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December Mailbag: Defending Dennis Smith Jr., appreciating Julius Randle and what if Kristaps Porziņģis had stayed in NY

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Before we move up a year, we look back

NBA: New York Knicks at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

My fiancee and I were planning to drive 800 miles to visit her family before I was struck down with the flu. Before I got sick, we had another pre-trip fight. Every time we’re getting ready to travel, we fight. The road trips themselves are always a good time, but packing to leave or getting in and out of hotels is always the same stale misery, over and over, repackaged as some fresh hell.

Speaking of stale yet fresh hells, the Knicks are 9-24. Before the win over the Wizards, they were 8-24, which I only mention because this piece was done then and I don’t feel like re-calculating everything that follows. Ever wondered what a line graph showing the Knicks’ win totals after 32 games every year since 2002-03 would look like? Man, are you in luck.

The Knicks have been 10+ games under .500 at this point in the season as many times (6) as they have been .500 or better. Additionally, they’ve been neither 10+ games under nor .500 or better six times, too.

I am too wearied from battling the love of my life to dive into any iteration of the number of the beast. Instead, let’s dive into a very special December mailbag. All the questions were submitted by P&T writers. Begrudge them not this honor! The way the wind is blowing, our next group project could be applying for unemployment benefits...assuming any of us earned enough for this to qualify as legit employment.

1) What kind of realistic return do we think we can get for Dennis Smith Jr. now? Julius Randle? Frank Ntilikina? Allonzo Trier? Damyean Dotson?

— NewYorkBasketballObserver

Why does it take Alex and Joe forever to publish my articles but [they’ll] do everything and anything for some random guy who lives across the pond?

Also, is it time to give up on Dennis Smith?

— Drew

Firstly, lemme acknowledge people more in the know than I am say everyone who isn’t a clear-cut building block is up for grabs.

In my opinion, as far as Trier, Ntilikina and Dotson, I don’t see the Knicks getting much back for any of them. It’s only taken a year for Trier to fall out of favor. You ever driven by a house that’s got a couch out by the curb with a sign that says “FREE” on it and thought “Lemme offer them something more than nothing”? No. Nobody’s ponying up for Trier when he can’t even crack one of the worst rotations in the league.

I imagine Dotson and Ntilikina would entice some teams, but can you see anyone ponying up even a protected first-rounder for either? And if the offer is a second-round pick, why bother? If you drafted a player at pick #40 who does what Dotson or Ntilikina do, you’d consider it a success. Hell, Dotson was drafted 44th in 2017. Trading him for a second-rounder isn’t even a lateral move.

While Randle brings a greater skill set to the table than your average NBA big, he’s a bit too small and a bit too kitchen sink-y to bring back a meaningful haul. He can score, but not as a primary option; he rebounds, but not transcendentally; he can create for others, but neither his scoring nor vision are enough of a threat to make him a truly dangerous playmaker. As enticing as he may be to imagine as a small-ball center, he’d weaken any team’s defense in the process. Plus you’re asking them to pay him $21M for the honor? Doubt it. Any team with a high first-round pick isn’t trading that for Randle, and mid-to-late first-rounders aren’t a fair price for New York to give up their rare bird.

I don’t think this is the time to give up on DSJ, either, for a few reasons. Let’s go waaaay back in time to what the ancients called “April.” That’s when Smith finished his first stint as a Knick averaging about 15 points and a career-best 5.5 assists a game, with twice as many dimes as turnovers. Yes, his shooting numbers left plenty to be desired (41% from the field, 29% from deep and 57% from the line), but remember: last year would have been Smith’s junior year of college. He just turned 22 last month and is under contract next year at just $5.6M. Smith is unrefined and no albatross on this payroll. One of the perks of collecting young raw talent is you can wait for it to take shape without it being cost-prohibitive. In other words, even if it hurts, it doesn’t cause bleeding.

Also worth remembering: Smith missed 17 of 24 games bridging the end of last season and the start of this one. You know how many games he’s played as a Knick? 42. That’s one more than Vin Baker did. That’s 11 fewer than Joakim Noah. That’s it. Is he injury-prone? Maybe. If so, you can always trade him next year to a team looking to take a flyer on him. I don’t think you’d get much less for him then than you would now.

The eye test is no friend of DSJ’s. Other than a handful of games this year, he can be hard to watch. Smith’s field-goal percentage is farther below Ntilikina’s than Ntilikina’s is from Marcus Morris’. The only Knicks worse behind the arc than Smith are Taj Gibson and Iggy Brazdeikis, who’ve combined to attempt just 18 threes; Smith’s taken 41. He’s even six points below RJ Barrett from the line. The hitch in his jumper makes me cringe. If you remember Oliver Perez, the former Met lefty, you’ll remember a guy with worlds of talent but who couldn’t repeat his mechanics from one pitch to another.

For a guard whose strength is theoretically dribble penetration and attacking the rim, being unable to shoot at all from outside is what the French call “not good.” And Smith’s weaknesses may be seeping into his ostensible strengths: on looks 0-3 feet from the rim he’s shooting a career-low 53% and taking a career-low 27% of his shots from that range, versus 40% with New York last year.

But understanding humans often requires a degree of humanity. Smith had back problems last season and suffered a lower back strain during training camp. Currently he’s dealing with a strained left oblique. On top of his physical trials, there was the tribulation of his stepmother passing away suddenly in late October. A closer look at some of the numbers shows Smith may finally be feeling settled.

Smith played just three games in October, then nine each in November and December (so far). We’ll ignore the small sample size from October and compare the past two months. DSJ’s offensive rating was 94.9 in November, 99.1 this month. His assist-to-turnover ratio last month was 1.65; this month it’s 2.36. His defensive rebounding rate has more than doubled from 5.8% to 12.3%; the only Knick guard boarding better is Elfrid Payton. His play is picking up. Maybe that was inevitable, given how bad of a start he got off to. Still, up is up.

Only twice all season has Smith played 20+ minutes in consecutive games. That can’t be helping him get his sea legs under him. More than half his appearances this season (13 of 21) have come on one or zero days’ rest. In those contests, his offensive rating is nearly 30 points below his defensive rating. On two days’ rest, the difference is under three points. Again, none of these stats explain or absolve all Smith’s struggles. But I think they do point to a guy who was hit with a bunch of crap outside his control at the start having those struggles compounded by being put in positions where success was an unlikely outcome.

I wouldn’t trade Smith now because I don’t think the Knicks would get anything more than a second-rounder for him. That’s like playing scratch-off and winning another ticket, only in this case it’s like playing a $20 ticket and winning a free Take Five. I don’t imagine Smith will play this poorly all year. It may be delusional to think he’ll ever assert himself as a worthy ballast in the Kristaps Porziņģis deal, but for the 10,000th time the Knicks didn’t decide “Let’s trade KP for DSJ.” If Smith raises his game to where he’s a serviceable rotation player, then he offers looks and an energy no one else on the roster does, as we’ve already seen this year against Dallas, Boston and Atlanta. If he raises his game and ends up being traded, I’d like to get back a potential something, rather than a clear-cut nothing.

I wouldn’t trade Smith now because the Knicks clearly still don’t think they have the point guard position filled. Payton may be ascending the depth chart, but he’s still averaging a career-low 23.5 minutes per game. Frank Ntilikina hasn’t played 24 minutes in a single game this month. I mentioned before Smith is only 22. Here are the numbers three point guards put up at that age:

Player A = 13.9 points, 39% shooting, 3.8 assists
Player B = 3.3 points, 42% shooting, 2.1 assists
Player C = 7.8 points, 28% 3P%, 3.5 assists
DSJ = 5.2 points, 33% shooting, 29% 3P%, 2.7 assists

The fact that Chauncey Billups and Steve Nash became Hall-of-Famers after struggling early and that Kyle Lowry is a likely inductee to the Hall-of-Very-Good does not mean Smith is bound for glory. It does suggest the foolishness of writing off talent now just because it hasn’t hit yet. And it’s not like Smith is out there with some dream team. He may never be a franchise point guard, but how do we know what he could bring to a good team if we never see him on anything approaching one?

Virtually the entire Knicks team comes off the books after this season; cap space shouldn’t be hard to come by. And it’s not like the next couple free agent summers are shaping up to be the hotbed of hope the prognosticators predicted. The best chance the Knicks have to add an impact player is going to be via trade. I’d rather have DSJ and his easy-to-move money next year than the Jeff Teague median-ass fart-in-the-wind experience next summer. Not because it’s a lock that Smith ever reaches his ceiling. But because what the Knicks would get back for giving up on him now would be meaningless.

And Drew: Alex and Joe stage slow-down strikes whenever you have a piece brewing because Sean Saint Jacques is a cop with dirt on both of them. The Shock Jacques podcast is a front.

2) If he does well, should the Knicks hire Mike Miller to a two-year deal, let him continue to coach up the kiddos, and then fire him for someone fancy?
If no Steve Mills, no Frank?
Money aside, if you could put Julius Randle in Bobby Portis’ role, and have one or the other for it, who would you rather have?

— Stingy

I have a longer reply in the works for the Mike Miller question. For now, the short answer is this: give him a three-year deal and don’t fire him. Period. No matter what. Give him 1,095 days of uninterrupted freedom. Why? I’ll explain in a few days.

I don’t think Frank’s fate should be tied to Steve Mills. Dave DeBusschere drafted Patrick Ewing but it was another David — Checketts — who reaped the windfall. Mills and Steve Jackson made a lot of moves while they were here. One or two were bound to work out. Give Mills his pink slip and keep Frank around another year.

As far as Randle/Portis, that question came in before Orange Julius’ latest quality outputs. I’m curious if Stingy still feels it’s worth exploring. Assuming he does, I have to give the obvious answer (I think) and say no, I would not want Randle in Portis’ role, unless the Knicks signed a superstar to take Randle’s role as lead option. In that case, sure, gimme Julius eating opposing bench units alive. But I think competent coaching plus teammates who can create space via intelligent passing and penetration (Payton) or perimeter acumen (I am more excited for Reggie Bullock’s debut than probably anyone since his mom went into contractions with him) will reveal Randle as someone closer to the ideal from last summer than the whirling dervish that made us so nervous the first couple of months.

As for Portis, his agent is a man named Mark Bartelstein. Bartelstein got his client $15M this season, the same as Marcus Morris. If I’m ever an author with some clout, I’ma hire Mark Bartelstein.

3) If the Knicks had kept Kristaps Porziņģis, given him a fully-guaranteed max, and he was playing at the same level he is in Dallas, how much better would the Knicks be now? Long-term? And would the local and national press be killing them and him?

— Shwin

If the Knicks had kept and maxed Porziņģis, they likely still draft Barrett. They also likely still have Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee. So that means they’d only have had room to max or handsomely pay one free agent.

Had that been Kevin Durant, out for the entire season, the Knicks would be pilloried for having made the most Knicksy move ever. After forever promising the fan base the messiah is just around the corner, and to just be patient a little while longer, New York goes out and signs one who’s out for the entire season recovering from the worst injury in the sport? To pair with KP post-ACL tear? Marc Berman would’ve already interviewed Antonio McDyess and Amar’e Stoudemire. Frank Isola would have written a dozen columns praising the Nets for being too smart to do anything so stupid. KP would look rusty, especially without a Luka Dončić in tow to soften that blow. With the Knicks’ luck, Porziņģis would have already re-injured himself and Barrett would be trying to develop alongside THJ hero ball.

Long term, I think re-signing KP would have been a disaster. For all the conspiracy theories and dramas surrounding his trade and KD going to the Nets, the simplest explanation could be the most likely: James Dolan has rubber-stamped the McDyess trade, the Eddy Curry trade, the Amar’e Stoudemire sign-and-trade and the drafting of KP. All four of those bigs arrived with injury concerns; all four lived up to them (or down, I suppose). So the idea that the Knicks would or should commit a max-deal with zero injury protections to a big who had injury troubles before tearing his ACL and give a super-max to another big (tall) man on the wrong side of 30 who’d had foot problems before tearing his Achilles only makes sense if you don’t think about it.

I haven’t seen Porziņģis demonstrate he’s a reliable first or second banana on a title contender. So the Knicks trading someone they were either going to lose or pay like a superstar when he isn’t one was, short- and long-term, the best move they could make. The media would’ve killed them for banking it all on KP the same way they’ve killed them for trading him. When your team’s spent 20 years alternating between dumb, stupid and sadomasochistic, that’s gonna happen.

It’s easy to criticize the Knicks (painfully easy). But what about proposing a solution? What could be done to turn things around? I have answers, friends. But you’ll have to wait a little bit, ‘cuz between the flu and New Year’s Eve, I’m gonna spend most of today trying to reconcile those two realities and then pro’ly the next day or two recovering from whatever that reconciliation ends up being.

I recently calculated I’ve written over a half-million words for this site. I still get the same joy now that I did when I started writing FanPosts and would get three comments. Thank you all for being a part of this community. Without you, I’d still be a Knicks fan, but it’d feel like solitary confinement. With you, it’s more like Shawshank. Even if I have no hope in the Knicks, I live in hope of continuing to connect with you all.

Merry 2020s.