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Noah vs. Kuzminskas: Who Did New York Need?

Newsweek-Jim McIsaac

As Joakim Noah returns to a surprisingly fun and competitive Knicks team, a fan favorite pays the price

Even as Phil Jackson’s successes are lighting up Madison Square Garden in Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina, one of his most questionable moves remains on the Knicks’ 2017-18 roster with little fanfare: Joakim Noah. New York’s ineffective and injured center is fresh off a 20-game suspension, and was available for the Knicks/Cavaliers matchup on Monday night, although he did not suit up. In order to accommodate Noah on the bench, the New York front office was forced to cut a player, and unfortunately fan favorite Mindaugas Kuzminskas was on the chopping block.

Although an “old rookie” at 27-years old during his rookie campaign last season, Kuzminskas showed flashes of potential off the bench when he was called to spell Carmelo Anthony. While he averaged less than 15 minutes per game (14.9), his per 36-minute numbers were very solid: 15.1 points, 2.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Kuzminskas arrived in New York as yet another ‘Phil Jackson’-type player — aEuropean professional or four-year college player — of which “Kuz” was the former. 

While Kuz might not have been the most skilled player on the floor for the Knicks (which could be a statement, depending on the lineup they were running), he shows effort and has a good offensive skillset. Unfortunately, a good player comparison for him is Doug McDermott, which makes Kuzminskas redundant in New York. They share many of the same attributes, especially on offense: they both move well off the ball and make hard cuts to the basket, with a smooth jumper that extends to the 3-point line. However, McDermott is two years younger with more NBA experience, a better shooter, and has proven surprisingly capable on the defensive end in 2017-18 (his defensive field goal percentage is 47.7% thus far, down from 49.2% last season).  

Even beyond McDermott’s arrival, Kuzminskas was forced out primarily by Jarrett Jack. Yes, you read that right; Jack’s notable injury history (he missed virtually all last season with a torn left meniscus) made the mediocre Ramon Sessions a necessary evil, but Jack’s emphatic playmaking and leadership (The Knicks are 7-3 in his starts) has made him indispensible. As a result, poor Kuz was the odd man out, despite being better than Sessions, and possibly even Noah at this point in their respective careers.

The newly-cleared Kuzminskasis is already receiving interest from several teams, including Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls. This interest is still primarily from last year, when both teams were interested in Kuzminskas before he agreed to a deal with the Knicks. With the new direction of the Lakers, they would probably not be an ideal fit for Kuz, as they are half-rebuilding and half -gearing up for this summer’s free agency class. It is unlikely that they would cut into their cap space to sign Kuzminskas, so Chicago is the most likely destination, which means he would head to another rebuilding scenario. It is also quite possible that Kuz returns to the European leagues. Wherever he ends up, hopefully he gets the playing time he lost in New York.

As for the other element of this transaction, most don’t know if Joakim Noah will even be a rotation piece in Jeff Hornacek’s lineup, one that is focused on offense and athleticism. Noah currently sits behind former Thunder center Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn on the depth chart, both of whom are enjoying career years thus far. Currently, Kanter leads the team in VORP with a 0.5, and O’Quinn, Kristaps Porzingis and Courtney Lee are tied (0.4). Kanter is tied with Porzingis in win shares per 48 minutes with .218. The numbers go on, but the eye test proves the same thing: Noah has a lot of work to do if he is going to crack this rotation.  

As he enters this season at an old 32, Joakim Noah is not the same player he was when he won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2014. Noah was always a ‘motor’ player that overcame more skillful opponents solely through will and his hardnosed defense and rebounding. While never a true offensive threat, he has even regressed in that department; following his final All-Star season in 2013-14, his average dropped from 12.7 points per game to 5.0. Far more concerning is his defensive field goal percentage, which has ballooned from 43.5% in 2014 49.8% last season (and compared to fellow rim protector Kristaps Porzingis at 42.2%). Noah is almost exclusively a defensive player now, and there are questions if he can still play there effectively. At this point, he may just be $72 million worth of veteran leadership. 

Although Kuzminskas was a fan favorite in his short tenure in New York, Noah’s contract and the roster composition led to Kuz’s dismissal. His skill set is duplicated in recently-arrived Doug McDermott, who also appears to be thriving in a new role and system. While Knicks fans have a tendency to fall in love with their plucky role players and benchwarmers, Kuzminskas was not getting the chance to play under Jeff Hornacek, and maybe that was for a reason. However, Noah is only back on the New York roster because of Phil Jackson’s lack of free agency acumen. Kuz might not have moved the needle much in either way for the Knicks, but tactlessly employing Noah could disrupt team chemistry and exacerbate the Knicks’ frontcourt logjam. Then again, perhaps the aged Noah can provide a defensive tenacity that current starter Enes Kanter has yet to show.    

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

What nation has Mindaugas Kuzminskas represented in the Olympics?
Created 11/15/17
  1. Latvia
  2. Lithuania
  3. United States
  4. Russia

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