Knicks still need to solve haunting point guard problem
There was one thing separating Obi Toppin from enjoying unanimous approval from his brand-new constituency, Knicks fans who have labored for years — for decades, actually — looking for a clear path to relevance, and contention.
There is no denying Toppin’s talent. There is little question he is a worker, that he cares, that he is committed to getting better, that the breathtaking ascent his game has taken from unrecruited high school senior to college basketball’s consensus player of the year portends well to his future in New York.
And with all that, there was but one caveat.
He is not a point guard.
While it is the Jets’ 45-year search for a true quarterbacking heir to Joe Namath that defines the most hapless holy grail in New York sports right now, a close second is the Knicks’ search for a genuine successor to Clyde Frazier, a hunt that has lasted almost as long and has yielded an equal amount of happy endings.
That particular issue isn’t Toppin’s to fret over. He was a terrific get for the Knicks at No. 8, a gifted offensive player who was smart enough to immediately buy into the defensive narrative his new coach, Tom Thibodeau, will surely preach starting in the first minutes of their first practice together.
And if the Knicks don’t harbor the championship-level burdens that their neighbors across the river in Brooklyn do, they are starting to assemble a collection of intriguing pieces who will, if nothing else, offer a reason to watch this year — a crew that got decidedly smaller for the time being when Leon Rose began cleansing the roster of Steve Mills’ fingerprints Thursday, waiving five players and freeing up $40 million in cap space.
So Toppin and Immanuel Quickley — and, at least for now, local hero and ex-Seton Hall star Myles Powell — can be lumped into an eclectic group that includes Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina.
It’s those last two names that cause the most concern right now, because thanks to Elfrid Payton vanishing in the Thursday purge, they are the Knicks’ point guards. And unless either (or both) has uncovered something mystical or something magical since March, that is not an especially appealing reality.
It led some to believe the Knicks would almost certainly pick a point guard Wednesday — and Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton was still there when the Knicks picked eighth.
“Here’s something to consider,” a longtime NBA insider emailed me yesterday. “Unless you’re convinced you have the right guy, you have to be careful with young point guards. Go back and look what people were saying about [Smith] before he was drafted. He was can’t-miss, but he missed. The Knicks were either-or with him and [Ntilikina] that year and it turned out both of them have been misses, at least so far. If Obi was your guy, you have to pick Obi.”
It means Rose’s first order of business is to bring in a point guard, assuming the pixie dust hasn’t taken hold in either Smith or Ntilikina. Russell Westbrook is the sexy choice. Fred VanVleet may be the best choice. Second-tier options like Jeff Teague and D.J. Augustin have to be considered, because there needs to be an experienced traffic cop to bring the kids along.
Either way, the Knicks need to identify two things: the point guard of right now who can try to make sense of the young upstarts (plus Randle), and the point guard of tomorrow who can be an immediate foundational building block.
If they are lucky, it’s the same guy. If not, maybe it’s one of the projected stars of the 2021 draft — keep the names Cade Cunningham, Caleb Love and DJ Steward in the back of your brain. Maybe by this time next year the Knicks can make themselves attractive to someone like the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox.
Either way, the drought has to end somehow. The Jets/Knicks QB/PG conundrum is an interesting thread. Since Joe Willie/Clyde, there have been young hopefuls to the throne (Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland, Mark Sanchez and Chad Pennington), there have been aging stopgaps (Jason Kidd and Vinny Testaverde) and there have been far too many good-but-not-great pretenders (an endless parade of Charlie Ward and Ken O’Brien, Derek Harper and Richard Todd, Raymond Felton and Sam Darnold).
The Jets, at last, have given up all pretense and are careening toward another reboot; it’s only been 44 years since Namath took his last snap for them. It won’t be that easy for the Knicks but, then, it’s only been 43 years for them since Clyde last laced up his Pumas.
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