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(Late) November mailbag part 2: grading Leon Rose, what about Nerlens & all things Obi Toppin

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Because it’s never too early to get ahead on your pre-judgments.

NCAA Basketball: Davidson at Dayton David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Part one of this mailbag touched on backcourts, the false light of media praise and when making the playoffs is Lucy holding the football and the Knicks are Charlie Brown. Part two will not.

1) What’s your grade on the Leon Rose regime so far? If Masai Ujiri were the president of basketball operations, what would have happened differently?

— MeloIsoMyBalls

Earlier this week an NYC tabloid piece called Mets owner Steve Cohen not hiring a new GM yet a “failure.” Cohen’s owned the team only slightly longer than Obi Toppin’s been a Knick. It feels only slightly less premature to be grading the Rose regime. I don’t think they’ve shown much of their hand yet. But MeloIsoMyBalls — which I always initially mis-read without the second “o,” creating quite the visual — asked. So let’s assess how Rose and Co. have done so far.

Cruising at 30,000 feet, the landscape looks familiar. The Knicks missed the playoffs in 2019 but hit the beach with oodles of cap space and a high draft pick. They’ll pro’ly miss the playoffs this year and enter the offseason with enough space for two max contracts plus a high draft pick in a supposedly loaded class. I bet if we took a DeLorean back in time to December of 2018 and told your past self the Knicks would enter the next summer with room for two max contracts and RJ Barrett, a consensus top-3 (at worst) draft pick, your past self might get uncomfortably (or intriguingly, depending on your kink) excited.

Here is the fruit of Rose’s importer/exporter loins:

OUT = Damyean Dotson; Wayne Ellington; Taj Gibson; Moe Harkless; Marcus Morris; Bobby Portis; Allonzo Trier; Kenny Wooten

IN, THEN OUT = Ed Davis

OUT, THEN IN = Theo Pinson (two-way)

IN: Obi Toppin; Immanuel Quickley; Nerlens Noel; Austin Rivers; Omari Spellman; Jacob Evans; Myles Powell; Jared Harper (two-way); Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; four second-round picks

KEPT: Elfrid Payton; Reggie Bullock

I generally like the imports more than the exports. The only person gone I could be interested in a reunion with someday is Morris, though his timeline doesn’t really sync with the permafuture the team seems to have in mind.

Rose’s draft day wheelings and dealing were encouraging as a process, even if the end result was less than enthralling. I can’t be mad at the Toppin pick given that none of the three players I thought would be available at 8 were (Isaac Okoro, Killian Hayes and Patrick Williams). Turning 27 and 38 into 23 and then 23 into 25 and 33 offered a pleasant whiff of something grandmaster-y, and while I’d hoped for a yield closer to a point guard and Vernon Carey or Robert Woodard, Quickley and turning 33 into a future second make sense.

New York has cap flexibility plus eight first-round picks and 11 (!) seconds the next six drafts. For those who survived the Isiah Thomas era, that sentence alone is manna from heaven.

There’ve been a lot of early suggestions of nepotism, given the heavy CAAntucky tint to this offseason. But the front office and scouting hires, in particular, have been pretty universally hailed around the league; when’s the last time you remember the Knicks getting that kind of response? For me, Thibodeau is the most exciting coach the franchise has hired since Mike D’Antoni, having had prior success with two organizations who’ve won four playoff rounds this century in eight seasons under Thibs versus three in the other 32, none since 2007.

Rose failed to make some of the bigger deals rumored this offseason, a la Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but I don’t think most fans would that against him. Here’s a way to test that theory: a little ways up I wrote “They’ll pro’ly miss the playoffs this year and enter the offseason with enough space for two max contracts, plus a high draft pick in a supposedly loaded class.” If Rose had traded for a pricey All-Star like the trio mentioned above, that sentence becomes “The Knicks could miss the playoffs and enter the offseason without enough cap space to sign any max players, plus a mid-to-low lottery pick.” Some may prefer that, for reasons I get. Many — I suspect most, at least on this site — would not.

An added benefit to that failing is the team has nearly $20M in cap space left as they enter the season. That’s plenty of room to absorb contracts for asset sweeteners or be in the running whenever the next disgruntled superstar somewhere wants a change of scenery.

I think if Ujiri were in power here and made those same moves he’d be praised. That’d be understandable: he has a glittering record of success. Rose reminds me so far of Phil Jackson, only in the sense that his early days have been warmed by the benevolence of a fan base willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in a position he’s never held before, and in these early days he hasn’t done anything to make them regret that allowance. So I give Rose a grade of P, for Phil.

When I taught I didn’t assign grades at all during the semester. I’d meet with students to discuss their work and assess its promise, but I didn’t give any grades. When the semester ended we’d meet one-on-one and they’d tell me what grade they thought they deserved, and why. I wonder, if we could sit down with Rose today, what grade he’d give himself.

2) Will Nerlens Noel’s role be limited to just backing up Mitchell Robinson? I hope Thibs gets creative and plays unconventional lineups. Imagine the defense with Noel and Mitchell on the floor simultaneously. Why not Julius Randle coming off the bench?

— H-daddy

Noel has started just 34 of 219 games the past four seasons, and over his career he’s played center nearly 90% the time. I don’t imagine we’ll see much of him and Mitch together outside of specific matchups in/or end-of-game scenarios. The most likely “unconventional lineup” you’re see would be Noel starting ahead of Mitch, but that seems a stretch, too, and not only because Robinson is the prohibitive center of the future in New York — Noel has actually committed more fouls per-36 minutes than Robinson since Mitch entered the league.

I’d have to do a whole separate piece on the Randle question, but here’s my elevator pitch: benching him behind Toppin right off the bat is something other players around the league will notice and have in mind when they entertain free agent offers from the Knicks. If you want to trade Randle — which requires finding another team who both wants him AND has the space to take on his contract AND is giving you something to take him for one year and $23M (his salary next year plus the $4M they’d owe him for not guaranteeing the last year of his deal) or two years and $39M — you’re hoping there’s a team out there that wants him despite you being so low on him you benched him for an unproven one-dimensional rookie the first chance you got. I understand the desire. I don’t know if I agree with it. I don’t suspect it’s likely, at least for a while.

3) Been a lot made of Obi Toppin’s lack of lateral agility. Be nice to get a mailbag response with some video demonstrating how/why this matters, for non-basketball wonks like myself.

— Cttribe73

One question I have with Toppin is his shooting...His 3P% looks good, but on low volume. His FT% isn’t great. His form isn’t bad, but it’s not clean, either. He’ll be shooting from a deeper 3-point line against more sophisticated defense and more athletic defenders...I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes a strong shooter for his position, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he busts in that area. I don’t know what to think.

— Gyrk

“Write what you know,” they say. I don’t agree with that entirely, but I know I don’t know as much about prospects’ lateral agility and shooting profiles as P&T alum Prez, now the draft guru over at our spiritual sister site, The Strickland. So I put these two Toppin topics to him. Here’s what he had to say:

“1. Below is a compilation of bad defense by Obi. I’d say about 1/3 or 1/4 of it is just him kinda brainfarting around and being utterly uninvolved. For now, put those plays aside, and just focus on the following in each play when you watch:

Does he get in a low-crouch defensive stance at all?

When he shuffles his feet, do you see his feet cross over each other?

Does he straight-up fall or stumble?

Do you ever see him moving quickly backpedaling? Or jump high while backpedaling?

The answers are:

Rarely.

Yes, often.

Yes, and it’s sad.

No, and no.

Basically, lateral movement (and backward movement) is really important in defense because when it comes down to it, 75% of defense is moving sideways and/or backwards while reacting to a million things happening around you. And if you don’t know how to slide your feet, if you can’t crouch down like a sumo wrestler or an earth-bender, if you can’t be very balletic and agile and light-footed, it is damn hard to move quickly laterally and backwards in reaction to stimuli.

The only times you’re not moving backwards or laterally are 1) chasing someone around screens, 2) chasing after someone once they get by you, 3) trapping or double-teaming someone, and 4) shooting forward for a steal or a block. 1, 3, and 4 are pretty rare over the course of a game, and 2 is normally not something you want happening often, though it will if you can’t keep someone in front of you. Most defense, especially on-ball defense, is sliding laterally to anticipate and block someone’s movement, or moving backwards as someone attacks you/attacks the rim.

Obi’s not good at moving laterally or backwards, and he’s not good at anticipating things and reacting quickly to them. He really has a lot going against him. That’s why having poor lateral agility makes him a big target.

2. Great question. Similarly to #1, stay tuned for the extra deep dive from me and @StacyPatton89 for more on this exact question...but for now, I’ll spoil some of the article and provide a few numbers for your consideration, my dear intrepid reader. You mentioned a few important statistical markers: his 3P% (39% = good), his volume (.212 3Pr = not great) and his FT% (70% = not great). I’ll submit a few more for your consideration that I consider relevant to shooting projections:

His FG% on 2-point jump shots (44% over two years = very good). The logic behind this stat is that a really good shooter will have at least a number in the low 40s if not mid 40s if they truly have touch and confidence on their jumper, since 2-point jumpers are often a bit less rehearsed, less wide-open, etc.

His FG% on NBA 3s (38.5% on 26 attempts this year = good). The importance of this stat is self-explanatory. It’s also worth pointing out that while the NBA line is indeed further back, the college line did get moved back a tad last season.

He also was an elite “touch” guy in the paint as one of the best post players in college. Good touch is another green flag related to shooting.

I’ll also cherry pick another stat I found interesting: he was very good (over 40%) on catch-and-shoot 3s, but unusually bad (below 20%) on pick-and-pop 3s — in fact, a majority of his C&S misses were of the P&P variety. Why is that important? Because it’s just weird — those shouldn’t be any harder than normal catch and shoot 3s since they are just catch-and-shoot with a pick beforehand. I looked into it: while his C&S footwork is spotless, his P&P footwork is a bit sloppy. He also just probably had some good old-fashioned small sample bad luck.

So what does that mean? It means, statistically, he probably left some easy makes on the table, and has some low-hanging fruits coming into his rookie year. If he simply made around 30% of his P&P threes rather than below 20%, all of a sudden you’re looking at a guy who would have shot near 45% from 3 overall (albeit on the aforementioned low volume) and we’d be talking about his shooting completely differently.

All in all, I personally would be surprised if he doesn’t end up at least a league-average 3-point shooter on increased volume in the NBA.”

4) Who makes an All-Star team first: RJ Barrett or Obi?

— DontDrinkFromDaHudson

What do you think?

Poll

Who will be the next Knick to make an All-Star game?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    RJ Barrett
    (447 votes)
  • 20%
    Obi Toppin
    (180 votes)
  • 9%
    Someone else on the roster
    (89 votes)
  • 20%
    Someone who isn’t here yet
    (181 votes)
897 votes total Vote Now

That’s all for this slice of mailbag. Stay tuned for Friday’s thrilling conclusion.