Guessing at the Knicks’ Backcourt Rotation

The Knicks will have a lot of options in the backcourt this season. All of them are bad.

Trying to make a decision when you have a lot of options available to you is a tricky thing. The best version of this situation is when all of the options available to you are equally good. In this case, you can have confidence in any decision you make knowing that you can’t really go wrong. Things become more difficult and anxiety-inducing when you have a feeling that some choices may be better than others but you aren’t exactly sure which are which. The simplest situation of all, however, is the one in which all options are bad and you’re doomed to failure no matter what you do. In this case, you don’t have to concern yourself with your decision, you just have to accept the predetermined and unavoidable outcome of disaster.

It is in this last situation that the Knicks seem to find themselves as they look to establish their lead guard rotation for the upcoming NBA season. With the addition of veteran Jarrett Jack on a one-year non-guaranteed deal, the Knicks now have nine guards signed to their training camp roster. These players range from older veterans who have no business starting on good NBA teams to intriguing young players and untested rookies. In essence, the Knicks have a lot of options to choose from at the point, and none of them are great for the purpose of trying to win professional basketball games.

But there’s the catch. This year’s Knicks, at least on an organizational level, are unconcerned with winning games. This isn’t a secret. Team president Steven Mills spent the summer talking about rebuilding the franchise, and in the process he tossed out all the classic bad-team euphemisms. Mills often expressed a desire to build around youth and to build for the future. He discussed a renewed focus on player development. He spoke openly about trying to trade star Carmelo Anthony. All of this is lightly veiled NBA corporate-speak for: “We are going to be bad next year. We know it, and we’re okay with it.”

Priority #1: The Unicorn

If the Knicks aren’t trying to win games, then, the best way to guess at how they might arrange their guard rotation is to order their non-winning priorities. The first among these will likely be feeding budding franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis, who, regardless of whether or not Anthony stays on the team, will eventually take the reigns as the team’s number one option on offense. Porzingis, with his heralded combination of size, athleticism, and shooting touch, is a breathtakingly-talented player.

At this point in his young career, however, he still isn’t great at creating his own shot. He still needs someone to set him up and make sure that he gets the ball in the right places on the floor. For this reason, the Knicks will likely begin the season playing more experienced veterans like Ramon Sessions or Jack with the starting unit.

Priority #2: Development

The Knicks’ second priority heading into the season will be developing its bevy of younger and rookie players. Top among these is incoming French rookie Frank Ntilikina, the long, athletic guard the Knicks selected with this year’s eighth overall draft pick. Ntilikina received praised for his defensive instincts and projects to be a solid NBA player down the line, but the Knicks will likely seek to bring him along slowly this season. While it’s possible that he will have moved up to the starting lineup by the season’s end, the rookie will probably start the season coming off the bench and carrying a minute load similar to the sub-20 minutes per game he shouldered in his last season with French Pro A team Strasbourg.

Besides Ntilikina, returning combo guard Ron Baker also looks to see some minutes running the point off the bench. Baker is a scrappy hustle player with solid defensive instincts, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever be more than that. He struggled last season as a playmaker and primary ball handler, though he did show flashes of solid off-ball play and spot-up shooting. As a reported favorite of head coach Jeff Hornacek, he’ll likely receive some opportunity early on to develop as a lead distributor and offensive initiator.

Priority #3: Not the Triangle

The Knicks’ third priority this season will be to experiment with different styles of play to see what might work in the Porzingis-centric offense of the future. Now that Hornacek has been freed from the confines of running ex-team president Phil Jackson’s beloved triangle offense, it seems likely that he will test out more up-tempo and pick-and-roll heavy styles of play.

Part of this offensive experimentation may include giving greater playmaking responsibilities to wing players who are not necessarily natural fits at point guard, such as Courtney Lee and the returning Tim Hardaway, Jr. Hornacek notably experimented with using Lee as a primary playmaker and ball handler with bench units in the second half of last season to great effect. He may test Hardaway in the same fashion to start the year, especially if the Knicks nominal point guards prove to be unable to fulfill the playmaking duties the offense requires.

Whatever the Knicks ultimately choose to do with their point guard rotation, it’s practically a given that they will lose a lot of games. They are, after all, a bad team, even in the context of a truly anemic Eastern Conference. This is nothing new, of course. The Knicks have missed the playoffs in the last four seasons and have generally ranged in quality from abysmally bad to boringly mediocre. That there is so much uncertainty and possibility with their backcourt rotation should at least help to keep things interesting. If we’re lucky, they might just stumble across something fun. Maybe even across something that gives a glimpse into a brighter future.

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Nick Martinez

Martinez is a beat writer covering the New York Knicks for the Hoops Inquirer.

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