The New York Knicks host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night in another early-season test. The Knicks have sandwiched impressive wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards around one ugly loss to the Atlanta Hawks, so it’ll be interesting to see how New York performs against San Antonio. A panel of Today’s Fastbreak contributors got together in advance of this matchup to talk the Knicks’ strong start.
Jason Patt: The New York Knicks are 2-1 after an impressive road win against a hopeful Eastern Conference contender in the Washington Wizards. What’s stood out the most about the Knicks thus far?
Rob DiRe: It is all about energy in New York. Last year amidst all of the pessimism surrounding the team, they just seemed so slow and content to match baskets. Part of it was an older roster that wasn’t jelling, and part of it was a group that was struggling to adjust to the Triangle offense. Guys like J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. never looked happy in their roles or comfortable with the offense the team was running, and played slow because of it.
Whether Derek Fisher adjusted the offense to make it less restrictive or the current group just bought in better, as a group they’re just playing faster and with more energy. They may still not be running the offense perfectly, but the mistakes aren’t passive, they’re aggressive.
Jared Mintz: To piggyback on what Rob said, the 2015-16 Knicks have already shown more energy and better chemistry through three games than we saw all of last season. And while it’s been a breath of fresh air to finally be able to watch this team compete with purpose, I think the biggest reason behind their early success has been their unexpected depth.
It’s easy to look at a starting five that’s included Kristaps Porzingis, Sasha Vujacic and Jose Calderon and wonder if the Knicks actually have depth or if they’re putting out the wrong starting five, but through three games New York’s reserves have outscored their opponents by a whopping 62 points. Derrick WIlliams has provided a much-needed scoring spark, and you can legitimately argue that Kyle O’Quinn’s been the team’s best big man to this point.
As good as the Williams/O’Quinn duo have been, its feasible that Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant have been equally vital to this team’s early success, as Calderon’s looked pretty bad and Vujacic is, well, Vujacic. You can tell that Galloway worked hard this summer on his three point shot, and Grant appears to be ready to facilitate and run an offense despite having less than a handful of NBA games under his belt.
Jason: It’s certainly hard not to be impressed with the play of the bench. Amazing what happens when you inject some athletic youngsters into a lineup. Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway are fun, and perhaps Williams really has found his niche in New York. He’s certainly got a lot to prove.
But back to Jerian Grant. That trade is looking like an absolute fleecing by Phil Jackson. Tim Hardaway Jr. was pretty bad in the Big Apple and now can’t even get minutes in Atlanta to start the year. Would you guys like to see Grant start at some point? Or are you cool with him bringing his energy off the bench?
Jared: Grant made it clear in his first Summer League game that he was the best point guard on this roster. I don’t want to write Jose Calderon off as washed up just yet, but last season was easily the worst of his career, and through three games he looks just as bad as he did last season. I don’t know if Grant’s combo guard skill set makes him more of an asset coming off of the bench, but I think his ability to get into the lane, and certainly the defensive improvement he would be over Calderon, make him the best option as this team’s floor general. It’s only a matter of time until Grant’s given the keys to the franchise.
Rob: I would be willing to write off Calderon anyway, but it was clear — especially in the opener — that he just isn’t clicking the way the rest of the team is. He stood out as being slower, and not just physically but just the pace he wants to play compared to his teammates. I don’t have a problem with Grant coming off the bench for now, but he is just giving better minutes than Calderon is and it isn’t a surprise. Starting doesn’t matter as much as the minutes distribution. Also, if Galloway keeps this up — a big if — I think he could push Calderon out of the rotation completely.
Jason: That Calderon/Vujacic duo is truly painful. Against good backcourts it’s just a disaster waiting to happen, so getting Arron Afflalo back, whenever that may be, should be huge. What should the expectations be for Afflalo? He wasn’t very good last year, but had a career year the season before in Orlando.
Rob: Going into the season, expectations for Afflalo were just to be the only player on the team aside from Melo who could create offense. Looking at the roster with all the question marks everywhere, it was tough to see where points were coming from.
I don’t want to completely readjust expectations based on just three games, but all I need is for him to be better defensively than the starting backcourt and be able to match the energy and effort the young guys have set the bar with so far. He can be a secondary ball handler and a creator offensively. If he can shoot the ball better than he did last year, that would be gravy.
Jared: Afflalo’s one of the bigger question marks for this Knicks team. Like Rob said, he was signed this past offseason to be the second banana offensively, but is coming off of a season of injury and frustration. Whether or not he still has a couple of years of good basketball left in him, the Knicks are depending on him to be a richer man’s version of what Vujacic has been so far this year; someone who can handle the ball a little, space the floor with outside shooting, and hold his own defensively.
I think Afflalo also adds another dimension to this team, as his size allows Anthony to play the 4 while he moves from shooting guard to small forward. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Knicks end games with a lineup of Grant, Galloway, Afflalo, Anthony and either O’Quinn or Lopez, which would feasibly be their best lineup of two-way players.
Afflalo doesn’t need to be the 2012-13 J.R. Smith on this team, they just need him to play above-average basketball on both ends of the court.
Jason: Grant/Galloway/AA/Melo/Insert Big Man Here sounds great in my world. What would be really fun is if the Knicks can consistently run that kind of unit with Kristaps Porzingis at the 5, and maybe that’ll happen at some point as Fisher gains more trust in him. What have been your first impressions of Porzingis? And what’s your ideal nickname for him? I’ve seen many.
Rob: The nickname question is way beyond my talents, but Porzingis has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle through three games. Based on the talent I expected to see on the court, the thought that he has been an afterthought is hard to believe.
Kristaps has shown some toughness. I’m not sure if it’s real toughness or if it’s a point of emphasis for him to prove he can hang with NBA bigs. The questions that came into the season are still there. Can he defend in the post? Is he athletic enough to run the floor?
His defense wasn’t going to be answered in three game, let alone his rookie season. Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein are going to struggle defensively as rookies, as did plenty of other bigs who turned into great defenders. Athletically, he doesn’t move well, which is more concerning because I don’t know how that gets better. Make a big deal about the steal-spin-dunk if you want, but he didn’t exactly look like Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin tearing down the court.
Of course, you don’t need to be in the top 1 percent of athletes to be a great player, but the athleticism means he’ll be limited on both sides of the floor. Plus what he lacks in footspeed and acceleration he makes up for by being long and active.
Jared: As far as nicknames go, I’m really OK with anything but “Zinger.” “Krispy” (like Kris P), “Staps,” even good ole’ “KP” are fine nicknames. I don’t know if this is the portion of the discussion where you’re looking for something original like “The Latvian Lurch” or something equally awful/awkward, but if you are, I guess my entry would have to be “Porzingawd.”
I don’t really care what you call him, but I’m thrilled that our first impression of Porzingis seems to be overwhelmingly positive. He’s still a ways away from using his size to dominate, but his length is disruptive on both ends, as he’s averaging over five free throw attempts per game while owning the best defensive rating of any Knicks starter. It’s tough to watch him get out-rebounded or get boxed out seemingly effortlessly, but he looks like a natural scorer, and an amazing athlete for someone with his size.
Porzingis has played like he belongs out there, and with his confidence and skill set, I think he’s giving the Knicks positive value quicker than anyone could have expected.
Jason: Man, I always find myself calling him “Zinger,” so looks like we’re gonna have a problem. In all seriousness, it’s been nice to see Porzingis play pretty well. He’s obviously still a work in progress, but the flashes are there. That steal, spin and dunk against the Hawks was awesome (Yes, Rob, I’m making a big deal out of that play). Between him and Grant, this draft is looking like a home run.
So to wrap this up, let’s talk Melo. His first two games were atrocious, but he looked like Vintage Melo against the Wizards (we can thank Jared Dudley for that). Is Melo the guy to lead this franchise back to the promised land? Seems like there’s always trade talk around him, but when he’s healthy, he’s still a top-level talent.
Rob: I am a full-on Melo supporter. He was brilliant two years ago on a bad Knicks team that he carried to 37 wins. Although there wasn’t a tremendous drop-off in numbers last year, he just didn’t have the same impact battling injuries. I fully expect for him to return to pre-injury form this season, which is why it was hard for me to believe they wouldn’t win 30+ games with a healthy Melo.
As for the promised land, that is a whole different story. He’s not getting better as he ages, and he’s on a team that is relying on Galloway and Williams for points right now. I believe in him, but unless the promised land is a 6/7/8 seed and a potential first-round upset, he’s probably more likely to get traded than to make a conference finals by the end of his contract.
I don’t think the Knicks trade him this season, especially without a pick to tank for, but if Phil Jackson has a chance to add an influx of young talent to the team, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t put Melo on the table.
Anthony Beers: Sorry I am late to the party, but I’d love to chime in on this.
The Knicks are definitely more likable this season. The new-look bench, the spirit of rookies like Grant and Porzingis, and the dedication of Galloway, Thomas and Amundson returning to New York speaks volumes to New Yorkers. A hard-working team that passes the ball and tightens it up on the defensive end are the roots of Knicks basketball and can bring great joy to a city that’s endured pitiful ownership and team management.
That being said, all Knicks fans should know that two wins don’t mean anything, especially after last year. The NBA is licking their chops in the hopes that the Knicks start off an another abysmal losing streak, because outside of Knicks fans, media members and basketball viewers enjoy laughing at a potential Knicks mess. I may sound crazy, but I don’t think a schedule that consists of playing six straight playoff teams from last year is a coincidence. I definitely know for a fact that people enjoy seeing the Knicks as the laughingstock of the league. NBA businessmen do as well, very well knowing that if the Knicks are bad they will still generate a ton of revenue playing at MSG.
Due to that matzoh ball of unfortunate truth, I take everything with a grain of salt. But I will always appreciate hustle, rebounding and smart play. If the Knicks do that this will be a fun season for all of us, and I do believe that so far we have seen that. The season is a long grueling one, and things can go south very quickly, and before you know it the team is not putting in true effort to win. *Cough* JR and Shump *Cough*
Of course, you cannot talk about the Knicks without talking about Melo. I understand everyone is high and mighty on him for his scoring numbers and a lot of fans think he is the descendant of Jesus Christ, but I don’t like him. And every time I say I don’t like him, the scoring numbers are immediately brought up, and the thought of the Knicks without him and the fact that he carries them and all that jazz. While some of that criticism towards my opinion is warranted, I still don’t really like Melo. I want him to do well, but I don’t like him. People have a tough time with that, but it’s how I feel.
Every time Melo speaks to the media he constantly puts his foot in his mouth. If I had time I could list every time he said something stupid, but then this email chain would turn into an encyclopedia. I understand he’s absurdly talented one-on-one, but for those reasons he abandons the offense at times and totally disrupts the flow of the team. There’s no question that annoys teammates because anyone that ever does that in basketball usually gets criticized, but in the world of Melo and Knicks media, everything is backwards. Recently he had to ask the Knicks coaches to be MORE mean to him. You cannot make this stuff up.
I already saw it in the game against the Wizards. Fortunately they won, and I realize Melo had 37 and played well, but when the team is in need of a crucial basket, Melo starts bringing the ball up and running the shot clock down. LeBron James can do this. Melo cannot do this. If you recall he was forced to put up a brick and complained for a foul. If this were anyone else on this Knicks team they’d get benched. But everyone needs to bow down to Melo and allow him to determine directly whether we win or lose. Then, if we do lose, you’re not allowed to blame Melo because he had a lot of points. I can blame Melo if he does dumb things no matter how many points we have! Him bringing the ball up playing isolation is exactly that: DUMB.
Perhaps managing the ego of Melo is a ridiculous coaching assignment. His contract that he’s under right now should have never happened. The Knicks felt they had no choice because he’s marketable and was willing to stay for a top contract. The no-trade clause in his deal makes absolutely no sense to me.
So in conclusion, I like the personality of this team minus one person. It’s complicated, but I will root for him and hope he does well, but I know for a fact that he can be a great passer and help teammates around him. He just never looks to do that. The game plan of Melo leading us to victory without any help and carrying us would eventually end in the team’s demise. No matter how much they surprise us. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think I am. I love the play so far that we’ve seen from Grant, Williams and Lopez, but if Melo’s ego gets in the way of this team’s development, I will be one pissed-off fan, because I like a lot of the guys on this team.
Anthony: And on the topic of nicknames, I like the Latvian Lurch, but if he becomes more of a swingman in the lineup, the Latvian Liaison is my original thought and I expect full credit for that.
Afflalo can help, but this Knicks team has not had a GOOD point guard for a looooong time. When I say good point guard, I mean a true ball handling player who looks to pass first for a good offense. The last player to fit that category is Mark Jackson. Lin did it for two weeks. Felton had an OK year before falling off the face of the Earth. Billups was on the team for half a season and was way past his prime.
This is why Grant excites me, but there is a lot of pressure on his shoulders.
Jared: Every time I talk Knicks, specifically the 2015-16 Knicks, the first thing I HAVE to bring up is how there are at least two different timelines on this roster. First you have Melo, who’s more than likely in the last couple of years of his prime. As a top 10 or 15 or so talent in the league, he’s good enough that if you were to put other players who are ready to win now and also in their primes around him you’d have a decent team. Unfortunately, the only other guys on Melo’s timeline appear to be Lopez and Afflalo, and even Afflalo might be on the wrong end of his playing days as he battles to stay healthy.
Then you have Porzingis and Grant, who even though they look fairly NBA ready, they’re both rookies and the next two-three years will likely serve as transition years for them to get adjusted to the league, as opposed to them being able to take the league by storm. The rest of the roster sort of seems in between those two stages, with Calderon appearing to be closer to the end of being a productive player.
All of that said, no I don’t think Melo’s going to be the guy to lead this team back to any promised land, and I’d be shocked if this team wins another playoff series with Melo as its best player. He’s still very good, and should be for at least another two seasons, I just don’t think he’ll have the help to win anything meaningful while he’s still a top player.
Jason: Dang, certainly not too optimistic on that front. I’d tend to agree, although if the Knicks catch lightning in a bottle with these young kids and make a few more shrewd additions in free agency, I think they could make a playoff run at some point in the next few years. A championship is a whole different story, and I’d venture a guess that Melo doesn’t win one in New York barring some crazy stuff happening.