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Did the Knicks really have a bad summer?
by Jonathan Macri
Being a Knicks fan has never been what I'd call "easy."
Even during what some of us middle-aged folk now look back on as the glory days of the 90's, things weren't exactly carefree. There were battles, and some of those battles were lost. We never won the war, and pain was endured, year after agonizing year. It was the kind of pain we'd welcome in retrospect, but it was pain, nonetheless.
Since then, there's been mostly losing, which brings about a different sort of pain. This has largely been the pain of knowing that not only will the next game likely be a futile effort, but that such nights were pointless, in furtherance of nothing more than a Sisyphean extension of the misery we came to call home.
To the outside world - non-Knicks fans - last season was seen as the exclamation point on the last two decades. The team lost harder, faster and with more regularity than at any time since its inception, and ended up with no Zion to show for it. Only the die hards relished the fact that there was at least a vague outline of a young core for the first time in forever. Seeing them try to walk like a baby giraffe provided a perverse form of enjoyment that I don't think I could ever properly convey to someone who hasn't spent time rooted for the likes of Othella Harrington, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson.
Most people both in and outside of New York didn't get it then, and surely don't get it now. Over the last three and a half weeks, those folks have depicted this offseason as a new chapter in the same old book. They've distilled this summer into a meme, and #Knicksforclicks has become a cottage industry - "Power Forwardville," if you will - constructed out of cancelled meetings, "overpaid role players," a Zion-snatched rebound, RJ's bust potential, and Kevin Knox's monumentally negative net worth.
"Same old Knicks! Now with 25% more incompetence!"
As fans, we've had no choice but to sit back and take it. We take it because James Dolan is our owner, and he cannot seem to get out of his own way. We take it because our front office had the audacity to acknowledge that they were shooting for the stars. We take it because we traded an unhappy, injured wunderkind who may not be the ideal horse for an unstable wagon to hitch itself to. We take it because we lost - games, the lottery, the summer, all of it. We take it simply because, sometimes, you just have to accept the L and move on. We take it because we have no choice.
It's been 25 days now of digesting that L.
Largely, I've avoided writing this very article because for as much as I recognized every new piece of sad clown clickbait as a different regurgitation of the same narrative, it always felt uncouth to battle back. As many have noted, this organization talks more game than one with its 20-year track record has any right to. That they haven't called a presser to put lipstick on this pig is actually a sign of progress in my book. Enough talk.
I don't know what it is that ultimately sent me over the edge. Maybe it was the politician (Andrew something, I think it is? I tend to ignore candidates who will be bagging groceries before the primaries start) who seems to talk about the Knicks more than his own platform. Or maybe it was the umpteenth Ringer article detailing how the Knicks are not only the worst team in the league right now, but the worst team any professional league has ever seen, and we should bring relegation to the NBA just for their sake. Maybe it's just because I think about this shit way too much. That's probably it, actually.
Whatever the reason, it's gone too far. Some truth needs to be told at some point, even if that truth does entail going beyond 280 characters to comprehend - the ultimate faux pas in 2019, I know, but what can I say...I'm old school like that.
Of course that truth always starts and ends with Dolan, and I've covered that many times, most recently last week in this space. To ignore his presence is sticking your head in the sand, but so too is ignoring the progress that's been made here over the last two years. It's funny how that second part gets left out of these hit pieces so often. Must be a limit on the word count.
In any case, two years ago, Scott Perry took the job as Knicks GM with free agency behind him. He was staring at a capped out team with one giant asset (KP), one nominal one (Frank), one massive headache (Melo) a bunch of flotsam and precisely zero discernible plans in place as to how to progress from league-laughingstock to fully-functioning organization. The closest thing they had to a basketball identity was fired a month prior, taking with him the last vestiges of an offensive system that was doomed the moment he tried to reintroduce it into a changing league. The Knicks were as lost as any organization in the NBA and it wasn't close. They were a fun team for a while in the Fall of 2017 - not unlike this year's darlings, the Brooklyn Nets - but then things started to go sideways, and then backwards, and then disaster struck. Perry's lone building block crumpled into a ball on the baseline, and later that night, may or may not have committed a felony.
(I've specifically chosen not to mention this since the night the allegations came to light, but the rest of the NBA world seems all too happy to bring up the KP trade when pouring concrete onto the team's corpse over the last several weeks while ignoring not only the still-pending investigation into what happened that night but the other evidence that Porzingis seems to be a questionable decision-maker at best. So forgive me...it seemed like maybe an appropriate time to drop a reminder)
Entering last offseason, the Knicks had no choice but to tank, and tank they did - successfully, so says the math. They had the worst record in the league and got the third pick in a 3-player draft. Contrast that with the Suns, who won two more games, tied for the second worst record, fell to sixth, traded down to 11, and selected a player most folks had going around 30. Everything turns on a trifle.
Fast forward to today. The Knicks might wind up having four men suit up for their respective countries in FIBA later this month: 24-year-old Julius Randle, 21-year-old Mitchell Robinson, soon to be 21-year-old Frank Ntilikina, and just-turned-19-year-old RJ Barrett. The team has five other players who figure prominently into their plans that have between zero and two years of NBA experience. Two of their free agent signings, Bobby Portis and Elfrid Payton, are 24 and 25, respectively.
In short, this is the youngest Knicks team I have ever known, and every one of the eleven guys between 19 and 25 on this roster have between a medium and strong chance to have the best season of their careers next year. In the last two decades of watching this team, I'm not sure I can count 11 names in total I could say that about.
The "build things the right way" line that this front office has preached has been snidely derided in every corner of the internet, and surely, every Junior GM on Twitter has their own suggestion for how they could have done it better.
Maybe they're right. All I know is that what Scott Perry is doing is what I have quite literally begged the Knicks to do for two decades now. I don't really care whether it's perfect or not. The Knicks have been chasing perfect since Ewing. They barely catch their tails most of the time. Putting two handfuls of relative NBA children in a gym with just enough veteran presence to keep things honest, rolling the ball out, and letting them have at it is a damn good start.
Will the pieces fit? Who knows. This isn't IKEA. Building an NBA team doesn't come with instructions. There is no drawing of that funny looking dude with the squiggly line for a mouth. Outside tools are required, and Step 1 is the hardest part.
The team entered July with eight players under contract: seven best suited for the 1, 2 or 3, and exactly one big. They now have 10 guards or wings and five bigs. This is what is known in the NBA as a "balanced roster." I even checked Wikipedia to be sure.
More so, every one of the four bigs that has been added to the roster does the one thing that this team was most sorely lacking in last year: they can shoot it, as can two of their other acquisitions, Ellington and Bullock. The worst shooting team in the NBA acquired more shooting in one offseason than perhaps any team in history. If it wasn't the Knicks, words like "coherent" and "competent" would likely be associated with these signings, perhaps even alongside the word "plan." But again, those pesky word counts...
None of these players are perfect, of course. Far from it. In a league that values (in no particular order) shooting, defense, ball movement, quick thinking, toughness, and shot creation, none of these dudes check every box. But they all check a few boxes, and different ones at that. The Knicks are now the NBA's motliest crew, and making these pieces fit will be the ultimate challenge, to say nothing of the constraints on playing time. Their players - including the kids - will have to earn minutes. Accountability will be king.
Again, were it another franchise, this would be cause for praise. Hell, the Nets were 17 Shabazz Napier minutes away from having 12 players cross the 1000-minute mark last season. The culture they've built is now the stuff of children's books and fairy tales. The Knicks will remain a comic strip, of course, until they put this all into practice. As they should, I suppose. But again: Step 1.
And of course, the Knicks remain the most financially flexible team in an NBA that has seen every other major market team cash in their chips. They managed to remain so while also achieving - if they so choose - roster continuity for the next two years. Before July 1, no one could agree on whether the correct path was to solidify things with deals longer than one season or keep everything liquid for the next star that inevitably asks out. They managed to have their cake and eat it too.
You don't get that kind of flexibility with perfect players...not that many were available, or for that matter, we have any evidence that more "complete" NBA vets were dying to suit up for a losing club. Compare the Knicks' additions to what other lottery teams had to do to improve their rosters. SAC: Harrison Barnes, $100 mil. PHX: Ricky Rubio, $51 mil. Minny nabbed the immortal Jake Layman to show KAT that they're serious about stepping up. Dallas had to go four years on both Seth Curry and Maxi Kleber, each a talented backup, but backups nonetheless. Memphis has been praised - praised - for giving Jonas Valancciunas, a backup center in today's game by any metric, $45 million in guaranteed money. Similarly, Washington went three guaranteed years at over $8 million annually to keep their own restricted backup big, Thomas Bryant. The Cavs did literally nothing. Only Chicago getting Thad Young and Thomas Satoransky could qualify as savvy, and a 31-year-old Young at $14 million annually isn't exactly a bargain.
Again: it is on the Knicks to make their moves work. Having 15 guys who all seem to want to be here is a good place to start, especially for an organization whose chief adversary is, by all accounts, getting people to want to come here and stay here.
There are those who would read every word of the above, tacitly agree with the underlying premises, and maintain that the offseason was a failure. These are important-sounding types with blue checks who get paid to write about (and pretend they are equally an expert at decoding) all 30 NBA teams for a living. I have no such designation, nor have I been granted such a privilege. All I bring to the table is the experience of watching this franchise operate, often aimlessly, for nearly 30 years, and the mindset to not fool myself into thinking something is better just because it is different.
From that standpoint, I'd challenge any critic with a simple question: what would your Plan B have been? Yes, yes...I know: engage in all these salary dump trades for picks that the Knicks passed on. All two of them - for Moe Harkless and a pick that is lottery-protected for three consecutive seasons, starting in 2023, and for Andre Iguodala and a 2024 top 4-protected first. These, friends, are the magic beans which our silly Knicks turned their back to in favor of building the type of team that would foster balance, cohesion, competence and competitiveness in the young core they have today, not the theoretical draft pick they'd have in four years.
Oh but wait...those picks could be used as trade bait for the next star. Or was it that chasing stars is foolish until you get your organizational footing right and make progress with the players you already have in house? Such a shame when narratives don't jive...
Watching 82 games this past year is not something I would wish on any non-fan, but if you're going to come forward with a critique, kindly do so in an informed manner. Treating team-building as an algorithm based on nothing more than analytics acronyms and future pick balance sheets belittles the art that goes into this work. The Knicks acquisitions may work out, or they may not. Bobby Portis may finally make good on his unique set of talents, or he may continue to be the same maddening player who takes as much off the table as he puts on. Ditto for Elfrid Payton, and to a lesser extent, Julius Randle. Maybe the other vets languish on the bench and don't rub off on the kids as intended, or worse, garner more playing time than anyone intended. Maybe the whole thing blows up. Better laid plans certainly have.
But I've had my intelligence insulted for damn near a month now and enough is enough. The team that I've watched wander through the desert for the last two decades told me for the last year that regardless of how this summer went, they were going to stick to a certain plan, and that's exactly what they did. That plan is, and remains, a simple one: identify the young pieces that will make up the long-term core and nurture them as best as possible in an environment that doesn't make them sour on the team like a certain Latvian did not long ago.
This offseason accomplishes exactly that. No vet save Randle is so good that he demands time ahead of any youngster, but the additions are good enough to push a group of kids that, frankly, needs to be pushed. Kids need to be shown the way, and as we saw here last year (and for years and years in places like Phoenix and, before last season, Sacramento) a coaching staff can't do it alone. They also desperately needed shooting to open up the floor, and got that in spades. The worst ball moving team in the NBA got a big (Randle) who had more assists than any Knick did last season and a guard (Payton) whose 7.6 average would have been 7th in the league had he qualified. Their defense will remain a train wreck, but defense is about effort, and by all accounts the new guys will bring that in spades. You gotta start somewhere
Most of all, they did what they've been doing since the day Perry arrived: wager on talent. His bets up until now have amounted to nickel slots: the Burke's, Mudiay's, Vonleh's and Hezonja's of the world. None have paid off in a big way, although Mudiay and Vonleh had what amounts to career years for them. Now, with the signings of Randle, Payton and Portis, the philosophy truly gets put to the test.
It is a philosophy with no guarantees, but guarantees don't exist in sports. No philosophy - not hoarding draft picks, not tanking, not star-chasing - is proven. The only guarantee that became readily apparent this summer is that when the Knicks do something, even if that something is attempting to act like a normal, "put one foot in front of the other" NBA team for once, it will be pilloried and prodded as an aimless misappropriation of assets by those who haven't remotely thought through why these particular moves make sense for this particular roster on this particular team at this particular time.
If you're going to sell cheap box wine disguised as NBA analysis, do so to a fan base that hasn't had to spend as much time as we have pining over the mundane and the trivial because we had nothing else to occupy our time. We know what it is to be sold a bag of goods; our own GM's have tried to do it more times than I care to count.
We also know progress when we see it, if only because we've become indoctrinated in the opposite. For all the unanswerable questions about this owner and the unmistakable shortfall that was this summer's Plan A, this July counts as progress.
Now please, go sell crazy someplace else. We're all stocked up here.
Thanks for reading, talk to you next Thursday!