Somehow the Knicks team that beat the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday was the same group that lost to both the Bulls and Cavaliers earlier this week. In the best and most emotional win of the season, the Knicks did things that can serve a guide for how they can show some progress this season.
Coach David Fizdale closed the game with one of his best lineup combinations of the year and one he should have been going to much more frequently earlier this season. He swapped between Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina at point guard to go along with Damyean Dotson, RJ Barrett, Marcus Morris and Julius Randle. The Knicks have needed to play smaller the entire season. They finally did, and it worked.
The group managed 12 points in the final five minutes of the game, thanks in part to better spacing and some timely shooting from Morris. With four good defenders in Ntilikina, Barrett, Dotson and Morris, the team was solid on that end of the floor. It’s essential for Fizdale to learn from this moving forward if the Knicks are going to continue to improve.
We’ve seen Fizdale stumble across correct lineups only to quickly go away from them. Whether he finally decides to stick with this might be the difference between him being employed by the Knicks in 2020 or not.
Offensively, the Knicks would not have won this game without Smith. He was always going to be a swing player for the team, with the talent to be the type of lead ball-handler and scorer they desperately need. As valuable as Ntilikina may be as a glue-guy and defender, he is not someone who can be the offensive engine for a team. Even with all his flaws as a shooter, Smith can be that type of player. The Knicks desperately need his ability to penetrate and create shots. He can even play with Ntilikina to ease some of the defensive pressure on him.
Smith’s presence can ease some of the playmaking and scoring responsibility off of Julius Randle. Randle’s numbers were still poor on Thursday night, shooting just 8-of-18 from the field with six turnovers (and some brutal defense), but it felt like he was more of a finisher and less of a creator on many plays. Smith can help continue to ease that burden.
There’s a path for the Knicks to be a better team if Fizdale decides to take it. He needs cooperation from thus-far underachieving players such as Smith and Randle, but the opportunity is there if he puts them in the right situation like he did against the Mavericks on Thursday night.
JURY STILL OUT ON KP TRADE
Here are my final words on the Porzingis trade: How everyone is going to ultimately judge the Porzingis trade will be determined by Porzingis. It is fairly clear at this point that the Knicks’ return isn’t going to be spectacular. Exactly how good or bad it will be will depend on how they use those two picks and the progress of Smith, but the chances that the return turns into some kind of star player is small.
What we still don’t know is exactly what the Knicks traded away. Is Porzingis going to be able to develop a go-to offensive move so he can create his own shot that is not a contested mid-range jumper? Is he going to be able to stay healthy through 82 games? Is his play going to stop dropping off in January of every season?
We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. If the Knicks kept Porzingis, it was going to have to be on a max contract. Are the Mavericks going to regret giving him that deal in a year or two? Is that a contract they will be trying to get off their books in 2021 or 2022? Has Porzingis’ career plateaued, or is there more to come? We don’t know that yet.
The mere fact the Knicks avoided giving Porzingis a max contract could end up being the best return on the trade. Or they could be sitting there stewing in 2021 as Porzingis blossoms into a consistent 24-point, 10-rebound shot-blocking and 3-point-shooting machine who consistently punishes small players in the low post. If he becomes that guy, then the trade will probably look very, very bad.