By John Schmeelk
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Sitting at 19-22 and two games out of a playoff spot, the Knicks are in a much better position at the midway point than most thought possible when the season started.
Before I get to what could happen the rest of the way, here are some midseason awards:
MVP: This has to be Kristaps Porzingis. Even with his efficiency numbers plummeting, he is still the Knicks’ best player and it isn’t close. He has improved his offense with a more consistent post game, and is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA. He has taken the responsibility of being the Knicks’ top gun and hasn’t blinked. It has been a nice 41 games in his development, but there is a lot of work still to do.
Most Overrated: On our City Game Podcast the other day, I gave three people this award, but I will focus on Enes Kanter here. There are fans out there who think he is the Knicks’ best player due to his double-doubles, team-best PER and scoring efficiency.
There are certainly things he does well, like offensive rebounding and scoring around the basket. Unfortunately, those things do not make up for his terrible defense. There is a reason head coach Jeff Hornacek keeps him on the bench late in games. He has one of the worst plus/minus ratings on the team, numbers that some traditional statistics hide.
Most Surprising: Jarrett Jack. He has his limitations, but how he has been able to step into the starting lineup at age 34 and coming off major knee surgery is a credit to him. He has been very solid despite obvious limitations, but I don’t think you could ask much more of him.
Most Exciting: Frank Ntilikina. Despite some fans’ disappointment over the fact that he’s not yet an explosive penetrator off the dribble, he does so many things well for a point guard that don’t show up in the box score. He is unselfish, has great court vision, and is already a very good defender with ridiculous length and a high basketball IQ. His future is bright at just 19 years old.
Most Likely To Be Traded At The Deadline: Kyle O’Quinn. He has the easiest contract to move and is likely to opt out after the season, anyway. There is a ready replacement waiting behind him in either Joakim Noah or Willy Hernangomez. Courtney Lee could get moved, too, but I don’t think the front office will be willing to pull the trigger because it would signal a lack of interest in making a playoff run. Lee is one of the team’s captains and leaders. Kanter’s hefty contract is likely too difficult to move.
Now for a couple of grades on people not mentioned above:
Jeff Hornacek: C+
I’m still partially torn on Hornacek, but I’m leaning more and more towards the bad side. He has gotten over many of the low bars set by the franchise in recent years. The locker room appears to be united. The team plays respectable defense and has a solid scheme. The players share the ball on offense. They try hard and in most games fight to the very end. Everyone seems to care. The Knicks’ record is probably better than their collective talent.
The problem is some of the micro-decisions Hornacek makes are starting to catch up with the team as the schedule gets tougher. His lineups leave something to be desired. There are times when he doesn’t use Porzingis or Ntilikina to consistently take advantage of their strengths. His insistence on keeping youngsters Damyean Dotson and Hernangomez on the bench could hurt the franchise over the long run. If Hornacek could clean those types of things up he could be the coach here for the short-term future. But it seems unlikely.
Tim Hardaway Jr: B-
He has missed nearly six weeks due to a leg injury, but his first month with the team still left something to be desired. Overall, his defense has improved as have his rebounding and assist numbers. His scoring average jumped three points to 17.8 per game, but at the same time his efficiency dipped. He is only shooting 42 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from behind the arc. In time, those numbers need to trend up.
Finally, one note on Trey Burke. Rumors persist the Knicks are going to sign Burke from the G-League after they free up a roster spot via trade or by releasing Ramon Sessions. Burke was the G-League Player of the Month in December and he has been fantastic in Westchester, averaging 26 points on 49 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from behind the arc.
With that said, there has been far too much optimism that he is going to swoop in and solve all the Knicks’ point guard problems. The G-League to the NBA is a huge jump in competition, and Burke’s past NBA experience shows he is, at best, a good backup point guard. It is certainly possible he has improved a bunch and is ready to make a jump, but fans should be cautioned not to think of him as some kind of savior. The hope should be he eventually takes away Jack’s minutes.
The Knicks’ first 41 games have been fun and better than expected. Unfortunately, the same January woes that have infected the team in the past are in danger of creeping in once again. With the trade deadline less than a month away, the team’s play will determine whether the front office will buy, sell, or do nothing before Feb. 8. The next four weeks are critical, with a seven-game road trip fast approaching. Very simply, the Knicks’ season is on the line.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk