Where do we go from here? The Knicks and their search for the next leading point guard

The New York Knicks, to put it politely, are somewhat of a laughing stock around the NBA and have been since the mid-1990s. This once-great franchise has disappeared down into the ether through bad planning at operation level and even worse ownership.

We have seen this same story unfold time and time again. Every single off-season, year after year, hope begins to emerge among the loyal and battle hardened fan base of Madison Square Garden that makes us want to believe. We want to trust that this is the year they get it right.

Rumours begin to pick up of trade talk, free agency dawns with a sense of appeal. Even those of us who have seen this circus too many times before, get excited at the thoughts of a Woj Bomb dropping that will somehow, someway, drag the Knicks out of obscurity.

With Leon Rose now at the helm of James Dolan’s evil empire, Knicks fans want to find a way to believe that this time it’ll be different. They want Rose to be the saviour or, at least, to get it going in the right direction.

The question that is going through everyone’s head right now is: are the Knicks going to continue to rebuild through the draft (which has always been the plan – see Mitch Robinson and RJ Barrett)? Or are they going to veer off the path in search of the next ‘star’ that could ultimately set the franchise back like it has done for the last two decades?

I think the glaring piece in which the Knicks need to improve is the point guard position – a role synonymous with the city’s basketball identity. We have seen a mish-mash of so many names throughout an abundance of head coaching positions and it is beginning to get, well, frankly tiresome. It is time for a primary ball handler to lead this club into the future and to enhance the young core around them. But where do you find this missing ingredient? Is it through the draft, trading or in free agency? 

The Westbrook Conundrum

We may as well start by getting this one out of the way. The elephant in the room: Russell Westbrook. As soon as it was reported that Westbrook wasn’t happy in Houston and was looking for a trade elsewhere to become the primary ball handler again similar to his role in Oklahoma City Thunder days, it was inevitable that the Knicks rumours were going to follow.

Now don’t get me wrong, he possesses an abundance of talent. A certified top 30 player in his prime, no question. A former MVP, multi-time All Star, including last season, while also making an All-NBA team. These levels of individual awards and achievements normally would be enough to have Knicks fans frothing at the mouth at the prospect of luring them to the Garden.

Westbrook is a considered by some to be a winner and he is so focused. Even at the ripe old age of 32 that, he might be able to drag the Knicks to the playoffs next season, however, any rational NBA viewer can see that this is not the Westbrook of old. His trade value is at an all-time low following his bubble run versus the Los Angeles Lakers, but there is no way on earth you are going to acquire him without giving up assets and future first round draft picks. That alone should be an automatic no from a Knicks perspective.

When you couple this with the gigantic $132 million dollar contract over the next three years, this shouldn’t even be on the table for Rose and the Knicks. Especially when you have dedicated a countless number of years to a process with the exact opposite train of thought.

Also, he is not your stereotypical glue guy or mentor. Yes he would bring the star studded name so sorely missing from New York and his intensity on the court is often unrivalled, which could be a benefit to some of the younger players, but he is not going to want to take up a different role within an organisation to develop youth. He will take the ball out of RJ Barrett’s hands and go right at the cup. There is nothing wrong with this for countless other teams who only want to make the play-offs, but it is not what the Knicks need. Not at this point of his journey, or theirs.

The draft

If the Knicks are going to be true to their process and to themselves then this is the route they should be taking to find their next leading point guard. They have missed in so many years in recent memory, this cannot be an excuse anymore. They have to nail this draft.  Yes, this draft is not nearly as talented on the face of it as those of the past number of seasons, or indeed the 2021 draft class, however, it is stacked with good solid options at the point guard position.

Picking at the eighth spot limits them in a number of ways, but there is quality to be found inside the lottery and a number of options that should be seriously looked at.

Realistically, LaMelo Ball is going to be long gone by the time the Knicks are announced on the clock by Adam Silver. This is unless they can trade up. Would the Golden State Warriors be interested in the eighth pick and Mitchell Robinson for the second overall pick should the Minnesota Timberwolves choose James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards at number one? Maybe. As much as I would love to see this pan out it is probably unlikely and as disheartening as this may be for many fans (and LaMelo’s father LaVar) it isn’t all doom and gloom.

All going well on draft night, there will be at least two, maybe three options that the Knicks should take into consideration at eight. Killian Hayes, Tyrese Haliburton and Kira Lewis Jr.

All three have the potential to make the Knicks better. All three have the potential to be the new primary ball handle on this team that can have a positive impact on RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina.

Killian Hayes is second on my big board in terms of top prospects in this year’s draft class, only below LaMelo Ball. If he gets past the Chicago Bulls at number four, there is a real possibility he falls to the Knicks.

Hayes would be the perfect option. His upside is phenomenal and at 18 years of age, he has shown the qualities of a top guard particularly in his range of passing, scoring off the dribble and size. At 6’5, with great spatial awareness, he really does navigate the court with ease. He is incredibly fluid with the ball in his hand and he makes winning plays.

While his jumper needs improvement he has shown ability to be a three level scorer and has added a step back to his repertoire over the course of last season. His three-point percentage needs to improve but this will come with time. He may not be the quickest guard we have ever seen but Hayes is wily. He plays beyond his years and is polished already in his position.

This is exactly what the Knicks are looking for. We can only hope Leon Rose doesn’t let this one slip on past in his first year in the war room.

There has been plenty of talk over the last number of days that the Knicks are warming to Obi Toppin as well as defensive wings Devin Vassell and Isaac Okoro. While none of these would be a disaster, they also wouldn’t provide the answer.

Haliburton and Lewis Jr would be preferred options at the eighth pick and may also be available, should the Knicks decide to trade back a couple of places. Lewis Jr has been compared to De’Aaron Fox, such is his stature and speed going downhill. He would certainly get the crowd in MSG on their feet but would need to be given time to develop and grow into his role.

Haliburton is a really complete player. He could slot into the majority of contending teams and play meaningful minutes in their rotation. His basketball IQ is second to none and range of passing is often a joy to watch. I But he might be more suited to playing with more accomplished players to get the best out of him.

Free Agency

Funny how these things work. The Knicks have an abundance of cap space in this year’s off-season, however, the free agency market is not looking too deep. There is really only one key player the Knicks could be courting.

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is the name that makes sense in number of places. He could easily re-sign with the Raptors, and Detroit makes sense along with New York as potential destinations for the multi-talented VanVleet if his head was turned elsewhere.

He has been vocal that he intends to get paid during this off-season, which no one would argue against after his showing in Toronto’s championship run in 2019. He can score the ball, is an astute defender and makes players around him better.

This could be seen as an ideal pick-up for New York.

The signing of VanVleet would mean you have a certified ball handler in the guard position who is being given license to run the floor. He can create his own shot and is flexible enough to run both guard spots in your line-up. This also doesn’t limit your ability to draft a guard, as you could possibly pay VanVleet big money for one year, with an agreement in place to see how the fit works out before committing long-term. This gives the rookie selection time to develop and play alongside him with RJ Barrett at the small forward position.

For Knicks fans this is generally a tumultuous time of the year. Watching from afar as others soak up all the talent fresh from college followed by a series of let downs, as the hottest properties in basketball choose to go elsewhere. Fighting for scraps seems to be the common theme. Something feels different this time around. With a new front office comes new hope, let’s see how it all plays out.