The Knicks head into their 2019 season with hopes they will show the NBA they are a stable franchise and improving team that is developing a winning culture. After winning 17 games last year, getting closer to 30 would be a realistic step in the right direction. But can they hope for more?
Julius Randle needs to be the team’s bulwark. He is the only player on the roster that has proven he can score in volume with any sort of efficiency. The Knicks need him to be a consistent 20 point a game scorer, grab ten rebounds and be their go-to scorer. Even with Randle’s developing perimeter game, it is hard for a team to be successful with its highest usage player to be a power forward or center.
The Knicks need someone on the perimeter to either be a very strong second option to Randle, or ideally a 1A or 1B that can run the screen and roll with Randle and Mitchell Robinson. The lead perimeter player on a team, whether a wing or a point guard, often sets the tempo the team wants to play at. The only person on the Knicks that can realistically fit that profile is Dennis Smith Jr.
His level of play will determine not only how successful the season is, but also how the return on the Kristaps Porzingis trade will be evaluated. Smith was the one significant long term player piece the Knicks obtained in the Porzingis trade, and only he and the two Mavericks draft picks (2021, 2023) remain from the return of that trade.
Smith was the ninth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft for a reason. He was only 19 years old and one of the most explosive athletes in the class. No one doubted his immense upside if he was able to put it all together. He hasn’t yet, but can he?
Point guards in the NBA take longer to develop than most other positions, and Smith is now entering his third season having avoided any major injuries in his first two years in the league. He is one of the few players on the Knicks with a realistic chance to make a huge jump in production this season based on his age, pedigree and experience.
If you take a closer look at Smith’s numbers there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic. As a Maverick last season Smith ranked in the 85th percentile as an isolation scorer. With the Knicks, he dropped from 1.05 points per possession all the way to .66 (20th percentile). He did not excel in the pick and roll, finishing below the 50th percentile for both the Knicks and Mavericks.
His shooting has not taken the jump it needs to either. His shot just 32.2% from beyond the arc in his second year, and an even more troubling 63.5% from the free throw line. Smith has indicated he has completely re-worked his shot mechanics this offseason, which offers some hope the shooting may improve.
As a passer with New York, he showed fairly good instincts and was more willing to make a pass on the way to the rim than force a bad shot. His assist to turnover ratio jumped to over two in his 21 games for the Knicks and he was far more willing to drive and dish than force a contested low-percentage layup. His drive and dish game seems to be on the rise, and a good sign for his efficiency as a primary ball handler.
While Smith is not an awful defender, he is still at-best average. He sits at 65th among 103 point guards in defensive real plus-minus according to ESPN. He was in the 35th percentile defensively when guarding the pick and roll as a Knick, and in the 7th percentile guarding in isolation. (Oddly, he was in the 85th percentile guarding isolation plays as a Maverick last season). He was in the 72nd percentile guarding spot up shooters.
Smith’s biggest improvement might have to come in something that is not really measureable by statistics. There are guards in the league that control the entire flow and tempo of a game by how they play and pressure the defense. Smith doesn’t imprint himself on the game consistently enough and too often finds himself gliding out there as a non-impact player.
Last season, Knicks head coach David Fizdale spoke about getting Smith in the best shape of his life, which may allow him to play a more consistent attacking style at all times. NBA.com tracks the average speed players play at on offense and defense, and Smith was right in the middle of the league in both categories last season, with many of the leagues point guards a lot higher in those rankings. Smith has to have his setting flipped to cruise control far less often.
It isn’t fair to lay this sort of pressure at Smith’s feet but who else in the backcourt is even capable of taking the type of step forward that’s possible for Smith? Ntilikina, even if he blossoms, is a defender and helper on offense, not someone that will help carry an offense. Elfrid Payton is not the type of offensive player you can run an offensive attack through or that can dominate a game, even at his best. Damyean Dotson, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington are spot-up shooters.
Allonzo Trier flashed fairly efficient scoring last season, but it is important to remember that he was an undrafted free agent last season. RJ Barrett is a rookie and only 19 years old. Ignas Brazdeikis is just a rookie second round pick. Kevin Knox is not a primary ball-handler and is only 20 with his future potentially at the four. You cannot ask so much of players that are so young with little experience. Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis, while good players, are big men that cannot initiate an offense.
It’s Dennis Smith Jr. That’s it. If he can take his game to the next level, much like D’Angelo Russell did last year for the Nets, the Knicks have a chance to challenge for a playoff spot. It’s feasible. Probable? Maybe not, but it is possible. The Knicks will need that chance to become reality if they want to be relevant this season and show they are truly heading in the right direction.