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November mailbag, part 2: How’s RJ Barrett looking? What makes a bad coach? What if Mitch was a ’99 Knick?

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Coaches change. Mailbags are forever.

Part one of this mailbag touched on benching Julius Randle, grading the eerily quiet front office and speculating on player playlists. Today we delve intro regret, hope, forgiveness and that fucking MIRROR IMAGE video that’s been stuck at the bottom of every article for years.

1) Why couldn’t we get the third pick in the draft where Luka Dončić went? And how confident is everyone feeling about RJ Barrett now? It’s too early to tell, but on a scale of 1-10 I’m at like a 3.

— Mitch Please

The Knicks lost the Luka lottery May 15, 2018, but the truth is they lost it long before the actual drawing. They started that season 16-13, a hot streak their Dončić dreams never recovered from. In a sense, the losing that followed was the noblest Knick effort in a while: after Kristaps Porziņģis was lost to an ACL injury, the Knicks won just 21 percent of their remaining games, an 18-win pace that over a full season would have been the worst in the league and pretty much guaranteed the Knicks a top-5 pick and a realistic shot at Dončić. Instead we’re left with Kevin Knox’s tender surrender to 3-point exclusivist. Michael Jordan once said “Even my mistakes are perfect.” The Knicks manage to lose even at losing.

As far as RJ, I’m at a solid 7. Health-permitting, he seems a lock to make the All-Rookie First Team, though I don’t know what that means with an organization that channels its inner Saturn in eating its young. The Knicks have had seven All-Rookie honorees the past eight years: Landry Fields (1st Team), Iman Shumpert (1st), Tim Hardaway Jr. (1st), Langston Galloway (2nd Team), Porziņģis (1st), Willy Hernangomez (2nd) and Mitchell Robinson (2nd). Results are mixed, by which I mean disappointing in many different ways.

Only one of those seven is still in New York, a rate that’d make even David Gettleman blush. Nerve issues in his right arm forced Fields into early retirement; Shumpert and Galloway have peaked as rotation players; Hardaway is a starter-level player; KP’s ceiling is probably tertiary piece on a contender; Hernangomez, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth after being traded, hasn’t secured steady playing time; Robinson is still too early to call. Only Minnesota has had as many All-Rookie selections over the same period as the Knicks; the only other franchises with at least six are Sacramento, Denver and Philadelphia. So out of those five, two are title contenders, two are playoff hopefuls, and one is the Knicks.

Among this year’s rookies Barrett is fifth in points per game, fourth in rebounds, third in assists, second in steals and tops in free throw attempts and minutes per game (32). He’s hitting barely 40 percent of his shot attempts; the only other rookies shooting that poorly over 200+ shots are Jarrett Culver, Darius Garland, DeAndre Hunter and Coby White. I don’t know how much of a concern that is at this point in his development to anyone besides NBA2K20, but I’d bet it’s one reason Mitch Please is so low on him.

He’s second on the team in minutes but tied for fifth in defensive rating, which — and I may be wrong here — I feel means his extended playing time with lineups that generally can’t stop people is hurting his metrics. The eye test tells me Barrett is decent on the defensive end, certainly not hopeless. For every low...

there is a high.

Barrett’s production follows no obvious or sweeping trends: while John Hollinger’s game score stat (here’s the equation, if you’re into that) shows RJ’s best five games came within his first 11, his shooting percentage over those 11 games was 38 percent; in the 11 since, he’s up to 42 percent. His 3-point percentage keeps dropping. His free throw percentage has risen (for more on Barrett’s free-throw shooting and all it may mean, check out this deep-dive by Knicks Nuance).

In the past 20 years, the only Rookie of the Year to shoot as low as RJ’s 40 percent was Michael Carter-Williams. If he finishes up around 43 percent, where he’s been over the last half of his games, he’d be in the company of previous ROYs LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and this guy.

I don’t know what Barrett is yet. I don’t suspect he’ll ever be the best player on a contender. I do think he could be the secondary or tertiary piece on one. On a roster devoid of much else to hope for, a 7 may as well as be a 9.

2) This is not an “I told you so”...but more of an invitation to re-evaluate...do you still feel that there are 5 NBA coaches worse that David Fizdale?

— felinequickness

In the September mailbag I gave felinequickness a list of five coaches I felt less confident in than Fizdale: Luke Walton, Ryan Saunders, Jim Boylen, James Borrego and Freddie Jenkins. Entering Monday’s games, that fivesome were off to a 42-73 start. Adding John Beilein’s struggles with Cleveland and Atlanta’s step back under Lloyd Pierce and I’d say while I understand Fizdale’s firing, it’s not like he was a Wheel of Fortune contestant lost among 29 Jeopardy champions.

This kind of gets to a question I always struggle with, one that resurrected in a Twitter exchange with P&T’s own Ashwin Ramnath after the Fiz firing. How do we know if a coach sucks? Does any coach suck? It’s easy to assume failure and suckage have a direct connection. But I wonder. Exam the strange coaching career of former Knick boss Don Chaney.

At the tender age of 38, after five years as an assistant with Detroit and the San Diego/L.A. Clippers, Chaney became head coach in 1985. Over 2+ seasons in L.A. his teams went 53-132, approximately the same winning percentage Derek Fisher had with the Knicks. From 1993-95 Chaney coached the Pistons to a 48-116 mark, again falling in that Fisher territory. In parts of three seasons leading the Knicks, Chaney’s teams won about 40 percent of their games, which may get you salivating nowadays, but that’s a figure bested by Lenny Wilkens, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson. So Chaney failed, right? And thus, Chaney must suck.

Only Chaney also spent 3+ seasons coaching the Rockets (1998-92), never finishing below .500, making the playoffs each of his three full seasons and even winning Coach of the Year in 1991 when Houston went from 41 wins to 52. Not a resume for Springfield, certainly, but light years away from sucking. How do we reconcile his Texas oasis with the rest of Chaney’s CV?

The Clippers were a losing team the five years before Chaney and the five after. We may have a few readers too young to remember when the Clippers were the Knicks before the Knicks became these Knicks. Los Angeles was led by an owner no less greedy or grotesque than James Dolan (please don’t bring up Dolan’s hiring of African-Americans as some trump card over the racist slumlord Donald Sterling; we can contrast racist, misogynistic and inequality depravities between the two all day and not resolve anything). Whatever the Clippers problems were, they were way above Chaney’s ability to resolve.

The Pistons were definitively post-Bad Boys when Chaney took over. Joe Dumars was not yet on his last legs, but his penultimate legs were on theirs; Isiah Thomas was taking a victory lap every other fan base passed on cheering. These were the Terry Mills Pistons, the Lindsay Hunter/Allan Houston teams; if the name “Rafael Addison” rings a bell, props to you. Grant Hill arrived to bring hope, but Chaney was only around long enough to enjoy Hill’s rookie season. Detroit basically had Chaney sweep ashes back and forth for a couple years before giving Doug Collins a first-class seat to their would-be renaissance.

If you never saw the Chaney Knicks, dig around online for video of Howard Eisley aborting a surefire fast-break bucket or Shandon Anderson missing a long two. That’s what you missed. In the 2003-04 season the Knicks traded for Stephon Marbury. Chaney got all of four games with Steph before being fired. Check out what Liz Robbins wrote in the NY Times after Chaney was canned — sound familiar?

“On Tuesday, Chaney depicted the guillotine hanging over his head as ‘horrible working conditions,’ but none as turbulent as this morning.

Chaney came to work this morning at the team’s practice facility to direct the shoot-around under intense scrutiny and facing a newspaper report that Thomas would fire him. Chaney, a soft-spoken man respected by his players, took what would be a parting shot at Thomas.

‘Without hearing anything one way or the other is a sign of disrespect to a degree, yeah,’ Chaney said. ‘If that’s the case. I don’t know if that’s the case yet. If that’s the case, I think management should at least communicate with me, just out of respect.’”

Contrast that with what Rockets’ owner Charlie Thomas said after Houston canned Chaney in 1992: ‘’You can’t fire the team and something had to be done. Once you see that things are deteriorating, you have to do something. I’m not blaming Don Chaney. Everyone is accountable and that includes me.’’

The Rockets replaced Chaney with an interim coach named Rudy Tomjanovich. Three years later they were back-to-back champs. They made a move they felt was necessary, but they recognized there were issues to address beyond the coach’s reach. Having Hakeem Olajuwon is a big help. So is being led by an organization that can honestly assess its own flaws and challenge itself to do better. That must be nice.

Gregg Popovich doesn’t have three Hall-of-Famers anymore and just like that the Spurs are a losing team. Pat Riley went 15-67 his final year coaching with a Heat team that got 51 games out of peak Dwyane Wade. Phil Jackson barely broke .500 with a Laker team where Smush Parker finished second in minutes. We know great coaches are great ‘cuz they do great with great players. Take away the great players and they don’t look so great.

Don Chaney coached greatness once and looked great. David Fizdale never got that chance — Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were very good players; after them the Grizzlies’ next three in minutes were JaMychal Green, 35-year-old Tony Allen and 40-year-old Vince Carter. I don’t know how good or bad he is among his peers. In that regard, I think he’s got plenty of company

3) Which current Knick would have made the difference on a team that lost a past NBA finals series so they would have won? To be more specific - which current Knick would have made the difference in 1999 so the Knicks could have defeated the Spurs? I think MitchRob would have effectively curbed Tim Duncan and stood up to the Twin Towers.

— cynickfan

Slow down, friend.

In 1999 Tim Duncan led the Spurs past a Minnesota team featuring Kevin Garnett, put up 29 a game in sweeping the Shaq & Kobe Lakers and also led a sweep of a Portland team that included plus-defenders Rasheed Wallace and Brian Grant. The Knicks were shorthanded in the Finals, with Patrick Ewing out and Larry Johnson hurting, but they still had a future Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Camby and a stout frontcourt deterrent in Kurt Thomas. Duncan killed them anyway.

I love Mitch. But he would’ve fouled out in all five games if he’d been on that stage at this stage of his career. I’m not even going to get into what David Robinson with 100,000 miles of experience might have done to just-off-the-lot M-Rob. I have written before about my belief that Marcus Smart would have pushed the Knicks past the 1994 Rockets. What do you all think? What Knick do you think would have changed the result of an NBA Finals?

4) If you were god of SB Nation what would you replace MIRROR IMAGE with?

— The only Knick with the Knack

Three runners-up:

But there can only be one:

Love and light to all y’all.