Full disclosure: I began writing this 3-2-1 column on January 30th, back when the world made some sense. The Knicks were bad, yes. But, there was reason to believe in something. The return of a 7’3 rim-protecting, three-point shooting unicorn was still in our future. Latvian-born yet home-grown, skyscrapingly tall, but improbably graceful: a walking contradiction. Those dreams have since been dashed, and I’m left thinking about Kristaps Porzingis in a Tyler Durden-esque way. Was he ever even real? Was he just a mirage that sprouted from Knicks fans’ collective imaginations? The reckless part of us that, despite being hurt over and again by this franchise, still isn’t afraid to dream too big.
I considered scrapping this whole article, but that’s what James Dolan wants. The trade is still very raw, so I haven’t fully processed it yet. I’ll reserve proper judgement until I’ve had time to collect my thoughts. So with that, here’s a 3-2-1 that hopefully brings you back to a simpler time.
1) Mitchell Robinson: blocker of step-back threes
With two minutes to go in the game and the Houston Rockets up by only five points, back-to-back MVP frontrunner James Harden took one of his lauded step-back threes to ice the game over a feisty but overmatched Knicks team. This particular step-back three is considered by some to be unguardable. It’s even been called the modern version of Kareem’s sky hook. As he gathered the ball to begin his stroke, the impending result felt like a forgone conclusion. Harden, in the midst of one of the most historic offensive tears in NBA history, seemed destined to hit the biggest shot of the game in the world’s most famous arena.
It felt like one of those moments where after the game a reporter asks Harden about it and he says, “As soon as it left my fingertips, I knew it was good…” or something like that. But here’s the thing: as soon as the ball left his fingertips, it was far from good. Instead, immediately upon release, the ball encountered a different set of fingertips, which appeared at the very end of the impossibly long arms of rookie Mitchell Robinson. Here’s the most shocking part about that sequence: it wasn’t the first time those fingertips had disrupted Harden’s step-back three that night. Here are both of those swats in case they somehow were not permanently engrained in your memory:
OK, now I have stats, people. Heading into the Knicks game, Harden had attempted 563 three-point attempts (this does not include three-shot fouls). He had only been blocked a total of four times on those attempts. Per NBA.com’s matchup data, Robinson guarded Harden on five possessions, allowing three field goal attempts…and blocked two of them! Robinson remains the only big to block a Harden three-pointer.
In case that wasn’t enough for you, on Wednesday night, Robinson found himself switched onto another player who is renowned for his step-back three, Luka Doncic. Here’s how that went down:
Coming into Wednesday’s game, Doncic had attempted 321 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference. Only two of those had been blocked. Robinson’s combination of length, athleticism and (especially) timing make him an elite shot-blocker, both at the rim and on the perimeter. It’s a skill that will serve him well in a league that forces bigs to switch onto perimeter players and make stops.
2) Another unlikely on-court friendship
Back in November, I wrote about the unlikely on-court chemistry between Enes Kanter and Mario Hezonja. Now, it appears we have another surprising symbiosis developing between the aforementioned Mitchell Robinson and…Allonzo Trier?! (Record scratch). Trier has earned his “Iso Zo” nickname this season, assisting on only 14% of teammates’ field goals, per Cleaning The Glass. That ranks in the 26th percentile among combo guards. By and large, Trier has focused on creating his own shot versus getting his teammates involved. But, for some reason, he has really looked for Robinson as a rolling target. Per NBA.com, Trier has thrown 86 total assists, 17 of which have gone to Robinson, his most prolific assist partner. Even more impressive, 10 of those 17 assists have been classified as alley oops, including three consecutive in the Charlotte game alone:
I always enjoy these surprising partnerships. They’re like those viral videos where a mother duck befriends a baby giraffe. And, just like with those videos, I don’t know how it happened but I want to see more.
3) Allonzo Trier playing Moreyball
Trier would be a confounding, at times frustrating player if he were not an undrafted rookie. He turns the ball over a lot, he’s a very bad defender, and he’s not all that efficient from the field. His eFG is in the 40th percentile among combo guards. But, well, he is an undrafted rookie, with plenty of time to grow. And, most encouragingly he has shown promise from the most efficient parts of the floor. Per Cleaning The Glass, he’s shooting a whopping 45% of his attempts at the rim, 93rd percentile among combo guards. His finishing has been inconsistent, but his ability to attack and get looks at the rim is an awesome sign.
Second, even though he’s not shooting many of his shots from behind the arc, he’s connecting on 39.1% from three. He will need to get that volume up to become an actual threat from long range, but 27-of-69 is a nice start. Finally, and most importantly, Trier is getting fouled on 14.6% of his field goal attempts, a higher rate than 96% of his fellow combo guards. The guy gets to the line at will.
Granted, Trier does still take about a quarter of his shots from “long mid-range,” per Cleaning The Glass, which is way too many. He’ll need to bump those shots back a couple feet to make them a more sustainable and valuable part of his shot diet. Layups, three-pointers, free throws. That’s been the direction the modern NBA has been creeping towards for a long time. Trier has shown the talent to be the poster boy for this brand of math-centric basketball.
The BBall Index’s Similarity Tool rates 2015-16 Lou Williams as a 74% similarity score, one of the closest player comparisons. That’s Trier’s ultimate ceiling.
1) Is Kadeem Allen a rotation player?
It’s probably not worth trying to answer this after just 36 minutes of action in the last two games, but Allen has looked solid. I loved this pass from him to (an always cutting) Mario Hezonja:
Another plus: the defense looked OK with him in there. He had this really nice steal off a dribble hand-off which resulted in a flagrant foul:
And, less obvious, check out his help defense on this possession. In this one, the Knicks helped and recovered until they forced a missed shot and retained possession (yes, I know that’s how defense works, but it’s rare enough to call out). Watch as he sprints to the baseline to cut off a driving Malik Monk who had just beaten Trier off the dribble:
How many guys aside from Frank would’ve made that play? Plus, Allen crashed the glass more in those two games than THJ did in his entire Knicks career. I liked what I saw!
2) Will I make it through this entire column without bashing Kanter?
Kanter has kissed the Garden’s floor for the last time.
Again, I wrote this prediction before the Porzingis trade. It seems quaint now in retrospect. I thought Kanter moving would be the biggest shake-up of the trade deadline. But, then again, my predictions have consistently been wrong. My other prediction is I can’t wait to break down the new squad including Dennis Smith Jr.! Until next time, stay strong Knicks fans.