The Knicks and Dennis Smith Jr. have received deserved kudos for finding a way to try to salvage something from the underachieving point guard and former lottery pick. The team granted Smith’s wish to join the Westchester Knicks in the G League bubble in Orlando this month to get game repetitions.
But Smith is not the lone lottery pick lost in the Knicks’ rotation shuffle right now. And with more than a quarter of the season gone and a 9-13 record to show for it, Tom Thibodeau has seen what he has on the roster and seems clear about the path forward. Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 pick in 2017, and Kevin Knox, the No. 9 pick in 2018, are the casualties.
With the arrival of Leon Rose as team president and much of the front office restructured there is no need for allegiance to the past, and Thibodeau, set on minutes being earned, has translated that to the court. The mistakes of prior regimes is not the responsibility of Rose and Thibodeau to make it feel right.
But in pushing the two to the end of the bench the Knicks do need to show that the decision is being made for the right reasons, whether for short-term success right now or the long-term future.
In the long term, Smith and Ntilikina, in particular, may have little value to the franchise. Both are on contracts that expire at season’s end and almost certainly will be searching for an opportunity someplace else. Knox is 21 years old, while Ntilikina is 22 and Smith 23. All are young enough that they may still find their way in the NBA.
But for now, they are out of the rotation, victims of their own failings and of the huge minutes that Thibodeau gives to the productive players. Still, it’s hard to think that they can’t help at all on a team in need of what they can provide. The latest lottery pick, Obi Toppin, is on a short leash, beginning to show some of his potential, but yanked at the first sign of trouble.
Elfrid Payton has been entrusted with the starting point guard duties but has been surpassed in minutes and closing opportunities as rookie Immanuel Quickley has flourished. Payton played just 18 minutes Monday in Chicago while Quickley played 30. But in those minutes Payton and the rest of the starters put the Knicks in a hole at the start of the game and again at the start of the second half.
"I just think we’ve got to mentally lock in and get off to better starts, first and third," Julius Randle said. "Specifically the third, we dig ourselves out of holes and to start the third quarter we’ve got to come out with more of a sense of urgency. I don’t know how we do it, I don’t know how we lock in to do it, but we’ve got to come out with more of a sense of urgency, for sure."
Could Ntilikina’s defense help in those minutes? While he has shown limited offensive weapons he has been a better shooter than Payton, who has converted just 31.1% of his shots over the last five games, including 11.1% from beyond the arc. Reggie Bullock was 1-for-7 shooting and 0-for-4 from three-point range Monday. Could Knox have helped in those minutes? And if there is one thing Toppin can provide, it’s energy.
"I think in Kevin’s situation, he’s still very much situational and things can change quickly based on matchups, fouls, injuries, illness, whatever you might have," Thibodeau said of Knox, but really the words could apply to any of his players. "He would be the next guy in. and so, some of it could be matchups, too."
No one knows his team better than Thibodeau. And his track record of converting struggling franchises into winners is long and far more accomplished than anything any of the players — veteran or youngsters — have achieved. Only he knows what goes on in practice, what players have done to earn their opportunity in games. But in those games it is open for all to see what is produced on the court. Thibodeau has insisted everyone contributes, whether in games or in practice, and that everyone’s turn will come.
With 22 games down and 50 remaining, it might be time for those turns to arrive.