This is part of a series of articles where we look at some of the lottery teams from 2018 and assess how those teams could make the playoffs in 2019.
Up first, is the New York Knicks. You might ask yourself, you don’t need four reasons, the only way they make the playoffs is a miracle. But the Knicks aren’t as far off from playoff contention as it might seem.
That said, they could make the playoffs in 2019 IF all four of these things happen.
Kristaps Porzingis returns by Christmas and performs like an all star
This one is the most obvious way for the Knicks to make the playoffs – they need their best player to be healthy and play in as many games as possible. Porzingis is recovering from a torn ACL and his timetable is currently TBD. The Knicks have very little chance to win a lot of games with Porzingis, who averaged a career high 22 ppg in 2017-18, in the lineup.
Kevin Knox is the sequel to Donovan Mitchell
Jazz forward Donovan Mitchell would have been rookie of the year in 2018, if not for the odd set of circumstances that allowed Ben Simmons to keep his rookie eligibility for missing his whole first season due to injury. Mitchell not only replaced Gordon Hayward with the Jazz but performed at an incredibly high level and helped lead the Jazz to a first round playoff series win over the Thunder. One year after passing on Mitchell, the Knicks need their 9th overall pick, Kevin Knox, an 18 year old out of Kentucky, to be Mitchell 2.0. Mitchell averaged 20 ppg and seemed to elevate the player of everyone around him, with the ball finding him in big, clutch moments. The Knicks need Knox to play at that level, with that kind of confidence.
Also worth noting, that the Knicks drafted center Mitchell Robinson in the second round, a highly touted high school recruit who sat out in 2018. He hasn’t played in a real game in over a year but flashed a ton of potential during the summer league. It may take time but the Knicks will hope to develop him into a star as well as Knox. Plus, they signed Alonzo Trier to a two-way contract. The undrafted free agent from Arizona has flashed first round potential in the past but a bad off the court history and questions about his size led to his fall in the draft.
Tim Hardaway earns $71 million
The Knicks drafted Hardaway once, before trading him for Jerian Grant (who was traded after one year for Derrick Rose. Last summer the Knicks brought Hardaway back (signing him from Atlanta) to a 4 year, $71 million contract. At the time the contract was lauded as terrible, and today is still considered such. But Hardaway showed flashes of being a solid role player last season. The problem is, the Knicks lack stars, and with Porzingis hurt and Knox 18 years old, they need Hardaway to play more like a star, one whose worth $71 million, than a role player.
David Fizdale revives the careers of half the Knicks lottery picks.
Excluding the aforementioned Porzingis and Knox, the Knicks have another 6 former lottery picks. Another one of those is center Enes Kanter, whom they acquired for Carmelo Anthony last year. Kanter is well established at this point and is who he is – a guy who can go out and get you a double double, but play poor defense.
Beyond those three, the Knicks have 5 former lottery picks on their roster. In order for this team to take the next level, with or without Porzingis, they need at least 3 of those 5 to emerge as legit rotation players, if not more.
Those players include:
Frank Ntkilinka – the “French prince” gets a terrible rep by Knicks fans and NBA fans as a whole, because 1) his name isn’t Dennis Smith Jr or Donovan Mitchell and 2) he is a raw offensive player that didn’t play college ball in the USA. Well, once you look past both of those points, both true by the way, you’ll notice that Ntkilinka is an excellent defender with a long wingspan. With Fizdale’s coaching and the mentorship of some older players (like Tim Hardaway for example), his game should continue to grow. He was one of the youngest players in the NBA last year and played in the US and New York City for the first time – a lot of pressure for anyone.
Trey Burke – Burke joined the Knicks halfway through the season and really made an impact as a scorer. In 36 games, 9 started, Burke averaged 12.8 ppg in 21.8 mpg, which also translates to 21 ppg PER 36 minutes. Burke was the 9th pick in the 2013 draft, the same year the Knicks took Tim Hardaway at the end of the first round. Fizdale’s first order of business is determing if Burke can play the point or if he is better off the ball as a scorer. He did a little bit of both last year and might depend on who he is paired with in the lineup. The Knicks need 12-18 ppg nightly from Burke in order to win games.
Emmanuel Mudiay – Mudiay was the 7th pick in the 2015 draft, the one that saw the Knicks take Porzingis 4th overall. Mudiay was traded to the Knicks last February in a deal that involved NYK sending Doug McDermott to Dallas. It was a worthwhile trade as they were able to add a talented former top 10 pick at minimal cost to see if they can salvage his career. Mudiay is a terrible shooter, and averages only 2 three point shots a game. He is a career 31% three point shooter and 39% 2 point shooter. For his career, his turnover:assist ratio is slightly less than 2:1. He’s also an average FT shooter at 73% – underwhelming numbers for a PG. Mudiay will compete with Burke and Ntkilinka for playing time at both guard spots, but this could be his last chance to succeed.
Mario Hezonja – his rookie option was declined after his third season so he became an unrestricted free agent and the Knicks prioritized this signing on July .1. Of course it’s the Magic’s luck that he put up career numbers this past season, with 9.6 ppg and 3.7 rpg. The 6’8 Croatian was the 5th pick in the 2015 draft. He’s had way more success in Europe pre-NBA, but he checks off many of the boxes NBA scouts look for. Knicks GM Scott Perry was in the Magic front office when Hezonja was drafted so he clearly still sees something in him and Fizdale will look to salvage that potential.
Noah Vonleh – the Knicks will be the 4th NBA team Vonleh has suited up for since being the 9th pick in the 2014 drafted. In his lone college season he averaged a near double-double (11 ppg, 9 rpg) and was Big Ten freshman of the year at Indiana. He was drafted by the Hornets and averaged just 10.4 minutes per game in 25 games. He was traded in a deal for Nic Batum and spent three mostly uneventful seasons with the Blazers, before being dealt last year at the trade deadline to the Bulls. He seemed to find some momentum in Chicago as he averaged 6.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg in 21 games, and played a career high 19 minutes per game. He will look to carry that momentum into his new bench role with the Knicks.