To the surprise of not one single person on earth, a Knicks team missing Kristaps Porzingis and giving major rotation minutes to all of Tim Hardaway Jr., Mario Hezonja, and Emmanuel Mudiay sucks major ass and is losing lots of games. They’ve dropped two in a row and four of five, and they’ve got the fifth-worst point differential in basketball, and their defense is a disaster, and they stink. Throw them, once again, into the garbage, and then light the garbage on fire.
But the situation does have going for it unity of philosophy and purpose among head coach David Fizdale, president Steve Mills, and general manager Scott Perry. Specifically, they share support for the idea of giving loads of playing time to Mudiay—whose signature NBA move is to run to a spot on the floor that is exactly 12 feet from the hoop, pick up his dribble, pivot twice, and then pass the ball backwards, alternately to players wearing Knicks jerseys and players wearing other jerseys—while benching 20-year-old second-year guard Frank Ntilikina, who thus far lacks anything like the confidence to function as the table-setter of a cohesive NBA offense, but also the nerve to pull the sick Mudiay move over and over again until my eyes pop out of my skull and are replaced by roaring fountains of gore:
“I got a front office that supports me in that,” Fizdale said regarding his tough lineup decisions in reference to Ntilikina. “We have to know who’s moving forward out of this group. And it won’t be every single player on this roster, unfortunately. That’s the nature of the business. We have to come out of this year knowing who those guys it’s going to be moving forward with us.”
Worth noting that Fizdale can carve out minutes for Trey Burke, a journeyman veteran on an expiring contract, and Courtney Lee, who will absolutely not finish the season as a member of the Knicks, whether by trade or by buyout. He’s got minutes for Damyean Dotson, beneficiary of the hot hand fallacy, and Kevin Knox, who may or may not be a Labrador puppy running around with his leash hanging out of his mouth. But when it comes to last year’s eighth overall draft pick, no dice. Gotta focus on the guys who can move forward out of this group, like uhh [grabs passerby at random] young [tugs at passerby’s name tag] uhh Maintenance Specialist, here.
Back when it was still possible to envision Ntilikina someday developing into a core part of the next respectable Knicks team—that was last season, by the way—he flashed promise as a hounding perimeter defender who could turn around and run a decent two-man game with Porzingis. The former is an innate quality—Ntilikina’s got quick feet and good instincts and arms that stretch over the horizon in somehow more than two directions—while the latter has mostly to do with a healthy Porzingis being a functional NBA offense unto himself. Wilford Brimley could run a decent two-man game with Porzingis. It helps that Ntilikina has a functional jump shot, but a healthy Porzingis makes everything easier on that end.
Without Porzingis, as the Knicks were for the last 26 games of last season and have been for every minute of this one, offense is vastly harder to come by. This is especially a problem for Ntilikina, who isn’t yet much of a shot-creator or penetrator and can be pretty robotic operating on the perimeter, to say nothing of infuriatingly, teeth-grindingly passive. The Knicks, craving a little more oomph from his position, have at first gradually and then very suddenly prioritized the minutes of Mudiay, an extremely bad guard who is nonetheless very comfortable hunting for shots in NBA games. Ntilikina averaged just over 30 minutes a game through New York’s first nine games this season, then just under 20 minutes a game through the next nine games, and just over 10 minutes per game through their last eight games, including zero total minutes across their last three. Mudiay, meanwhile, was playing less than 20 minutes a game through the season’s first two weeks but has averaged over 35 minutes a game thus far in December.
But the criteria that make a guard fit in an offense centered around [gulp] Enes Kanter and [GULP] Tim Hardaway Jr. aren’t necessarily valid for the long-term best interests of a Knicks team eventually re-centered around Porzingis. So their brutal offense could use some peppy shot creation today. Who cares! If the Knicks still need that desperate brand of Mudiay chaos once Porzingis is back and healthy, everyone in the organization should be sent to a gulag. In a sane world, maybe one (1) of the non-Ntilikina and Porzingis players named thus far in this blog would be in New York’s future plans beyond this season. And since this season was lost the very instant Porzingis’s ACL went kablooey back in February, almost nothing that happens this season should take priority over what will happen after this season.
A looming issue is what exactly the Knicks front office imagines will happen after this season. The possibility exists that the Knicks view their collection of young players, Ntilikina included, as assets to be wielded in trade proposals for established NBA stars. Or, alternately, for the grumpy ghost of John Wall, which is just an extremely Knicks-ish way of thinking:
Some in the league believe the Knicks are stocking up their young assets and will make a major play for Wall if he becomes available. The Wizards (11–14) were said to be ready to break it up after their disastrous start.
The belief among certain perennially also-ran-ass Eastern Conference teams that they are just one trade or insane free agency coup away from making the leap all the way from near-laughing-stock to The Next Super-Team is like a brain disease. But whatever winds up happening, in the meantime poor young Ntilikina is devolving into New York’s own version of Jan Vesely, the fresh and promising Wizards lottery pick from exotic faraway lands, who was ground down into a miserable basketball-hating mush by an organization that lacked any semblance of a coherent plan for working around major confidence issues. In 23 games this season, Ntilikina has had more games where he’s attempted fewer than four shots (four) than he’s had where he’s scored in double-figures (three). His usage—already a heartbreaking, Cody Zeller-ish 14.9 percent on the season—dropped to an appalling 11.5 percent over his last five games, and his assist percentage on the year is a sub-Mason Plumlee 16.9 percent. His passivity is curdling into despair. Here’s young Frank, already reduced to releasing some of his pent up angst via the bitter re-question:
When asked how he was holding up during these uncertain times, Ntilikina went back at the questioner.
“You see now—how do I look?”
“Fine?” went the response.
“I’m fine. How do I look out there [on the court]?”
“You look like you’re working hard.”
“Of course, I got to do what I got to do,” he said. “Put in the work and stay positive and cheer my teammates.”
It wasn’t the first time during a brief but bristling interview that he threw the question back. When asked if he knew whether he’ll play versus Boston on Thursday, Ntilikina said, “What did coach say?”
“Then possibly,” the 20-year-old Frenchman responded.
Fizdale did say Ntilikina isn’t ever all that far removed from a return to playing time, and he just has to stay ready. But however far he is from getting back on the court, he’s at least 7 feet and three inches of transcendent Latvian versatility away from finding firm footing and a meaningful trajectory in New York’s offense, and that’s a distance the Knicks won’t be covering for a depressingly long time. In the meantime, hey, who’s up for some more Mudiay? Woooooo.