By: Matt Brooks
At the conclusion of the 2018–2019 season, it will have been 20 years since the New York Knicks made their unprecedented run to the NBA Finals as an 8-seed. The 1999 Knicks were the ultimate underdog story — a team that advanced to the promise-land without their Hall of Fame center, Patrick Ewing.
Let’s be honest for a second. Since that joyous 1999 season, there hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer for in New York.
Some of these lows included the regime of Isiah Thomas, who became best known for his disgusting sexual harassment charges as well as the truly awful contracts he dished out (6 years $100 million for Allan Houston *barfs*, 5 years $30 million for Jerome James *faints*, or 6 years $60 million for Eddy Curry *dies*).
There was the Phil Jackson era, where the Hall of Fame Coach-turned Team President insisted on forcing his coaches to run his outdated triangle offense (pour one out for Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek). The Zen Master also feuded with his stars, to the point where one of them was traded for pennies on the dollar, while the other skipped team meetings and halted communication with the team. It’s been a tough 20 years for Knicks fans, which is why I’m so excited to deliver some good news:
The current Knicks’ roster has the potential to become the best team since those glorious, bruising ‘90s teams.
Let’s start off with some under-the-radar sleepers on the team.
Burke was one the best feel-good stories of the 2017–2018 season after breaking out for the Knicks. Prior to last season, the former College Player of the Year had been nothing more than a massive disappointment, bouncing across three teams in two short seasons.
That all changed after last season’s All-Star break. With their star, Kristaps Porzingis, sidelined with injury, the Knicks were more than likely to miss the playoffs and began giving minutes to the former lottery pick, Trey Burke. And boy did he impress.
Burke showed dramatic improvement across the board. He put up a strong 12.8PPG on 50% shooting. He finally showed signs of a three-point shot, which was something that had plagued him for years, posting a slightly-above average 36.5% from three. The thing that stuck out the most was his elite shooting around the rim. According to the Shottracker on NBASavant.com, Burke shot a whopping 73.2% at the rim. This is downright incredible, especially for a player his size! (6'1")
Just for reference, league average from 0–3 feet is around 63%. Burke’s at-rim shooting percentage placed him at the Number 1 slot for guards in the league. Other guards in the 70% range included Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo… both of whom are 6'10" freaks of nature.
Burke’s performance and Allen Iverson-ish appearance (bold move on the braids, Trey!) gave Knicks’ fans something to cheer for in the midst of some blatant tanking. Personally speaking, it remains to be seen if he can replicate this type of performance. This might be a classic case of good stats, bad team. The initial results are promising though.
On the first day of free agency, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that the Knicks had signed swingman Mario Hezonja to a 1-year, $6.5 million deal. The reactions were fairly homogeneous: people were laughing at the Knicks, rather than with them.
Here’s the thing: I kind of like what the team is doing.
The Knicks’ front office is (finally) being realistic about their timeline. Given the injury of their star and youth of the team, it’s highly unlikely that the Knicks can compete for next season’s title, much less the playoffs. With a team as dominant as the Golden State Warriors hanging around, the Knicks have been quietly offering short (and cheap) deals to former top picks that haven’t panned out (yet!).
Last season, they took a flier on Emmanuel Mudiay, who was Denver’s 7th overall selection in 2015. I’m not high on Mudiay at all — he struggles with finishing at the rim, he’s a poor shooter, and he has no idea how to run an NBA offense.
Hezonja is a different bag.
Looking at his career statistics, I can understand the skepticism you may have, but bear with me for a second.
For the past three seasons, Hezonja has played for one of the three worst franchises in the entire NBA in terms of winning percentage. The team has been notorious for putting their young players in terrible situations. Positional overlap and poor development has caused many of the Magic’s top selections to force their way out of Orlando and break out. Just take a look at the Magic’s 2013 Number 2 overall pick, Victor Oladipo, who was arguably one of the three best guards in the entire league last season while playing for Indiana.
Oladipo is the best case scenario, but there’s no reason to believe that the 2015 5th overall pick, Hezonja, can’t break out as well. Assuming that the Knicks play him at his correct spot (SG), Hezonja is HUGE for his position, listed at 6'8.” Given his tall stature and quick shooting stroke, Hezonja will have no issue shooting over shorter defenders - similar to a Khris Middleton or a Kyle Korver (and maybe even an extremely poor man’s Klay Thompson!). His biggest issue in Orlando was simple: inconsistent playing time. Even with sporadic minutes, Hezonja showed some major flashes. When he’s cooking, the guy can flat-out shoot.
The second half of the 2017-2018 season was the first time he received consistent minutes, and he responded by averaging 15.5 PPG & 5 REB on 46/40/85 shooting splits in February. What followed was a disappointing March (9.9 PPG on 39/23/83 shooting splits), but he closed the season out strong, stroking the ball at a 42% rate from three in April.
Mario is a rhythm shooter, similar to J.R. Smith, and he needs time to feel his way out while playing in games. In order to truly assess his talent, the Knicks should do their best to give him around 20 minutes per game to showcase his skillset and build some confidence. If things pan out the way I hope they do, Hezonja could give the Knicks the shooting they’ve been begging for. The Knicks ranked 29th out of 30 teams in three-point frequency and were also the third worst team in terms of 3-Point percentage (35.3%). Their new coach, David Fizdale, tends to run a fast-paced motion offense, so the opportunity to take threes in volume will definitely be there for Hezonja.
I think that Knicks’ fans are going to love this guy. He’s a cocky son-of-a-b#!% (see: quotes about Messi) and he’s going to thrive in the Big Apple. Long live Mario Hezonja, baby.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this roster review, where we go over the potential cornerstone players for the Knicks!