Being a fan of the New York Knicks hasn’t been an easy task for nigh on 40 years. What seems like an eternal rebuild continues to torture a loyal fan-base. The Knicks championship drought now stems across four decades, totaling 48 years, with the last seven seeing them miss out on the playoffs.
Willis Reed last led the team to the promised land back in the 1972-73 season, beating fierce rivals the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and then the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. Many superstar players and coaches have since tried to return New York to their throne atop of the NBA. All have failed.
Those superstars range from Walt Frazier to Patrick Ewing and more recently Carmelo Anthony, coaches like Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mike D’Antoni have all tried and failed too. It should come as no surprise then, that the Knicks fan-base is known for vocalizing its frustrations. If you need any proof of this, then Kristaps Porzingis‘ draft night should serve as a good example.
Little did fans know it, but the night when Kristaps got drafted was the night where New York’s rebuild began to gather speed. Although the Knicks and Kristaps failed to prove a match, their partnership did provide James Dolan with a clear plan – build through the draft and show an ability to develop talent. When players outside of an organization see a team is developing talent in the right way, that franchise becomes increasingly attractive.
Over the last few years, the Knicks have kept their draft picks. Selecting Frank Ntilikina (8th), Damyean Dotson (44th), Ognjen Jaramaz (58th), Kevin Knox (9th), Mitchell Robinson (36th), RJ Barrett (3rd) and Ignas Brazdeikis (47). Almost all of those picks are still on the current roster, playing regularly and developing on the fly. Sure, the Knicks are still holding out for landing a unicorn or superstar during free agency, but they’re attacking the problem with unusual intelligence.
During last summer’s free agency period, the Knicks came under scrutiny for the way they pivoted following their “swing-and-miss” at landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving – who both opted to join the Brooklyn Nets instead. While on the outside, pivoting the way the Knicks did would appear to be fuelled by panic, it was a calculated response to their “Plan A” failing to come to fruition.
New York’s pivot was to sign multiple veterans to short term deals, each with a team option for a further year. The genius behind this was that the front office knew coming into the season, this year’s draft projected to be shallow while the free agency class was devoid of young star talent outside Brandon Ingram should he take the jump – which he did. By signing veteran role players on these type of deals, the Knicks continued to be flexible should the right opportunity present itself, such as a player in college taking a huge leap, or a bonafide star becoming available.
The criticism New York faced wasn’t due to their acquisitions of veterans, instead, that those veterans all seemed to play in the same position. Couple that with their free agency splash on Julius Randle, and they now have five power forwards acquired in one summer, making it easy to overlook the thought process they were attacking the free agency period.
As the season progressed and the Knicks continued to lose, there have been flashes of development from a player perspective. Robinson is looking like a premier vertical spacer in the making, coupling his lob threat and hard drives with excellent rim protection and an unquenchable thirst for boards. RJ Barrett started hot but began to cool as the season progressed, hitting the proverbial rookie wall. Barrett, though, has shown flashes of a primary offensive scoring option, willing drive into the teeth of the defense or fire from a distance, he’s happy to attack what the defense gives him for now.
Looking elsewhere on the roster Ntilikina is slowly adjusting to the NBA game, utilizing his length to a significant effect on the defensive end. However, he is still having offensive struggles. Kevin Knox projects as the biggest enigma on the current roster, having come into the league on the ball of a solid collegiate season, Knox is struggling to find his way in the NBA. It was easy to write of Knox’s first-year struggles as an adaption year; not all rookies land on their feet right away. However, more of the same from Knox this season may indicate his future development lies away from the spotlights of Maddison Square Garden.
Outside of who’s currently on the roster, several players are hitting free agency over the next two seasons, which would be a positional fit while also raising the team’s ceiling. In the upcoming free-agent period, Brandon Ingram would be the most logical player for the Knicks to pursue. However, signing Ingram is a difficult task due to the New Orleans Pelicans holding his restricted rights, which enable them to match any offer sheet. Should the Knicks be interested in adding some veteran shooting outside of Reggie Bullock, they may entertain a discussion with Evan Fournier should he choose to opt-out of his player option.
Alas, the reason the New York Knicks dished out those one-plus-one deals is that their eyes remain firmly focused on the summer of 2021. The 2021 free agency class is full of sharks, the perfect type of class for a rebuilding team to announce their arrival back at the top table. A complete list of free agents from that draft class can be found here, for ease, that class contains headliners like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.
That free-agent class is still over 18 months away, which is a ton of development time for the likes of Robinson and Barrett. If the New York Knicks can show patience along with a willingness to develop talent from within, they may find themselves as an attractive prospect for some of the stellar names on that list.
The Knicks have now positioned themselves as a real player in 2021 free agency, all that’s left now is to make decisions that are conducive to the outcome they desire. Those decisions should be to continue building from within, developing their young draftees, and surrounding them with veteran leadership on short term deals. If New York (or more like James Dolan) can navigate the losing, which a rebuild entails with a modicum of class, they may find themselves atop of multiple free agent’s destination lists.
Who doesn’t want a chance to lead one of the league’s most significant markets back to the promised land? The New York Knicks have placed themselves in an excellent position of having young talent with high ceilings and cap room to burn in one of the best free-agent classes of recent memory. Dolan and his front office team have shown intelligence and patience to position the organization for future success; now, they need to show a steady hand guiding the team to its destination.
Only time will tell if the Knicks can not do Knicks things for the next 18 months.