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  • Michael Ryan

Evaluating the New (and Improved) New York Knicks

The New York Knicks have been a pleasant surprise this season. The team plays hard and hustles on both sides of the floor game in and game out. Sure, they might not boast the most talented roster and there might be some reasonable questions about their salaries — but there is a different vibe surrounding this year’s Knicks. Effort and dedication are finally back in the Mecca.

Preseason expectations were about as low as they could get. The general consensus had the Knicks pinned amongst the league’s bottom-feeders. Some fans already missed the Carmelo Anthony era and were not exactly thrilled with the package New York received in return. The Knicks were rightfully criticized for a sloppy offseason and moods were not brightened by the incoming gift basket of Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter and 2018 second round pick.

Others believed that Kristaps Porzingis was not ready to be the main focal point of an offense, more were irate over signing Tim Hardaway Jr., and even more were annoyed by the fact the team drafted Frank Ntilikina with the 8th overall selection over the more familiar likes of Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Monk, and Donovan Mitchell.

All fair critiques, but possibly premature. Through 21 games, the Knicks have an 11-10 record and are tied for the final playoff spot in the East. The team currently has a positive point differential of 0.8 compared to last season’s -3.7.

The biggest change? Defense. The Knicks are giving up 103.8 points a game compared to the 108.0 points they allowed a year ago. New York’s Finest are holding opponents to just 43.8% from the field, which ranks 4th in the league. And that’s only one factor of the team's current success. For the Knicks to win they need their four best players to play well. They need positive contributions from Porzingis, Kanter, Hardaway, and Courtney Lee.

Kristaps has proven to be a legit star in this league. His stat line of 25.8 points (5th in NBA), 6.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks (leading NBA) places him in the MVP conversation. Porzingis has been steadily efficient on the year with shooting splits of 46.7% from the field, 40.2% from three, and 84.1% from the foul line — all career highs.

With all the attention KP is getting, and that is a ton (3rd-highest usage rate in the league behind James Harden and Joel Embiid), frontcourt mate Kanter has been able to thrive as defense’s focus on KP’s outside threat. Kanter’s toughness and ability to play physical in the paint also allows Porzingis to be a help side defender protecting the rim, perfect for each’s skillsets.

Kanter is also a terrific rebounder, pulling in 10.4 boards a night despite only playing 26.1 minutes a game. The second chance opportunities Kanter provides on the offensive glass (3.8 offensive rebounds a game, 5th in the NBA) allow his teammates to get second looks (2nd in the league in offensive rebounding percentage). It also definitely helps that Kanter is making everything he puts up. The big Turk is shooting 64.3% from the field along with 90.2% of his free throw attempts.

The Knicks may have found the perfect partner for Porzingis and the duo is vital to the team’s success: The Knicks are 0-4 in all double-digit losses when either sits and 11-6 when they both start. It’s not just the bigs though, the New York backcourt has also exceeded expectations.

The questions about Tim Hardaway Jr. and his contract? Pretty irrelevant now. Sure, Hardaway is overpaid and there is very little disputing that — but he has performed well enough to justify the deal. Hardaway Jr.’s game has improved much more as a ball handler, distributor, and defender. Plus, he’s proven to be a legitimate second option by pumping in 17.8 points a night and the added bonus of career highs in rebounds (4.2 per game), assists (3.3 per game), and steals (1.1 per game).

The most surprising player this year has easily been Courtney Lee however. The veteran guard is having a career year in every major statistical category: averaging 12.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, assists, and 1.4 steals while shooting 46.7% from three and 92.1% from the charity stripe.

Did anyone see that coming when the season started? Nope. The real question is when contending teams will start calling the Knicks about his possible availability. Lee still has 2 years remaining on his contract and makes a little over $11 million a year, a reasonable contract in today’s NBA salary cap for that type of production. New York may not want to move him, but if a team is willing to fork over a pick for Lee then the rebuilding Knicks would certainly consider it.

Even the point guard play has not been the atrocity people expected. Jarrett Jack has been reliable and is 7th in the league in assist/turnover ratio at 3.5. Jack is not a long-term answer by any means, but he been a good mentor and a great facilitator on offense.

Speaking of long-term answers, Frank Ntilikina deserves the patience of New York’s fanbase. The young French guard is extremely raw on the offensive end and needs time to develop his shooting. His shot is by no means broken, it’s that Ntilikina needs to assert himself more and look for his shot more often. He’s regularly hesitant and opts to pass, especially on pick-and-roll situations — but knowing when to facilitate and when to attack will develop as he acclimates to the NBA.

Where Frank has been impressive though is his defense and court vision. Of all rookies, Ntilikina ranks 2nd in steals (1.4 per game) and 6th in assists (3.3 per game) while playing about 10 minutes less than the players ranked above him. His ceiling is extremely high and the talent is there, he just needs time to develop and refine his skillset.

Knicks fans: if you're looking for hope and optimism heading into December, know there is plenty. The team may or not be a playoff team but, if healthy, they’ll be a competitive team for the entire year.

Jeff Hornacek has the team bringing energy, effort, and ball-movement which is a welcome sign after years of Melo’s lazy defense and iso jumpers. The Knicks feed off the home crowd (10-4 at the Garden) and need to improve their game on the road (1-6) if they want to be playoff team come Springtime, so the fans will definitely continue to be vital to this team’s success. In the meantime, the Knicks and their fans should carry on because at the season’s quarter mark there’s finally some new optimism in New York.

#NBA #Knicks #MichaelRyan #KristapsPorzingis

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