Payton should be the starting point guard on opening night against the San Antonio Spurs, here are a few questions that need to be asked if the report of Payton being promised the starting job are indeed true.

Who made the promise? Was it David Fizdale? Scott Perry and Steve Mills? All three? Did James Dolan get in on the promise fest?

Is it normal in any way whatsoever for teams to “all but” guarantee a starting position to an incoming free agent? Major signings like Julius Randle, for example, don’t need to be told they are going to start, because they are going to start. Guys like Payton, though?

Do the Knicks mistakenly think Elfrid Payton is Gary Payton?

If Payton is going to be the starter, why didn’t Fizdale just say that weeks ago?

Do these types of reports happen with other teams?

Getting back to the action. Did the Knicks promise Payton the starting gig?

The above-referenced New York Post story is entitled ‘We’ll soon know if Knicks will keep Elfrid Payton promise,’ suggesting the team may have told him he would be the starter but are retaining the right to renege on their word.

It’s entirely possible the Knicks made Payton feel like the starting job was his to lose, although we’ll probably never get complete confirmation of exactly what was discussed while the team was trying to woo him in free agency.

At the very least, it seems like there must have been some kind of conversation about playing time, because Payton pointed to that as a factor in his decision to join New York, according to this interview with from over the summer.

One day after that interview dropped, SNY’s Ian Begley cited sources familiar with the matter as saying Payton would get “every opportunity” to win the starting point guard position.

So the Knicks probably made Payton feel like he’s the starter. Should he start?

The evidence points to the Knicks giving Payton some kind of assurance that he wasn’t going to be tied to the bench all year. But should be the starter heading into the season?

Going off just the resumes of the three point guards on the roster right now, the answer is, uh, maybe? Payton, who is 25 and going into his sixth year in the NBA, is coming off a productive season with New Orleans in which he averaged 10.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists over 42 games (he missed action because of a broken pinky and sprained ankle).

Randle was his teammate on the Pelicans, and the duo performed pretty well together (although the team did finish last season 33-49). There’s certainly something to the idea that guys who have played together before may have built invaluable on-court chemistry.

For his career, Payton is only okay. He compiles stats (11.1 points, 6.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 342 games), but is a below average shooter (45 percent from the field, 30 percent from three, 63 percent from the free throw line).

Those poor shooting percentages have shone brightly during the preseason. In three games, Payton shot 5-20 from the field (25 percent), including 1-5 from three (20 percent). He totalled 5 points, 0 points and 6 points in the three games he played. He grabbed some rebounds and dished some dimes, but overall he didn’t stand out.

What about DSJ or Frank? Should one of them start instead?

Smith Jr.’s back issues are seriously concerning. All summer, he was dunking on everyone he could find in random pickup games, even dropping 50 at one point. The internet swooned.

But then training camp started and Smith Jr.’s back began acting up. He was limited, or didn’t participate, in multiple practices. He was held out of the team’s open practice at Columbia University. He missed the first two preseason games.

Smith Jr. finally got on the court for the final two games of the preseason, and didn’t impress. First, against the Atlanta Hawks he had 4 points on 1-5 shooting, plus 2 rebounds and 3 assists. Then, against the Pelicans, he had 9 points on 2-12 shooting, plus 9 rebounds and 6 assists. A little better, kind of, minus the terrible shooting. He also hasn’t looked great on defense.

In the long run, the summer of DJS may have hampered him heading into the season.

As for Frank, it’s really unclear what the team is planning. Ntilikina has displayed his usual defensive ferocity during the preseason, but his jumper looks pretty much the same. We’re still just hoping that more shots are going to start falling (he’s shooting 28.6 percent from the field in the preseason. Yuck).

He played terrific defense, including on Trae Young, and as usual provided the team with a calming presence whenever he was in. The stat sheet doesn’t begin to explain the impact Ntilikina has on the floor, but haters gonna hate.

Ntilikina needs to start knocking down some jumpers or else the Knicks might do something stupid like trade him to the Detroit Pistons.

Just give us your prediction already. Are the Knicks going to keep their promise to Payton?

The Magic 8 Ball keeps coming up “all signs point to yes.”

If Fizdale can help Smith Jr. get right (and healthy), DSJ may very well win the starting position at some point, but because of his back it would be surprising to see him trotted out as the starter to begin the year.

Ntilikina being named the starter would be an even bigger surprise than DSJ. It just seems like the Knicks don’t see him as a floor general, and the only chance of that changing is if he starts getting buckets in bunches.

We’ll finally find out who the winner of the 2019 point guard battle this Wednesday at 8:30 pm, when the Knicks visit the Spurs.