After years of organizational dysfunction, the New York Knicks are finally a relevant team again. They have two foundational players, albeit on different career paths. Carmelo Anthony, fresh off his third Olympic Gold, and Kristaps Porzingis, who took off summer play to work out in the U.S., are the two cornerstones of the Knicks franchise. But while Anthony has gotten adequate veteran help, Porzingis is still years away from excelling at an elite level.
The recent history of the Knicks franchise is too long, too painful, and beyond the scope of this piece to recount. The one exception being the 2013 season where they won 50 games and got to the second round of the playoffs. Inexplicably, right afterwards, owner Jim Dolan demoted the GM responsible and destroyed the team’s chemistry with the Bargnani trade. There have been significant lows for the Knicks, but they are now back on the track to stability.
This summer, the Knicks realized they didn’t have their pick of the free agent class. To their credit, they did not promise to deliver Kevin Durant or any other elite free agent.
Modern NBA teams are no longer, if they ever were, superficially judged by the market of their cities or the glamour of their arenas. Players want to win now and who they play with on the court is more important than who is watching in the stands.
The Knicks free-agent haul was elevated by the signing of Joakim Noah, their biggest deal during the off-season. Noah’s play has been diminished by years of fighting off injury, but his leadership and fit next to second year player Porzingis should be more than an upgrade. The Knicks definitely overpaid for the ex-Defensive Player of the Year by giving him a 4 year/$72 million deal without any competition – a deal that will not look good if he gets hurt again. Regardless of the price, he fills a team need with his tough defense and ability to move the ball on offense. He will instantly fit into any set the Knicks try to run and will be crucial in developing younger players.
The other important players signed this summer, Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings, are win-win situations for the Knicks. Lee is a day one starter who gives them an older presence and defensive balance with his ability to (still) capably defend his position. In Jennings, they get another player with questionable injury history, but he is a great buy low option. At full health, Jennings is insurance if the worst happens with Rose. Even as a backup, Jennings is an upgrade over last year’s starter, Jose Calderon.
By far the biggest move of the offseason was the trade to bring Derrick Rose and his questionable knee history to New York. His deal ends next summer and the expectations should be low, which should only help his motivation to play at a high level. If it doesn’t work out, Rose won’t ruin any of the Knicks plans moving forward. It is a pipe dream to expect Rose to play all 82 games at full health, but he hopefully will get close. It’s clear he’s no longer an MVP candidate but as a starter he is miles ahead of Calderon on both sides of the ball. If he underperforms, he could also lose his job to Jennings and leave New York in a year without long term repercussions for the franchise.
That is what was so appealing about this summer for the Knicks. Unlike last year, even though they signed Robin Lopez and drafted Porzingis, they were never going to make the playoffs. This year they acquired competent NBA players and definitely improved at the two positions not occupied by Porzingis or Anthony. The Knicks may have overpaid for the talent and collective playing time they are going to get, but at least there won’t be a layup line to the basket by opponents. Finally there are guards on the team who can cover their own positions.
Carmelo Anthony enters this season with respect and without outdated criticisms. With his third gold medal accolade, he’s finally getting the credit for his leadership and off the court qualities. He achieved what his friends (Dwayne Wade and LeBron James) never did. Anyone who watched the games in Rio saw the no-look passes to shooters and the correct plays he made all over the floor. He still belongs on the floor with USA Basketball and Carmelo will be an All-Star for the near future. He is a great scorer but has always been an underrated all-around player that the Knicks will need every single night until his contract is up.
On the management side, the future is wide open. A few years ago when Phil Jackson came to town, the Knicks needed a lifeline and got it, but Jackson’s record has obviously been spotty. He gave a massive deal to Derek Fisher then fired him a year later. He signed Lopez on a killer deal and traded him for an ex-MVP with bad knees. But he also rewarded the trust of Knicks fans and made the unpopular pick of Kristaps Porzingis, which makes everything okay in the end.
Jackson’s time in New York may be coming to an end with the opt-out clause in his contract and his fiancé, Jeanie Buss, poised to take over the Lakers. Even if he ditches New York this year, and in his tenure didn’t make the team into championship contenders, Jackson still made the Knicks into competitors and a franchise with stability. Past Knicks GM’s would have acquired other players or traded a top-5 pick under duress from Dolan to compete right away, instead of drafting Porzingis. Jackson removed the impulsivity from ownership’s hands.
The almost Rookie of the Year was the number 4 pick in a draft that supposedly held three star players.
Jackson is expected to leave the team in a better place than when he accepted a bunch of money to run team operations. He handled the coaching search admirably and entrusted Jeff Hornacek, who no one expects to run the Triangle to perfection, but who deserves another chance after his unceremonial end in Phoenix.
It also should be a good year for New York fans. This team is instantly more likeable, though Lopez beating up mascots was fun. Knicks fans should be happy with this summer and hope it’s a sign of things to come. But if the worst case scenario happens, Knicks fans have future draft picks to fantasize about.
The fan-base, however, should start to temper its expectations in regards to Porzingis, especially for next season. No one in the league wants to see him sky over them for put-back dunks. Players much older and bigger will make sure that doesn’t happen to them from now on. As a result, he might have a much tougher year.
He also is going to play with decent NBA starters who can move the ball and play defense. His transition to that level of play will be gradual but beneficial in the end.
This will be an interesting year for the Knicks. They may think they’ve got lightning in a bottle but the end product may never live up to the hype. At least, their fans have reason to hope that this relative normalcy is a sign of things to come.
photo via llananba