It was, oddly, the day after David Fizdale declared the team’s record as inconsequential that he decided to reverse course with his starters.
For the better part of the first 17 games, Fizdale was trotting out variations of the youngest lineup in franchise history, preaching patience and watching his team take large lumps and hard falls. It was in the name of progress and development — very understandable given New York’s predicament — but not in the best interest of winning.
“We’re not putting all our stock in wins and losses right now and our group understands that,” Fizdale said at the time, with the Knicks at 4-13 and in the midst of a five-game losing streak. “That’s not an easy thing to come to terms with when it comes to your ego and stuff. It doesn’t mean you’re accepting losses but it just means you have to be real about what you are.”
That was a week ago. The next day, Fizdale swapped three rookies in the starting lineup — Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier — with three veterans — Enes Kanter, Mario Hezonja, Noah Vonleh. The Knicks immediately became competitive.
Today, they’re riding a three-game winning streak and, while the record remains abysmal at 7-14, the vibes are decidedly more positive. The new strategy has its potential pitfalls. Every player in this new starting lineup, with the exception of Tim Hardaway Jr., is on an expiring contract. Same with the Sixth Man and top contributor off the bench, Trey Burke. Showcasing players to send them into unrestricted free agency doesn’t make much sense, unless the Knicks are gearing up for a playoff run (not going to happen) or trying to trade those pieces by the deadline (possible).
It also takes valuable court time away from the young draft picks, namely Knox, Robinson and Frank Ntilikina. But we agree wholeheartedly with the latest approach. Winning — and the culture it begets — is more important than sending rookies on suicide missions for the sake of experience. Especially if the Knicks want to convince free agents New York is a desirable place to come.
So that’s where the Knicks sit at the quarter pole of the season, scatterbrained and difficult to judge. But we’re going to try anyway with first-semester grades, distributed in alphabetical order as the Knicks prepare for their 22nd game of the season in Detroit on Tuesday:
The talent level is among the worst in the league, so it’s not fair to kill the coach for a 7-14 record. But he does deserve blame for the team’s lack of an identity on offense. He talked up the idea of the Knicks playing a fast-paced brand of unselfish basketball, equipped for the modern NBA with efficient shot selections. It hasn’t been that way. On the flip side, Fizdale’s personality and connection with players is shining through, and often that’s the most important part of guiding millennials. Keep them motivated. Keep them engaged. Keep them believing. The new coach is clearly good at that. Grade: C+
Can’t really judge Baker’s performance since he has only played a total of 92 minutes, so this grade is mostly about how far he’s fallen on the depth chart. Really, he’s fallen off the depth chart. Put it like this: When Fizdale made a joke last week about his perpetually-changing starting lineups, he said the only player who hasn’t gotten his chance was Luke Kornet. The coach forgot about Baker but remembered the player he sent to the G League. Grade: F
The backup point guard struggled early and lost his starting spot. But he flipped a switch in mid-November and went through a four-game stretch where he averaged 25.8 points. He almost single-handedly carried the Knicks to a win in Boston. Defense can still be an issue, but if Burke is hitting his shot he deserves to be on the court. Grade: C+
Damyean Dotson, Grade: C-
I thought he played well – and hard – on both ends of the floor to start the season, but the Knicks needed more offense and Dotson was pulled from the rotation. The 2017 second-round pick, who was Phil Jackson’s final draft choice, hasn’t played in four consecutive games. He’s also too short to play small forward, where the Knicks started him for nine games.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
With Kristaps Porzingis out indefinitely, the Knicks needed a go-to player and Hardaway seized the opportunity. His aggressiveness and playmaking off the dribble has improved significantly this season, and he’s on pace to average career highs in points (23.3) and assists (2.9). Another reward is getting to the foul line with more frequency than at any other point in his career. By far. With that being said, Hardaway’s defense and shooting percentage (41) remain suspect. Grade: A-
The biggest free-agent signing of the summer has looked more like the 2015 Orlando Magic draft bust than the tantalizing offensive talent in the second half of last season. Fizdale has started Hezonja the last four games, but the forward’s s rhythm remains off and he’s shooting just 38 percent. His drives to the basket have been a series of misadventures. Even his foul shots are mysteriously off the mark, and he’s a career 81 percent shooter from the stripe. Grade: D
He was unfairly demoted from the starting lineup but earned his way back as unquestionably the Knicks’ top rebounder and scorer in the paint. He’s coming off a 21-point, 26-rebound performance in Memphis on Sunday, becoming the first Knick since Patrick Ewing in 1997 to put up those type of numbers together. He’s averaging 15.2 points and 12 boards in just 27.2 minutes. A truly gifted rebounder. Grade: B+
He signed a guaranteed deal in the summer and the Knicks sent him to the G League after a grand total of nine minutes. On a roster with a paucity of centers, Kornet had a chance to win the first backup spot, but lost out to Mitchell Robinson and Noah Vonleh. Grade: F
He’s only 19, of course, but the hype was very loud following an outstanding performance at Summer League. And he hasn’t lived up to it. The real NBA hit Knox like a tidal wave, with questions already surfacing about his motor, his shaky jumper and carelessness with the ball. The ninth overall pick has plenty of time to improve and he’ll need it. Grade: D
It’s Year 2 for the eighth overall pick and he remains a spectator on offense. Put it like this: the Knicks have a lot invested in Ntilikina and he’s one of their best perimeter defenders, but Fizdale still yanked the Frenchman from the lineup because he’s a liability on offense. In other words, it’s difficult to keep a player on the floor who shoots 35 percent and struggles to get by his defender off the dribble. With that being said, other teams remain interested in acquiring Ntilikina, according to sources, and I see him as a potential trade chip at the deadline or draft. His value will be diminished if he can’t play point guard. Grade: C-
It’s a small sample size because Mudiay had been limited with an ankle sprain, but his emergence in the last six games has been eye-opening. We were among those who counted Mudiay out after last season, but Fizdale has somehow reprogrammed Mudiay’s brain to extract confidence. We have to see if it lasts, but this has been Mudiay’s most encouraging stretch with the Knicks. By far. Grade: B
He’s an athletic center in the mold of Clint Capela who can reach just about any alley-oop thrown five feet within the rim. It’s easy to see why the Knicks picked him 36th overall in June and they may have a steal. Still, he’s unbelievably raw and has a lot to learn to about the game, like how not to foul and rotations. Here’s a perfect example of the paradox that is Robinson this season: on Nov. 11, he set a Knicks rookie record with nine blocks. Two weeks later, he fouled out in 10 minutes. Grade: B-
These are curved grades based on expectations and Trier, an undrafted rookie, is by far surpassing anybody’s reasonable outlook. Except maybe his and his mother’s. The 22-year-old is already one of the best Knicks at creating his own offense, along with Burke and Hardaway. He’s efficient and has a fighter’s mentality, which, despite his deficiencies, serves him well on defense. A surprising keeper who should be invited to the annual Rookie Challenge at All-Star weekend, even over Kevin Knox. Grade: B+
He was signed on a non-guaranteed deal in the summer and fought his way into the rotation, then the starting lineup, leading the conversation as New York’s “most complete player,” according to Fizdale. A success story so far for a player who the rest of the league tossed aside. Grade: A