The cast of the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden read like understudy night on Broadway, littered with young unknowns and castoffs from more functional franchises. Sure, Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr. have been mainstays in the league for much of the decade, but the crew alongside them wasn’t pretty. The Knicks will be Trey Burke’s third team in five seasons, and Lance Thomas’s career-high is 8.3 points per game. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Ewing and Starks aren’t walking through that door.
Despite the opening-night no-names, the Knicks’ attack against Atlanta looked nothing like the muddled mess it was without Porzingis in 2017–18. In fact, New York looked downright fluid, sprinting ahead of the Hawks defense in transition and whipping the ball around the perimeter in the halfcourt. The Knicks tallied 72 points in the first half, ending their night with a 126–107 victory. New York seemed closer to playoff contention than a sixth straight trip to the lottery.
“I’ve said the last 12 to 14 years success was determined by how far you went [in the playoffs],” head coach David Fizdale said before tip-off on Wednesday. “I don’t think that’s a fair gauge for this team, I don’t want to put a cap on them.”
Don’t throw any ticker-tape parades down the Canyon of Heroes just yet. The Hawks ranked No. 23 in the league in defensive efficiency last season, and this tankeriffic unit won’t fare much better. However, opening night at MSG did provide a window into what the Knicks’ attack will look like without Porzingis.
New York’s pace was league average last year, ranking No. 18 in the NBA before the All-Star break, 48 games of which were played with Porzingis. The Knicks slightly upped their pace with the large Latvian nursing his torn ACL injury, and it seems like Fizdale is determined to increase the trend in 2018–19. Fizdale was integral in applying a run-and-gun approach to the Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in tow, and even with Hardaway and Frank Ntilikina playing the role of The King and D-Wade, the mantra remains the same: run wild, young ones.
The Knicks ran with abandon against Atlanta, ending the game with a pace rating of 112.5. That would have ranked first in the league by nearly 11 points last season. A Burke dime to Hardaway on the break in the second quarter forced a Hawks timeout, and Frank Ntilikina tallied a pair of first-half assists in transition. Enes Kanter was the only Knick who didn't appear to have the green light tp run off a defensive rebound. It makes sense for this Knicks team. With an undermanned unit, New York will look for easy buckets as much as possible.
“Coach [Fizdale] has been preaching for us to play fast, push the ball,” rookie guard Allonzo Trier said postgame. “When we have as many guys as we do who can get on the break and get us easy baskets we want to put pressure on other teams. It’s a good formula for us.”
Porzingis’s absence will also scuttle New York’s twin towers look with Kanter. The Knicks were nearly interchangeable one through four for much of Wednesday night, running out a bevy of versatile wings. Rookie Kevin Knox played significant minutes at the four, and Noah Vonleh took some center minutes when Kanter headed to the bench. Small ball may be the move forward in the Big Apple.
Knox’s stat line was quiet in his NBA debut. He ended the night with 10 points on 16 shots. But don’t expect him to play a secondary role for long. The Kentucky product was smooth off the bounce and got his best looks flying down the paint on pindowns, sporting a natural jumper to boot. Knox’s recent shooting woes will fade sooner than later, and one of the draft's most potent scorers will be unleashed.
Speaking of potent scorers, Hardaway went off on Wednesday, pouring in 31 points, including 22 in the first half. It wasn’t new territory for Hardaway—who’s scored 30-plus eight times over the previous two seasons—yet opening night was another reminder of just how hot the Michigan product can get. He appears to have a green light with Porzingis out of the picture, and he’ll happily speed through and chuck like he’s back in the Big 10.
“My teammates kept feeding me the ball, they gave me that confidence out there,” Hardaway said. “It’s about making the right play but if they tell me to go and score, I’ll go out there and keep things rolling.”
Kanter, Hardaway and Knox provide a quality front line without Porzingis, and a potentially-lethal one when KP returns. The true question marks come in the backcourt. Burke, Hardawa and Frank Ntilikina are manning the starting guard spots, with Trier filling in with energy and scoring punch off the bench. Trier’s blend of handles and playmaking are intriguing, and he brought the Garden to its feet with a thunderous slam over Taurean Prince in the third quarter. But, in the same mold of Hardaway, is sort of a chucker, but he lacks the NBA scoring credentials. He’ll bring excitement night to night, but Fizdale may want to keep some Advil handy when Trier starts trying to shake defenders out of their shoes.
Ntilikina has already proven his worth on the defensive end. He sports arms that fall to his kneecaps and an elite quick-twitch into open passing lanes. Ntilikina spend Wednesday night in the jersey of Trae Young and the ageless Vince Carter, holding the pair to a combined 9–23 on the night. But the other end of the floor provides significant question marks.
Let’s start with the good news: Ntilikina looked more comfortable without the ball in his hand on Wednesday, even draining a triple in the first quarter. Atlanta didn’t completely sag off Ntilikina as teams did during his rookie season, and the prior hesitancy to shoot looks to have dissipated.
Yet it still feels like Ntilikina is an offensive tweener without a positional home. Ntilikina's shot limits him from being a true two, and he lacks the vision and natural playmaking ability to lead the offense from the point. At this time in his career Ntilikina is a functional yet uninspiring offensive player, very much still a work in progress. Improvement will come, but his offensive ceiling is ultimately limited.
Fizdale would be thrilled to face Atlanta and the dregs of the NBA on a nightly basis. At least he’ll get to be in the East this season and not the bloodbath that is the West. Hard times are on the way, though, with a home date against Boston coming on Saturday and a road contest at Milwaukee on Monday. The Knicks will be overmatched in both contests, but their blueprint to victory will be the same: run like the wind, and have the crew of wings headlined by Hardaway and Knox let it fly.