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The 2020 Knicks are the Twilight Zone. For better and worse

Don’t expect whatever you’re expecting.

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The Twilight Zone

“There is a sixth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow -- between man’s grasp and his reach; between science and superstition; between the pit of his fears and the sunlight of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area that might be called the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s opening narration from “Where Is Everybody?”, the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone, applies just as much to the Knicks now as it did 61 years ago to the show. Serling’s series almost always centered on some unsolvable or unknowable tension; every episode dealt with something that seemingly could not be.

The NBA is in the midst of something similar. 2020 has been a season of what seemingly cannot be being. Look around. D’Angelo Russell left life as Brooklyn’s lead option for a tertiary or quaternary role in Golden State. Nearly three months into the season, Russell’s production is sooo similar it’s eerie.

Brooklyn enjoyed one of the most celebrated offseasons ever, yet injuries, a lack of depth and Sahara-level shooting droughts have them at 18-20, recently enduring a seven-game losing streak; if the Eastern conference weren’t two-thirds schwag-grade, the Nets might be in real danger of missing the playoffs. Miami missed the playoffs last year; even after back-to-back blown leads to the Nets and Knicks, they’re tied for the league’s fifth-best record. Defending champion Toronto lost its best player for nothing, yet is on pace for 54 wins. The West is topped by a team that missed the postseason a year ago. Meanwhile, last year’s Western Conference finalists, Portland and Golden State, are a combined 25-56.

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” Hunter Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl. If the league as a whole is getting weirder, you know the Knicks are ground zero for some truly professional-grade WTF. They are not the dimension of imagination. The 2020 Knicks are a mystery precisely because of their realities. Here are six strange-but-truisms:

1. Julius Randle is starring in Lord of the Flies

When Patrick Ewing was 24, only two of his teammates were younger: rookies Kenny Walker and Gerald Wilkins. At 24, Julius Randle is older than eight teammates. Do we expect more from him than we should because of the new demographics? Ewing was a second-year player at this age; Randle is in his sixth season, making him a veteran by traditional standards.

But the more some things change, the more others stay the same. Among the 11 Knicks who’ve played the most minutes this year, only two — Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson — are older than 25, the same number as last season’s “development year” diaper dandies. By that standard, Randle is a grizzled vet. Even if his experience didn’t merit a measure of respect, his play — at least relative to his teammates — does.

Randle has led the Knicks in points, rebounds and assists all season; only yesterday did Elfrid Payton pass him in dimes. The last Knick to lead the team in those three categories was nobody. The closest calls: in 1996, Anthony Mason led the team in dimes and ranked second in points and rebounds; in 1982, Micheal Ray Richardson was tops in points and assists and second in boards; and in 1974, Walt Clyde Frazier finished first in swishing and dishing and second in ’bounding. Astounding.

Since Mike Miller succeeded David Fizdale, the Knicks have spaced the floor more. Randle is no longer chasing waterfalls, instead sticking to the rivers and lakes he’s used to. On some level, he is a young man who’s never played on a team that’s won 36 games, somewhat leading a roster of even younger men who’ve mostly never won anything either, none of whom have $40-62M in guaranteed salary due them. They’re out to make their mark while a gun for hire is now cast as the sheriff. In Lord of the Flies, the young leading the young didn’t end well. Hopefully Randle’s run with the Knicks finds a happier conclusion.

2. Was Allonzo Trier with the Knicks in a past life?

You may remember this.

You may not remember this: 25 years ago, the Knicks’ roster included a 24-year-old talented swingman who didn’t get much run. His teammates begged Pat Riley to play him more, but Riles only gave him 79 minutes in 1994-95. The following season, Don Nelson upped him to just 213. A few weeks before Nellie was fired, the Knicks traded Doug Christie to Toronto. Five years later, Christie, a starter on the great Rick Adelman Sacramento teams, made the first of four consecutive All-Defensive teams.

Today, no Knicks are publicly clamoring for 24-year-old Allonzo Trier to get more run. Trier’s minutes per game have fallen from 23 to 12 and he’s been a DNP most games. And yet his shooting from the field is up, as is his assist percentage, while his 3-point percentage has held above average much of the season and his usage rate remains the same. It’s hard to read too much into Trier’s numbers, being such a small sample and with so many of them coming in garbage time. And none of those numbers tell the story of what we’ll call his unending generosity on defense. But he’s taking way more threes (55% of his shots this year are from deep, versus 26% last season) and shooting better near or at the rim (67% from 0-3 feet away versus 59% last season). The percentage of his 3-pointers that are assisted has risen from 64% to 73%.

Trier has the rep of an incorrigible ball-hog, but there’s some evidence of positive growth in meaningful areas. For a team bereft of guards who can shoot or create offense, the Knicks may want to consider giving Trier more of a look. He won’t be making four All-Defensive teams in this lifetime, but he could be someone New York kicks itself for cutting loose. Or, in the spirit of Trier’s ethos, the Knicks could elbow themselves for quitting him too soon.

3. We need to talk about Kevin

In 2 Samuel 18:33, King David, upon learning of the death of his beloved Absalom, cries “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” We get it, dude: he was your son. For all time, everyone’s clear on that. History is less clear on what Kevin Knox is or means to the Knicks.

Last year under David Fizdale, a whopping 15 Knicks averaged 20-plus minutes per game. This year, only eight do. More players are playing less, none more than Knox, who’s fallen from second in minutes per game to ninth. His role has changed as much as anyone’s this year: in his rookie year, he divided his minutes almost evenly between the two forward spots. This year he’s spent three-fourths of his time at the 3. Could that definition be bringing a working definition of the second-year man more into focus?

Rashard Lewis, a player Knox is often compared to, spent the first seven years of his career mostly as a small forward, before Seattle traded him to Orlando and Lewis became a stretch four alongside a center who dominated the boards and the paint, creating space for Lewis to work on the perimeter. Oh, Mitchell Robinson, the pipes, the pipes are calling...

Speaking of definition, the 10-15 pounds of muscle Knox added over the summer are showing results, even if his recent shooting slump makes it seem like our boy’s lost at sea. On shots 0-3 feet from the rim, his shooting percentage is up from 50% to 63%. Add another 10 pounds of muscle next summer, and Knox might finally be a beast worthy of the drama his drives allude to. After collecting more turnovers than assists last season, this year he’s reversed to a positive ratio (1.6:1). The percentage of his shots coming from downtown is up from 40% to 52%; he’s taking slightly more free throws per field goal attempt, too.

We judge players’ motors a lot, more than is likely fair. Knox sometimes looks stuck in mud and not especially bothered about it. Absalom was reputedly the hottest hottie in the kingdom, renowned for “his charming manners, personal beauty, insinuating ways, love of pomp, and royal pretensions... [h]e lived in great style, drove in a magnificent chariot.” Honestly, he sounds like a VSCO girl. But guess what? That VSCO girl ended up throwing the original Red Wedding, where he had his half-brother slaughtered for raping his sister. After fleeing Jerusalem for a few years so David could chill from the whole fratricide thing, he returned after his father forgave him. Then, a few years later, he “declared himself king, raised a revolt at Hebron, the former capital, and slept with his father’s concubines.”

All of which is to say, Knox will still be just 20 when this season ends. There’s still reason to think he ends up, even if not a king, the rook or bishop the Knicks would have signed up for when they drafted him at age 18.

4. When the good news is the reason why there’s bad news

Good news! The Knicks are giving up the fourth-fewest paint points in the league. One reason why is that one of the first changes in the Miller era was to the team’s pick-and-roll coverage, whereby the bigs drop back to keep the paint walled off and let those young guards who wear their cardio like cardigans — comfortably — apply pressure from the rearguard. Given Frank Ntilikina’s length and Elfrid Payton being from the school of dudes who look taller than they are (as opposed to the school of dudes who look shorter than their listed height; their patron saint is John Starks), this approach has its moments.

The bad news is teams don’t need to test the paint if they can kill you from deep. New York’s opponents have realized the bigs are hanging back and they’re exploiting it. During the Knicks’ three-game winning streak and their competitive loss in Phoenix, they held opponents to an average of 11 threes a game on 36 attempts (31%). That’s RJ Barrett’s 3-point percentage. In the six games since, opponents averaged 16 of 37 each game (43%). The badder news? It might get worse.

5. Picture if you will... a basketball team that can’t shoot the basketball

The only Knicks shooting over 50% are Taj Gibson — thanks to making 13 of his last 14 shots — and Mitchell Robinson. Mitch is also the only Knick over 60% and 70%. That’s it. Other than those two, who rank last and third-to-last on the team in usage rate, every other Knick clangs most of their shots. Every. Single. One.

There are nine guards on this team. A majority shoot 40% or worse from the field. A filibuster-proof two-thirds shoot 33% or worse on threes. Four of them make 60% or worse at the free throw line. It cannot be overstated how poorly this professional basketball team is at putting the baloncesto through the hoop.

Despite Mitch’s efficiency, Morris’ 3-point prowess and Trier’s the-self-is-the-foxhole joie de vivre, the Knicks’ sport the league’s third-worst effective field goal percentage. While it’s impossible to project how draft picks will pan out, much less an entire draft class, there seems to be consensus that this draft is missing a cut-and-dry no-doubt-about-it top prospect. In that case, the Knicks might for fucking once draft someone everyone knows can shoot and have one less thing to worry about next year. Keep an eye on Tyrese Haliburton. He’s not expected to go top-five, where New York is likely to pick, but stranger things have happened, if only in fiction, which some say is less strange than truth.

6. Give Mike Miller a three-year deal today. Honor it no matter what.

Sometimes stats are stupid. Or they’re not, but we flatten them into dogma when they’re really just brush strokes on a canvas whose colors are a frequency we can’t hear. NFL teams that rush 30-plus times a game might win more often than not, but that doesn’t mean you can hand it to your running backs 30 plays in a row and expect success to follow. Teams that rush a lot win a lot because they’ve done all the other things needed to be leading late in games, at which point their rushing attempts skyrocket because they’re trying to run out the clock.

Sometimes stats are stupid to ignore. There are six teams in the Eastern conference with winning records: Milwaukee, Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana. Since the 2010-11 season, those teams have employed an average of 2.5 full-time head coaches. The Bucks have had four, the most in the group; the Pacers and Raptors have had three; Boston and Philadelphia just two; and the Heat have known only the touch of Erik Spoelstra all that time. Counting Miller (and leaving out Kurt Rambis), the Knicks are on their sixth coach over that span.

It’s not as simple as these teams having success and just sticking to status quo. Spoelstra’s had a few losing seasons since LeBron James took his talents from South Beach. The Celtics were below .500 Stevens’ first two years at the helm. Brett Brown won 19, 18, 10 and 28 games his first four years, before The Process finally turned a profit. I’m tired of the most stable thing about the Knicks being instability at head coach. That’s why I say give Miller a three-year deal, put some blackout shades in Jim Dolan’s bedroom, and have him hibernate until 2023. At least.

This isn’t a new issue for New York; it precedes the current owner. Carmelo Anthony had five different coaches in his 6.5 years in New York. Guess what? Over Ewing’s entire career as a Knick — and that includes four years with Riley and four-plus with Jeff Van Gundy — his eight different head coaches didn’t even last an average of two years on the job.

It lends some pathos to the tragedy that is the Knicks. It’s not just that they’ve struggled for so long. The Knicks aren’t someone who won’t try to help themselves. They try every diet, read every self-help book, own three tarot decks, have been straight edge and taken peyote, got a yin yang tattoo on the back of their neck and a mistranslated Chinese aphorism where only the most trusted lovers are permitted, are vegan unless there’s cheese to snack on or bacon cooking, and knew way back in high school they’re less “religious” than “spiritual.” They really do keep trying to turn it around. Stop spinning your wheels, love. Step away. Let people do what they know how to do. You aren’t in control. It’s not about you. This isn’t where you think it is.

We’re here because we love you. That doesn’t mean we believe you’ll ever get your shit together. But we’ll smile anyway, and spread the seeds of hope where nothing grows. Maybe we’re as big a part of the problem as you are. Sometimes the horror’s where you least expect it.