Armor Not Bulletproof: The Knights Exposed
- By Joe Simpson, Day 62, 2022
Up until the past week or so, the hip thing around the JBL has been to build up the Knights, the newest fad to the “Next Big Thing” discussion. While this is perhaps a bit extreme—nobody outwardly lists the Knights as favorites to a championship—some have begun to speak of the Knights as a contender for the top seed in the West, and Kelvin Hawes as the MVP favorite.
Over the past few days, however, the narrative has shifted from “The Knights are for real” to “Don’t crown them yet”. Losing three in a row will do that. Looking vulnerable in their last game, a 92-86 win over St. Louis, will do that.
Failing to score 100 in two of their last four, after failing to do that in just two of their first 26 games, will do that.
So, what is the impetus for such a turn? Do four games really represent a change in a team’s journey? Is it not too small a sample size to validate a claim of “no longer elite”?
As currently constructed, no, it is not.
Why? Why is it justifiable to view a team that has won 70% of their first 30 games an also-ran? Why is a team with the best 1-2 punch in the league viewed as fodder for real contenders?
How is such a thing possible? There are a few reasons.
1. The loss of PG Curtis Price is much bigger than it appeared. The loss of the veteran point guard hurt the team in the one area they couldn’t suffer a loss. Price was the perfect caretaker for this offense. He knew how to put Aaron Honeycutt and Tarvis McWilliams into advantageous situations. He knew how to put Rahmond Thompson, the budding star at the 4, into situations where he would succeed. And he knew when to fire on his own, and keep pressure off MVP frontrunner Kelvin Hawes.
That five was considered one of the most lethal in the league, operating to a +58 when on the floor (just under 400 minutes). They were efficient and could beat you in multiple ways. The most important was Price directing traffic and being a wise ringleader.
His backup, Dyron Mays, was brought in during the offseason to be a dynamic backup. The 28-year-old is viewed as a solid distributor, but not a player with great court awareness. This has been evident in the four games since he has taken over, where he has misread the defense late in the Knights’ 122-120 loss to the Lightning.
Now, if you go by the numbers, the team doesn’t exactly suffer with Mays in place of Price. They have the same net rating (+7.8 ppg) with Mays in with the regular four. But their defense suffers, with a defensive rating of 113.5 in the 107 minutes they have played together. That’s alarming, and when they run into teams that play solid defense, they are susceptible to becoming stagnant and too reliant on Hawes and Honeycutt (well, that’s a persistent problem, but even more so now).
Interestingly enough, the best lineup seems to be the one with Xavier Yates in at the 3, in place of McWilliams, and Mays at the point. That has a net rating of +26.1 in 82 minutes. In fact, Mays and Yates, and rookie 4 Alexie Davydov, are +27 in 57 minutes. That’s too small a sample size to be considered overly effective, but it is interesting to note.
Craig Leonard, the deep backup at the point, does not elicit any sort of positive reaction. The team has looked at using McWilliams at the point, rather than Leonard. That does not help things.
2. The team relies too much on Hawes and Honeycutt. This team, when it is rolling, has five players who can fill up the stat sheet at any time. The difference between last year’s Knights team and the one many thought made The Leap in the first third of this season was its ability to beat you in many different ways.
Since Price went down, Thompson has disappeared. In the three games he has played since the injury, he has scored a total of 17 points. On the year, he is averaging 13.1 ppg and 9.1 rpg, along with 2.79 bpg. His shooting has taken a hit in the past couple of weeks, in part due to being tired (his minutes have increased to 34.5 mpg, from 20.2 in his rookie campaign), and the added burden seems to have taken a toll on him. The team would be right to manage his minutes better, especially with Davydov playing well in limited minutes.
Thompson’s recent regressions, and McWilliams falling off (9.7 ppg) has put an added weight on Hawes and Honeycutt to score. Hawes now leads the league in scoring, at 32.1 ppg. Honeycutt is sixth in the league, at 27.7 per game. Hawes is also fourth in minutes played, at 39.5 per contest. Honeycutt is 13th, at 37.7 per game.
In short: As these two go, so do the Knights. This might have always been the case. But at least with Price, the team seemed more dangerous across the board.
3. The team does not close well, or on the road. The Knights have played nine games that have been decided by five points or loss.
They are 3-6 in those games.
Three of those losses have come since Price went down. All three were on the road, where they are merely 8-6.
This comes against a strength of schedule of .472, which is the weakest against any team with 20 wins. (Okay, this is cherry-picking. Houston has a .475 SOS, while Cincinnati has a .477. Miami, at 19-10, has a .466 SOS.)
In short, the Knights could absolutely have a better record. Three of their losses are to Boston, Portland, and St. Louis, three teams with decidedly losing records. The best teams in the league figure out ways to get those wins, and to get wins on the road.
Of course, there is a long way to go in this season. And Price will return with about 19 games left. How he responds to rehab is anyone’s guess. At 35, Price was already on his last legs (pardon the ACL pun). It’s quite possible the Knights will shore up the position in his stead; rumors have begun to swirl that they will trade for a point, though who that is is unknown. (Juan Maurice is considered to be the man on the move.) So maybe, if a team was going to face adversity, this was the time for Kansas City to do so.
Make no mistake, however. The chinks on the armor are evident. How they respond to this will determine whether there is a coronation at season’s end, or if the team is exposed for wearing a paper crown.