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The 2020 New York Knicks Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! Awards

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Like Iron Mike himself and hope at MSG, The Punchies are back!

NFL: SEP 19 Titans at Jaguars

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the Punchies were a P&T offseason staple. In 2018 they gave way to a “Castlevania New York Knicks Quotacular,” which inspired a whopping 43 comments. Message received! This year we’re back to our roots. Thus wherefore art the Punchies, a lens through which to view last season’s Knicks via the old NES video game Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!

The Glass Joe Award For Losing: The 2014-2020 New York Knicks

Glass Joe, the first fighter on MTPO!!, sports a career record of one win and 99 losses. Dude knows Ls. You know who else knows Ls? Trust your feelings, Luke.

More than half the league’s teams (16) won 5+ games in a row at some point this season. The Knicks did not, making them part of the minority. In fact, New York is a minority of a minority: the Knicks haven’t won five straight games since March of 2014, when the next Marvel movie scheduled to drop was Captain America: Winter Soldier.

In the graph below, the blue lines show how many winning streaks the Knicks have had each season. The red lines indicate their longest winning streak that year. You’ll note despite what Paul McCartney once sang, things are not getting better.

Below, the opposite: the blue lines mark the total number of losing streaks in each season. The red shows the longest losing streak in every year.

This may strike you as a whole lotta “dog bites man,” and thus not especially newsworthy. Well, think of Cujo. “Dog bites man” is news when taken to extremes.

The Knicks’ losing the past six years is newsworthy for being so extremely extra. Since they last won five in a row six years ago, the Knicks have suffered the following losing streaks:

  • 5 games = six times
  • 6 games = five times
  • 7 games = three times
  • 8 games = four times
  • 9 games = three times
  • 10 games = twice
  • 16 games
  • 18 games

That’s 25 losing streaks longer than any of their winning streaks! If that’s not a record, it’s worth a few clucks and tsks.

The Von Kaiser Award For Wild Eyes: Bobby Portis

This is what Von Kaiser, the second fighter on MTPO!!, looks like sometimes.

Et tu, Bobby Portis?

The Piston Honda Award For Patience: Frank Ntilikina & Free Throws

Piston Honda, the third fighter in Punch Out!!, is the first to weaponize patience. Glass Joe and Von Kaiser mostly stand around waiting for you to punch them, but Honda is a higher class of fighter. There are times you can hit him, but if you’re impatient he’ll just block you and wait till he’s ready to attack.

In 2018-19, Ntilikina’s second year as a pro, he attempted 30 free throws. On opening night of the 1969-70 season, the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain attempted 30 free throws against Philadelphia. This may be the first and last time you see those names in the same sentence when it comes to offense. Certainly no one in their right mind expects Ntilikina to turn into James Harden when it comes to drawing fouls, much less Chamberlain. Especially when you look at the kinds of shots he’s making, as seen in this clip of every basket Ntilikina made this year. Spoiler: they’re almost all no closer than the free throw line extended.

As Frank enters year four, it’d be nice to see him finally average two free throw attempts per 36, something he’s yet to accomplish. Especially in light of his free throw percentage rising to 86% last season, using his size and length to get to the line more would boost his efficiency. Every little bit helps.

That sounds like Ntilikina needs to ramp up his aggressiveness. I’m hoping for the opposite: that he’s more patient with himself and the action around him, and uses that greater, slower awareness in conjunction with his other gifts. Got a smaller defender on him? Try posting up. You’ve driven to the lane and met no resistance? Don’t pull up. Keep pushing.

Frank doesn’t need to turn into Harden or Chris Paul. Those are the masters of the dark arts, willing to flop at anything and everything, the Neymars of the NBA.

It’s about appreciating yourself within your context. Every worker encounters this at every job: balancing a healthy respect for the system that was in place before your arrival with recognizing when you have what it takes to improve things, if given the chance. Sometimes you just gotta take that chance, even if you only catch a glimpse of what could be.

Sometimes, it’s much more than that.

Over the Knicks’ last two games before the NBA shut down, Ntilikina got to the line a season-high six times each against Washington and Atlanta. The four games prior, he didn’t get there once. Striking a middle ground between those numbers would mean good things for the club and the player.

The Don Flamenco Award For Pulling a 180: RJ Barrett

The first time you fight Don Flamenco, he’s the easiest opponent in the entire game to knock out; it takes about 40 seconds. The second time you fight him, he’s the only opponent pretty much guaranteed to take you past the first round. Flamenco 2.0 is a defensive fighter who closes up shop and forces you to box on his terms. It is a jarring reversal. Speaking of reversals, let’s look at RJ Barrett.

Behold Barrett’s field goal percentage by month from October through March:

Barrett’s rookie season was a whole lotta what-goes-up-must-come-down-and-maybe-goes-up-again-too. He hit seven 3s his first three games, a mark he wouldn’t best the rest of the season. He had 5+ assists in four of his first 11 games and three of his last eight, but only once in the intermediate 37 contests. In his fourth game, he gathered 15 rebounds. The rest of the year he broke double-digits but once.

To be fair, since high school Barrett’s played a year for a Duke team that couldn’t space the floor and a year for a Knicks team that couldn’t either. And he was only a teenager last year. Erratic play from a 19-year-old whose teammates often looked like they started playing basketball before James Naismith invented it is a sign your baby is normal. That doesn’t diminish the importance of next year any for Barrett.

It is a virtual lock that whatever wind blows beneath the Knicks’ wings this decade will not feature all the names and faces we’re currently accustomed to. The organization is going to trade people and let others move on. The trick is holding on to the right pieces and not overestimating those that other teams may overestimate. No one on this team currently strikes me as a surefire building block, but in September of 2020 this question isn’t an unreasonable one:

Of course, sometimes addition comes via subtraction. Specifically subtracting one dude who touches the ball a ton and won’t pass to you versus one who would and will.

The King Hippo Award For Glaring Weak Spot: Can’t Anybody Here Shoot This Thing?

The NBA has embraced 3>2. Not our boys. The Knicks were dead last in three-point attempts and had the second-fewest attempts. They were 29th in two-point shooting. That thing they do that none of the other kids are doing? They’re no good at it. They were also the worst free-throw shooting team AND their opponents hit a higher % of their free throws than any other team’s. Here’s an artist’s rendering of their offense expressed in a single clip:

Gross. But why? Why so gross? Let’s take a closer look, starting with Julius Randle’s vision quest into the lane.

There are literally four Celtics in his sightline. To the untrained eye, there appears to be a numerologically satisfying triangle of wide-open teammates all over the perimeter. But to the eye that has brains, it’s evident none of them were Elfrid Payton, who Randle knows will give him back the ball. So the Big Apple Turnover simply eliminates the middleman and goes directly into the shot.

Not only is the shot hopeless, the Knicks are outnumbered four to one down low; it’s an impossible shot compounded by an improbable rebound. That leaves Kevin Knox to take what he can get when and where he can get it. Nobody said it had to be pretty.

The only team with a worse offensive rating than the Knicks (and yes, that’s worst adjusted and unadjusted offensive rating, for the bicurious) were the Warriors, who lost Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. The Knicks will not have a higher offensive rating than the Warriors next season.

But say Tom Thibodeau gets them up to, like, 18th. Just ‘cuz, like, better coaching and I don’t know, more better talent. 18th’s not climbing Mt. Everest. It’s not an outrageous unachievable thing. And yet the Knicks’ offensive rating was farther from Sacramento’s 18th-rated offense than the Kings’ was from being the league’s second-best. “Upgrade to Sacramento” may not be on your bucket list, but it’s 2020, baby. Get with the times. Survival’s the new middle-class.

The Great Tiger Award For Delusion: Julius Randle in that clip from before

For real, though. What good can come from this?!

The Bald Bull Award for That’s A Big Dude: Bobby Portis

Bald Bull is a big dude. Even in a game where the hero, Little Mac, is towered over by everyone, Bald Bull is just...a big dude.

Portis is bigger than I realize. Only one Knick was taller than he, and none were heavier. That’s a big dude.

The Soda Popinski “That Ain’t Right” Award:

In the arcade version of Punch Out!! that preceded the NES version, there’s a Russian boxer named Vodka Drunkenski. To package the game so people would bring it into their homes, the character’s name was changed to Soda Popinski. He is like literally purple from all the “soda” he drinks. This is only maybe the 89th most offensive stereotype in this game.

There’s a lot that ain’t right at MSG. The owner is forever only a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon away from an action that will give the franchise another black eye. The front office is unproven. The team never holds onto its coaches for long. Or its 1st-round picks. They don’t often win trades and they can’t attract premium free agents. So yeah, Leon Rose and Coach Thibs. Good luck with all...that.

Mr. Sandman Award For Zzzzzs = COVID-19

So Mr. Sandman is the hardest guy to beat besides Mike Tyson. Sandman busts out a withering three-uppercut combo that flares fast as lightning.

I bring my anxiety about the uppercuts into every fight with Mr. Sandman. So instead of standing still and reacting, like Little Mac in the clip above, I get happy feet and try to time the dodges, which generally means I end up landing right in front of them. They seemingly come out of nowhere; it’s impossible to relax knowing they’re out there, just waiting to do you damage.

September is this country’s seventh month living and dying with the COVID virus. I am not any more relaxed than I was a few months ago. I have multiple traits that put me in the high-risk category, so I come by my bugging honestly. Plus every Facebook hero and dicknose patriot who lived their lives cool with “No shoes/no shirt/no service” but is up in arms about “Spare us your germs during a global pandemic” isn’t helping any.

I feel like COVID hit this season the way Sandman lashes out. It was fast, it seemed to come out of nowhere, and just knowing it’s there makes it impossible to function normally. I wish the big bad stuff would go away and stay away.

Super Macho Man = Randle spinning & sinning

Super Macho Man, the penultimate fighter in the game, will throw a few super spin punches during the bout. They’re devastating, unless you know they’re coming, which it’s obvious when they are, and then all that spinning just leaves him in position to be out of position and vulnerable.

Relatedly:

The Mike Tyson Award For Reinvention = The New York Knicks

Because Google exists and this piece just topped the 2000 word mark, I’m not going to list all the different versions of Mike Tyson that have passed before the public eye. All that matters for this piece is that Tyson’s image is forever changing. The last time he was in the ring, the whispers had grown to a shout that he was done, finished. As a pro, sure, fine, whatevs. But recently there’s been renewed appreciation for his athletic prowess at 53. Hell, Mike looks good for 33.

Which brings us to the New York Knickerbockers. They really oughta play in Phoenix, what with all the forever reinventing. We hear it every offseason, every training camp, every early season before it all tumbles off the rails: these Knicks are going to defend. Or now they’re gonna play up-tempo. The Knicks are going to run. To press. To emphasize athleticism. Size. They’re gonna shoot more 3s. The focus is developing the young players. It’s competing for a playoff spot. It’s collecting assets for a star. It’s today. It’s tomorrow. It’s all of the above.

I don’t hate it. I’m nearly done being 41 and it’s amazing to me how much of what I’m dealing with now I’ve been dealing with my whole life. Add those lifelong weights to all the new crap you pick up along the way and you begin to understand why older people seem wiser. They’re tired. Tired slows you down. That’s not always a bad thing. Neither is reinvention. Where there’s new, there’s hope.

Don’t ever change, Knicks. By which I mean don’t ever stop changing.