Points of Progress

The Knicks are bad, but that doesn't mean they can't still be progressing in sustainable ways, including a few that could pay off big-time in the long run.
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The further away we get, the clearer it becomes.

Last summer, what was billed as a carefully thought out, precisely executed Plan B (or Plan 1A, if you believe what was said at Media Day) has revealed itself to be anything but.

Some players were signed. The logic behind it? As best as anyone can tell, it involved getting the best back-of-the-basketball-card stats for the least amount of guaranteed years. Flexibility was maintained, but without organizational growth, what value did that really have?

It's a question we've had to revisit frequently this season as the Knicks, thanks in large part due to those very signings, are no closer to a definitive identity than they were when the clock struck 6:00 pm on June 30th.

In 2020-21, barring a completely unforeseen and borderline miraculous event, New York will once again be a bad basketball team (or at the very least, won't be an elite one. Even in a down summer for free agents, there's enough functional talent available for them to pull off what they failed so spectacularly at in 2019. The wisdom of signing such players - or trading for a certain 34-year-old point guard whose former agent now runs the team - is a different inquiry altogether).

Given that state of affairs, Leon Rose has to commit to doing something that hasn't been done 'round these parts in over 20 years: give the Knicks meaning, and one that doesn't contain the letters L, O, or L.

For inspiration, I took a quick look around the league at franchises in a similar state of affairs - not very good, but with some young talent - that have successfully formulated an identity to build on in the years to come.

Here are a few standouts:

Phoenix Suns - 66.6 assist rate (1st)

The Suns have all but fallen out of the playoff race, but they do one thing better than any other team in the league, and that's move the ball with a purpose.

A lot of this is obviously due to Ricky Rubio, who is consistently one of the league leaders not only in assist percentage (how many of his team's assists he's responsible for) but also assist ratio (how many of his possessions end in an assist).

The Suns as a team are second overall in the latter category, and the ethos has spread throughout their roster, with guys like Devin Booker (6.4 assists per 36 minutes), Aron Baynes (2.8/26) and even Deandre Ayton (2.1/36) getting in on the action.

The Knicks are 26th in the league in assist rate, but already have plus passing at a non-traditional position with RJ Barrett. For all his warts, we also know that Julius Randle is at least capable of making the extra pass (why he rarely does is a different story). Toss in this recent display from Mitch, and echoing the Suns' success might be a possibility:

Washington Wizards - 103.67 Pace (5th)

The Go Go Wizards have been one of the more entertaining teams in basketball all season long.

They come at you, and they come at you fast. It's helped them knock on the door of being a top-ten offense despite having only one bonafide star and a roster full of players who might not be in the rotation for an average contender.

The result of playing with a jet pack on is that the Wizards are able to run themselves into many easy shots. It's why, according to Cleaning the Glass, they join the Spurs, Jazz and Heat as the only teams with a top-ten field goal percentage on both shots at the rim and from behind the arc.

The Knicks - again, thanks in large part to RJ and Randle being able to grab rebounds and go - are capable of playing at a much faster pace than their current number of 99.15, good enough for 23rd in the NBA (although their ranking has increased to 17th since Mike Miller took over)

They can still push it even more though, like we saw on Monday night against Houston:

Elfrid Payton, Frank Ntilikina and the mothballed Damyean Dotson being capable rebounding guards can also help this effort.

Detroit Pistons - 10.7 percent corner three frequency (3rd)

The Pistons are nobody's idea of a good offensive team - they rank just 19th in offensive rating this season - but the one thing they do very well is get a ton of the most efficient shots in the game today.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pistons are one of two teams (the Jazz are the other) to rank in the top three in both frequency of corner threes and conversion rate on those shots. The percentage of offensive possessions that result in these tasty looks has only gone up since trading Andre Drummond (they've been at 12.4 percent since February 6) and the offense has opened up that much more.

Sadly, just 6.6 percent of Knick shot attempts come from the corners, a number that has remained stagnant even under Miller.

This is one area where Julius Randle's unwillingness to play nicely with others often comes back to bite them:

The other glaring issue here is the lack of spacing, caused in part by an overload of Knicks on the strong side and the one man in the corner - Dennis Smith Jr. - currently shooting 33 percent from the corners on a grand total of nine attempts.

The good news is that New York does have some plus shooters from this spot, including Frank Ntilikina (50 percent on 26 attempts), Bobby Portis (42 percent on 39 attempts), Julius Randle (38 percent on 37 attempts)and RJ Barrett (only 37 percent, but his shot has been looking better of late).

The good news here, as is the case with most of these categories: there's nowhere to go but up.