Welcome to another NYK101 class, where we focus on a statement, a question and a suggestion. Times are good these days in Knicksville. Let’s dive into some of that.
STATEMENT: Frank Ntilikina belongs in Tom Thibodeau’s 10-man rotation.
Seven Knicks have both positive on-court and on/off ratings this season. There is Julius Randle, an All-Star and midseason Most Improved Player contender (more on him below). There’s RJ Barrett, whose shooting slash from his rookie year till now is up (40/32/61 vs. 44/35/73) along with his assist rate while his turnovers are down. There’s Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks, two bench maestros combining for 24 points a game and better than 40% shooting from deep. There’s Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, former Knicks and dyed-in-the-wool Thibodites brought in midseason as square pegs to fill square holes.
And then there’s Frank Ntilikina.
You simply won't see a more satisfying nine seconds than a Frank Ntilikina strip into an IQ step-back three. Beautiful stuff here. pic.twitter.com/Bqk5MA5smi— Tom Piccolo (@Tom_Piccolo) February 26, 2021
GAME WINNING STEAL BY FRANK NTILIKINA FOLLOWED BY TWO FREE THROWS TO ICE IT pic.twitter.com/1RiLGqe67Q— The Strickland (@TheStrickland) February 28, 2021
Frank Ntilikina draws a charge. He's also hit a 3 and had a steal. He's giving the Knicks good minutes tonight off the bench in his first game since Dec. 29 pic.twitter.com/rUAOCBolI8— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) February 26, 2021
The Knicks have played 35 games and are 18-17. Ntilikina has played 10 minutes or more five times; in those games, New York is 5-0. When he doesn’t play at least 10 minutes, they’re 13-17. Am I playing it fast and loose with the numbers here? A little, sure. But such is the tao of Frank. Kissing someone the right way can open all kinds of doors, but that doesn’t mean kissing everyone the same way gets you there. The numbers never tell the whole story with Ntilikina.
(Though if they did, they might look like the net ratings nba.com lists for different lineups, wherein we again encounter the Ntilikina Conundrum — are the numbers encouraging but limited? Or is it because they’re limited that they’re encouraging? The five five-man lineups he’s played the most minutes with all boast eyebrow-raising net ratings:
Frank, Taj, Obi, IQ, Burks = +43.3
Frank, Noel, Obi, IQ, Burks = +14.1
Frank, Noel, Randle, Knox, Bullock = +42.5
Frank, Noel, Knox, RJ, Burks = +32.1
Frank, Randle, Obi, IQ, Buks = +38.3
Especially encouraging: Ntilikina’s two-man ratings are also big positives when paired with the team’s two rookies, Quickley (+10.3) and Toppin (+19.8). But as always with Frank, the numbers pull you in only to spin you right round, baby, right round. Those five five-man lineups I listed? Ntilikina has played a grand total of 43 minutes with them — combined. He’s spent 41 minutes with Quickley and 37 with Toppin. So again: make of the numbers what you will.)
One number that does matter is 10, as in Tom Thibodeau doesn’t want to play more than 10 people regularly. Randle, RJ, Mitchell Robinson (when healthy), Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, Burks, Nerlens Noel, Quickley and Obi Toppin are fixtures one through nine. Gibson will probably hang around as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency backup big but not feature every night. As pleasantly surprising as this team has been, they are not sporting an embarrassment of long, strong wings who can defend four positions in the halfcourt, hound ball-handlers for 94 feet and corrupt the files of some of the league’s top scorers, all while being unselfish on the other end and — and this is new for Frank — being willing to take good shots when they’re available in order to keep the defense honest and the offense grooving.
Assuming Thibs doesn’t just get lost in Frank’s eyes the way so many of us do, there’s still that rotation limit to deal with. The coach doesn’t like to spread the minutes around. Even if he does decide Ntilikina deserves to play more, that leaves us with a problem that needs solving.
QUESTION: If Frank plays, who sits?
Since the Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, Austin Rivers hasn’t played the last seven games and eight of the past ten; his only two appearances were five minutes of mop-up duty in the blowouts of Washington and Houston. Even with Payton missing time with his sore hamstring, Rivers has been absent both on and off the court. It seems safe to say his end is nigher than not. Where Frank might fit depends on where Thibodeau sees him fitting.
The backcourt seems pretty much set. Barrett is the starting 2, and come hell or high water or whatever banshee cries Knicks Twitter shrieks, Payton is starting too. If that changes, it’ll be because Thibs decides to plug Rose into the starting five. Otherwise he’ll continue to pair with Quickley as a microwave tag team off the bench. The only way I can see Ntilikina cracking that clique is if Payton is bought out or traded and Rose replaces him. Frank’s biggest competition for playing time may be someone who was never a point guard, despite the most far-reaching dreams of some.
Over the Knicks’ last 17 games, Kevin Knox hasn’t played 10 minutes once. In 10 of those games he didn’t play at all. He hasn’t played 20 minutes in a game in more than six weeks. Most of the team’s minutes at the 3 go to Bullock and Burks. Knox doesn’t seem to fit Thibodeau’s plans there. Mitchell Robinson’s fractured hand has forced Thibs to try Randle and even Toppin a bit at center, and Knox doesn’t look a likely fit at the 4 alongside them, at least to the head coach. But when teams go small against New York — and that’s been one of the few tactics all year that’s had any success against Randle, who gobbles up bigs like Pac Man with a case of the munchies — that could be a place where Ntilikina makes sense.
I know his sample sizes are Micro Machines tiny. But Ntilikina has always existed outside the margins of the maths. I’ve always felt he needed till his fourth year to be fairly evaluated and that his game could translate particularly well to a good team. Here we are in his fourth season and the team is finally good. Now is NOT the time to bury him on the bench. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Don’t pull an Orpheus, Knicks. Give your faith the chance to be rewarded. Don’t give up now.
SUGGESTION: Julius Randle may be scripting the most well-rounded Knick season ever.
Rebounds became an official stat in 1950-51. In the 70 years since then, no Knick has ever led the team in points, rebounds and assists. A number have made spirited runs.
In 2016 Carmelo Anthony finished first, second and first, trailing only Robin Lopez in rebounds. Two years earlier, Melo was first in points and boards and second to Raymond Felton in assists. David Lee led in points and rebounds in 2010 while finishing second in dimes to Chris Duhon. Patrick Ewing isn’t on this list, but the Big Fella kept Anthony Mason off it in 1996, when Mase led in dishing and was second in scoring and rebounding. You may not know the name Maurice Lucas, but his work on the glass is the only thing that kept Micheal Ray Richardson from winning the triple crown in 1982. Eight years prior Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere did it to each other, with Clyde finishing 1/2/1 and El Carcinero 2/1/2. And in 1972 Jerry Lucas led the Knicks in rebounds and was second to Frazier in points and assists.
Last year Randle led the team in scoring and rebounding and even assists for much of the season before Payton surpassed him. This year Julius Caesar has produced at such a dominant level across the board he seems a lock to become the first Knick to lead all three categories. He’s dished nearly two assists more per game than the runner-up, Payton (5.5 to 3.7). He’s hauled in 2.5 more rebounds per game than Mitch (11 to 8.5). And he’s scoring seven points more a night than RJ (23.4 to 16.5).
The only Knicks shooting better from the floor than Randle (Mitch, Noel and Gibson) combine to attempt 12 shots a game, compared to his 17. The average distance of the three centers’ shot attempts is 12.4 feet combined, a foot closer than Randle’s average of 13.4 feet. The only two Knicks better from deep (Rose and Ntilikina) have taken 37 three-pointers combined all season. Randle’s taken 160.
None of this even touches on Randle’s excellent play on the defensive end. That can be covered in another edition of NYK101. Today’s final lesson is simple but profound — we are witnessing one of the truly top seasons any player has put up in the history of the New York Knickerbockers. Enjoy it, loves.