For the Knicks, trading Carmelo Anthony signaled a fresh start and an opportunity to begin building around its more youthful players. In focusing on the promise of special players like Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Frank Ntilikina (among others), it’s easy to forget that the team actually still has some talented and mature veterans on the roster.
The new front office regime clearly has a fresh outlook on who the team will lean on. With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how a player like Courtney Lee (still a favorite of head coach Jeff Hornacek) continues to fit into the equation.
Lee, who will be 32 years old by the time the season begins, is a respected guy in the locker room who could certainly serve as a guiding light for New York’s up and coming players. On the court, he proved himself to be quite an effective two way player, even going as far as averaging 13.2 points on 47% from the field in April. As the Knicks transition and look to account for the scoring production left by Anthony’s departure, Lee could serve as an underrated option to get some of those points from.
The interesting thing about Lee is that he’s not exactly the type of player who would provide an offensive spark off the bench. Instead, his scoring opportunities come in the flow of the offense. He’s a complementary player who may lose his effectiveness as a reserve. What’s more, the Knicks could really use some sort of veteran leadership on the court. As a returning player on this new-look roster, Lee has earned the right to start and New York could very well benefit from keeping him in the starting five, regardless of how old he is. Lee’s presence will make others around him better.
Slotting Lee in at small forward as Anthony’s replacement may make the most sense from both a seniority standpoint and the need to address a void. As it stands now, the Knicks have so many answers at the 4 and 5, possibilities at the 1 and 2, but neither of which at the 3. Lee isn’t the most agile player and at 6’5″, is likely to be undersized against many of the league’s opposing players at the position. Though he’s known for his defensive prowess, he could still be mismatched more often than not.
Playing Lee out of position isn’t the answer. He belongs at shooting guard, and his versatility should be enough to warrant a starting nod. His high basketball IQ and veteran presence will bring balance and stability to an otherwise still developing core group. This team needs a reliable defender to contest the better offensive wings in the league. Should the Knicks feel this way and look to start Lee, what will that mean for Hardaway Jr.?
Much like Lee, the 6’6″ and 205 pound Hardaway Jr. would be undersized at small forward. What’s more, though he did begin to make strides defensively during his Hawks tenure, there’s a still a long way for Hardaway Jr. to go. His awareness on that end of the floor is nowhere near that of Lee’s. The good news is that Hardaway Jr. is much more explosive when scoring the basketball. He’s very capable of creating his own offense, which means he may rely less upon his teammates to run the floor and provide extra spacing that gives way to open shots. Hardaway Jr. can create his own space in one-on-one situations, hit contested shots, drive to the hoop, etc. He can pour in the points and score in an array of ways. Ironically enough, such offensive skill could make Hardaway Jr. a much more viable option for the bench than Lee. He can stand out and provide that spark, whereas Lee works best as a complementary piece. If Jeff Hornacek and Co. truly want to take advantage of Hardaway Jr.’s offense, creating an alternating punch between he and Kristaps Porzingis would allow each youngster to lead their respective units, all while becoming all the more powerful when playing together in spurts.
With all of the promising youth on this squad, the focus around laying down the basis for a positive foundation is clear. Thus, the Knicks’ veterans may no longer be at the forefront, but they are still crucial behind the scenes. Starting Lee would not only aid in any hopes for a more competitive culture, but also aid in the development of those around him.