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Dunk of the Week: RJ Barrett provides glimmer of hope for the Knicks

RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks in action against the Indiana Pacers

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

You watching the Knicks? It’s OK, you can be honest with me. Unless you are a Knicks fan, like the kind that has that weird self-punishing thing, the die-hard-Knicks-fan emotional component that demands that you subject yourself to the Knicks no matter what, you’re probably not watching the Knicks. 

They are BAD AS HELL! They’re 4-21, sporting the worst offensive rating in the league (a plopping 102.3 points per 100 possessions) and the 25th-worst defense (113.4 points per 100 possessions, which is not quite EXTREMELY bad, but it’s still really bad). They don’t even have the decency to put on a show: They’re 27th in pace, just GRINDING out the terrible possessions, a doomed ship that just threw its captain over, drifting in the ocean, waiting for the offseason, where they will have an excellent pick in a draft most people think is “role player-heavy.” 

Surrounded by water without a drop to drink, the team succumbed to ocean madness and threw their skipper off the boat this week, firing the long-suffering David Fizdale and promoting Mike Miller — no, not the sweet shooting forward, the career assistant — to play out the string on another terrible season for the NBA’s most consistently, bizarrely mismanaged squad.

There’s a little, tiny reason for positivity in MSG, though: RJ Barrett has been pretty good! Almost! Kind of! After he spent most of his high school days as a major prospect, he kind of disappointed at Duke, playing in the shadow of Zion Williamson, and made a lot of draft watchers suspect that he might not have the requisite skills to be a truly effective NBA player. But even if his field goal percentage isn’t quite there yet — 38%, in an environment where he almost certainly has to shoot way too much — he’s mostly looked, uhh, fine. 

Does he need to work on his free-throw shooting, his three-point shooting, his passing, and, uhh, a bunch of other stuff? SURE, but don’t we all? But he’s looked all right, had some moments, appears to have a more complete basketball idiom than he was able to flash in college. He looks like he’s probably an NBA player, which is, hey, good for him, and the Knicks, who will need him to be SOMETHING if they’re going to be not-terrible any time in the next, like, five years.

But where does that leave everyone else, the other dead men drifting like zombies on a Knicks team that is floating through the night, glowing green with the radiation of pure, wretched failure? What is their job, as they play out the string on a team that just reeks like durian fruit? 

Here’s RJ Barrett, throwing a hot one down. Not like a BLAZING hot one, he didn’t catch a body or make a nun cry or anything like that. He got it in transition, ran the floor, threw it down with one hand, his lower body formed an arc that flowed into his arm, jutted out in a straight line. People are cheering, because there is only so much joy to be had when you’re rooting for the 2019-20 New York Knicks, and you have to take it when you can.

Jeremy Lamb, who kind of tags Barrett’s jersey on the way up, throws up his arms, wondering where the damn transition defense was. Time makes us all into irritable veterans sooner or later, I suppose. Taj Gibson, plying his trade for a team that is really drastically beneath his station, lets out a little fist pump. Barrett flexes, a moment of triumph before the Pacers, a drastically superior team, go on to get their shit together and beat the Knicks by a single point. 

The broadcast cuts to the bench. We see two players in warmups, standing, hooting, mimicking Barrett’s little flexing motion. If you, like me, have just absolutely NOT watched the Knicks this year, or, if I’m being honest, last year, or I think the year before that, you sit for a second and wonder something:

Who the hell are those dudes?

As it turns out, one is Ignas Brazdeikis, the 47th pick in the 2019 NBA draft. The other dude is Allonzo Trier, playing in his second season as a New York Knick. Neither of these young men are draping themselves in glory this year, necessarily. Trier is managing good percentages — 43% from three, on 32 attempts. He is also playing even fewer minutes than he did last year.
This is not exactly making himself into an organizational priority out there. Brazdeikis, on the other hand, has only managed to acquire 6.7 minutes a game. On most teams, he would be playing for the D-League team. The Knicks are trying to get some reps in to hone his second-round talent into something flintier and more useful.

Javon Bess #41 of the New Orleans Pelicans drives to the basket against Allonzo Trier #14 and Ignas Brazdeikis #17 of the New York Knicks

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

But the Knicks are so hard up for bodies to absorb minutes, that he is still here.  He is sitting on the bench, doing theatrical flexing in the wake of Barrett’s pretty-good dunk. 

But that’s their job, right now. I mean, they have other jobs, too. They practice, they travel, they stay in shape, they do drills. They talk to whatever reporter feels the need to talk to Ignas Brazdeikis or Allonzo Trier after a random loss.  A loss to even some Midwestern lottery team in February. But on the court, where television cameras and scouts are watching you, your job is to:

  1. Go out there and play as well as you possibly can if your number happens to get called.
  2. Let everyone watching know that you aren’t an a**hole.

That second thing means that you have to let everyone know that, even though you KNOW you’re thrusting through a doomed enterprise, riding pine on a team that is loaded with undistinguished talent, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t out here night after g**damn night, operating in a team structure, doing all the standing and cheering and supporting you can, doing a little celebration flex when your teammate who is probably getting significantly more chances than you are throws down a pretty-good dunk in transition. 

Acting out the team concept, even when you’re just dying out there, night after night. This is the only way bad NBA teams can continue to function as a workplace. Especially in the nightmare of a season where fate has conspired to bottom you the hell out.  Can you imagine if Trier and Brazdeikis were operating on self-interest, instead of a team to devote their energies too? Instead of seeing Barrett as a teammate, a coworker, he would become an object of dog-eat-dog aggression. They would not see him as a coworker, a fellow traveler in an enterprise. His teammates would see him as competition. They would do literally everything in their power to sabotage him at every turn. They would trash his shooting percentages, mention every mistake he ever made, collect cheap shots on him in practice. 

But that’s NOT HOW THE ORDER OF THIS WORLD WORKS! You still have to let people know that you’re a teammate, a professional, a person who comes to work. A person that does what the corporate culture expects of him, night after night. If you can’t manage this very basic task, you will have absolutely no chance of remaining in the NBA! And so, he dunks, you flex, you cheer, you sublimate your instinct to take a nap on the bench. You act like a teammate, so you’ll get the chance to become a player. It’s the only way you can keep a terrible team chugging along.