New York Facing A Logjam At Center, And Defense Figures To Remain A Problem

By John Schmeelk
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For years, the Knicks have done everything possible to avoid a true rebuilding process. Whether it was the Patrick Ewing trade, Stephon Marbury trade, Eddy Curry trade or Carmelo Anthony trade, the team was constantly mortgaging its future to try to win immediately. Those days appear to be over.

Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry are embarking on a proper rebuild. Some of their hard work was done during former president Phil Jackson’s era of losing. The team has two of their own top-10 picks on the roster in Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina. Center Willy Hernangomez is a promising, young player. Perhaps Jackson’s best contribution was not trading away any future first-round picks. This offseason, the team brought in three young players in the middle of their prime, Tim Hardaway Jr., Doug McDermott and Enes Kanter.

The roster, however, still has some issues, and the recent trade only exacerbated one of them. Kanter, just 25, is a frontcourt player who can score, but he’s also one of the worst defensive big men in the NBA. He is a useful and perhaps even a starting player on most NBA teams, but for the Knicks, he is redundant.

Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez

The Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez react during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 9, 2016, at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

New York already has two young big men who can score on their roster in Porzingis and Hernangomez. Kanter, though better than Hernangomez at the moment, has nearly identical strengths and weaknesses and costs much more. Both players can score in the post, play as the screener in the pick-and-roll, finish around the basket and rebound. Kanter’s presence could hinder Hernangomez’s playing time and development. Neither plays much defense.

The Knicks now have to find playing time for Porzingis, Hernangomez, Kanter and Joakim Noah. (not even mentioning Kyle O’Quinn). It will be impossible to play all those players enough minutes to maximize their value. At some point, the Knicks will have to make a choice between Kanter and Hernangomez and which player they want to move forward with.

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It would not surprise me to see them try to trade one or the other at some point before the deadline for either a draft pick or a player who fits better with Porzingis. There’s no guarantee either player, with their defensive deficiencies, is a long term fit with Porzingis, either. Both might be standing between Porzingis and his eventual position at center. Even if Porzingis stays at power forward, he would likely need a better defensive player at center to make up for some of his deficiencies.

McDermott, meanwhile, will likely have to battle Michael Beasley for playing time at small forward. The only way to describe McDermott’s career so far is a disappointment. He will try to fit into a catch-and-shoot role in coach Jeff Hornacek’s high-paced, spread-the-floor offense. McDermott and Beasley, like Kanter, struggle on defense, which looks to be a problem for the Knicks this season.

New York hopes Ntilikina, whom they drafted with the eighth overall pick in June, can develop into an elite defender, but expecting a rookie point guard to lock down on that end right away is a big ask. Neither point guards Jarret Jack nor Ramon Sessions are good defenders. Hardaway improved in Atlanta last year, but he is still no better than average (at best). The only above-average perimeter defenders on the entire roster are Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas and Ron Baker.

Hornacek and the Knicks’ front office have been stressing improved defense as one of their primary goals this year. It is going to be tough to show any significant progress in that part of the game with the personnel on the roster. They are likely to sit at the end of the league rankings in defense once again.

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They also don’t have a player they can dump the ball to on offense and get a basket. Their best shot is one of their three big men, but none of the three has proven to be that player yet. Porzingis will have a chance to show whether or not he is ready to carry the load on offense, and he will be on the receiving end of pressure and expectations from the fan base.

The Knicks are going to lose a lot of games this year. There’s little the front office or coaching staff can do to change that. The only thing that can stop it is major internal improvements from the team’s youngsters. It is unlikely. As painful as it will be for fans, they should root for as many losses and pingpong balls as possible so they can draft someone like Slovenian phenom Luka Doncic. They still need more top talented players to complete their rebuild, and the draft is how you get them.

For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk

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