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This is the most dangerous part of the Knicks’ season

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Everyone feels good, the East stinks, and the draft is becoming clear

It’s ya boi Prez AKA 2XL Carlos Arroyo Memorial Graffiti Shirt AKA M.F.Ongo Doom.

The New York Knicks are feeling good! Mike Miller’s exceedingly competent coaching, a soft patch in the schedule, vets like Mr. Ellington playing how they were expected to play and smaller doses of our less talented players like Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier and Dennis Smith Jr. have led to this:

This, despite the close double-OT loss to Atlanta last night (happening live as I write this).

Even as many on Knicks Twitter gripe out a minutes, you can tell from the video at the top that our kids are mostly fine playing 15-20 minutes as long as they are winning. It’s not weird at all to see Frank Ntilikina, Zo, or DSJ jumping up and down on the bench when one of their mates get a bucket or a stop. Hell, I was at a bar with another displaced New Yorker in DC watching the awful first half versus the Pistons, and I told him at the half that I didn’t need to watch the rest of the game — because I was confident that, despite the first half fuckery, our team is good enough right now to get it together versus the (admittedly few) teams they are actually superior to. I was right! As our own MMiranda said, “it’s ok to feel joy” right now! Ever since this shit happened...

...we been fake nice. Very fake nice. Looking like a prime candidate to get washed by the Bucks in 4 games.

New Year, New Knicks? Steve Stoute is producing 30 for 30s for wins vs. bummy Orlando teams:

So why am I feeling rather un-joyous?

Is it because our kids — Frank*, Knox, and Meech in particular — seem undeserving of clearing the 20 minute margin in the eyes of Coach Miller or the front office (whatever is left of it right now, anyway), possibly wasting away limited precious opportunities for game reps and development? That’s all certainly part of it — none of the vets except Reggie Bullock (excluding Randle, who I don’t consider a vet) are likely to be around next season, so what is the endgame here?

*In the Hawks game, Frank got a little extended tick in regulation despite missing all his threes, likely because of his thriving and diming earlier, and even got subbed in for defense in the final minute. So maybe they are being a little more flexible!

Hold that thought — maybe some within the Knicks organization think some of these vets MIGHT BE BACK? Tweets and articles are praising Elf’s two-way play of late (it’s been solid!) and leading some to doubt whether the Knicks could find a better option to play point for $8 million or less next year. Even without a reliable jumper, he’s big and fast and skilled enough that if he gives effort more consistently*, he is probably a nice low-end starter on a one-year deal at best.

*Spoiler: He won’t.

This is what I think about all that:

I know a lot of Knicks Twitter is all in a tizzy with the buzz of meaningful close games ending in Knicks wins, but allow me to be a buzzkill and explain why you should be WORRIED, rather than OPTIMISTIC, even if the Knicks had won that Hawks game. The reason? This draft, and also, the NEXT draft.

The talent level and top players in this upcoming draft are coming into clear focus right now. I will now copy and paste the best single paragraph summary of the class that I have read, courtesy of Fansided’s Trevor Magnotti and Jackson Frank:

“You can go with [Anthony] Edwards if you value scoring, as he’s the guy with the best NBA scoring potential. Pick [Onyeka] Okongwu if you want a safe likelihood of getting a quality starter. Cole Anthony is the best shot at getting good two-way play in the backcourt, and then there’s [LaMelo] Ball, who is a ball of playmaking clay that could have a lot of avenues to success at the NBA level. And if you want to get really hipster, you can make the argument that [Isaac] Okoro’s switch defense potential is the best single skill package in the draft, that Killian Hayes has the highest long-term development upside, and that Tyrese Maxey actually has the most potential of anyone in the tier, if you do the typical adjustment for suppressed stats that happens at Kentucky.”

You’ll notice three (four if you include Maxey) are point guards. None are Trae- or Kyrie-level points, but all three are very good bets to be good game controlling point guards with plus skills on offense who don’t hurt you on defense. All three are likely to be better than Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntilikina and DSJ. Given the presence of those three in the top seven or so picks, and the fact that some teams already have 1s and will prefer Okongwu, Okoro, Edwards, James Wiseman or RJ Hampton, we have — and I cannot emphasize this enough — A TREMENDOUS chance of getting a point guard who is young, talented, and cost-controlled in the 2020 draft. Two of the three point guards are plus shooters (Cole and Killian). LaMelo is likely a top-10 NBA passer the moment he steps on a court, and Killian is a plus passer in his own right. Cole plays legitimate plus defense at the point and comes with plus NBA handles fully formed on arrival, a foreign concept to Knicks draft picks:

As many have said, the East is SO BAD that New York could very quickly get out of range of those players. Compound that with the fact that Hayes — playing in Germany — is a likely candidate for extreme undervaluing despite being arguably the best player in this weak draft.

Antman is talented enough that despite his flaws he may even be worth overlooking those three point guards. However, the drop-off if we end up picking eighth or later is VERY steep if we don’t get Hayes (likely the last to be drafted of this bunch). That’s not to say there won’t be a diamond in the rough, or that picking eighth or later is a death knell... more to say that the 10th pick this year is more like the 15th or 17th in a normal draft, but the guys in the top seven are all good bets to be core pieces, even with their considerable flaws.

All you have to do to avoid the risk of picking eighth or later is play the kids slightly more. Not even sending Bobby Portis to China, not buying out Wayne Ellington, not banishing Taj to whatever negative zone Trier currently resides in. But the Knicks may not do that, as we have winnable games vs. the Wizards, Hornets, and Bulls on deck this month, and with a quality two-way vet in Moe Harkless on the way into our rotation.

That’s what makes RIGHT NOW the most dangerous part of the season.

This is without even taking into account that other teams will begin to blatantly tank. We’ve seen teams like the Bulls and Magic be shameless, leaving vets at home on road trips with phantom injuries and fielding G League rosters. You think Steph Curry is gonna come back? You think the Cavs are gonna run Andre Drummond out for 33 minutes per game when they have a top pick and a big payday for Dre on deck?

Good teams think about these things. I’ll go one step further: a good team would be looking BEYOND that to the next draft to understand how this season and both drafts fit together to form the context for their team’s next five years. A good Knicks front office (Hi, Leon Rose!) would show understanding that with a shallow free agent pool this year and several picks in next year’s STACKED draft, it would behoove them to let the kids — one year older and wiser and more skilled — have at it next year with minimal interruption from vets.

Several well-respected folks from The Stepien have posited that the next draft may very well have up to TEN players who would be in the running for top pick THIS YEAR — mostly wing players. Including this guy, who is not un-athletic, a decent shooter and a point guard despite being wing-sized:

He’s not Luka/Zion tier, but he and a few others are really, really, fucking good. We need to continue to stack assets via transactions, let kids develop, and go fishing for stars in a lake where we know we can at minimum reel in a good, core-type point guard and an impact wing.

Most point guards, unless they’re Kyrie or Trae types or have Ja Morant-level rookie years, need 2-3 years to become very impactful to winning, even if they are really good. If we played a Cole/Kilian/LaMelo/Ant along with Frank, RJB, Mitch, Knox...the benefits would be many:

  • The guard rotation would almost certainly consist of [Draft Pick], Frank, RJB, Bullock (I’ll let him live as a shooter on a barebones deal), and maybe Dot
  • The pick will be the first significant investment of the new team, like RJB before him, and will thus not be spurned in the rotation
  • RJB would play more 3, because he HAS to play there
  • The above bullets would likely lead to a lot of minutes for young, not-bad-but-not-amazing players, and set us up for the next draft... unless...
  • Unless one of our kids made a big leap (think Frank or RJB developing jumpers). Which would be, of course, cause for celebration more than “vets gelling and leading us to the ninth seed”

**Exhales**

Bringing it back to this recent stretch, we can’t lose the forest for the trees here. This even goes beyond developing our existing kids. I know the front offices in the NBA don’t usually give mandates to coaches unless “real tanking” is happening, but hopefully Leon Rose and friends can figure out a little median between that and playing vets 30 minutes a game. Being shortsighted in this pre- and post-All-Star stretch and taking a similar attitude next year will be the difference between the Knicks becoming a team stacked with young talent or a playoff doormat.

Maybe this is an overreaction to the softest part of our schedule. Maybe guys like Elfrid and Ellington will go back to the end-of-bench types we’ve seen rather than the front-of-bench types they’ve played like. In the meantime, I will hope for solid play from all, real chances for kids, and a few tip-your-cap losses in winnable games — not unlike the Hawks game. Does that make me an asshole? Let me know in the comments, or at @_Prezidente.