This is part one of what will be a two- or three-part mailbag. COVID keeps getting worse and I’m not at all sure why the NBA thinks a new season will be anything other than a class-action sacrifice offered up unto Mistress Death, but for now let’s distract ourselves with more mundane matters. Thanks to everyone who shared questions. This was a great mailbag to work with.
1) Who will be the starting point guard on opening night? Elfrid Payton or the field?
— alleyhoop 20
Do Payton & Austin Rivers end up with more minutes than Frank Ntilikina & Immanuel Quickley?
— The Hatter Matter
Payton and yes. Here’s why.
Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago and Minnesota teams featured 15 rookies. Here they are, from most minutes played to least:
2018 — Josh Okogie (23.7 minutes, 74 games)
2014 — Nikola Mirotić (20.2 minutes, 82 games)
2016 — Kris Dunn (17.1 minutes, 78 games)
2013 — Tony Snell (16 minutes, 77 games)
2010 — Ömer Aşık (12 minutes, 82 games)
2018 — Keita Bates-Diop (16.8 minutes, 30 games)
2014 — Doug McDermott (8.9 minutes, 36 games)
2012 — Marquis Teague (8.2 minutes, 48 games)
2011 — Jimmy Butler (8.5 minutes, 42 games)
2018 — Cameron Reynolds (13.6 minutes, 19 games)
2018 — Jared Terrell (7.9 minutes, 14 games)
2014 — Cameron Bairstow (3.6 minutes, 18 games)
2013 — Erik Murphy (2.6 minutes, 24 games)
2018 — Mitch Creek (12 minutes, 1 game)
2017 — Justin Patton (4 minutes, 1 game)
The only point guards on the list are Dunn and Teague. Dunn backed up Ricky Rubio, while Teague played behind Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson. As for the other first-years to see any meaningful playing time, Okogie backed up Butler and Mirotić did the same for Pau Gasol.
The current Knick point guard candidates all slot somewhere between the caliber of Butler/Rubio/Gasol and Hinrich/Nate. There is no example from Thibodeau’s history of a rookie earning the lion’s share of minutes at any position, much less one as demanding and important as point guard, much less after an abbreviated preseason. That doesn’t bode well for Quickley.
Neither does this: a review of the last 20 players selected 25th in the draft — Nassir Little; Moritz Wagner; Anžejs Pasečņiks; Brice Johnson; Jarell Martin; Clint Capela; Reggie Bullock; Tony Wroten; MarShon Brooks; Dominique Jones; Rodrigue Beaubois; Nicolas Batum; Morris Almond; Shannon Brown; Johan Petro; Tony Allen; Carlos Delfino; Frank Williams; Gerald Wallace, Jake Tsakalidis — shows they averaged of a little over 12 minutes per game their rookie seasons. The only one to average more than 20 was MarShon Brooks, for a lousy Nets team that saw fit to play Kris Humphries 35 minutes a night. We’ll have to see how the season unfolds, but I bet Vegas would give you better odds of Quickley getting Allonzo Trier/Wayne Ellington minutes than pushing for a significant spot in New York’s rotation.
You don’t like Payton? I get it. He’s an atrocious shooter; his 3P% was as far from Frank Ntilikina’s as Frank’s was from Marcus Morris, who you’ll recall spent most of his time as a Knick leading the league in three-point accuracy. Watching Payton and Julius Randle hijack the offense into a game of patty-cake is infuriating. Elf’s not a part of the future and there’s nothing in his past as a Knick that seems worth holding onto. If they hadn’t re-signed him, it’d make, like, no material difference in our lives.
Having said all that...Thibodeau led the Bulls to a 21-win improvement his first year there. His second year with the Timberwolves they improved by 16. His rep is a bit in question after how things ended in Minnesota and he’s taken on the task of dredging the NBA’s Atlantis from the sunken depths of this century. When he looks at his point guard options, here’s what he sees:
- Ntilikina, a player neither Thibs nor the new front office have any connection with or stake in, who’s averaged 21 minutes a game over three years for the franchise that drafted him, one with a planet-sized hole at the position he was drafted to play.
- Dennis Smith Jr., who put up sub-Ntilikina numbers last season.
- Quickley, a rookie who never averaged two assists per game over two years at Kentucky, had more games last season with 0-1 assists than 3+, and whose assist percentage was what Bobby Portis put up in New York.
- Austin Rivers, an eight-year veteran who’s played almost 3500 minutes at the point.
- Payton, a six-year vet who put up 10 and 7 with an assist-to-turnover ratio 3.5 to 1 while shooting better from the floor and averaging more assists, rebounds and steals than any other point guard on the team.
Pretend you’re not a point-weary Knicks fan, but Thibodeau. After the draft you have just enough time to shave, shit and shower before your team is in action. If you fail with the Knicks, you, someone whose mitochondria spends their lives breaking down game film, may never get another NBA head coaching gig again. Who would you start?
One caveat: in both Chicago and Minnesota, Thibs took over teams that had superstar cornerstones in place (Derrick Rose; Karl-Anthony Towns). He doesn’t have that in New York. Maybe he’ll come in with a different mindset, one that’s more amenable to letting the kids sink and hopefully swim.
As far as Payton/Rivers versus Frank/Quickley...I think the future looks brighter if six months from now it’s the latter who played more. But Payton’s averaged 30 minutes a game over his entire career, even as a rookie, and Rivers has played nearly 2000 minutes each of the past four seasons. Meanwhile, Frank averages fewer than 1300, and again, Quickley has his work cut out for him. Over the past 20 years, the only rookie guards to see meaningful minutes for New York have been Langston Galloway (1457), Trier (1459), Nate (1544), Iman Shumpert (1705), Tim Hardaway Jr. (1875) and Landry Fields (2541). You don’t have to like Payton. You don’t have to like Payton and Rivers getting the bulk of the action. But I suspect that’s what you’re getting this year.
2) How best to handle the media actually talking positively about the Leon Rose regime? I find myself confused by the lack of representation in the winners/losers articles. Even Bill Simmons had a kind word to say in [a] Sunday podcast. I guess my real question is: What’s the world coming to?
— Real Clydes Wear Plaid
I dunno, man. With where we stand, where we’re headed and Diego Maradona now gone, I don’t like any of it. Don’t get too hung up on the media, though. The clowns are never more than an eyelash away, and what you’re hearing so far is a false positive, i.e. the Knicks haven’t done anything obviously stupid, so people pretend that’s meaningful change. The Knicks haven’t handed out huge contracts for a while, though. The hallmark of Steve Mills and Scott Perry for a looong time was “At least there’ve been no blatant screw-ups.” But remember: Phil Jackson’s moves made sense for a year before the ill-advised Robin Lopez/Derrick Rose deal. Reserve judgment on Rose until he actually does something of consequence.
3) Of all the players in the league who’ve never made an All-Star team and are not currently Knicks, regardless of salary considerations, who would you like to have on the Knicks?
4) What’s the most likely of these (optimistic) outcomes 20 games into the season: Frank’s averaging 12-5-5 per game; RJ Barrett has put up a 40-point game; Mitchell Robinson is improving on his FG% record?
In 178 career games, Ntilikina has scored 12+ and grabbed 5+ rebounds a total of 20 times each (11% of the time) while dishing 5+ assists 41 times (23%). Thinking he’ll average that for a week, much less 20 games, isn’t optimistic; it’s laced with PCP. I think Mitch’s agent is gonna be in his ear to start putting up more jumpers, if not straight-up 3s, so I don’t see him getting up to 75% from the field. Barrett’s season-high last year was 27. I can see him netting 40 some night, especially early in a season when players and teams are in various states of rest and recovery.
5) How can I stop myself from thinking we might sneak into the playoffs at the beginning of the season? I tell myself every year that this team is gonna be bad, but I just can’t smother the optimism for the first couple weeks.
Don’t stop yourself. This is the opening of a recap I wrote in February, after the Knicks lost a double-overtime game in Atlanta:
Late one October afternoon many moons ago, I went on my first date since a bad breakup. Nothing came of it. I met a girl at a park, we walked and talked for a while, hugged and left. I never saw her again. It was an unseasonably warm day in late autumn, incredibly windy, but pleasant because of the warmth. As I took my last few steps before turning the corner where she was waiting, I told myself “Remember this feeling. The warmth. The wind. Remember breathing again.”
The Knicks blew an eight-point lead in the last 90 seconds of the first overtime and lost in double OT, 140-135 to the Atlanta Hawks. They entered the game on a four-game winning streak, having climbed within five games of the eight-seed. Atlanta is one of just a handful of teams in the Association behind New York in the standings. I wanted this win. Badly.
My fiancee walked out in the first OT because she couldn’t deal with how tense the game was, or more accurately my mood swings. The Knicks lost, but feeling those feelings for the first time in years — coming into a game wanting it bad enough to feel robbed rather than resigned; hating the refs because on this night instead of the lottery or the draft or free agency, it’s all about these 48 (or 58) minutes; of pain in your neck ‘cuz for once you’re craning to look up in the standings rather than down — is like breathing again after being dead a good long time.
I get it: losses equal ping pong balls; ping pong balls impact the game of chance that goes into the game of chance of landing a teenager for whom teams play a game of chance waiting to see what they’ll turn into 4-5 years down the road. I’ve seen the Knicks down three going into the fourth quarter of game 7 of the NBA Finals. I can’t even imagine what it’d feel like to see them get back someday and win it all.
If contending for titles was what it’s all about, I’d have found better use of my time a looong time ago than watching this team. Context is queen. I want to care again. To feel. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but if you’re flat on your back and cut off from your senses, it’s not about walking. It’s about getting undead. Mission accomplished, Knicks.
If you feel something, anything, accept it. Embrace it. Hell, there’s a play-in tournament this year that includes the 9 and 10 seeds. The Knicks have a legit coach. The roster isn’t built to fail. They’re extremely well-rested. And if there’s any such thing as righteous karma, this is the year they’ll win 36 games and the mother of all draft lotteries. Keep hope alive, yo.
That’s all for part one. See you in a few with part deux.