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P&T mailbag, part 2: Mitchellikina, Knick haters and the pitfalls of a post-Clyde Frazier world

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NBA: Houston Rockets at New York Knicks Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to part two of April’s mailbag, whose questions are from February and which ends here in May. Got it? Good.

1) Sweet dreams, c/o @ignaciolobregat

The Knicks had only one five-man lineup last season that played more than 31 minutes together and had a positive rating: Damyean Dotson, Noah Vonleh, Tim Hardaway, Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina’s defensive rating was 98.5 — temperate for your body, but hot shit as far as team defense, 12 points lower than the Knicks’ defensive rating for the season and well below the mark set by Milwaukee, the league leader in that category. While 94 minutes of action does not an identity establish, perchance to dream...

We talk a lot about Kevin Durant’s offense, understandably. But like LeBron James in Miami, KD’s leap to Golden State was like him attending basketball finishing school. We didn’t know he could D the way he Ds if he were still stuck humoring Russell Westbrook, basketball’s version of a slugger who hits 40+ home runs every year while batting .218 and striking out 200 times. Durant is a game-changer on both ends. Imagine if Lance Thomas were four inches taller and not just a rumor on defense, but an actual destructive force. Imagine meeting the 76ers in the playoffs and matching Mitchell on Joel Embiid, Durant on Ben Simmons and Ntilikina on Jimmy don’t-call-him-James Butler.

That being said, we’re a loooong way away from paralleling historic defenders. I’ve loved Frank since he got here, and while he did not take any kind of leap last year on the defensive end, I still think he has value there moving forward (my dream nickname for him, born out of a soccer connection I’ve yet to figure out for him, is “Stoppage Time”). But Gary Payton is all-time!

Ntilikina isn’t even the best defender in his own division. He’d have to level up more than once for him & Mitch to approach the level of Patrick Ewing and John Starks. Hell, I’d sign up for Marcus Camby/Latrell Sprewell. Until we see a full season under their belts after the league’s had an offseason to gameplan, Mitchellikina isn’t even Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert that one time against Derrick Rose.

Kemp doesn’t stand out in my memory as exceptional on that end. One of Robinson’s most impressive early accomplishments is that he’s already lapped Frank as the team’s best shot at a transformative defender in half as many career minutes. Mitchell’s ability to absolve shooters of their sins both down low and out high is truly awesome. Predicting outcomes is a charlatan’s game, but projecting possibilities warms my cockles. It’s not outlandish to say the upper range of Robinson’s defensive potential is “generational” or “transcendent.” If that comes to pass and Ntilikina shows growth, too, Ewing/Starks and even Kemp/Payton may look quaint by comparison.

2) The Celtics signed [Al] Horford to a max, then signed Gordon Hayward; meanwhile they only had [Isaiah Thomas] as an underpaid All-Star...they were not required to sign one of the six best players in the NBA to be deemed a free agency success [story]. The Clippers traded their best player for cap space twice: Blake [Griffin], then [Tobias] Harris.

[W]hy are the Knicks held to such an unrealistically high standard in the face of so much historical precedent? Never mind. It’s probably because they are working out of a deeper hole of ineptitude.

— Remyswords

While I was dry as the Sahara April 20th, this was happening:

Remember what J.R. Smith tweeted after the Knicks had the audacity to cut his brother? (props to Ashwin for helping me remember this)

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#OnceAgain

A post shared by JR Smith (@teamswish) on

The Knicks paid J.R. to be too lit to show up during day games and gave his little brother a ride he didn’t deserve to boot. What’d they get for it? The same attitude my six-year-old gives cops after she gets home from an all-day birthday party and doesn’t like being told it’s time to get ready for bed.

I loved Charles Oakley in the ‘90s. The Garden’s treatment of him a couple years will be a black mark on James Dolan’s stewardship, which is pretty much putting a black mark on a pair of shit-smeared undies. But the idea that free agents today give a damn what a guy who hasn’t been associated with the organization for 20+ years says — even if that guy still makes the top-10 of NBA players they wouldn’t wanna fight, 15 years after retiring! — has nothing to do with reality. It’s about sportswriters going to the well for the same tired trope they’ve recycled for years: that the Knicks are the worst-run team in sports today, yesterday, always.

Between 1976-77 and 2004-05, the San Diego/L.A. Clippers didn’t win a playoff series. Not one. From 1981 on the Clips were owned by Donald Sterling, a virulent institutional-level racist who, if not for being forced out of his position after making racist comments his girlfriend V. Stiviano got on tape, would be America’s second-most famous racist Donald.

The Clippers have won four playoff series in 42 years, yet are feted in the press as a team of the future.

Between 1976-77 and 2000-01, the New York/New Jersey Nets won a single playoff series. Theirs was a quarter-century buffet of embarrassments. Pick your poison: Derrick Coleman responding to Kenny Anderson missing practice to go to a strip club with “Whoop-dee-damn-do”; Chris Morris writing “Trade Me” on one shoe and — because manners cost nothing — “Please” on the other; Stephon Marbury continuing the sneaker-as-epistolary tradition by scribbling “33 All Alone” on his kicks; head coach Larry Brown denying he was in discussions to leave the Nets to coach Kansas, only for a team official to notice the Kansas luggage tags on his suitcase, after which team owner Joe Taub waited for Brown to confirm he had the Jayhawks job before firing L.B.; head coach John Calipari calling a reporter “a Mexican idiot” yet keeping his job afterward; head coach Bill Fitch ripping the organization for cutting Jud Buechler and Dave Feitl in order to clear cap space to sign then-#2 draft pick Kenny Anderson. The Nets have won one playoff series in the past dozen years, yet are feted in the press as a team of the future.

Between 2001-02 and today, the Knicks won a single playoff series. They’ve endured many a pitfall in that time, most self-inflicted. I wrote about why anyone roots for the Knicks a few years ago for a different site. A paragraph from then that I think applies:

...fandom is thicker than water, maybe thicker than blood, too; certainly thicker than reason. The teams we root for are family, or akin to kin in the sense that we don’t choose the ones we love. The Knicks are an old relative who look magical in the faded photos of the 20th century and who’ve fallen from grace ever since. You keep waiting for them to bounce back, but they keep bottoming out. You thought they hit rock bottom a few different times, but they keep falling. There’s nothing harder than watching someone you love being their own worst enemy. Actually, one thing is: seeing others laugh while they suffer.

To be it more succinctly, Remyswords: they hate us ‘cuz they ain’t us. The Knicks righting the ship threatens other franchises because a well-run Knick organization is an attraction many rivals can’t rival. No matter how good the Celtics are, top-level players, particularly melanin-rich top-level players, don’t generally look to settle in Boston. The Clippers live everyday with the anxiety that no matter how much more on the ball they are than the Lakers, all the purple-and-gold need is a couple weeks of figurative diet and exercise and they’re already more attractive to free agents.

I bring up the fact that the Knicks have never landed a premiere free-agent in their history. But free agency in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s wasn’t anything like it is today. When this franchise finally bounces back in a real way, we know a change is gonna come. Oh yes it is.

3) Who are five wors[e] possible replacements for Clyde Frazier when he retires than Wally Szczerbiak?

— AJ_in_VA

Truthfully, I cannot imagine a worse replacement than Szczerbiak, having been subjected to Wally World’s banana republic shenanigans this year in spot duty. A sampling of the Shame of Madrid’s lowlights last year behind the mic:

  • When the Knicks played in Oklahoma City in November, Enes Kanter hit a three-pointer. Szczerbiak pointed out that with that make, the Turk Jerk was two of seven from downtown for the season. Not the most trenchant of analysis, but I could dig it; after all, we were curious if David Fizdale would greenlight Kanter from deep the way he had Memphis’ bigs during his tenure there. Szczerbiak then informed us that prior to that make making him 2-of-7 on threes, Kanter had been — wait for it — 1-of-6.
  • A couple days before Christmas, in a home loss to the Hawks, Wally went on and on one possession about how the Knicks had to get the ball to Kevin Knox. They didn’t. They got it to Noah Vonleh. Then this happened.

Nothing wrong with advocating more touches for the hot hand. But one reason we enjoy watching a team feed the hot hand is because it’s so rare that anyone “has” to get shots, and Knox is certainly not at that level yet. I wish Szczerbiak would take one of my college writing courses, so we could talk about the danger of absolute language, and how a simple modification to “The Knicks should look for Knox here” would reduce the number of time’s Wally looks like a horse’s well-coiffed ass.

  • Szczerbiak is a homer, and I cannot abide homers in my broadcast booth. We’re not a bunch of rubes. New York City is in large part made up of the best and brightest from places outside NYC. Honor us and don’t act like this is some one-horse town like Sacramento or Paducah or Rochester.

When Szczerbiak announced in that same Atlanta game that Tim Hardaway had tied Kyle Lowry for the league lead in charges drawn, that’s an interesting factoid. Let it sit. Let it breathe. Instead, he has to go for the home run and breathlessly extol how that stat “resonates.” No it doesn’t. Steph Curry’s impact on an offense resonates. Hardaway drawing charges merely dings.

  • Szczerbiak tried injecting some artificial pathos into the Hawk game with “This could be [Vince Carter’s] last game on the Garden floor.” This is a major fail, for three reasons. First, I love me some Vinsanity, but he isn’t Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or even Dirk Nowitzki or Dwyane Wade, nor does he invoke some unforgettable connection to the Knicks. You know who his career similarity chart consists of?

I didn’t cry for Ray Allen or Terry Porter or Eddie Jones. I ain’t crying for V.C.

Second, Wally’s homerism (and paycheck) requires he act like the tax-exempt brick-and-mortar structure the Knicks play in is some magically-imbued holy place. It’s not. It’s a figurative Mecca, not the literal. MSG used to mean what it did because of the teams that played there, and how they played. Now it matters because of the teams that used to play there, and the occasional highlight reels of opponents.

Finally, Carter was clear all year he planned on continuing his career, and just announced Tuesday “I’m coming back.”

If I were to imagine five worse replacements for Clyde than Szczerbs, they would be:

1) Chris Welsh, Cincinnati Reds’ color analyst.

2) Greg Anthony or Mark Jackson. Anthony was hard to root for even as a Knick. His dickishness somehow permeated the TV screen, even when he wasn’t playing; time hasn’t softened that much. Jackson was one of my favorite players growing up but has since offered a myriad of reminders why you never wanna learn too much about your heroes.

3) Jacob Silj.

4) Ray Williams. Ray replaced Clyde as the Knicks’ point guard the year after Frazier was traded to Cleveland. Basketball-Reference lists Williams’ nickname as “The Big Apple Turnover.” ‘Nuff said.

5) Reggie Miller. To truly capture all the reasons Miller sucks requires a mailbag unto itself.

See y’all soon.