Missing out on Zion Williamson, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and seemingly every other big star after a year of optimism has got most NBA fans down on the New York Knicks. Sure, they didn’t have the offseason that was promised, but could their strategy of signing five stretch-forwards actually show signs of intelligent life in New York after all?
The chatter had been going on all year: after multiple seasons of mediocrity and failing to live up to expectations. Come 31 January and it was announced that the franchise’s best player, Kristaps Porzingis, was traded to Dallas along with Tim Hardaway Jr, Courtney Lee and Trey Burke for DeAndre Jordan, Wes Matthews, a promising young player in Dennis Smith Jr and two first round draft picks. The reception of the trade was generally terrible. However, of all the pieces that the Knicks picked up, the most valuable asset was cap space. Fans began salivating over the prospect of signing two max free agents in the summer – KD was locked firmly in their sights.
Things were looking gloomy for this crop of Knicks players over a year ago, when they took the mostly-unknown point guard Frank Ntilikina with the eighth pick of the 2017 draft, notably over Dennis Smith (who they later traded for), Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma. In his rookie year, Ntilikina averaged 6 points in 22 minutes per game and has failed to live up to expectations ever since, with rumours suggesting he will struggle for any game time at all in the upcoming year, and reports claiming he was being shopped for a second round pick, per Ian Begley.
Fast forward 12 months and after a difficult regular season, the Knicks took wing Kevin Knox, from Kentucky, with the ninth pick. Despite the consensus being much more positive around Knox at the draft, he also failed to wow fans at Madison Square Garden in his first year, with a league-low real plus-minus (-7.47), second-lowest player efficiency rating and second-lowest true shooting percentage.
As if things weren’t bad enough, the Knicks stumbled through another season of tanking in the hopes of landing Williamson with the first pick. On draft lottery night, their dreams were shattered as they landed at #3. The new big three featuring KD, Kyrie and Zion was no longer, but at least they could still land two max stars, right?
30 June 2019, the eve of free agency. Enter Adrian Wojnarowski…
Brooklyn is making a clean sweep tonight: Brooklyn will sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, league sources tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
Not only did KD and Kyrie not sign with the Knicks, but they joined New York’s cross-city rivals, Brooklyn. Surely, things couldn’t get any worse? Other significant free agents remained available, with Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Tobias Harris, DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler still on the table.
Their Knicks first signing was announced…
Free agent Julius Randle has agreed to a three-year, $63M deal with the New York Knicks, CAA agents Aaron Mintz and Steve Heumann tell ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
Julius Randle had shown real promise in the previous season and is a young player with lots of upside, but being paid over $20 million per year and not being named Kevin or Kyrie drove many Knicks fans, like Stephen A Smith, over the edge.
— First Take (@FirstTake) July 1, 2019
The news kept rolling in. Forward Bobby Portis signed for $31 million for two years, forward Taj Gibson signed for $20 million for two years, forward Reggie Bullock signed for $21 million for two years, forward Marcus Morris signed for $15 million for one year. They joined a roster with existing forwards and bigs that were already competing for minutes: Knox, Mitchell Robinson, this year’s draft pick RJ Barrett (although many argue he will play more guard minutes) and Ignas Brazdeikis. Where exactly will all these forwards play?
Fans and media joined together to ridicule the Knicks. The culmination of terrible picks, tanking, trading Porzingis for cap space, missing out on signing star free agents and instead picking up almost every forward on the market had the Knicks approval rating at an all-time low. “I can’t think of a worse day in Knicks franchise history”, claimed Stephen A Smith on ESPN’s Get Up.
But what if the Knicks free agency wasn’t actually that bad? What if signing five forwards could prove to help the Knicks? Crazy? I beg to disagree.
It became clear in the hours before free agency that the Knicks would be missing out on their top targets. In addition to their new forwards, they later picked up Elfrid Payton and shooter Wayne Ellington (both $16 million deals over two years). Their roster is now full of above-average (albeit, not all-star level) experienced forwards, on short-term deals and some with second year team options (Bullock, Portis, Gibson, Payton and Ellington).
If the Knicks choose to tank again, which they should absolutely do, they have a number valuable trade pieces in each of these players that would benefit one of the many contenders in the playoffs next year, or act as expiring contracts for teams trying to create space next year. New York should turn to asset-hoarding mode, adding as many picks as possible to build a young, exciting team around Barrett and create a young, potential-filled roster to rival New Orleans and Atlanta.
While not all of their young players are future all-stars, their young pieces and picks present a lot of upside:
Young players: Mitchell Robinson (21), Kevin Knox (19), RJ Barrett (19), Allonzo Trier (23), Dennis Smith Jr (21), Frank Ntilikina (20).
Picks: 2020 Knicks 1st Round, Hornets 2nd Round,
2021 Knicks 1st Round, Mavericks 1st Round, Hornets 2nd Round
2022 Knicks 1st Round, Knicks 2nd Round
2023 Knicks 1st Round, Mavericks 1st Round, Knicks 2nd Round
If General Manager Scott Perry and owner James Dolan have any sense (and that’s a very big and unlikely ‘if’), they should continue their rebuild, trading most or all of their newly acquired pieces for draft picks and young players to construct their team of the future. It’s quite possible that the Knicks could fetch a first-round pick for any of their recently signed free agents in the new year. Randle is a young, offensive bulldozer who can add toughness to any competing roster. Bullock, Ellington and Morris can all shoot well from deep (greater than 37 percent) and fit the ever-desired 3-and-D mould that would work on any contender looking to bolster their chances. Payton has shown flashes of potential and is a solid back up guard, while Taj Gibson brings a wealth of experience and rebounding.
Adding a second-year team option to most of their new signings shouldn’t be overlooked, and is a surprisingly savvy piece of work from a front office with a history of bad business. It gives the teams that want to create cap space for next summer the option to trade for one of their players, hopefully giving up a pick in the process, with the possibility of not extending their contract past the summer of 2020. Next year’s free agency class isn’t as star-studded as this summer’s, but their will be teams angling for the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Pascal Siakam or Anthony Davis (if things were to take a drastic U-turn in LA).
The free agent misses have proven that despite New York being one of the biggest markets and hallowed locations in the NBA, stars are reluctant to sign for a team in such disarray, and with Dolan playing the tyrannical, negligent owner. Cue The Ringer’s ‘Sell the Team’.
While it failed to live up to expectation, the success of this off-season will rely on the Knicks ability to do business throughout this upcoming campaign. By the mid-2020s, New York could easily be home to a team with title ambitions. One only hopes that they can learn from their short-sighted mistakes and put New York back on the basketball map – if Brooklyn doesn’t beat them to it.
Feature photo – Brad Penner / Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports / Harry How / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington