By, matt | Jan. 18, 2020, 9:16 a.m.
We’re officially halfway done with the 2019-20 season, so let’s look at the most interesting teams in the league… the bottom feeders. Why are these teams so bad? What can they do to be better? Well, I’ve got the answers, so read on folks...
Golden State Warriors (9-34)
Talk about a fall from grace. NBA Finals to bottom of the barrell. KD gone, Klay ACL tear, Curry broken hand, Dray and Russell oft injured. Oh well, just how the cards fall sometimes. At this point, with your top guys out, the best play is to just tank, secure a high draft position, make your moves, and try again next year.
They’ll have options, too. If they end up with the worst record, they’ll have a 52.1% chance of landing a top 4 pick and a 14% at first overall. That’s a valuable pick and they can use it as trade bait to bring in some star talent. With Curry almost 32 years old and Klay and Draymond almost 30, it doesn’t really make sense to keep the pick if the goal is to compete next year.
If they do trade the pick, they’ll likely try to package it with D’Angelo Russell to try and bring in top-tier talent. I’ve seen mock trades with names like Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson, Bradley Beal, even Giannis Antetokounmpo... I don’t see any of those players moving this year, but they could try to pry away a Jrue Holiday, Danilo Gallinari, maybe
even an unhappy KAT sometime before the end of February. But regardless of who they end up with, this is the right move. If they can keep Curry, Klay, and Dray healthy next year, sign a couple vets on league minimum deals, and bring in another star, they can compete with anyone in the league. Then, if you run into more injuries or the gameplan just doesn’t work for whatever reason, you can blow the team up and rebuild. But there’s no harm in trying to run it back one more time and close out the dynasty with another ring.
Atlanta Hawks (10-32)
No one expected the Hawks to be eastern conference contenders this year but the number 10 showing in the win column at the midway point of the season is a huge disappointment, no doubt. Vegas had their over/under at 33.5 and I, like many others, slammed the over, pegging the Hawks to be a competitive fringe 8th seed playoff team. But injuries and a lack of cohesion and experience have hit the Hawks hard and they find themselves sitting with the second-worst record in the league.
Some of the disappointment can be attributed to injuries and missed time. They lost their primary big man, John Collins, for 25 games due to a suspension for testing positive for banned growth hormones, second-year wing, Kevin Huerter, for 11 games with a rotator cuff injury, and new and improved Jabari Parker for 10 of the last 11 games with an ankle injury -- it’s hard to develop any sort of rhythm or chemistry when you have to keep shuffling the rotations around.
But even with a healthy roster, Atlanta’s still losing games. They’re still young and green and don’t have the knowhow and experience to win the winnable games. Problem is, outside of Trae, I don’t know what the Hawks are other than a group of semi-interesting young prospects. Collins is a solid young stretch forward who can body down low and set hard screens and roll to the rim for alley oop finishes, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter look to be promising 3 and D wings, Cam Reddish is really raw but does show flashes, especially on the defensive end… but all of these guys need more time to grow and develop individually before they can develop an identity as a team. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that -- it took time for Steph, Klay, and Draymond to grow before forging their identity, same with Milwaukee, Philly, Houston.
But they’re definitely a couple of years and a couple of pieces away from legitimate playoff contention, even in the east. I’ve heard some Andre Drummond to Atlanta rumblings and I think that could be a good move for them. He’s in the last year of his contract before his player option kicks in and could be a good short-term option. He gets them pretty close to that 8th seed and will really help Trae develop his pick and lob game. It’s pretty clear John Collins isn’t a legit center and Drummond could provide some more rim protection and rebounding for them -- areas they rank towards the bottom this year.
It’ll remain to be seen whether Hunter and Huerter can grow into third or fourth options offensively, but until then, they need wing scoring now if they want to compete. Jrue Holiday comes to mind as the perfect complimentary player to Trae -- he thrives off ball as much as he does with the ball in his hands and can offer the perimeter defense Trae lacks… and he’s only on the books for two more years after this season (one year + player option).
I think one or two shorter term contracts like Drummond and Jrue is what the doctor ordered for the Hawks. They don’t need the home run free agents or trades right now, their main concern should be developing Trae, Collins, Hunter, and Huerter. When dealing with rosters with young, promising talent, I’m not a big fan of repeatedly tanking to try to secure draft position -- the young guys eventually get restless and actively trying to win games will only help them down the road… especially with the new lottery odds, tanking just isn’t as profitable anymore. I’m also not a fan of taking on a bunch of 1-2 year vet deals, a la the Knicks, because that stunts player development more than anything. But one or two vets that can come in, play alongside the youngsters while trying to fight for a mid to late playoff spot is a surefire way to build a team for the long run. They have the young assets, time to start competing.
And speaking of the long run, the silver lining Atlanta cares about most -- the present and future of the organization, Trae Young -- is having one hell of a sophomore season. Check out his counting stats: 28.9 points, 4.5 boards, 8.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 3.4 threes per game on .443/.367/.846 shooting splits, all up from his rookie year. He ranks 4th in scoring, 5th in assists, 4th in usage rate, 6th in offensive BPM, and 13th in PER. He runs the pick and roll like a seasoned vet, gets to the rim, has great court vision, can pull up from anywhere… and he’s 21 years old. Say what you will about empty numbers on a bad team because every one of Atlanta’s opponents has one objective -- to try and slow down Trae. They’ll trap on picks and rolls, hedge, pick him up at half court, basically try anything and everything to slow him down. Once he gets some real help offensively, the Hawks will be a tough team for anyone to hold down, especially if they continue to play at such a fast pace.
Where critics of Trae have more of a gripe is on the defensive end, where he struggles. He’s not Isaiah Thomas level bad, where teams just go after him every possession, but then again, Trae’s defense hasn’t been tested in the playoffs yet, where opposing teams while assuredly target him. I don’t know how significant his defensive deficiencies will end up being throughout his career, if it ends up being his Achilles heel or not, but it’s something to keep an eye on. It’s the reason the Hawks drafted De’Andre Hunter and I’m sure more defensive wings will be brought in over the years.
Bottom line: keep player development top of mind, but start looking at some vets who can come in and help win some games.
New York Knicks (11-31)
The Knicks’ season is going exactly as you’d expect so far. The disappointing offseason, the Fizdale firing, the hodgepodge roster, the fanbase calling for the owner’s head… not much has changed in New York over the past 20 years, and it doesn’t look to change anytime soon.
And while Mills and Perry did the right thing in bringing in as much young talent as possible this summer, the young core still leaves much to be desired. Kevin Knox’s sophomore campaign couldn’t be going any worse… his points, rebounds, assists, shooting splits, and (most importantly) minutes are all down from his historically bad rookie season and we’re now starting to see lost confidence, reduced effort, and lots of lost looks from the 20 year old. He really doesn’t belong in the big leagues right now and it’s baffling why the Knicks don’t just send him down to the G League for a bit. There, he could work on his skills and more importantly gain confidence against the weaker competition. He’s still not even old enough to drink so there’s no need to panic just yet, he’s just clearly not ready to matchup against NBA forwards at this point.
Dennis Smith Jr’s been plagued by injuries this year, playing in only 21 games, but even when he does play he hasn’t shown anything promising. There’s not an area he truly excels at, unfortunately. He’s not a great shooter, can’t get to the rim very well, isn’t a playmaker, has trouble sticking with his man on defense… it’s just not clear how he can realistically help a team when he’s on the floor right now, which explains the 16 minutes per game this year. Let’s hope he can get healthy and start showing some improvement sooner rather than later or he’ll have a tough time finding a team once his rookie contract expires after next year.
Frank Ntilikina on the other hand, is turning into a solid on-ball perimeter defender who can really pester opposing guards. He’s long and athletic and can get into passing lanes, contest shots, and get around screens, reminds you of a Tony Allen lite or a less spastic Pat Beverly. Offensively, he still hasn’t quite figured it out yet, though he is looking more aggressive and looks to get to the rim a bit more. Problem is, he still only does so in spurts -- he’ll give you a solid quarter or half every now and again, but can’t seem to stay aggressive for games at a time. His shooting is up from last year, but that’s not saying a whole lot… he’s still only hitting 38% from the field and 32% from downtown. In order for him to get legit starter playing time, he’ll have to knock down the three at league average clips at the least.
Aside from RJ, Mitchell Robinson is the Knicks’ top prospect. He’s got the frame, athleticism, and skillset to become a top rim runner/rim protector, a la Deandre Jordan or Rudy Gobert, but still needs to become more disciplined, especially on the defensive end. He still hasn’t shed a lot of the bad habits that showed in his rookie year -- he jumps at every pump fake, swipes for blocks, and gets caught flat footed on pick and rolls. At 7’0” with a 7’4” wingspan, you really shouldn’t ever leave your feet on defense… just stay vertical, focus on contesting
shots and the blocks will come without getting into foul trouble. He still averages 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes so he’ll need to stop hunting for blocks if he wants to be able to stay in games. I’m not so worried about this tho, as these are skills he’ll pick up with experience. And he has great instincts, especially offensively, where he’s well on his way to becoming a top lob finisher -- I mean you just have to toss up a lob within 6 feet of him and he’ll throw it down…
RJ Barrett, New York’s consolation prize after losing the Zion sweepstakes
, looks to be a promising star in the making. His counting stats don’t jump out at you and his shooting percentages aren’t great, but he definitely passes the eye test. He’s athletic, aggressive, can get to the rim, has good spatial awareness… he just needs time to develop. He’s only 19 years old and has been playing out of position much of the year, so the numbers are kind of irrelevant. It’s still early, but I think he projects to be a solid number two or three option on a contender, 5-6 years from now.
None of the other young guns tho, Damyean Dotson, Kadeem Allen, Alonzo Trier, Ignas Brazdeikas, are all that interesting and don’t project to be anything more than bench or deep rotation guys. The Knicks would like for one or two of these guys to show a little more promise, but the real problem with the roster is all the vets that were signed to short-term deals over the summer. After striking out so embarrassingly in the offseason, not getting Zion, and getting snubbed by KD and Kyrie, Mills and Perry felt they couldn’t turn around and then tell fans (and James Dolan) they were going to tank and continue to build thru the draft so they decided to sign a bunch of vets to short-term contracts. This would keep them flexible next summer and allow them to try and compete for a playoff spot (lol). But this save-your-ass approach from Mills and Perry brings on a bunch of vets interested in looking as good as possible for their next contract. So the Marcus Morrises and the Bobby Portises and the Julius Randles are doing exactly what you’d expect -- isoing every chance they get, looking off teammates, trying to pad the stat sheets any way they can. You can’t expect the young prospects to properly develop when you have vets playing for contracts, they’re just not gonna get the reps they need and team chemistry sufferers as a result.
Silver linings for the Knicks, in order: 1. Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, and Wayne Ellington, are off the books next year. 2. RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson project to be stars. 3. They’re somehow the highest-valued team in the league. 4. They still have Clyde Frazier calling the home games.