NEW YORK — It seems appropriate, to put the clown shoes on the New York Knicks to go along with the big red nose.
It’s tradition, to mock and point, to blame and hang another banner of failure in Madison Square Garden alongside the rest, as another July 1 comes and goes without a marquee name willing to call New York home.
Well, not exactly, as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are relocating to New York, but they won’t be playing on Broadway, instead opting for the Brooklyn Nets. The cheers will be heard all the way to Midtown from Atlantic Avenue, harkening back to the audacious mural of Jay-Z and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue — towering near Madison Square with the caption “Blueprint for Greatness.”
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The jokes have flown and will continue to fly the Knicks’ way, watching the unassuming Nets swoop in and snag two players everyone believed to be destined for MSG, but here’s the rub: The Knicks didn’t exacerbate the situation by putting themselves into cap hell to justify missing out on two superstar talents.
Make no mistake, they’ll have to waddle in this for some time, and when Durant and Irving address the media for the first time as teammates, we’ll get a glimpse into why they preferred one franchise over the other.
Whether the Knicks didn’t offer Durant the max because of his Achilles injury is immaterial; he took less to fit DeAndre Jordan in with the Nets, to play with his friends in a city he clearly adores. If he emerges at full strength in a year, the torches will be out from a Knicks fanbase that’ll feel tortured.
But for different reasons, Durant and Irving come with questions. Will Irving’s body hold up on the floor? He’s played 70 games once in the last four years and missed considerable playoff time in two of those seasons. Irving also has to wear some of the stink that came from Boston’s underwhelming finish in the postseason, although he was a convenient scapegoat with some of his fortune-cookie metaphors and motivational techniques.
Knowing that, the Knicks still seemed ready to take him on, as an elite talent who perhaps needs to be around more people he can trust to better develop his leadership skills.
Durant’s Finals injury was chilling to watch and his recovery is the biggest unknown in the NBA. There’s a real chance he won’t come back as the same player he was — one who challenged for the top spot in a golden era of talent.
Still, the Knicks would’ve taken both with open arms and hoped for the best.
But Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry didn’t follow Knicks lore and try to cover a big swing and miss by hitting an infield single and calling it a triple. They didn’t take on an aging veteran with bad and long money just to claim activity.
When they missed out on LeBron James in 2010, they signed Amar’e Stoudemire knowing he possessed bad knees and a bad back, then added a desperate Carmelo Anthony via trade instead of waiting for 2011 free agency, depleting themselves of critical assets and role players.
Signing versatile Julius Randle to a two-year deal with a team-optioned third is a sound approach that keeps them flexible and agile for future moves. Restricted free agent Bobby Portis is high-energy big who can play both forward spots and is ambitious for more. They were in the running for point guard Terry Rozier, but seemed to back away when the price tag got a little too hefty, courtesy of the Charlotte Hornets’ $19 million annual offer.
Bringing in hardworking veteran Taj Gibson is just the type of move that would be lauded in a vacuum, if it were a franchise other than the Knicks.
But because the talk was big, anything less than a freakish 7-footer and a whirling point guard is viewed as failure — especially against a crosstown rival that didn’t have draft picks and cachet to sell a few years ago.
It couldn’t have been scripted any worse for the Knicks, simply from an optics standpoint. They traded Kristaps Porzingis, the man who signed a full max deal with the Dallas Mavericks. Jordan, who came over in that shocking deal that netted critical cap space, decided to head to the other borough, and one can imagine how much influence his experience at Madison Square Garden had over Durant and Irving.
It seems Irving held the most sway, especially because there was a decent amount of noise coming from his camp about where Durant was going this offseason. Once his mind was made up, the dots connected Durant to Brooklyn.
Little brother grew up and can no longer be ignored by the Knicks or their fanbase. Nets GM Sean Marks took over midway through the 2016-17 season and got creative, perhaps stirring the imagination of Durant and Irving by acquiring D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, among others.
The Knicks, who’ve been methodical since Perry arrived before the start of the 2017-18 season, would be wise to borrow some of that creativity in the future. The Nets balanced staying flexible with establishing an identity of athletes who played hard with a little attitude, nudging their way into the playoffs this spring without a top-level player.
The Knicks’ singular moves can’t be ridiculed much, drafting R.J. Barrett third overall to add to a crop of youngsters who each showed promise and production last year. Mitchell Robinson was a gem and Allonzo Trier was a find after the draft.
Building a cohesive unit of players who aren’t on long-term deals and having them play for coach David Fizdale to develop something palatable is the challenge. Perry admitted that it isn’t easy to snap your fingers and turn 18-year-olds into 24-year-olds, but the turnaround time is shorter than ever and patience is never high in New York.
The Knicks will have to move with urgency without panicking and balance teaching young players how to play tough, competitive basketball without stifling natural growth that only comes with experience.
It seems like a catastrophe now, but Durant isn’t playing next season and the Nets aren’t likely to be a contender without him. The hoopla surrounding his return won’t likely equal an immediate return to form and even if it does, he and Irving will have to develop chemistry on the floor.
In Golden State, Durant joined a locker room full of players who knew how to win and were mature and secure in their own skin to welcome him without much disruption. In this case, Durant will have to be more of a teacher than chameleon, and those lessons learned in the Bay Area will take time to apply.
For the Knicks, it gives them a blueprint of their own or at least a clock that will tick louder and louder as Durant’s return gets closer to reality. They have time to get their house in order, to keep growing organically and take opportunities as they come.
They’ve just been made aware, though, that decades of running unopposed for the hearts of New Yorkers is likely coming to an end.
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