Trimming the Fat Off the Knicks’ Bench
The bench unit was mostly solid this season and certainly worth building on, but who’s worth building with?
Year three of the Phil Jackson era is complete and not much has changed. The Knicks lost 50 games for the third straight season. Carmelo Anthony trade rumors, the Triangle Offense, and James Dolan being a clown still garnered all the headlines. How can a team consistently be this bad on and off the court? The answer off the court in short is Dolan. On the court the answer is simple–the team has been built on shaky foundation.
Good teams are built one of two ways. The first (and most replicated) way is building the best starting unit possible and figuring the bench out later. This is the method can be called the “Big Three.” The L.A. Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers have had success, but others have tried and failed miserably (e.g. Bulls, Knicks). Unless your starting lineup features at least two top 50 guys, then this is how you end up in NBA purgatory or the lottery.
The second way is to build a solid lineup top to bottom. The San Antonio Spurs model. Each player–from the star all the way to the last guy on the bench–serves a purpose. The Houston Rockets (post-Dwight), Golden State Warriors (pre-Durant), and Utah Jazz have embraced it and have seen success. This is the safest and purest way to achieve success but also requires the most patience.
What’s in a good bench? A sixth man that is someone that exclusively gets buckets (Jamal Crawford) or a starting caliber player tasked with leading the bench (Andre Iguodala). Around the sixth man there should be a glue guy (someone to do the dirty work, keep the mood up) and mix of players who are either versatile or specialists.
The Knicks have tried to follow the first formula despite not having the requisite pieces. Toss that up to Dolan’s impatience to be good rather than building wisely. When Jackson traded for Derrick Rose, signed Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee, the goal was to build the best possible starting five and worry about the end of the bench later. Unfortunately the lack of chemistry, aside from Carmelo and Kristaps Porzingis, didn’t mesh.
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There is a silver lining, however, as the bench unit was not bad. Whether it was done indirectly is unknown, but Jackson was able to piece together a nice bench that could grow into something if kept together. The key word being “if.”
Since Jackson took over, the roster has had more overhauls than John Calipari’s Kentucky squads. Lance Thomas is the only Knick not named Carmelo that remains from the 2014–15 squad. Thomas, Kyle O’Quinn and Sasha Vujacic are the only bench guys from last season.
The first step to making the playoffs is cutting down on these massive overhauls. This season the bench was a positive. Unlike the starters, who too often came out flatter than week old soda, the bench brought energy. Jeff Hornacek never batted an eye at subbing in Ron Baker for Rose during crunch time or Justin Holiday over Lee if the team needed a stop.
Heading into next season the goal should be to trim the fat off the bench and enter next season with a lean core.
With that said let’s grab a butcher’s knife and cut some fat.
O’Quinn became the de facto sixth man once Brandon Jennings was waived. The Knicks need to add a conventional sixth man this summer (Malik Monk anyone?) but Kyle handled the role fine. He was money this season backing up Joakim Noah, even outplaying him for large chunks of the season. His game against the Timberwolves in December was his best of the season (20 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks) and perfectly captured what he brings to the squad.
If you were to randomly turn the Knicks on you could confuse him for the starting center. On offense he bangs down low, can hit from the midrange and is a skilled passer especially from the top of the key. On defense he’s a good rebounder and blocks shots at an impressive clip (4.2 blocks per 100 possessions). The problem is he has the hops of your 40-year-old uncle. He’ll never be a starter, but that’s not an issue.
His contract is probably his greatest asset. At an annual cap hit of $4 million and $4.2 million respectively, per Spotrac, for the next two seasons he is currently one of Phil’s best signing as president. (In the locker room, he also plays the role of joker which comes in handy during the rough patches of the season.) Given all the positives, it would be foolish to believe he’s not on the roster next season.
The quintessential glue guy. Lance is every euphemism talking heads use for white basketball players (“gritty,” “grinder,” you get the idea). He’s the longest tenured Knick after Carmelo and there’s a reason the team keeps him around. He does what everyone else doesn’t want to do.
This sums up Lance’s game in a nutshell:
In context that game-sealing play on Giannis Antetokounmpo is even better. The game prior to this at MSG Giannis hit the game-winner in Lance’s grill. I don’t want to get carried away, but if I can go to war with someone I’d want Lance Thomas. Like most glue guys, his numbers don’t pop off the stat sheet. On the season he averaged 6.0 points, 3.1 boards, 0.8 assists, and 0.5 steals. Per 100 possessions, Lance averaged 14.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 steals (via BBall_Ref).
Combine his solid play with his peskiness on defense and ability to get his shots within the offense (something that has become a foreign concept in New York), he’s someone you have to keep. He’s locked up until the end of 2019 at the least with an annual cap hit in the neighborhood of $7 million, per Spotrac. Given that the cap for next season will be $101 million and appears to still be climbing, that contract looks like chump change. If the goal is to build a culture centered around team basketball, then it’s only right Lance remains in the fold.
Ron Baker has become a folk hero in his rookie season. The Garden faithful usually take a liking to players who actually give a shit and Baker actually gives a shit. He has serious potential to be the team’s version of Matthew Dellavedova.
He does a bit of everything. He plays solid defense, but can certainly improve on-ball. On offense, he rarely forces his offense and never shies away from sharing with teammates.
He can play either guard position which allows Hornacek to insert him in a variety of situations. His stat line (12.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.1 steals per 100 possessions) backs this up.
The great part about Baker is that he never seems overwhelmed despite the situation. Hornacek has gone to the rookie in late stretches of games without hesitation and at times he’s gotten beat, but other times he has held his own. In a game in Milwaukee, Hornacek opted to keep Baker in for the fourth quarter because the team was playing better with him running the show instead of Rose. The result? A win including a perfect 12:00 minutes of playing time that night for Mr. Burgundy.
In order to keep Baker, around the Knicks will have to extend a qualifying offer of $1.5 million next season. In case Jackson needed another re-sign the rookie, here is what Baker told the Daily News about the triangle.
“The triangle is a very unique offense and it’s very finesse. You got to have five guys out there who are on the same page and understand where the ball is. Your cutting and your spacing out there is very important,” he said. “So doing those little things at [Wichita State] are helping me get used to the triangle as far as where I’m supposed to be and when I’m supposed to be there.”
March Madness to Jackson’s ears. Baker is safe and that is something we should all be happy about.
If the Derrick Rose trade wasn’t a disaster, then it was because a) the Knicks stealth tanked and drafted the point guard of the future, and b) Justin Holiday became an integral part of the bench.
Nicknamed “The Fireman” for his long arms, Holiday really knew how to utilize his Gumby frame to pull down boards and guard the perimeter.
He fills that 3-and-D role every team wants to a tee, this season he averaged 18.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.9 steals per 100 possessions and sported a 54.4 percent true shooting percentage.
Similar to Baker and Lance, Holiday does a little bit of everything. He passes well, shoots a lot of threes, and is great at defense rebounding (6.0 per 100 possessions).
In a perfect world, the Knicks bring him back to play alongside Lance and Baker in what could be a nice second unit. But this is the NBA and Holiday is 27 years old. He’s entitled to want a payday and there might be a team that dishes out more cash than the Knicks would be inclined to match.
Verdict: Cut (reluctantly)
Kuuuuuuuuz was another Garden favorite. He didn’t play much, but when he did he brought a lot of energy. Almost too much energy. The biggest “problem” with Kuz is that he looks to be moving faster than he has to.
If he is able to slow down his game and improve his defense he could fill a role similar to Holiday as a 3-and-D guy. His ability to get to the rack can open up shots similar to his action with Baker here.
Unlike Holiday, Kuz is locked up through next season (and possibly the season after) at a great value of $3 million, per Spotrac. As mentioned he didn’t play much so his numbers do not really tell what he can do. He shot 31.9 percent from three, which was good for sixth on the team. The Knicks may have gotten a bargain with Kuz, but we can’t know if he doesn’t play. That should change next season.
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Sasha Vujacic’s time in New York has been odd to say the least. Is he merely the team’s resident international ambassador? Vujacic’s biggest contribution last season was helping Porzingis adjust to the NBA life. He is *technically* the guy on the team with most championship experience, winning back-to-back titles with Jackson during the latter’s final Lakers run. This season, he, along with Porzingis, likely extended the same olive branch to Hernangómez and Kuzminskas.
There is no logical reason to keep Vujacic around now that the young Euros have adjusted to NBA life. He almost cost the Knicks a fall in the lottery because he wanted to get his Kobe on during the fourth quarter against the Wizards. Vujacic would have ascended the list of most hated players to ever don Orange and Blue had the Knicks won that game. Thankfully he did not, but there is absolutely nothing he brings to the table that cannot be done by someone younger.
Verdict: Cut (with extreme prejudice)
Piggybacking off of Vujacic, isn’t it funny that the final roster spot came down to Ron Baker vs. Chasson Randle even though both are better than Vujacic? (Editor’s note: not sure if “funny” is the right word…) Randle was a bright spot on a forgettable Summer League team. He’s a little shorter than Baker, listed at 6-foot-1, making his role on the team strictly backup point guard.
His main purpose figures to be insurance. Injuries can ravage a team quickly so having someone to plug-in seamlessly is crucial to survival. If you’re looking for an example, then think of any point guard not named Rose that Tom Thibodeau had on the bench (John Lucas III, C.J. Watson, D.J. Augustin) and how important they were to the Bulls not falling apart without Rose.
Upon re-signing with the team in late February following Brandon Jennings’ release, Randle was inserted into the rotation and played moderately well. During a Knick win in Orlando, he had his best outing of the season in where he totaled seven points, five assists, five rebounds, and zero turnovers. Bringing Randle back will only cost the team $1.3 million which is a great price for point guard insurance.
Yeah, I wish I could forget about him too. No disrespect to Noah, but he’s not hated because of himself. He’s kind of like the Roman Reigns of the Knicks. If and when fans boo him they are not booing Joakim Noah the player. They are booing Joakim Noah the four-year $72 million contract. He represents everything fans of the Knicks hate about their team, signing over-the-hill talent for big money.
Where it ranks among gross Knicks contracts is yet to be determined, but Noah still has time to make the best of it. He will sit out the first 12 games of next season as he serves a suspension for using a banned substance. That is, if he is even ready at the start of next season.
To make matters worse, Adrian Wojnarowski dropped this Woj Bomb late Tuesday night.
And made sure to twist the knife a bit.
When (or if) he returns, the correct role for him would be playing for another team. With $54 million left on his deal, it would take a supreme sucker GM to take such a deal and last time I checked Billy King, Joe Dumars, and David Kahn were no longer around.
The amnesty clause was not brought back in the new CBA, so the Knicks would need to eat a lot of cash if they so choose to cut him. If Hornacek is a man of his word, then the team will heavily consider cutting bait. Assuming he does stay, there is no perfect fit for him. Hernangómez deserves to start. O’Quinn deserves to be the backup. That would leave Noah as the highest paid third-string center in NBA history.
The one thing he can still be above average at is rebounding. In the 46 games he appeared in, he pulled down 21.3 percent of available total rebounds (via BBall_Ref). His play was not bad towards the end of December and early portion of January, but he went down for the season soon after.
The best option would be to have him as an energy guy for the second unit, moving O’Quinn to power forward in the process. Hell, maybe he just retires and solves everyone’s problems.
Another Summer League standout, Maurice Ndour never got the chance to spread his wings with the Knicks. He’s another high-energy guy who was surprisingly solid in his first career start against the Bulls. His 13 points and 12 rebounds were even more special since it was the first game his mother was able to watch (shouts to moms).
Pushing sentiments aside, there is no reason for Ndour to come back other than filling out a roster. He can’t shoot threes nor does he look to shoot threes. The Knicks have a logjam in the frontcourt as it is so it would be wise to utilize Ndour’s roster spot with a guard who can space the floor.
The third and final Plumlee to enter the NBA, Marshall Plumlee was not active much for the Knicks. Save for the games the Knicks needed an extra body to bang down low, Plumlee was completely expendable until April. He’s in the same boat as Ndour, only he does considerably less if we’re being real.
He signed a non-guaranteed deal last offseason freeing the Knicks of keeping him beyond this year. Assuming the roster spot goes to whoever the team selects in the second-round, or another free agent, Plumlee falls victim to the numbers game.
In the draft, Malik Monk is an intriguing option as he looks like the fusion of Crawford and J.R. Smith. As for the rest of the bench, a 3-and-D guy to fill in for Holiday if he cannot be signed should be the secondary task as well as a wing. The important thing is to keep the core together so they can support the upcoming changes to the starting lineup.
— Mike Cortez, site writer
All statistics taken from Basketball-Reference.