Nothing in sports punditry is more in vogue than piling shame on the downtrodden New York Knicks.
Their 2019 offseason has been described – in various forums – as “disappointing” at best, and “inept” or “incompetent” at worst. Their owner James Dolan is an “odious, insecure egomaniac” and supposedly rival executives were “baffled” by some of the decisions made by the front-office at Madison Square Garden over the last two months.
The thing is though – while it might be fashionable to claim the exact opposite – the truth is that New York’s offseason was entirely defensible. It may even have been… Wait for it…
First off, it’s important to note that the draft as an institution hasn’t exactly been kind to the Knicks since… Well. Ever.
In the 31 years since taking Rod Strickland with the 19th pick in 1988, New York has drafted two (yes, TWO!) players in the first two rounds who’ve gone on to become a All-Stars at least once in their career; David Lee in 2005 and Kristaps Porzingis in 2015.
Whilst, admittedly, many of their monumental strike-outs (*ahem* Jordan Hill *ahem*) were completely of their own volition, it’s worth highlighting that the #4 pick used to snare Porzingis was one of only three selections within the top 8 the Knicks have had in the last three decades – Danilo Gallinari at #6 in 2008 and Nene at #7 in 2002 the only others.
The point being that it was essential they cashed-in their rare high-end lottery pick in the 2019 draft.
Whilst, of course, some saw it as a crushing disappointment to fail in the Zion sweepstakes and fall down to third overall, the reality is the situation could’ve been worse. Cleveland and Phoenix – both with equal 14% odds of landing the number 1 pick – dropped to No. 5 and No. 6 respectively. Given most draft experts proclaimed 2019 as a top-heavy proposition, with significant drop-off immediately after the top 3, the 3rd pick was a valuable consolation prize.
Enter R.J. Barrett.
In the furore of Zion-mania and the meteoric rise of Ja Morant, it truly felt like Barrett failed to receive the attention he deserved in the lead-in to the draft. He was, after-all, the No. 1 prospect in his class coming out of high-school and broke freshman scoring records at Duke – averaging 22.6 points per game playing predominantly as a shooting guard, to go along with 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Those are magnificent numbers. I reiterate – he was a shooting guard.
After being taken by the Knicks with the third overall pick (and gaining a plethora of fans with his humble, quiet demeanour in the process) Barrett then became the first player in Summer League history to average at least 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game.
Any theory that he is not going to be a volume scorer in the NBA can be firmly put to one side. He has “All-Star” written all over him like it’s one of Mike Scott’s tattoos.
In Barrett the Knicks have not only a supremely-talented youngster, they also have a renowned leader. Something Kristaps Porzingis (judging by the acrimonious circumstances in which he left the Big Apple) clearly wasn’t.
New York got (relatively lucky) to sit in the top 3 of the draft. They made the right choice with their pick. And their choice looks both like he wants to be there and as if he has the requisite talent to either carry an NBA team or at least be a bona fide second star somewhere down the road.
The draft – insofar as management is concerned – is a tick in terms of competency. Which leads us to the next stop on the offseason calendar; free agency.
The story goes – most would say understandably – that a) the Knicks once again failed in their quest to lure big-name free agents, and b) were consequently forced to throw big money at a series of mediocre power-forwards in order to hit the salary-cap minimum.
Both parts of that theory need to be further explored. By now we’re all aware that none of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker or Klay Thompson were (as the narrative goes) all that keen on joining Dolan and his Knicks. The simple, fashionable explanation being pushed on social media is that none of those guys wanted to play in the toxic, losing environment created by Dolan and perpetuated by a sub-par roster and uninspiring coaching staff.
That assertion bears deeper scrutiny in the wake of what we now know was going down behind closed doors in early July.
It now seems pretty obvious that the relationship between “best friends” Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant was such that where one went, the other would follow. In the aftermath of the pair’s decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets, ESPN’s Ramona Shelbourne reported that the Knicks had no intention of offering Durant the full max amid fears about the torn Achilles tendon he suffered in the NBA Finals. Brooklyn evidently had no such qualms, and maxed out both.
Let’s assume that the Knicks – with unfettered access to the best medical professionals on planet earth – made the correct decision not to offer Durant a max, knowing he’ll likely be 32 years of age by the time he returns, and knowing that Achilles tears are notoriously tricky (if not impossible) to fully recover from. The market, though, dictated Durant would receive his money one way or another. Either then the Knicks were to go against their own medical advice to sign Durant (and get Irving in the process, whose worth or lack thereof is due another article entirely) or they would sign neither.
Assuming Shelbourne’s report is accurate, they made the right decision.
It’s too simplistic to say New York “missed out” on Durant and Irving; more truthfully they did not want Durant at his going price and as a result could not in good conscience acquire the package deal of he and Irving.
We can now be fairly certain (by pure virtue of the fact they’re located in New York and not L.A.) that attracting Kawhi was out of the question; Walker is in win-now mode after a decade of losing with the Hornets (without Durant or Irving the Knicks could not offer immediate championship-potential); and prising Klay Thompson from the clutches of the Warriors was never going to happen (for the Knicks or any other team).
Suddenly then we’re through the top tier of free agents, and reaching the level of Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton and Tobias Harris. The merits of paying those guys in the range of $180 million (EACH!) can be debated endlessly. Where you sit on that discussion entirely depends on whether you’d rather embrace mid-range, 5 – 8 seed mediocrity for the foreseeable future, or continue to bide your time at the bottom of the scrap-heap and wait for a truly generational star to come knocking.
Is a team led by Tobias Harris really a significantly higher chance of winning a championship than one led by R.J. Barrett? Would you spend $180 million to find out?
So, if you physically can’t acquire any of the top free agents, and smartly choose not to over-pay for the outlandishly-priced second-tier, where do you go next?
If you answered: “find the best value young free-agents, surround them with experienced veterans on flexible, short-term, team-friendly deals, bide your time until the next free-agency crop arrives and have another crack at a big-time star whilst loading up with draft picks in the meantime”, you’d be thinking logically, wouldn’t you?
Well, that’s exactly what New York did. Don’t worry, they’re well aware that Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and Marcus Morris likely won’t be on the roster by the time their chance to push for a championship arrives.
But, you know what? Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton and Bobby Portis just might be.
At just 24 years old, on a team-friendly 3-year, $63 million deal and coming off a season in which he averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on a crappy sans-Anthony Davis Pelicans team, Randle may end up being the signing of the summer. Payton is as solid a back-up point guard as there is in the league (if you ignore his shooting). Portis is (despite infamous discipline issues) only 25 years old and could still be a valuable starter at the NBA level.
In any case, every single one of the Knicks’ offseason signings arrive in New York on deals which are basically as flexible as they come.
At the very least Gibson and Morris are the perfect mentors for up-and-coming young forwards Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox. Absolute worst case scenario is that their contracts come off the books either at the end of this year or the year after, leaving New York with the ability to dip a toe in the water in 2020 and go all-in on the star-studded free agent class of 2021.
In 2020 the likes of Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, Caris LeVert and Domantas Sabonis are all restricted free agents. In 2021 there’s the bonanza led by Giannis Antentokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Bradley Beal.
Why settle for someone like Middleton, and lock yourself in to a bad deal for the near future, if you can bide your time and potentially sign someone in two years with the proven ability to carry a team to contention?
We’ll know for certain by the opening night of 2019 how competent this version of the Knicks organisation really is. Their starting lineup HAS to look like this:
PG: Dennis Smith Jr.
SG: RJ Barrett
SF: Kevin Knox
PF: Julius Randle
C: Mitchell Robinson
Minutes have to be put in to their young stars. The veterans they signed (ostensibly to come off the bench) have to do exactly that. The painful truth for Knicks fans, whose hopes were raised so high just two months ago, is that another lottery pick at the end of the 2019-20 season would be far from disastrous. In fact, it’d be beneficial.
Past iterations of the New York franchise (see, for example, the deals in the recent past to Joakim Noah, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee) may have been tempted to throw all their eggs in to the win-now basket by paying for mediocrity.
This time they’ve resisted the urge. Their young players will play meaningful minutes all season, they’re likely to gain another lottery pick in next year’s draft and who knows who they’ll be able to sign in the upcoming free agency periods. Even if no one chooses to come they’ll still have the assets – in terms of youth and draft capital – to trade for a big-time star.
The Knicks of yesteryear have certainly been incompetent, but we’ve seen enough to suggest those days might now be over. The results just might not show for a little while.
Are we on the mark, or way off? Are the Knicks still a rabble?
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