For the past two decades, the New York Knicks have found an incredible number of ways to disappoint their fans. The fact that the team has perennially been at the top end of the NBA in terms of total salary paid over this time of poor performance indicates a franchise plagued by bad decision-making.
During this period it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, but over the course of the past two years since Phil Jackson parted ways, the team appears to have started again. With the all-too public souring of the relationship with star player Kristaps Porzingis and his subsequent trade, this represented to many, the final nail in the coffin for the ‘old’ Knicks routine.
Now, having missed out on big free agents this summer, the Knicks have taken a more proactive, calculated approach to their future. One that is taking small steps towards a new direction, based on sustainable success.
In some ways, last season was mission accomplished for a Knicks franchise looking to secure the best odds in this year’s draft lottery. Bottom place in the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference, and the entire NBA. The 17 wins tied the franchise’s worst-ever record. Garnering big dreams of a potential Zion Williamson draft haul to add to the highly-speculated free agent additions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving… Things were looking up in Gotham. That was when things started to go awry, however.
The Knicks secured only the third pick in the draft, which became Zion’s Duke teammate, RJ Barrett. The Knicks then failed to land the stars they had been targeting in free agency. And to make things worse, Irving and Durant signed for nearby rivals, the Brooklyn Nets. How the front office would choose to respond to these disappointments was a true tipping point for the franchise.
Previous iterations of this team would have gone out and filled the team’s hard-earned cap room on whoever the next best available talent was, even if it meant overpaying for a middling or ‘over the hill’ player. Knicks fans looked on with the kind of pained and existential dread that only Knicks fans are capable of.
The team’s largest outlay was signing Julius Randle for 3 years, $62.1M. Following the flashes he showed in LA, the big man went on to impress with the Pelicans last season, putting up a career-high 21.4 ppg, as well as showcasing a radically improved stroke from range to match with his consistent double-double potential. Outside of Randle, the Knicks strategy seemed to be picking up respected talents and veterans on short contracts who can be solid contributors in the short term, but also easily moved on for future flexibility. Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton all fit this category.
Despite the incredibly disappointing offseason based on potential expectations, perhaps there are signs of growth from the organisation. As mentioned earlier, the fear that most Knicks fans have is the team continually mortgaging future success in favour of minimally effective short term gains. This time around, the front office appeared to understand that in order to build positively for the future, flexibility, young promising players, cap room and draft picks are all required. Another key lesson for New York is that in order to attract the type of marquee talent they’ve been looking to acquire, the team needs to behave and be viewed as a coherent franchise that looks after players. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle and rebranding exercise that the team has ever had to undertake.
Don’t expect big things out of the Knicks this season. This team is certainly not a contender in the Atlantic Division or even pretending to be one. Say it quietly though, the Knicks may genuinely be fun to watch.
As Randle starts to enter what you’d expect to be some of his prime years, he’ll be looking to make a statement as the team’s recognised star. There may not be a player more fun to watch in the entire league defensively than Mitchell Robinson. Who, with little competition at the 5 spot, is expected to log heavy minutes and potentially finish as the top shot-blocker in the league. He finished second last time out, playing only 20 minutes per game.
Dynamic guard, Dennis Smith Jr is a highlight machine with incredible athleticism, but from his perspective, this season will provide an opportunity to also showcase how he’s added to his game. In terms of style of play, something interesting to note is the potential floor spacing available to the Knicks, with the likes of Randle, Morris, Portis and Bullock all presenting genuine outside threats from the frontcourt. A big question mark still exists around Kevin Knox, who has shown inconsistent flashes of the potential that scouts had recognised, but ultimately finished his rookie campaign disappointingly in terms of both efficiency and defense. How much we can take away from his performance on a team actually trying to lose is up for discussion, but he’ll be determined to improve.
RJ Barrett enters this season facing similar questions. No doubt he’s considered a better prospect than Knox, but his potential weaknesses are similar. Still, with the veteran additions and low expectations, this team will provide a far better environment for Barrett and fellow Rookie, Brazdekis, to learn the ropes. Alonzo Trier was a player that exceeded expectations and ‘Iso Zo’ will look to continue the ‘instant offense’ role that he played last season.
In summary, expect an entertaining brand of basketball from the Knicks, that doesn’t necessarily translate to wins.
1. RJ Barrett, high pick, high expectations
The highest draft pick the Knicks have had since Patrick Ewing in 1985. It will be interesting to see how ‘NBA-ready’ Barrett enters the league. With a developed physique, international credentials for Canada and a game that looks suited to the NBA, RJ will be looking to show why he was the top-ranked prospect coming out of high school.
2. Mitchell Robinson must put inconsistent rookie campaign behind him
A player that Knicks fans are already championing, with his style of play and (relatively) unheralded background he appeals to New Yorkers. Whether Robinson can transform his breakout rookie season and jaw-dropping per-minute numbers into something sustainable is a key trend to monitor.
3. Organisational progress
The key priority for the Knicks beyond results this season is improving the team’s image and perception. If the team can play an entertaining brand of basketball, develop and acquire more young promising players and maintain a degree of cap flexibility then the team will be in a much better position to secure a franchise player moving forward.
Julius Randle | 21.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.1 apg
Randle has proved he can handle the bright lights in LA, but this is the first time he has been truly recognised as a team’s star. He’ll be eager to produce for his new team and round out an already well developed overall game.
Mitchell Robinson | 7.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg
Incredible rim protector and offensive efficiency beast. Can he become a legitimate star or is he Whiteside 2.0?
Dennis Smith Jr | 14.7 ppg, 5.4 apg, 1.3 spg
Can he complement his athleticism with an outside shot and more polished all-around game? Looks like a star if you just watched highlights, but a lot to work on if he’s going to impress in NY.
Marcus Morris | 13.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 apg
Solid role player who may show a little bit more on a team without top tier talent.
Bobby Portis | 14.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.6 apg
Another dependable role player who poses a potent three-point threat. As a team that will play a lot of small ball lineups, his ability to rebound will be invaluable.