There is no method to this New York Knicks madness, and it is increasingly clear that there never was.
Here’s what team president Steve Mills said of his plan in an August 2017 blog: “Our plan to become more youthful and athletic is underway with 22-year-old Kristaps Porzingis, the return of Tim Hardaway Jr., 25, Willy Hernangomez, 23, and with the debut of our first-round draft pick, Frank Ntilikina, just 19.”
Only Ntilikina remains from that foursome, and the Knicks have invested little in his development. The defensive-minded French point guard showed more in eight games for his national team at the FIBA World Cup over the summer than he had in two seasons since the Knicks drafted him eighth overall.
In an interview with Newsday’s Steve Popper prior to the 2018-19 campaign, Mills preached patience with this same vision. He replaced Jeff Hornacek as coach with David Fizdale and signed several recent high-upside lottery picks in pursuit of more youth and athleticism, none of whom panned out. “I believe the fans will accept a team that has a plan and you stick with it and if you deliver players, you do have some hope,” Mills said before his franchise set about tying the record it set for losses four years earlier.
Four months later, Mills scrapped that plan for another, trading Porzingis and Hardaway for Dennis Smith Jr., a pair of future first-round picks and the salary cap relief necessary to sign both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Knicks owner James Dolan revealed as much to ESPN Radio in March: “I can tell you from what we've heard, we're going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”
This was the vision all along, or so Mills said in an April 2019 letter to season-ticket holders.
Neither Durant nor Irving came, instead choosing the rival Brooklyn Nets, and they both publicly claimed to have never seriously entertained the thought of the Knicks. This reality was recently reinforced by Durant telling Hot 97 in New York, “The cool thing now is not the Knicks,” and Nike plastering a billboard of Irving’s face outside MSG with the slogan, “In my heart, I knew I always wanted to play at home.”
Instead, the Knicks spent the cap space they created by trading their best homegrown talent since Patrick Ewing on a handful of veterans, many of whom play the same position. They committed only to Julius Randle beyond the summer of 2021, when the next great free-agency class hits the market.
Naturally, come training camp again, Mills suggested this was again part of his master plan all along.
“There were a lot of max-type players that we could have met with, that were interested in coming here,” Mills said. “We had a certain way we wanted to build this team, and this is how we chose to build it.”
Gone is the vision to develop young talent, replaced by a holding pattern until the next failed free-agent pitch under the names Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton and Wayne Wellington.
There is R.J. Barrett, the No. 3 pick and tanking reward, who has shown early signs of future stardom on the wing, at least on the offensive end. Mitchell Robinson was a rim-protecting and -running find in last year’s second round. But what of their development? The Knicks are 1-7, owners of the NBA’s worst record, coming off a 122-102 effortless loss to a Detroit Pistons team missing three of its best players.
The Knicks are again preaching patience, this time to incorporate 10 new players. Fizdale has no clear system on either offense or defense and no defined rotation or facilitator to employ it. He is so averse to starting Ntilikina, even with Smith and Payton sidelined, that he unsuccessfully tried Barrett’s hand at the point. Before Robinson suffered a concussion, Fizdale sat his starting center in favor of Portis, trying to improve the spacing around Randle to disastrous results in a 21-point loss to the Sacramento Kings.
Prior to the season, Fizdale loosely defined his offense as a motion-heavy system predicated on pounding the ball into the paint to create ample free-throw chances and high-percentage 3-point kick-outs. The Knicks are currently ranked 26th in assist points created, 29th in points in the paint, 11th in free-throw attempts and 16th in 3-point percentage. Their offensive rating is second from the bottom.
Fizdale’s players shared with The Athletic’s Frank Isola his philosophy for a return to the bruising defenses of the 1990s Knicks — a brand of basketball that even Charles Oakley considers outdated. The Knicks rank 24th on that end, allowing opponents to shoot a league-best 68.2 percent at the rim.
Sunday’s loss to the Kings featured “Fire Fizdale” chants from the MSG crowd in the team’s third home game of the season. The past week has seen multiple investors urge Dolan to sell stakes in the team. And, as New York Daily News beat writer Stefan Bondy points out, Mills celebrated his 500th game as either the team’s general manager of president. The Knicks fell to a league-worst 164-336 in that span.
This is the environment in which Barrett and Robinson are supposed to develop. The Knicks will again have at least 10 free agents in 2021, when they will still be preaching patience, years after teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers demonstrated how a clear vision and commitment to a culture of winning can transform a big-market franchise mired in despair into a superstar free-agent destination.
Instead, they are sextupling down on an aimless vision, one that led Porzingis to request his trade upon losing faith in the franchise’s direction, according to intrepid Knicks writer Ian Begley. This will all come into focus on Friday, when the last-place Knicks will for the first time face Porzingis, who is averaging 19 points and eight rebounds — and is nowhere near satisfied with his effort — for an upstart Dallas Mavericks team that is making those first-round picks Mills got out of the deal look worse by the day.
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