The New York Knicks lost a heartbreaker to the Boston Celtics on Friday night, 102-104, with Jayson Tatum drilling an annoyingly impressive baseline jumper with two seconds remaining to seal the Celtics’ win. It was a plucky performance by the Knicks. But it was a loss — another close loss, another fourth quarter lead fumbled. David Fizdale’s unfamiliar and inexperienced squad then got caught sleeping Sunday night against the Kings, and have quickly stumbled out to a 1-6 start to the 2019-20 NBA season.
Happily, though, I’m here to tell you that the sky is not, in fact, falling. That these are definitively not the “same old Knicks.” That this particular flavor of throbbing pain in the general vicinity of all vital organs, is, this time, a little different. As the sobering reality of another losing season settles with an inevitable, heavy, thud, on the whisper-fragile hope of meaningful spring basketball games, here are four (maybe even five) reasons for optimism.
The Knicks have had 14 players this century who have been 21 years old or younger and played 30 minutes or more in an NBA basketball game. Ready for a trip down memory lane? Some of them are pleasant, some not so pleasant. In order of appearance, we have:
Trevor Ariza (2005-06), Nate Robinson (2005-06), The Great Jackie Butler (Dropped 10 points on the Celtics, in a win, in Boston, on April 9, 2006), Wilson Chandler (2008-09), Danilo Gallinari (2009-10), Iman Shumpert (2012), Tim Hardaway Jr (2013-14), a very tall and very fragile Latvian whose name escapes me (2015-17), Frank Ntilikina (2017-19), Emmanuel Mudiay (2018), Mitchell Robinson (2018-19), Kevin Knox (2018-19), Dennis Smith Jr (2019), and, last but not least, RJ Barrett (2019).
That is the complete list of young Knicks to play 30 or more minutes this century. The list of guys from this group who actually played together is much shorter. Ariza and Nate played together back in 05-06, and that was it until 2017, when Ntilikina and the skinny Latvian guy got some run.
For the most part, though, young Knick players are a rarity. Young Knick players getting minutes are rarer still. What’s never happened, though? Multiple young Knicks getting big minutes, together, in the same game. That is a very recent phenomenon.
Last season the Knicks won on the road in San Antonio, with Robinson (15 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks), DSJ (19 points, 13 assists and six rebounds) and Knox (19 points and 10 rebounds) logging a combined 93 minutes. Until this season, those 93 minutes in San Antonio were the most minutes played by players 21 years old and under in the same game in Knicks franchise history (per Basketball-Reference).
This season, that 93-minute barrier has been normalized. The 21-and-unders are averaging 95 minutes per contest, and that number is trending upwards. In their seven games so far, the kids have played 71, 86, 83, 98, 103, 122 and 104 minutes. Fizdale is either investing in youth, or realizing the neophytes give the Knicks the best chance to win games.
Whatever his reasoning, the amount of youth on this roster, and the amount of minutes they are getting, is completely unprecedented. These are not the same old Knicks. These Knicks are new and exciting; anything but old.
The foursome that came up a couple of points short at Boston — Ntilikina, Barrett, Knox and Mitch — are all, to varying degrees, promising young players individually. RJ is already the Knicks’ best two-way player. He also happens to match the archetype most in demand in today’s NBA: a switchable wing creator with size and skill. Sprinkle in the demeanor and disposition of a seasoned 30-something-year-old pro, and you have yourself a potential franchise pillar.
The team-building question this season should quickly become — if it isn’t already — how do the Knicks maximize RJ? The other members of the neophyte quartet seem to complement him well. Frank, the defensive minded backcourt partner; Knox, the spacing sharpshooter; and Mitch, the rim protector. In a vacuum, this foursome, with their neatly dovetailing skillsets, give the Knicks legitimate hope for long-term competency.
In this season though, outside that fluffy vacuum, the reality is that kids playing big minutes don’t win basketball games. And that should be OK. That should, really, be expected. The big questions to be answered this season exists on the fringes of the youth movement. The biggest of which being, how does Julius Randle fit in on this already RJ-centric roster?
It’s tempting to include Fizdale-related questions in this big question category. But we can’t acknowledge that the Knicks have a historically young core playing historically big minutes — a formula which carries a historical wins and losses cost — and expect Fizdale to deliver the goods anyway. Fiz has a tendency toward questionable and sporadic strategic decisions, and by all means, file those decisions away; but the referendum on his coaching ability probably has to wait a year.
It could be argued that Randle deserves the same latitude — it has, after all, only been seven games. But it’s been a long seven games for the 24-year-old bowling ball. Every possession seems to amplify questions about his fit in between Robinson and Barrett. The more the value of Knox’s shooting shines through, the more blatantly sub-optimal Randle’s 3-point struggles are (after shooting 34.4 percent from three a year ago, Randle is currently at 5.6 percent).
Especially now that Barrett has come from nowhere to assert himself as the future of the franchise, the legitimacy of Randle as an offensive first option has taken a hit, and his offense might not be worth the so-so at best defense. Surely a power forward in the mold of a Gallinari or a Kevin Love would better suit the young spine of this roster. It’s hard to imagine Scott Perry and Steve Mills haven’t already re-evaluated the on-court implications baked into a Randle and Robinson frontline starved of 3-point shooting.
But Randle is still young in NBA terms, and Fizdale is a teenager in coaching years. The Knicks as a whole are taking wobbly baby steps, and are falling over accordingly. All the positives of this young Knicks roster are rooted in what they could become, not so much in what they are today. This is difficult to stomach for a fan base conditioned to a Knick front office whose annual grand plan is to grab the shiniest toy within arms’ reach, and hold said toy up triumphantly as the best toy in the history of toys.
Knick fans have a level of patience equivalent to the lack of long-term planning we had to deal with, season after season, since the dawn of time. Somehow, we’ve ended up with a crop of young talent that we have no reference point for. This kind of bottom-up team building is a novelty in New York. It has never really happened before for the Knicks, and rarely has for the other teams in town.
This season — already — is a first. That doesn’t mean more wins, but looked at with a wide enough lens, it might take the sting out of some of these losses. We are witnessing the biggest investment in youth in the history of New York Knick basketball. We are all officially in the business of weighing very real and immediate pain against the possibility, at some point, in some season down the line, of inflicting some extremely righteous franchise-redeeming agony on all things not New York.