Knicks coach David Fizdale is going to have to make some tough lineup and rotation decisions this season as he tries to integrate the team’s new free-agent talent with young players the team is trying to develop.
Perhaps no decision will be harder than trying to figure out who will be the point guard of the future.
Will it be Dennis Smith Jr., who averaged 14.7 points and 5.4 assists last season after the Knicks acquired him in the Kristaps Porzingis trade? Will it be Elfrid Payton, the new free-agent playmaker the Knicks are paying $8 million? And what about Frank Ntilikina, who had a rough first two seasons with the Knicks but is flying high after an impressive performance with Team France in the FIBA World Cup this summer?
Smith, who is suffering from a lower back strain, won’t be in the mix Monday night when the Knicks open the preseason at Washington. After the team went through an abbreviated practice on Sunday, Fizdale would not say whom he plans to start against the Wizards. He did say he plans to try out different combinations in the preseason to help him decide who will be in the starting lineup for the regular season.
Fizdale also knows that some players are going to end up happier than others.
“You know you never want guys to feel like they are not getting their due, but I’m not there to make everybody happy,” he said. “It’s always going to be about who is getting the job done and competing at the highest level.
“I do feel my depth gives me a tough task. We have a lot of guys [who are] capable. So juggling that and getting the right guys and the right combination on the floor is something I have to work out.”
Given that the Knicks already seemed to have a crunch at point guard, the signing of Payton, a former lottery pick who is on his fourth team, was a bit of a head- scratcher at first.
Payton, however, is a favorite of Knicks general manager Scott Perry, who traded for him on draft night in 2014 when Perry was an executive with the Orlando Magic. Payton has struggled with injuries in the course of his career, but when he has been healthy, he’s been an impressive playmaker. In 42 games last season, he averaged 10.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists.
Though they are competing for a spot in the rotation, Payton had nothing but praise for Ntilikina.
“Frank is very talented. I think he’s been given a bad rap as far as the league goes,” he said. “He is very talented, has extremely long arms, especially on the defensive end . . . I can learn from him and he can learn from me.”
When asked what he meant about a bad rap, Payton said, “It’s crazy how this league tries to label you.”
Ntilikina missed 40 games last season because of injury and also seemed to be suffering from a lack of confidence as the Knicks cycled through various point guard options. This summer, however, he took charge on Team France, playing stifling defense and scoring five pivotal points down the stretch of France’s upset of Team USA.
“That gave me a lot of confidence, but now it’s a new start with a new Knicks team,” he said. “So it’s another competition, and the competition with the French National Team helped me a lot.”
The Knicks need to decide what they have in Ntilikina by the end of this month. They have until Oct. 31 to decide whether to exercise his fourth-year option or let him become a free agent at the end of this season.