The New York Knicks struggle to stay still in a way that no other franchise can match. Last season was an instructive example. A year that looked to be defined by the rise of rookie big man Kristaps Porzingis and the implementation of Phil Jackson’s vision for the franchise was interrupted by the surprising firing of head coach Derek Fisher in February. The team wasn’t making progress fast enough, according to team president Phil Jackson, and change was needed.
Jackson got his desired change, although it’s hard to say things got better. Interim head coach Kurt Rambis decided it was his duty to overplay the veterans for a non-playoff team without a first-round draft pick, a move that actually inspired said vets to tell him it was a mistake. He also messed around with the minutes of Porzingis — the most enticing prospect the Knicks have had in more than a decade, if not since Patrick Ewing — and generally seemed to approach the job with all the forward-thinking intelligence of a six-year-old boy playing his first game of chess. A rebuilding process moving at an acceptable, if not warp-speed, pace had been replaced by the familiarity of a Knicks team with no clear sense of its identity or long-term goals. I hope the Zen Master enjoyed watching them run his beloved triangle offense.
This offseason at least made Jackson’s vision clearer. Unfortunately, it’s to assemble a contender for 2011, not 2016. A pre-draft trade sent cost-controlled center Robin Lopez to the Chicago Bulls for Derrick Rose, a talented player with the league’s most famous injury history and plenty of red flags even when healthy. Jackson replaced Lopez with Rose’s Bulls teammate Joakim Noah, another player whose body has betrayed him enough to put his future viability into question. It’s up to new head coach Jeff Hornacek to put these mismatched pieces together with Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony, the latter of which has at least has proven he’s willing to give his all for a team going nowhere. Except it’s unclear if Hornacek will use the triangle offense enough to appease Jackson, a zealot who speaks of his favored approach as if it were a lifeforce that sustains us all.
Most other moves were acceptable, and some even quite good, but they add up to create a roster that only makes sense for a contender. Yet New York will be lucky to make the playoffs.
The presence of Porzingis ensures that the 2016-17 Knicks will not lack all hope of achieving greater success in the future. However, his continued primacy in the hearts and minds of the Madison Square Garden faithful almost makes the present situation worse. Porzingis’s second season should be one in which the NBA’s best-ever Latvian begins to become the face of one of the NBA’s marquee franchises. Instead, he’s playing with a point guard known for jacking up lots of shots, eternal efficiency nemesis Carmelo Anthony, and a new frontcourt partner in Noah who may have to cede many of his duties to Porzingis before he’s entirely ready.
This is a team that makes no sense at all and can make even the most sensible fan angry. Jackson has misjudged their readiness to contend and the players needed to accomplish that goal. A truly special young talent is being given unnecessary roadblocks to progress. The summer’s biggest acquisition, Rose, is currently in the midst of a civil rape trial that has made him look woefully ignorant at best and criminal at worst.
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As ever, this franchise appears more focused on winning the news cycle than building anything lasting. The hope that came with Jackson’s arrival in March 2014 is now all but gone. Believe in the Knicks at your own risk.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
THIS IS THE MOST FUN POTENTIALLY 37 WIN KNICKS TEAM EVER
— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) November 18, 2015
Melo’s out there giving 110% and I’d feel a lot more comfortable if he gave like 70%
— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) April 7, 2016
Maybe there's a second Kurt Rambis we don't know about https://t.co/1SP4mu1k8A
— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) April 6, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
This is the question that Jackson wants you to ask, because there are arguments for an affirmative answer. Do not ask this question.
Instead, take stock of each of this summer’s moves and try to judge if it gets the Knicks closer to contention, or maybe just becoming better one or two seasons from now.
It is perhaps best to start with Hornacek, a coach who was welcomed with open arms if only because he wasn’t Rambis. It seems difficult to imagine given how bad the Knicks were after Fisher’s departure, but Rambis was named in more than one report as Jackson’s favored candidate for the full-time job. It’s hard to know how much stock to put in those claims, but the mere fact that they were believable did not inspire much confidence in the Knicks’ future. Thankfully, Rambis is now on the bench merely as Hornacek’s triangle-loving associate head coach.
It’s hard to know how good Hornacek is for this job, because his prior gig with the Phoenix Suns was typified by controversies that seemed to have originated with the decisions of a risk-taking front office that paid marginal attention to team chemistry and player attitudes. What we do know is that Hornacek’s first season in Phoenix, 2013-14, was an unqualified success. A team expected to tank instead won 48 games behind a fast-paced offense and breakout talent, narrowly missing out on a playoff berth in a stacked Western Conference. At his best, Hornacek can oversee a very exciting team and get the best out of players who haven’t yet proven their worth. The Knicks do not have that kind of roster, but he could have opportunities to thrive with Porzingis, hard workers like offseason addition Courtney Lee, and any other young talents who come through future drafts.
The problem right now is that he’s going to have to find a way to make the Knicks’ disparate parts fit together in a triangle offense that doesn’t seem to suit many of them. That is especially true of Rose, who bears little resemblance to the spot-up shooting point guards who excelled next to superstar wings during Jackson’s stops with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Several major knee surgeries have robbed Rose of much of the athleticism that made him the 2011 MVP, and he’s now more likely to pull up from 18 feet than get to the rim and finish. Although Rose has played in at least 50 games each of the past two seasons — which isn’t stellar, of course, but represents a big improvement on his prior availability — he still takes nearly 16 shot attempts per game on poor percentages. He looks increasingly like a player whose role is out of step with his abilities.
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All that would perhaps be more tolerable if Rose were not also currently on trial for the gang rape of an ex-girlfriend. The plaintiff, known as Jane Doe in court reports, is suing Rose and two friends for $21.5 million. The case has exposed many disturbing details regarding Rose, including his barely-there conception of sexual consent and a flippantly dismissive attitude against the gravity of the charges against him. The Knicks, for their part, have discussed the case almost entirely in terms of what it means for Rose’s ability to contribute to the team. They are apparently surprised the trial is taking so long and could send an assistant coach to Los Angeles to work out with Rose. So much for due diligence.
This is the kind of story and event that makes no one involved look good. Reports indicate that the Knicks did know about the lawsuit before trading for Rose, and it is often confusing why they considered the deal worth the trouble.
Frankly, the biggest positive to acquiring Rose is that he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Knicks might opt to bring him back on a longer-term deal if he performs well, but years of injuries and Hornacek’s preference for a fast pace suggest that is unlikely. Then again, the Knicks have an unlimited capacity for the unexpected.
It’s worth noting that the Rose trade earned some positive reviews when it was announced, in large part because it seemed safe to take a flyer on a pending free agent with the chance to turn his career around away from the expectations of his hometown Bulls. Those impressions dissipated soon after the Knicks announced a four-year agreement with center Joakim Noah, another fading Chicago star whose career has been derailed by a host of injuries. Knee and shoulder ailments limited Noah to only 29 games last season, so it came as something of a surprising when Jackson essentially bid against himself to hand the former All-NBA big man $72 million. He has already missed part of training camp with an ankle issue, which isn’t great news for the man tasked with holding an iffy Knicks defense together.
Noah can still serve as an excellent defender and interior facilitator when he’s healthy, but it’s as yet unclear how many games he can play at 31 years old. There are positives to the deal — he’ll certainly be a fan favorite — but the risk is big over four years. Don’t be surprised if Porzingis becomes the full-time center sooner rather than later, even if by default.
In fairness, the summer was not all bad. Veteran shooting guard Courtney Lee signed up for four years and $48 million and should be just fine as a shooter and defender. The Knicks would have done well to add more players like Lee — he works hard, doesn’t need the ball too much, and can slot into virtually any system without disrupting it. Other additions such as Lithuanian forward Mindaugus Kuzminskas and backup point guard Brandon Jennings will fit their roles with a minimum of drama. The 26-year-old Kuzminskas could even exceed expectations and team with Porzingis to create basketball’s best Baltic tandem.
Potential breakout stud:
Knicks fans and press have never shied away from creating a sensation from nothing. Nevertheless, the hype surrounding Porzingis last season was entirely warranted. At just 20 years old, Porzingis displayed a natural feel for the game and adjusted to the style of the NBA game faster than any young European import in recent memory. He hit threes, blocked shots, and showed a willingness to mix it up with much bigger players. How could someone who had been sold as a project look so ready?
Porzingis hit several rookie walls in 2015-16 and was never a serious Rookie of the Year contender outside of the season’s first few months, but his season was an overwhelming success. After years of chasing over-the-hill veterans and big names with no defined roles, Knicks fans were finally gifted with a bright prospect with the potential to transform the franchise from within. Their excitement made all the sense in the world.
He is important enough that the biggest worries surrounding this year’s team concern what the additions of Rose and Noah do to his development curve. Figuring out how to play with Anthony’s ball-dominant style was enough, but Rose is arguably the less willing passer of the two. And while Noah makes sense as a potential mentor for Porzingis, his health woes could force the 21-year-old into playing too much center too soon.
Porzingis could be good enough that none of this matters. In fact, franchise-changing talents often put up with the worst the NBA has to offer. He has the potential to be one of the best big men in the league, a matchup nightmare who shows the sport a new way forward. Perhaps this will be the season Porzingis proves that he can have that huge impact no matter what surrounds him.
In terms of wins, the best the Knicks can probably hope for is something just shy of 50 with a mid-table playoff berth. But that probably wouldn’t be any good for the franchise as a whole, so let’s not even consider it.
Porzingis takes his next leap forward on his path to becoming an All-NBA player. Melo stays just healthy enough but be fun but looks all of his 32 years and begins to convince the front office it’s not worth building around him anymore. Rose is just bad enough that no one thinks of bringing him back on a long-term deal. Noah gives lots of good interviews about his favorite New York pizza. Jackson lets Hornacek experiment outside of the triangle enough to be his own coach. The Knicks’ vets miss enough games that the team gets another chance to nab a future star in the lottery.
If everything falls apart:
All the new additions limit Porzingis’s growth. Melo crashes hard and the front office refuses to admit he’s past his prime. Rose plays just enough games and averages just enough points to convince Jackson he’s worth a long-term deal. Noah plays fewer than 30 games again and his contract looks like one of the worst in the league. Hornacek doesn’t take to the triangle quickly enough and is fired after one season. The Knicks win roughly 35 games and lose out on a very high-potential prospect in the draft.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
36-46, 11th in the East
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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