The All-Star break has come and gone and it’s time to get back to the stretch run of this season. With the Knicks sitting at a paltry 35+ games under .500, most Knicks fans will be cheering for the number one lottery pick and rights to draft Zion Williamson.
Some may feel that with no playoff hope there isn’t much to play for over these last 24 games. That’s not the case. The remainder of the season is a crucial time to get the young players minutes against teams fighting for playoff position and evaluating who they want to keep moving forward. Let’s dive into five important areas to keep an eye on.
5. Will the Knicks Defense Continue to Improve?
Up to this point, the Knicks defense in February has been much better than previous months. A lot of this is due to two main factors. First, Enes Kanter being released helps the team defense immensely, while the emergence of Mitchell Robinson has solidified the second unit’s defense. For the month of February, the Knicks are holding opponents to 107.8 ppg, down from 119.5 and 112.4 ppg in the months of December and January, respectively (nbastats).
Coach Fizdale has made sure to include players that can easily switch on defense like Lance Thomas, as Fizdale wants to instill certain defensive principles to carry over to next season. These last 24 games serve as an important evaluation of how those players fit the scheme.
4. What Is the Point Guard Rotation Going to Look Like?
We learned yesterday that Emmanuel Mudiay would be active for the Knicks first game out of the all star break vs Minnesota. That adds another ball handler who will likely take over backup point guard duties behind Dennis Smith Jr. Coach Fizdale said that he could see both Mudiay and Smith on the floor at the same time moving forward. However, while Frank Ntilikina is out Friday, he’s also nearing a return to the floor. Where does this leave the rotation at point guard? Mudiay is all but done in New York after this season, as his cap hold is too high for the Knicks to entertain bringing him back after the trade for DSJ. It would be a mistake to bench Frank and hand him DNPs, while choosing to play Mudiay. Ntilikina was playing very well before this recent groin injury and certainly deserves his lions share of minutes playing both point and off guard positions. His defensive impact also plays perfectly next to Smith Jr and only further helps Fizdale’s defensive structure.
Don’t forget, Kadeem Allen has been playing well since joining the team from Westchester and he likely deserves playing time over Mudiay. It’s going to be an interesting juggling act for Fizdale with so many point guards.
3. Will Noah Vonleh Continue Struggling After Time Off?
You could make a case that Vonleh has been the Knicks best all around player for this season. He’s recently hit a rough patch. The reason for his struggle is unclear to everyone; whether it be fatigue, injury, or another cause. He hasn’t scored in double figures since his monster double double of 22 points and 13 boards vs Brooklyn on Jan 25th (basketball reference.com). Rough patches happen throughout the season but regardless, Vonleh is certainly someone who has outplayed his one year ‘prove-it’ deal. It would be nice even if he’s not back in New York next season for him to get a contract that he deserves. As a former lottery pick, he’s revived his career in New York and set himself up for a nice payday. He’s spent this season as the teams best defender, taking on the challenge of guarding guys like Giannis and doing as well as one could expect. Hopefully Vonleh is able to shake off this recent rut and finish the season strong.
2. The Continued Rise of Mitchell Robinson
Time and time again we have been reminded that Robinson didn’t even play organized basketball last year. As much as we mention that, it seems that we don’t fully grasp just how impressive it is. With his recent uptick in minutes despite playing behind DeAndre Jordan, he has been excellent. While plagued with a propensity for silly fouls early on in the year, he hasn’t fouled out for roughly a month now. Doesn’t sound too impressive but this is a kid who has fouled out 4 times out of 42 games this season while only averaging 17.9 minutes per game (basketballreference.com).
His ability to stay on the court has positively impacted the Knicks defense with the team allowing fewer points in February coinciding with his increase in playing time. Over Robinson’s last 6 games he’s averaging 3 blocks per game and is currently 4th in the NBA in blocks per game at 2.12 (espn.com). Even better, Robinson is 1st in blocks per 36 minutes among qualified players at 4.3 per game (basketball reference.com). His defensive potential projects to a future defensive player of the year candidate if he can continue this trend.
As the cherry on top, Robinson is now contributing on the offensive end, with a recent 5 game double digit scoring streak and an average of 11.5 ppg over his last 6 games (basketball reference.com). He’s the center of the future for the Knicks and fans should be excited to see his continued growth the rest of this year.
1. DeAndre Jordan’s Relationship with Fizdale and the Franchise
As I recently wrote, Jordan serves quite a few roles on this team, including his mentoring of Mitchell Robinson. Now while that’s important, his relationship with the Knicks franchise could potentially be more vital. Jordan is close friends with Kevin Durant, dating back to their college days when Durant was part of a recruiting team trying to get Jordan to attend Texas. Now, the script is flipped, with Jordan serving as a recruiter for Durant to come to NY.
Jordan to this point has fit in well with the current roster and the Knicks can afford to keep him on a $5 million veterans deal next season regardless of other deals given. His friendship with Durant cannot be overlooked and the opportunity to play with one another as best friends would be appealing to them.
Ultimately, Durant will do what’s best for him and his family but having Jordan in NY can only help the Knicks chances.
BONUS – Hope for This Summer
May the basketball gods favor the Knicks in the draft lottery so Zion is catching alley-oops in The Garden next season.
We all like to dream as Knicks fans. While we’ve been burned before, it hasn’t stopped fans from being excited for the future. This summer feels different. With over $70 million in cap space and a young core to build around, the Knicks have plenty of options. It feels almost certain that one max free agent will come to New York, with the possibility of 2 players totally feasible. There’s been a lot of smoke around KD coming to the Knicks and it’s certainly seeming more and more possible that it happens. With the Knicks having room for 2 max players, KD would potentially be able to bring a guy like Kyrie with him.
Despite all the recent losing, the Knicks are valued as the only $4 billion franchise in the NBA. The brand is strong and New York City is as attractive as ever for potential players.
With a coach that is widely loved around the league in David Fizdale and Scott Perry running things responsibly in the front office, the Knicks finally have legitimate structure and direction moving forward.