Over the past 18 seasons, the New York Knicks have won a single solitary playoff series. It was a first-round victory over the Boston Celtics in 2013, coming off a 54-win regular season in which early injuries forced coach Mike Woodson to play small with Carmelo Anthony at power forward alongside a two-point-guard backcourt in an offensively potent ball-moving and 3-point-shooting attack. One round later, Woodson infamously zagged the other way during the conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers because, well, “the East is big, man.” The move didn’t pan out; with the Knicks’ offense shackled and the bigger frontcourts unable to keep Indy off the glass and out of the paint, the Pacers eliminated New York in six games.
It feels instructive that the best Knicks season in two decades was, basically, an accident, and that once everyone went back to the intended plan, the party was over and the losing resumed. The consistent struggle to both craft a sensible plan for building and maintaining a competitive roster, and to stick with it throughout any growing pains that might arise, has been the lone constant throughout that 18-year span, during which the Knicks have employed 12 coaches and six lead basketball operations executives. (Well, there’s one other constant, but that might be a symptom/disease kind of situation.)
But after years of chasing would-be saviors at every turn, making penny-wise but pound-foolish moves that leveraged future assets and flexibility in search of better present-day fortunes, and stubbornly adhering to the ill-considered adage that You Can’t Rebuild In New York — y’know, the kind of stuff that might make a fan quit — the Knicks might finally be committing to walking a more measured path, and trying a bold new strategy: behaving like a normal NBA team.
Or, at least, that’s the way Knicks president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and head coach David Fizdale made it sound during a town hall meeting with season-ticket holders on Monday night:
“We are not going to trade our draft picks”
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) September 17, 2018
The vision Knicks fans have been waiting decades to hear.
Now it’s show and prove
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) September 18, 2018
From Ian Begley of ESPN:
“What we’re not going to do is take shortcuts,” said Mills, who was general manager under Jackson. “We’re not going to trade our draft picks. … We’re going to build this team the right way. What we’re not going to do is trade away assets to get a [free agent] that we can go get on our own later.”
It’s an approach that differs from what’s come before, and one that Mills understands browbeaten Knicks fans might not necessarily believe until they see it in action, from Marc Berman of the New York Post:
“You [fans] have a reason to be skeptical,” Mills said. “All we can do is by demonstrating what we do. We’re sticking with the plan. Since Scott’s been aboard, we’ve been true to what we said we’d do. I’m a New Yorker. I don’t want what happened in the past to happen again.”
Perry added, “You have two patient personalities up here too in Steve and I — not overreacting, staying the course.”
That tack might frustrate some fans who, after five straight sub-.500 and playoff-free seasons, just want to see the Knicks play in some games that matter, and don’t much care about what it costs the front office to make that happen sooner rather than later. But it certainly seems like a sober reading of the lay of the land for a franchise that has, over the past dozen years or so, watched a number of its first-round picks blossom into quality contributors for other teams.
The 2004 trade that brought Stephon Marbury back home sent a 2010 No. 1 to Phoenix, which was later redirected to Utah; that turned into Gordon Hayward. The 2005 deal that brought Eddy Curry to New York sent 2006 and 2007 first-rounders to Chicago; they turned into LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.
The 2011 three-team mega-swap that landed Anthony — and busted up the guts of a pretty fun little nucleus that then-personnel chief Donnie Walsh had been building to play in Mike D’Antoni’s offense — saw the Knicks send out a 2014 first-rounder and the right to swap 2016 picks; they turned into Dario Saric and Jamal Murray. And the 2013 trade that, for reasons that remain nearly impossible to fathom, brought Andrea Bargnani to Broadway included a 2016 first-rounder; that turned into Jakob Poeltl.
Draft picks are slippery things, of course, and there’s no guarantee that the Knicks’ various front offices at the times of those selections would have made the same picks, or that the players chosen would’ve developed as well in New York as they did in the specific circumstances in which they actually wound up landing. The issue, though, is that those picks present possibilities — the chance to land special talents on cost-controlled deals, and to accumulate enough gifted youth to create the core of a team that can grow together and consistently compete for a handful of years.
You still have to make the right picks, and do the hard work of helping the prospects you choose reach or exceed their expected potential. Generally speaking, though, keeping your draft capital (and, ideally, seeking more) and using it to load your roster with inexpensive players with high ceilings seems like a smart starting point for a team closer to the beginning of a rebuilding project than the end of one … which the Knicks, despite a dismal half-decade, very much are. Mills, Perry and Fizdale appear to be aware of this, and seem comfortable with allowing their growing collection of young players — rising (in more ways than one) sophomore guard Frank Ntilikina, 2018 draftees Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, comparative graybeard swingman Tim Hardaway Jr., and “second draft” reclamation projects like Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh — to take their lumps and learn on the job under Fizdale’s watchful eye, and to dip back into the lottery next summer and keep the process moving along.
That patience also appears to extend to the organization’s approach to the rehabilitation of star forward Kristaps Porzingis, who suffered a torn left ACL in February. Rumored return dates for the 7-foot-3 Latvian have varied, but a Knicks team more likely playing for pingpong balls than postseason positioning this season seems set to err on the side of caution, according to Steve Popper of Newsday:
“Our goal is not to do anything that jeopardizes K.P.’s future as being one of the foundational pieces of this team,” Mills said. “He’s back. we’ll have some medical evaluations of him this week and we’ll start to develop what the right plan is for him to come back. We’re not going to do anything that jeopardizes the future of this franchise and we’re going to be consistent and stay true to that.”
So: Porzingis will get all the time he needs, the kids will get their chance to learn by doing (and failing), and the front office will under no circumstances re-enact the ‘Melo deal to try to land an All-Star that they might be able to get in free agency in a year’s time … even if one might, y’know, hypothetically, be available pretty soon.
“Our main focus is the ’18-’19 season,” Perry told fans at the town meeting. “As much as we talked about having cap space, in all honesty, we are trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves. This team requires our undivided attention. I understand fans drifting to the future. Once it gets to ’19, we can have that conversation.”
That’s the thing about trying to build something. If you screw up a step at the beginning, you’re going to pay for it down the line.
“If our culture isn’t right, the free agent market doesn’t matter,” Fizdale said.
And if the supporting talent and financial flexibility aren’t right, the story’s the same. So the Knicks plan to keep their powder dry, hold onto their picks, develop their young guys, get their centerpiece healthy and see where things stand come the summer. That’s likely going to mean another season full of losses. Maybe this time, though, there really will be some sunshine on the other side of the storm.
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