No NBA team invokes more schadenfreude for fans than the New York Knicks. They make it easy for us. The level of incompetence and futility over the past two decades has been staggering. Yet somehow, they stubbornly persist in the illusion that they are one of the league’s prestige organizations, in a similar class to the Lakers or Celtics, who are responsible for a combined 33 championships.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have won a total of two titles, the last of which was 46 years ago. They haven’t sniffed the NBA Finals since the bizarro lockout season of 1999, and they’ve missed the playoffs the last six seasons.
It’s difficult to chart the genesis of their disproportionate self-regard, but it’s at least partially rooted in an offhanded comment Michael Jordan once made about Madison Square Garden being the “Mecca of basketball,” which Knicks fans treated as a coronation and have repeated like gospel ever since.
It’s true that the Garden has a certain mythical allure, but that’s in no small part because it has ironically become a showcase for visiting superstars to put up the performances of their careers. Showing up the lowly Knicks on their own floor has become the NBA’s version of sport hunting, and plenty of stars have gleefully taken part.
But it’s almost as if just being consistently bad at basketball, not to mention generally inept at the machinations of the league, isn’t enough. No, the Knicks seem to have an insatiable desire to compound what often seems like a bumbling lack of foresight with ugly inter-organizational turmoil that invariably finds its way into the public sphere.
Case in point: We would’ve gladly forgiven the Knicks for striking out on Kevin Durant in free agency. It was difficult to imagine that he — or Kyrie Irving, for that matter — ever seriously considered them as an option. Durant himself tried to tell us as much.
Someone asked Kevin Durant when he’s coming to the Knicks
KD, smiling: “Never.” ?? pic.twitter.com/56N8uVxrzb
— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) March 22, 2019
But it was the manner in which they failed, however, that made it notable: a way only way the Knicks seem to know how. After years of pining after Durant, they didn’t even bother to offer him a max contract, incorrectly convincing themselves that his Achilles injury somehow reduced his market value, which immediately eliminated them from the running. To make matters worse, they leaked that information right after he announced that he was headed to the outer borough, as if that somehow made it better for their fans to bear.
With all those facts laid bare — no Durant, no Irving, no Zion — their offseason looks like a catastrophic failure. But the NBA, like everything else, is about perspective, and viewed through a more conservative lens, the Knicks aren’t as bad off as it might appear.
Julius Randle isn’t in the same tier as Irving or Durant, but at 24, he’s a solid young forward who could be one of the franchise cornerstones of the future. What’s more, his three-year, $63 million contract is a fiscally-sound deal that includes a team option for the final year. In fact, the front office actually set themselves up nicely to have some flexibility next summer, when they figure to be a player in the free agent market once again.
Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, and Reggie Bullock each have $1 million partial guarantees for 2020-21.
Julius Randle has a $4 million partial guarantee in 2021-22.
Bobby Portis has a true team option worth $15.75 million for 2020-21.
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) July 19, 2019
That logjam in the frontcourt doesn’t look so daunting when you consider that several of these players likely aren’t in their long-term plans. Veteran bigs like Gibson, Bullock, and Marcus Morris, however, offer leadership and mentoring for guys like Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox, who the team consider key pieces of their young core.
It also doesn’t hurt to have David Fizdale at the helm, one of the league’s savviest and most underrated coaches. The Knicks aren’t going to win a lot of games this year, again, so his biggest task will be overseeing the growth and development of a trio of intriguing prospects, experimenting with lineup configurations, and ultimately separating the wheat from the chaff in terms of trade bait versus rotation pieces.
One of the more compelling story-lines to watch, of course, will be R.J. Barrett. After an up-and-down freshman season at Duke, Barrett was one of the most divisive players in this year’s draft. It doesn’t help that he’ll forever be in the long shadow cast by his former Duke teammate, and the demands of playing in New York won’t make things any easier as he adjusts to the rigors of the NBA during his rookie season. But plenty of players who’ve had a rocky college career and/or brutal summer league debuts have gone on to have solid NBA careers. The key with Barrett will be tempering expectations.
Ultimately, the organization wasn’t able to assemble a superstar duo capable of competing for a championship next season and restoring the Knicks to their former glory. But they also didn’t overreact and say, give someone like Tim Hardaway Jr. $71 million deal this time around to make it look like they accomplished something. Nor did they leverage their future along the way. Instead, they were careful with all that cap space they cleared and left their options open.
The free agent crop in the next two summers will be significant, especially in 2021. If the Knicks can continue to work their way back to respectability between now and then by showing progress with their young core and avoiding unnecessary blunders, then they might once again establish themselves an attractive destination for marquee players. But there’s plenty of work to be done before they get there.