Mike Miller made it through seven games before he finally opted to tinker with the starting lineup Saturday night. The problem was that it still was against the lineup on the opposing side that included Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Miller swapped point guards, inserting Elfrid Payton into the starting lineup and sending Frank Ntilikina to the bench. It may have seemed hard to debate the logic of that, with Payton playing more to the offensive style that Miller has preached since taking over as interim coach. But it also would be hard to argue that Ntilikina was the Knicks’ biggest problem or that this would solve any of the team’s many issues.
Payton had six points, 10 assists and four steals in 27 minutes in the Knicks’ 123-102 loss to the Bucks. Ntilikina had four points in 10 minutes.
Miller wouldn’t reveal the lineup before the game, but he had dropped hints after the one-sided loss in Miami on Friday. He started Ntilikina that night but quickly went to Payton and then Dennis Smith Jr., not inserting Ntilikina again until the fourth quarter of a blowout loss.
What Ntilikina does best is defend, and the Knicks certainly missed that at the start of Saturday night’s game. Even with Milwaukee’s starting point guard, Eric Bledsoe, sitting out, the Bucks took a 23-6 lead.
“Elfrid had 10 assists and two turnovers,” Miller said. “The one thing we’ve seen him do consistently here as he’s come back from his injury is he’s helping other people and you have that facilitator and that guy that does it and he’s taken that role and he’s done a very good job with it. I’ll be repetitive, but we’ve continued, when we’ve needed it and when the game calls for it, we’ve used all the guards.”
The decision, as it was for his predecessor, David Fizdale, is a tough one for Miller. While Ntilikina is the best defender on the team, Payton has provided the ability to penetrate and dish, piling up assists and rarely turning the ball over. But his shooting had been an adventure: 41.2% overall and 18.4% from three-point range in the seven games Miller had coached. Ntilikina was shooting 34.5% overall and 28.6% from three-point range in that span.
The real issue is what playing time means for the Knicks right now. Payton, who will turn 26 this season, is on a one-year guaranteed deal. If starting him ups his trade value, it could help the team in the long run, but that has to be balanced against the development of Ntilikina, 21, and Smith, 22.
Asked if he is prioritizing wins or player development, Miller, who spent the last four seasons coaching the Knicks’ G League affiliate, said, “I think they go hand-in-hand. I think everybody in the NBA, it’s about development, how do you continue developing the team and your players? I think it’s very similar to that, that you keep working on the development to put yourself in a position to win more, win more, win more. You build.”