Dennis Smith Jr
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

The New York Knicks have little hope for next season. But a leap from point guard Dennis Smith Jr. could change things. 

Collin Loring

Irony is a weird thing. And saying that New York could potentially make the playoffs, after the same summer the New York Knicks whiffed on promised free agent signings Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, is nothing short of such.

Let me take you back to the summer of 2017.

Franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis had shown enough to the front office and fans alike: the kid could ball. It was up to that same front office to draft compatible, top-level talent in the upcoming draft, and ensure the rebuild had a foundation.

Many fans were confident Dennis Smith Jr. would be the selection. Instead, Phil Jackson opted for defensive standout Frank Ntilikina from France. And his time with the Knicks couldn’t have really gone any more poorly since.

Hell, the kid may not even play a minute for the team next year. We haven’t heard either way on that just yet, but he’s been the subject of plenty of trade rumors within the past year.

It makes sense when you take a look at the front office’s offseason additions.

They added Dennis Smith Jr. at last year’s deadline and signed Elfrid Payton in the offseason. There’s no denying that while they’re beneath Ntilikina defensively, both offer more in the passing game and offensive end overall.

Smith especially, is bracing for a pivotal year on his NBA journey.

Don’t believe me? People don’t just alter their jump shot for the hell of it. He and his agent are both aware that this year could not only make-or-break his career, but determine his future with the Knicks.

For the Knicks, Smith is likely the most important player in a season that was previously devoted to contention. And he still thinks contention (somewhat) is in play, justifying it over his own summer work and improvement.

“I think we can hit the playoffs. Everybody do a lot of talking and things like that,” Smith said, via the New York Daily News. “I’ve never really been one to feed into it on social media and things like that. But I think we have a really good team, and especially with the way I’ve been working this summer, I think I’m going to take my game to the next level and it’s going to put us in the playoffs.”

That’s not as bold as Derrick Rose infamously labeling New York a “super team,” but the 21-year-old certainly believes he’s elevated his game since April.

After striking out on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and every other K-letter free agent, the Knicks are back on the track of a rebuild. But the talent they’re rolling out this time around is far more promising than October of last year.

In addition to Payton, the Knicks added: Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Julius Randle, Reggie Bullock, Taj Gibson, and Marcus Morris into the fold. All this came after they drafted RJ Barrett third overall.

There’s no denying how fun this team looks on paper. And yes, for Knicks fans, this is about as fun as it gets. But the real question, is just how far can they go?

Playoff Talk? TBD

The Eastern Conference has once again bottomed out. After a year where they served home to the Finals champion, they’ve reverted back to the little brother conference.

As far as I’m concerned, there are six locks to go to the playoffs in the East, barring any trades/major injuries.

In no particular order: Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, Brooklyn, Detroit, and Miami.

That leaves two seeds up to chance. Is it possible that the Orlando Magic can make another run back to the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons?

Will the Toronto Raptors hit 40 wins without their best player, who exited to join Paul George on the Los Angeles Clippers?

I have a hard time believing both of these can hold true. But if only one of them comes to fruition, that leaves one more playoff seed left for a dark horse team.

Chicago? Unlikely. The Hornets and Cavaliers are lost in the tank wars. Atlanta taking a huge step? They seem too young.

Before any of those scenarios, you’d have better luck talking me into a Russell Westbrook MVP-esque season from Bradley Beal.

But at no point, as it stands now, can we count out the New York Knicks. And I say this, fully ready for any groans and moans.

Point Guard and Point of Focus

For most fans, it’s no secret that New York has long been damned by the point guard position. In my mind, a lot of the issues that pushed Kristaps Porzingis to ask out from the Knicks, start and end there.

While the 7-foot Latvian could dazzle all with dunks galore, had above average handles and a reliable three-point shot, he still lacked a capability to run the floor.

And New York has failed to acquire a franchise point guard for almost as long as Porzingis has been alive.

No one’s blaming him for asking out (except for every and all Knicks fan). He was already a unicorn in his own right. But a real point guard could have maximized his ceiling, while keeping his superstar temperament at bay.  

New York’s last functioning point guard was Stephon Marbury? Maybe an argument could be made for Raymond Felton?

Nearly everything good about a basketball team stems from a quality point guard. Orlando, who I mentioned earlier, has been striking out in that area for years. And their success as a franchise is hard to find.

The Knicks newest name to man the position has already displayed a lot of what New York has been missing over the last few seasons: athleticism, court vision, and speed. 

What Smith is lacking (but aggressively working to improve) is a jump shot of any reliability. He’s reminiscent of a young Westbrook in that he can always score within the post, but beyond that; is more of a liability when forced to shoot.

On his career, Smith has knocked down just 32% of his three-pointers, and only 67 shots last season. 

But, as previously mentioned, he’s been advertising a modified jump shot. And it truly looks improved.

Even if he doesn’t become a respectable threat from deep, New York has added some serious three-point talent to their arsenal.

After making just 845 three-pointers as a team last year (24th in the NBA), they’ve added multiple career marksman in Bullock (.392), Portis (.361), and Wayne Ellington (.379).

And if you pay attention, Smith has an almost natural lean in his jump shot. So if I’m Fizdale, he’s got the green light to shoot from behind-the-arc. If anything, Smith has as good a chance as anyone at getting to the line for three.

With a 60-40 balance of veteran and young guys, it’s important that New York have a point guard (or two) that can keep the offense flowing. Should Smith take the leap, the Knicks’ ceiling rises substantially.

Look, I’m not saying New York will be making an appearance in the 2020 NBA playoffs. All I’m saying is, to rule them out now, as the roster stands on paper; is a bit cynical for my taste.

Dennis Smith Jr. taking the next step as an NBA-talent and floor general could make or break any talk of a New York Knicks playoff berth.

Point guard is the team’s strongest position of need, and if manned properly, would round out a bottom-end playoff roster.

So sit back Knicks fans, and relax. And honestly, just be thankful it’s not Emmanuel Mudiay I’m trying to talk you into.

 

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