What if the Knicks signed DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball?

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DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball treated image
DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball treated image

Two of the biggest teams to spend on free agents this past offseason were the Knicks and Chicago Bulls, with both franchises looking to rediscover past glory via upgrades to existing cores.

The former retained their veterans and restructured their backcourt, adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to bolster the offense of a defensive juggernaut, while the latter signed DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball.

Neither of them were generally thought of as contenders entering the year, but halfway through the new season, Chicago sits atop the East while New York is clawing its way through the play-in race. With things going so wrong for the Knicks, especially for their two newcomers, it’s difficult not to question what could have been done differently.

It seems Scott Perry wanted his team to take a longer look at DeRozan, though we may never know the full extent of DeRozan or Ball's interest. Still, it’s fun to think about what might have been if the Knicks signed the Bulls' backcourt instead of their own.

First, it’s important to recall that New York spent a good portion of its $50 million in cap space keeping last year’s roster intact. The Knicks did not have Nerlens Noel’s or Alec Burks’ Bird Rights, thus signing the Ball-DeRozan tandem would mean having to let them walk.

In this scenario, a plausible response would be falling back on a center rotation of Mitchell Robinson, Jericho Sims and Taj Gibson, who was also a free agent but signed to the room exception. The team did have Reggie Bullock’s Bird Rights, however, so they could go over the salary cap to maintain some wing depth. They would also, assumingly, re-sign Derrick Rose under his Bird Rights as they eventually did.

DeRozan and Ball would sign long-term contracts similar to, if not longer and more expensive, what they signed for in Chicago. This is in part why New York looked elsewhere, prioritizing cap flexibility and more tradeable contracts.

So what does this new-look Knicks product look like on the floor?

Part of what makes Chicago so successful is letting its stars work in space, with soft-shooting center Nikola Vucevic spreading the floor. The Knicks aren’t known for their spacing, and it’s hard to see why Julius Randle or RJ Barrett would avoid the slumps they’re having this season from three with different teammates. Perhaps with no Noel in the rotation, this would have opened up more of a chance for Obi Toppin center minutes, though he isn’t shooting well from outside.

Ball makes for a great fit here, as a point guard who defers to his stars and hits 41.6 percent of his threes on 7.5 attempts a night. He isn’t the penetrator Tom Thibodeau might want, but neither is Walker or Immanuel Quickley. His transition game, namely his passing, would be huge for a Knicks team failing on its promise to push the pace.

As for DeRozan, he’s an MVP candidate this year and would have likely made a better fit for Randle than first assumed, if he played like this for New York. He and Zach LaVine have a my-turn-your-turn approach that works, which could theoretically be duplicated with Randle, who needs his isolations. DeRozan is a gifted cutter that would make doubling Randle a bigger gamble, and he’s hit 35.2 percent of his threes.

The defensive end gets really interesting, as Ball and DeRozan make for significant upgrades over Walker and Fournier. Granted, those two have not been the only issues, so the Knicks wouldn’t be a guaranteed stalwart. Lineups without a traditional center could probably be switched throughout, much like Chicago does at times.

This is all theoretical, of course. Perhaps Ball’s shooting doesn’t come along this well and DeRozan doesn’t have a career year. Coaching is another key factor: Could Thibodeau utilize all his pieces to their best abilities like Bulls coach Billy Donovan has?

On the other hand, this is midway through year one of Chicago’s experiment. Things change in an instant in this league. Who’s to say the Bulls don’t collapse or just get exposed early in the postseason, and get stuck with these larger contracts for the long haul?

There’s nothing the Knicks can do about it now. They’re faced with a steep climb up and the pieces responsible for accepting the challenge aren’t changing barring a trade. It’s on them to dig out of this mess, with the ghosts of free agents past haunting them or not.