The New York Knicks’ point guard conundrum

The New York Knicks’ point guard conundrum

Analytics

The New York Knicks’ point guard conundrum

Heading into the offseason, the New York Knicks had plenty of questions to answer.

Would the Carmelo Anthony saga finally (mercifully) come to an end? If so, where would the 10-time All-Star suit up next? What kind of package would New York receive in return? And how long of a leash did Phil Jackson have? Was his time in the Big Apple dwindling?

As it turns out, only one of those queries has been resolved as we reach September.

Jackson, after seasons of forcing the dated triangle offense onto his coaches, trashing his players through the media and failing to improve the Knicks’ standing, was ultimately fired on June 28.

Although the dismissal was more than justified and probably overdue, as is often the case with New York under owner James Dolan, its timing was confounding. Why wait until after the 2017 NBA Draft – one in which the Knicks owned the No. 8 overall pick – to make a change of that magnitude?

New York, of course, wound up taking French point guard Frank Ntilikina – a player with talent and untapped potential to be sure, but also a young man that only just turned 19. He’s still quite raw and likely not all that ready to contribute as a rookie.

Even more troubling is the fact that last year’s starting lead guard Derrick Rose is gone and the Knicks didn’t fill his roster spot with an adequate replacement.

And thus the Knicks, who already had a ton of issues to settle, have given themselves yet another: Who the heck is going to start at the 1-spot in 2017-18?

The incumbent candidates

Of the players returning to head coach Jeff Hornacek’s team next season, only two can (somewhat) run point: Chasson Randle and Ron Baker.

For our purposes, the former doesn’t make a very strong case for more playing time in 2017-18. Randle is 24, heading into his second season in the NBA, and averaged 5.3 points per contest in 299 total minutes of action last year.

On the other hand, the latter only spent three percent of his time on the floor last season playing lead guard, according to Basketball Reference.

Nonetheless, Baker acquitted himself nicely as a first-year guard. His raw averages were uninspiring (4.1 points and 2.1 assists per night, over 52 games played), but the Knicks were 1.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was one of the five players on the court. For a New York squad that had the seventh-worst net rating in the league last season (negative-4.1), Baker’s on/off splits showed promise.

Mostly a hard-nosed defensive specialist, the Wichita State product did score 15 points in just 10 cutting possessions on the year.

Baker also showed ability to create, both for himself and his teammates, out of the pick-and-roll – a trait any modern guard needs to master before becoming a true threat. At least in a post-triangle world.

If he can build on those two facets of scoring while improving his spot-up shooting (shouldn’t be that difficult as his jumper is far from broken), he could find a niche as a solid off-ball guard on a good team.

But to quote the great Dr. King Schultz, expecting Baker to start at point guard for the Knicks next season is a dubious proposition at best.

He should continue to develop off the bench, biding his time until he’s ready for a larger role.

The new guy

To somewhat soften the blow of losing their starting floor general, the Knicks signed veteran point guard Ramon Sessions. Most recently a backup for the Charlotte Hornets, the 31-year-old figures to be among the favorites to replace Rose as New York’s starter at the point.

Had Dolan and Co. made the acquisition even just one year prior, it’d be a bit more understandable. In 2015-16, Sessions played in all 82 games for the Washington Wizards, posting solid averages of 9.9 points, 2.9 assists and 2.5 rebounds per contest. He also shot a career-best 47.3 percent from the floor under then-head coach Randy Wittman.

Unfortunately for Sessions (and Knicks fans), his play fell off a cliff merely one season later. The veteran guard is coming off a campaign in which he suited up in 50 games, shot a paltry 38 percent from the floor and scored 6.2 points per night.

Yikes.

As if we needed further proof of his decline, he culminated last season with a lower value over replacement player clip (-0.5) than Paul Zipser and Kay Felder, and fewer total points added (-77.62) than Joe Harris and Tim Frazier.

Despite the countless negatives, we should note Sessions did create 0.82 points per possession (PPP) as the pick-and-roll ball handler for the Hornets. Far from an Earth-shattering mark, but one that did place him in the 58.5 percentile, also known as the above-average range.

If he does become the starter next year, Hornacek will likely trot him out for (at most) 20 minutes per game, while using him along with the screen-setting services of Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn, to pick-and-roll teams to death.

Aside from that, there’s not much else Sessions can do at this point in his career. He’s 31, ineffective as a shooter and possesses waning foot speed that makes him an absolute liability on defense.

Better options exist for the Knickerbockers.

Outside alternatives

When taking a gander at the open market for a starting-level point guard, it’s tough to find much else but disappointment.

Some of the biggest names still available include Deron Williams, Monta Ellis, Randy Foye and CJ Watson.

At one point, in the not-too-distant past, any of those men would have been welcome additions for a Knicks team that lacks ball-handlers. Now, the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, it’s not as if New York’s situation at the position is much better than what those veterans would provide.

Specifically, signing Williams would make some sense. Sure, he had a rather brutal showing in the most recent Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, which became the butt of jokes on Richard Jefferson’s podcast. But if we look at his year on a macro level, he was more than serviceable.

For the season, he averaged 11 points, 5.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds with respectable 43.8/36.3/82.6 shooting percentages.

Decent raw averages aside, per NBA Math, Williams also added value as a spot-up shooter, in transition and as the pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2016-17 – meaning he was better than league average in the aforementioned categories.

In fact, he’d actually be an improvement over the departed Rose in two of the three play types.

What’s more, the Illinois product proved late in the season that he still has something left in the tank. On April 10 against the Miami Heat, with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving sitting out the contest, Williams went for 35 points, seven rebounds and nine assists while almost single-handedly leading the Cavs to victory.

It was a vintage Deron showing, through and through.

He’s a far-cry from the player he was even five years ago, but that doesn’t mean he can’t fill New York’s need for a starting point guard in 2017-18. Williams would be the ideal stopgap while the team’s younger guards learn how to be an effective NBA floor general.

The future

Although the Knicks’ immediate future at the 1-spot is hazy, it won’t be that way for very long.

Ntilikina is the prototypical modern combo guard; he can defend positions one through three thanks to his agile feet and ridiculous length (measured in with a 7-foot wingspan at the combine), can knock down open jumpers and has supreme court vision.

Furthermore, he has professional experience, having spent the last three years with Strasbourg of the French league.

Even so, his game still needs refining. Ntilikina struggles to shoot off the dribble as well as with other, smaller elements of his game.

But if New York is going to struggle in 2017-18 anyway, why not let the rookie take his lumps? Maybe not as the Day 1 starter, but once Sessions shows to be lacking, unleashing the 6-foot-5 man-child could prove savvy.

After all, despite Jackson’s overall awfulness as president of basketball operations, he did have a knack for hitting big in the NBA Draft – especially later in his tenure.

Porzingis and Hernangomez were both home-run selections. Will the Ntilikina pick leave the park as well?

It’s still way too early to tell but at the very least, grainy summer workout footage answers that question with a resounding yes.

You can follow Frank on twitter @frankurbina_.

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