NBA folks like to say that the league is a copycat league. The NFL folks, the MLB folks and the NHL folks also say this about their respective leagues. It would be a little bit weird to watch a league wherein the teams did NOT try to emulate best practices, but I’m a Lions fan so what am I saying, I already do watch a league like that. But, real teams seem to be focused on, how you say, “improving” and so they copy other teams’ good ideas. You can see this with the increased usage of bullpens in MLB, and three pointers in the NBA. Football intelligentsia (and, fans everywhere) hope that NFL coaches start going for it on 4th down, a la the Super Bowl champion Eagles, but that behavior hasn’t yet been accepted as advantageous by the NFL, at large.
(Speaking of questionably advantageous, it’s nice that the Pistons might actually be a, ahem, “good team” in the near future, because the Lions just hired as their new head coach a man who let Nick Foles win the Super Bowl against Tom Brady, and the Tigers are going to be so bad at baseballing that Miguel Cabrera is going to feel like his planet just got obliterated by an asteroid, and he’s still alive on a single piece of earth that exploded out into space, and he looks around and sees nothing but imminent death, and he wonders just what the hell he’s supposed to do now. Seriously, watching this Tigers season is going to be like committing a war crime: we’ll be watching an atrocity. We’re culpable. We’re complicit. Can I blow your mind real quick? Jordan Zimmermann has one of the 25 most expensive contracts in the Major League de Baseball. In 2018, this man is making $24 million. I believe that’s more annually than what Yu Darvish just received. Yu Darvish is, let me check, yup! he’s better than Jordan Zimmermann ever was or ever will be at baseballing. I look at the Tigers rotation and I think of nuclear bomb testing sites, and the terrible impact on the surrounding environment. I think of Terminator, and wonder if there’s enough of humanity left alive in the post-Verlander future to send a hero back in time and save us from this nightmare. I feel like watching Victor Martinez try to move literally any part of his body without grimacing in pain will feel like opening the Ark of the Covenant and having your whole goddamn face melt off your whole goddamn head. “Radio to God,” my ass! That is a face melting device, if I’ve ever seen one! And, ohhh my goodness, Ron Gardenhire. Jesus wept. Ron Gardenhire isn’t good at anything except having adult baby cheeks. I am NOT a believer in his Twins regime.)
Anyway. The NBA is a copycat league! I mention this because I think it explains the unusual trade deadline of the two basketball teams from New York.
At the deadline, the Knicks acquired Emmanuel Mudiay, a point guard, while the Brooklyn Nets did NOT trade their starting point guard, Spencer Dinwiddie, despite his value as a low contract, good player. I was miffed by both decisions at first. I didn’t like that the Knicks were putting another obstacle in between their rookie point guard, the French Resistance, Frank Ntilikina, and minutes. And, I didn’t like that Brooklyn wasted an opportunity to get draft picks.
On further reflection, I think I get it.
The successful teams in the NBA right now have several things in common, including a reliance on outside shooting. But, they also share this trait: They have at least two players who can handle the ball and perform “point guard” duties. The Warriors infamously have four players who can run the floor and create their own shot; Cleveland had LeBron, one of the best distributors ever, and Kyrie; Toronto has two elite guards, both of whom can play point; Washington, D.C., and Portland both have elite backcourts in which either guard can run the show, if need be, and lineups can be staggered so that at least one of them is on the court at all times; the Spurs have had Tony Parker and Manu out there for DECADES; and, of course, the Houston Rockets now play two of the most devastating point guards of all time.
Houston’s experiment with Chris Paul and James Harden is a resounding success, even if it never wins a title. They’ve unlocked a type of play as valuable as the Warriors did when Steph and Klay started bombing from deep. Everyone needs to be able to shoot these days, and everyone needs to be able to pass. What’s left in the basketball skill book?
Everyone needs to be able to handle the ball. Y’know, it’s funny, we keep thinking that point guards are maybe getting phased out of the game because taller guys are playing as distributors, but it’s the opposite: In the future, EVERYONE will be a point guard. EVERYONE will be asked to be able to run the floor, set up the play, read the court, dribble out of traps and reset the offense, etc. Even Centers like Nikola Jokic and Andre Drummond are running their teams as distributors. Blake Griffin’s arrival in Detroit announced his emergence as a point forward, a position that LeBron has been playing for a decade.
Having two “point” players means that you have two guys who can see the court, read the defense, and set the offense into motion. It means being able to keep a floor general on the floor at all times. It means having two guys who are used to creating shots for their teammates, rather that just having one. It means more dynamism, more movement, more tempo, more effective shots. Being a “guard” doesn’t mean you have to be shorter than everyone else, just like being a “center” doesn’t mean you have to be the tallest guy on the court (Draymond Green, for example). And, now that staggering minutes is being copycatted round the league, having two starter-level distributors makes even more sense, because now you never have to sacrifice that position as less-than. You can always have Chris Paul or James Harden on the court, and sometimes you can have both. Good distributors elevate the rest of the team. So, why not have that all the time?
NBA teams, we are told, are ravenous for advantage. Having 100% more of a precious resource (good ball distributor) than the opposing team on the court is a damn good advantage. Could the Spurs have been good for so long without their guards? Have Tony and Manu been keeping both lines of San Antonio humming at an elevated level, but we kept missing the forest for the trees, and insisted on calling Manu a shooting guard, or a 2 guard?
I think New York and Brooklyn looked at Houston and said, That’s what we should do. Two “point guards.” Two guys who know what they’re doing, at all times. Two guys who can run the team, no matter what the lineup is. We don’t need a shooting guard; EVERYONE’S a shooting guard now, if they want to stay in the NBA. We need distributors. If shooting is ubiquitous, then passing and dribbling are the new inefficiencies.
Frank Ntilikina is the rookie point guard for the Knicks. The French Resistance looks awesome on defense, and very clearly needs to work on his offense. Kinda the opposite from most rookies, but still, he looks good, and he’s only 19.
Emmanuel Mudiay is a former lottery pick who fell out of favor with his old team. He’s 6’5” (ditto Frankie). He’s 21 years old. He can get better.
So, now the Knicks have two young point guards, both of whom are learning to shoot from outside while also providing the ball to teammates. One is defense dominant, the other offense dominant. They’re both young, they’re both tall, they’re both long.
And they both speak French. Mudiay’s family is from the Congo, Ntilikina’s from Rwanda. They’re both fluent in French and they apparently speak it to each other on the court. If you’re a 19 year old kid, or a 21 year old young man, is it nice having a friend you can speak your native language with? Is it nice having someone who has similar experiences as you? Is it nice being in New York City and having a buddy to hang out with?
Their first game together, the French Connection (AWESOME! NICKNAME!) played almost 28 minutes together. That’s the most minutes shared by any Knicks duo this season. They had a +9 plus-minus, by the way.
And, remember: Jeff Hornacek, the Knicks coach, used to coach the Phoenix Suns when they were ridiculed for focusing on having more than enough point guards (Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, and Brandon Knight, all at once).
I was afraid that Mudiay would eat into Ntilikina’s minutes, but I think Jarrett Jack is the ultimate loser here. (Kiiiiiinda stinks they couldn’t trade him, but whatever.) He has a little over a million dollars left owed to him over the rest of the season; could you buy him out and let him sign with a contender? Does that buy you some good will with the players? Plus, what’s the point of having him around? “Veteran leadership” is the most overused quote IN THE WORLD.
The Knicks can now start two point guards, and keep one of them on the floor, at all times. That seems a helluva lot like what Houston’s doing.
Brooklyn made a similar decision, although theirs was to NOT trade Professor Spencer Dinwiddie. Spence has a VERY attractive contract: he’s only owed $1.6 million next year. A contender with a point guard need could have fit him on their team, no problem. And, as we’ve discussed in this space before, Dinwiddie brings some elite-elite PG skills to the game. But, Brooklyn didn’t trade him. Were they asking for too much? Was a 1st round pick actually less valuable than Dinwiddie’s incredibly cheap contract? Did they decide to wait until after the season, so they can make a better deal?
D’Angelo Russell is considered the best talent on the Brooklyn Nets, but that’s still TBD. DAR can be great, but he’s still just a baby, he’s coming back from an injury, and his value currently lies in his potential rather than his play.
Dinwiddie, however, is also only 24. So, you basically have two young, good guards, both tall (DAR is 6’5”, Professor Dinwiddie is 6’6”), both eminently affordable, AND! You’re under absolutely no pressure to win this season. Why not see what you have, right? Why not emulate best practices and see if you can play two good distributors at once, a la the Houston Rockets. Sean Marks is the GM of the Brooklyn Nets. Do you know where he was before that?
He was the assistant GM for the San Antonio Spurs.
The Knicks and the Nets aren’t the only teams this theory might explain. The Clippers weirdly didn’t trade Avery Bradley, even though they already have Patrick Beverly, Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic, and they resigned Lou Williams. I mean, that looks crazy even as I write it, but let’s give LA the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment: could they be gearing up to field two-distributor lineups at all times? Will they have a rotating corp of guards, kind of like running back committees in football? I mean, I’m trynna be nice here and imagine that the Clippers have some kind of a plan, because holy goddamn, that’s a lot of guys that seemingly play the same position.
But, that’s what we roasted Phoenix for several years ago. Charlotte has way too many guards right now. Brooklyn has a plethora of guards. Dallas has a ton (and, didn’t do anything with them; why is JJ Barea still in Dallas?).
It seems like the league is split into two distinct camps right now: Teams that want wings, and teams that want backcourts. Modern wings are incredibly tough to find, the best ones are considered the best two way players in the NBA. Guards, however, are absolutely everywhere, and having an “elite” one seems less important than ever since we now have point forwards, and more passing bigs. Are the teams who don’t have elite wings deciding to assemble elite backcourts, instead?
The Knicks may just have been buying low on a former lottery pick. The Nets may just be waiting until the summer when they know what the draft order is. Both, or all four, of these guards could end up being career backups.
But, for two teams whose leaders have experience with playing multiple elite distributors, at once, I find it interesting that both teams seem focused on starting two point guards, eventually.