It has been a month since the David Fizdale Era has begun in Madison Square Garden, and the Knicks are 2-6. Though it isn't the best of starts, it is what most expected from this team going through their rebuilding stage.
Here are some takeaways from the Knicks' first few games, and what to expect moving forward...
Fizdale has bought into the youth movement
When a head coach is brought in to win games, it can sometimes lead to a clash in agendas for a rebuilding team. More minutes going to veterans could mean a better chance of winning games in the current season, but at the cost of limiting in-game reps for younger players acquired in hopes for long-term success. We've seen this scenario play out at Madison Square Garden over the last decade.
David Fizdale isn't having it. Whether it's because of an emphasis on culture building, less pressure from the top down, or the roster simply lacking a swath of experienced NBA talent, he's embracing the long haul and throwing his young guys to the wolves.
The 20-year-old Frank Ntilikina has started every game for the Knicks. Damyean Dotson and Mitchell Robinson have joined him recently, the former averaging the third-most minutes on the team and the latter playing 14 minutes a night after missing a year of competitive hoops and being labeled a project. Allonzo Trier could have easily been Westchester-bound and replaced by a retread from free agency.
"I don't want to be jumping from game to game trying to hunt wins," Fizdale told the New York Post just a few nights ago. This is a serious change of pace from Knicks teams passed, a necessary one, and a fun one for fans wanting to watch this squad's future core develop.
The Knicks have depth?
Consider the Knicks have marched through this first month without Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Kevin Knox (for the most part.) Those are three pivotal rotation pieces, yet despite their record, it's fair to call this start to the season promising.
Only one of six losses have been a blowout, with competitive outings against juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics. As Fizdale has messed around with combinations and lineups, it's become clear that New York actually has a lot to work with.
Nobody outside of Tim Hardaway Jr. will be anywhere close to an All-Star selection, but guys like Mario Hezonja and Lance Thomas, two perfectly fine contributors, have been relegated to spot minutes. The Knicks have three players who can play the one spot and three who can play the five -- all moving up and down positions to see which lineups work best together.
They have fielded 10 players (not including the injured Knox and meh Ron Baker) who can bring positives on the court, with three cogs returning at some point this season. Decisions will have to be made about the rotation, which is a weird, unexpected and good problem to have on this team.
Tim Hardaway Jr. stepping up his game
Hardaway's $72 million over four years was a tough pill to swallow for some when the Knicks inked him in hopes of a leap from steadily improving role player to dependable offensive leader. Last year was a good start in proving those folks wrong, but Hardaway Jr. would have to keep improving his game to shut them up completely.
Thus far, he has not disappointed. THJ is just shy of top 10 in the league in points per game with 26, getting buckets in higher volume at a career-high efficiency. How?
By shooting lights out. His shot distribution and selection haven't actually changed materially, in fact he's shooting more pull-ups and fewer catch-and-shoot jumpers. He's fourth in three-point attempts this season, but as a result of more shots in general, not fewer from mid-range. He has gotten to the line significantly more, a big development for when his jumper isn't falling. In the meantime, he's hit 41 percent of his threes, a remarkable number given his attempts and 31 percent shooting last year.
That number likely isn't sustainable, but so long as Hardaway Jr. progresses in other areas, it's not a problem. His defense is still shoddy at times, but he's made strides with his playmaking. Hardaway Jr.'s assist rate has ballooned nearly five percentage points, thanks to better vision and willingness to pass. His turnovers have remained about the same, but while last season's were often Shaqtin' levels of terrible, his giveaways this season seem to have better processes behind them. Normally, he is trying to hit the weakside shooter or Robinson on a lob out of a pick-and-roll.
If Hardaway Jr. maintains and builds on this level of play, watch out.
Frank Ntilikina is a point guard, and New York's only real one
In today's NBA, your point guard does not need to be the floor general. Although Hardaway Jr. has improved on creating for others, this Knicks team is hard-pressed to find offense in the frontcourt when they aren't given direction. Turning to the lead guards, there's only one real option.
Trier and Trey Burke don't dribble with their head on a swivel, let alone manage an offense to get everyone their shots. The debate on Ntilikina is close to over: He's most effective with the ball in his hands, and the Knicks need it there.
Since Fizdale moved Burke and Enes Kanter to the bench, New York won its first game over an actual opponent behind Ntilikina's breakout stretch. When cemented to the corners, the second-year guard offered close to no value on offense, while a stagnant high screen or isolation was New York's go-to when the initial set broke down. With the opportunities, Ntilikina directs his teammates when the offense dies and makes reads out of the pick-and-roll that may not have translated to assist numbers yet, but are damned impressive from a 20-year-old.
His long arms allow for crafty interior passes into Kanter or Robinson off penetration, and his eye for weak-side shooters will pay off if defenses begin respecting his scoring. The offense has direction with him at the helm, and there's no reason he shouldn't stay there.
Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson are NBA players
Trier and Robinson look good. The former was undrafted, the latter a second-round pick mystery. The Knicks have seen the best (Jeremy Lin) and worst (Landry Fields) of outcomes from banking on what were thought to be diamonds in the rough, so it's hard to tell where these two go from here. At the very least, they belong.
Trier didn't look very impressive in Summer League, sans the scoring outbursts Knicks fans have fallen in love with. He couldn't pass well and had a tough time defensively, so he focused on getting buckets and began trying his butt off on defense and it has paid dividends. He'll put down multiple shots in a row that shouldn't even work, but do anyway.
Trier's herky-jerky handling and step-back moves coupled with his athleticism and shooting (also a rough spot in Summer League) has made him a capable option against second units and a serious prospect going forward.
Robinson might be the most enticing player on this roster. Right out of Las Vegas, he looked way more ready than he should have been, and he's now starting on a nightly basis with success. Touted as a potential DeAndre Jordan, Robinson plays exactly to that role and masterfully. His lobs are an imminent threat to any defense, and his tree branch arms swat everything.
The Knicks' points allowed per possession with Robinson on the court would net them the fourth-best defense in the game. Let that one sink in.
Noah Vonleh was a free agency coup
Vonleh has just been a force. On the glass, on defense, on the poor, poor rims when he decides to elevate. The Knicks have many-a-young player trying to find their niche and build on their game, it's only fitting to have a guy like Vonleh - who struggled through his career doing the same thing - come in and provide a consistent impact.
He can defend multiple positions, finish and rebound with the best of them, and yet dabbles with other parts of his game enough to raise eyebrows and think there may be more coming, but not enough to kill the flow of the team.