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A defense of Kevin Knox, the most persecuted player of the NBA bubble season

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It’s been a tough season for young Kevin, but he might be on the right path.

New York Knicks v Washington Wizards Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The 2020 NBA Bubble has not been kind to Kevin Knox. Despite the fact that he hasn’t played in months, the young Knicks forward is constantly being skewered in the news and on social media.

Unfortunately for Knox — and Knicks fans in general — several of the players picked after him in the 2018 Draft are dominating at the moment. Michael Porter Jr., whose name many Knicks fans chanted on draft night, has been putting up crazy numbers. Mikal Bridges, who many at P&T headquarters wanted the team to pick, has been a premier defender and a key piece for the red-hot Suns. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox’s own teammate at Kentucky, has probably put together the best career of the group, and is anchoring a tough OKC squad alongside Chris Paul.

Stefan Bondy of The Daily News used Porter’s emergence to pen an article highlighting the failures of the Steve Mills/Scott Perry regime. Wherever you look, it’s open season on Knox. Every article, every post on Twitter and Instagram feels like more dirt being shoveled onto the grave of his Knicks tenure.

And why shouldn’t Knicks fans grab the shovels? Knox’s numbers took a nosedive in 2019-20, as he went from averaging 12.8 points on 37.0/34.3/71.7 to 6.4 points on 35.9/32.7/65.3. If Knox isn’t scoring, he isn’t nearly a good enough defender or rebounder to carry his weight in an NBA rotation.

Friends, Knicks fans, countrymen — lend me your ears. I have come not to bury Kevin Knox, but to...I dunno, maybe kinda praise him, I guess? When you strip away the basic numbers and look deeper, there is evidence that, in spite of everything, Knox just might be on the right path.

Let’s start with the shooting. I’m not gonna lie...it’s rough. Knox started out on fire from beyond the arc, averaging 44.7 3P% on 3.9 attempts over his first 12 games. From there, his shooting stroke abandoned him entirely — over his last 53 games, Knox averaged 28.9 3P% on 2.9 attempts per game.

So what did he do right? For one thing, he didn’t stop shooting those threes. Instead, he cut out a lot of the funky mid-range jumpers and floaters that he chucked as a rookie.

2018-19 3PAr: .398

2019-20 3PAr: .498

If you’re going to miss a ton of shots, you might as well miss them from beyond the arc and space the floor for your teammates. Knox has gorgeous jumper for a kid his size, and he showed promise with the three-ball as a rookie. If 2019-20 was just the dreaded sophomore slump, then at least Knox learned which shots he should be shooting.

There is actually one place Knox’s shooting improved this season: at the rim. He was atrocious as a rookie, hitting only 50% of his attempts from 0-3 feet. That number jumped up to 56.4% in 2019-20...still not good, but a massive improvement.

“Still not good, but an improvement” is a running theme throughout many of Knox’s other 2019-20 numbers. Knox didn’t improve very much in any one category, but he improved in just about everything: free-throw rate, rebounding percentage, assist percentage, turnover percentage, and block percentage.

Basketball-Reference

Again, we’re not talking about Most Improved Player award-winning stuff here, but Knox was grabbing more defensive boards, passing more, turning it over less and blocking more shots. The blocked shots may have been Knox’s biggest area improvement. Do you happen to remember watching the Knicks late in the season and thinking, “Wow, is that Kevin Knox blocking shots?” Well the numbers back it up! Knox finished third on the Knicks in block percentage, behind Mitchell Robinson (8.0% — duh) and just behind Taj Gibson (2.8%). he finished well ahead of finesse bigs Bobby Portis (1.2%) and Julius Randle (1.0%).

Those little across-the-board improvements paid dividends later in the season as Knox grew more comfortable with his role off the bench. Knox started more of his rookie season, and despite his big scoring numbers, the Knicks hemorrhaged points with him on the court (-11.3 net rating). In 2019-20, that on/off rating climbed to a more respectable -2.6, and when you examine the lineup data, there’s more reason for optimism. Check out Knox’s top-10 two-man lineups:

Basketball-Reference.com

Put Knox on the court with either Frank Ntilikina or Damyean Dotson, and the Knicks slightly outscore their opponent. Now check the bottom of the list — in 302 total minutes with Dennis Smith Jr. as point guard, Knox’s Knicks got wiped off the floor by opponents. Knox only played 1,166 total minutes this season, which means he played more than a quarter of the season watching DSJ farting up and down the court. The Allonzo Trier pairing was also a huge loss, which may be one of the reasons Trier is no longer employed with the club.

Basketball-Reference.com

The three-man combos are even more stark in their portrayals. The trio of Knox, Frank and Dotson was a massive success, and playing either one big (Robinson or Portis) with one guard (Frank or Dot) and Knox was also quite successful for the Knicks. Even the super-big trio of Mitch, Portis and Knox was pretty close to neutral. But look at the bottom of the list: swap in Smith, and lineups turn to pure dookie.

This speaks to some tragic mistakes by the Knicks coaching staff — seriously, why weren’t they playing Dotson more? — but it also says something about Knox. Frank and Dot aren’t All-Stars; they’re merely competent NBA players. Dennis Smith might be a competent player one day, but this season he was an unmitigated disaster. When Kevin Knox was given competent backcourt mates, the Knicks were able to play pretty damn well with him on the court.

The prevailing narrative of Kevin Knox’s 2019-20 season is one of regression: He lost his starting role, lost a ton of playing time, and lost his shooting touch. Meanwhile, many of his fellow 2018 draftees excelled. There is, however, another story to Knox’s 2019-20 season. Faced with the loss of his starting spot, a miserable shooting slump, and the general weirdness that was the David Fizdale coaching regime, Knox made some tweaks to his overall game, played much harder on defense, and fit in well with Frank, Dot, Mitch and the rest of a Knicks bench unit that was really coming on toward the end of the season.

Does that mean Knox will turn it around next season and silence the doubters? Y’all know I would never bet on the Knicks to do something right. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t count him out just yet.