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Knicks moving forward with rebuild in an unconventional way after striking out on stars in free agency

A thought exercise: Imagine that New York Knicks owner James Dolan had never gone on the radio and bragged that they would have a “very successful offseason.” Imagine that the Knicks had not telegraphed their belief that stars were coming by trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear cap space. Imagine that the stakes didn’t seem so high going into free agency, and that they were not the Knicks, but rather a run-of-the-mill bad team. How would that change how you feel about their offseason?

The Atlanta Hawks, for example, could have entered free agency with more than $40 million in cap space, and nobody is criticizing them for failing to land Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. Atlanta and New York are both preaching patience. Are they really so different?

If you want to convince yourself that the Knicks aren’t in such a bad place, you can focus on their 2021 cap space and the upside of their young guys. You can also contrast their fallback plan in free agency with the mistakes of previous regimes — the front office, led by Scott Perry and Steve Mills, did not overpay for a big name or commit long-term money to anyone with a scary injury history. There are important differences, though, between what they did and what a typical rebuilding team might have done:

  • A typical rebuilding team might become a dumping ground for undesirable contracts, accumulating assets in the process, which is why the Hawks have Allen Crabbe and Chandler Parsons on the books this season. The Knicks did not do this. 
  • A typical rebuilding team might take a chance on a young-ish player that hasn’t quite found his place. The Hawks did this with Jabari Parker. The Knicks did this with Elfrid Payton and Bobby Portis (and, if Julius Randle isn’t your cup of tea, you might put him in this category, too). 
  • A typical rebuilding team might add a veteran or two to provide some structure and stability. The Hawks brought back Vince Carter on a minimum contract, but it’s unclear how much he will play. The Knicks signed Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson, who are all used to playing major minutes.

Individually, New York’s moves are defensible. All of the signings were short-term, aside from Randle’s three-year, $62 million deal. Collectively, however, they are puzzling, as there are suddenly logjams everywhere. With Payton joining ballhandlers Dennis Smith Jr. and Allonzo Trier, will R.J. Barrett be empowered the way a playmaker taken third overall normally would? With Randle, Gibson and Portis in the picture, will Mitchell Robinson even play as many minutes as he did near the end of his rookie season? Is Kevin Knox going to see any time at power forward? Is Marcus Morris going to have to play some shooting guard? Why haven’t the Knicks freed Frank Ntilikina yet? I could keep going here with the questions.

In fairness, every team in New York’s position has to find a balance between giving young players the minutes they need and creating an environment where those players can develop good habits. The New Orleans Pelicans, for example, have a ton of young talent, and they’re doing things much differently from the Hawks. Like the Knicks, the Pelicans have tough decisions to make with the rotation, and they have made it clear that they want to be competitive. New Orleans has a stronger core, though, and there are compelling reasons to believe it can figure out its identity relatively quickly. It seems like New York is confident that it will take a meaningful step forward, too, but, once again, its confidence might be misplaced.

Glowing quote

“We’ve got dogs. We’ve got dudes who don’t back down, who have killer mentalities. And that’s what we need. Getting back to the old school. Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, all of those guys. Toughness. A fight breaking every night. So, we’re excited about that. That’s our identity of our team, not backing down from nobody.” – Randle

What could have been

You know. 

Taking the temperature

A hypothetical conversation between someone who thinks the Knicks are finally being smart and someone who doesn’t

Optimistic fan: All of these people taking shots at the Knicks are hypocrites. These are the same people who, for years, lambasted them for trying to win the press conference instead of trying to build something sustainable. Randle is 24 and averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 boards last season, so getting him should be seen as a massive win. Barrett was seen as the likely No. 1 pick this time last year. Brazdeikis looks like another steal, a year after the front office nabbed Robinson in the second round and signed Trier when he went undrafted. In the big picture, the rest of it doesn’t matter — all they did was sign a bunch of dudes to one- or two-year deals. 

Skeptical fan: Is Randle really worth it, though? I know he can score, but I’ve never seen him as the kind of player who makes his teammates better. It’s a bit of a weird fit, too, if you are all-in on Robinson. I think Randle’s best position is center. If they really wanted to make one “big” move, maybe they should have gone after D’Angelo Russell.

Optimistic fan: I’d rather have Randle on this deal than Russell on a four-year max. And if we’re talking about fit, are you sure you want to build around Russell and Barrett? Both guys want the ball in their hands.

Skeptical fan: That’s the problem with Barrett, generally, isn’t it? He’s not a reliable shooter, so you kind of have to give him the keys to the offense. But I’m not sure he’s ready to be a primary playmaker right away, and Smith isn’t exactly a spot-up guy. What a weird team. Anyway, I shouldn’t have even started this Russell vs. Randle debate — why would Russell have picked the Knicks over the Warriors? Kristaps Porzingis is better than both of them, by the way.

Optimistic fan: Not fair! We’re talking about the summer, not the Porzingis trade. But yeah, I have faith that Barrett’s shot will get there. In the meantime, I’m happy to watch him create, and it’s good that the Knicks signed a bunch of competent guys who can actually finish plays when he passes to them. 

Skeptical fan: They are competent, sure, but I’m not sure they’re the right guys. Barrett needs spacing! Reggie Bullock‘s back injury is a real problem. And as for your “we’re talking about the summer” argument, I reject the notion that this offseason can be separated from all the stuff that led up to it. Anyone who wants to congratulate the Knicks for not doing anything colossally stupid after striking out on the A-list players is missing the point. Striking out was a failure because they traded their most promising player in eons in order to swing big. They couldn’t swing big without doing that because they signed Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee to four-year deals in 2016 and they signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year deal in 2017. (Don’t forget that the Hardaway deal happened after Phil Jackson was gone.) Smart management is about making lots of small, good decisions to set up big, franchise-changing ones, which is exactly why all these one- and two-year deals matter. The Knicks want to refurbish their reputation. They want to show that they can draft and develop well, that they have a good culture, not a toxic one. They want to have something solid to sell to free agents in two years. If this isn’t the right mix, yikes. 

Eye on:

Knox had an awful rookie season statistically, but if you loved him coming into the draft, you can blame the team for that. He turned 20 in August, and his tools remain ridiculous. His potential is undeniable, even if you took issue with his decision-making, inefficiency, level of physicality and defensive awareness in Year 1. 

It is Knox’s job to improve his feel for the game. It is New York’s job to challenge him without asking him to do too much. I am concerned, though, about the position that David Fizdale’s coaching staff is in now — with a small army of bigs, it will be difficult to give Knox a role that matches his skill set. I don’t see him as a 3-and-D wing. 

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