The 2019-20 New York Knicks

My beloved Knicks will once again not be very good in 2019-20, but will be better than the 2018-19 version. That’s not saying much, but it’s not nothing. I’ll guess they’ll win between 28 and 32 games. If Perry moves rotational vets for assets and/or the team suffers rotten injury luck (again) another 20ish-win season is in the cards. On the other hand, it’s hard to concoct a reasonable scenario where this roster gets to 35 or more wins.

SO, Why Bother with ThE 2019-20 Knicks?

For those of us who are diehards (no judgment), we hold these truths to be self-evident that we are here for the Knicks until the bitter end. For everyone else who has not been so afflicted, in a sentence, what’s at stake this season is a chance for the franchise to turn the corner from moribund to competent. That’s not pegged to a specific record, though getting into the mid-30s in wins would mostly cinch it. Becoming a nondescript lottery team with a .500ish home record would be a meaningful developmental step. (Shout out to Phil! Thanks Phil. How’s it goink?) Soft bigotry of low expectations aside, it’s still just year two of a proper rebuild. And, it’s worth noting, NBA teams rarely double their win total in one off-season. Whether there is a lot of roster turnover or young teams run it back with the kids the next season, even improved talent takes a while to gel.

WHAT TO WATCH

What does Fiz do with R.J. Barrett?

I was (am) a bona fide R.J. skeptic, but to his credit he has changed the nature and extent of my skepticism through the work he’s put in on his body and game. In summer league I was really wondering whether he has the requisite athleticism to play on the wing in the NBA. He’s not springy and light-footed. He’s a hulking, “power” wing. This pre-season we saw that he’s not only come to grips with that, he’s doubled down on it, literally accentuating his strength, a mark of legitimate maturity. He’s also tightened up his dribble, which has helped his ability to finish at the rim and has helped his court vision to matter. Now, all I have to be skeptical about is whether a guy who was an unrepentant gunner in college will ever truly devote himself to a life of service. I am hoping he does, because I saw flashes of a wing version of Draymond (on offense anyway) in the pre-season. Yes please.

Can the Year Two Guys (TM) take a step forward?

Keven Knox looks like he’s gotten a little stronger in the pre-season. You can see him starting to fill out. His shooting stroke looks–and has always looked–legit. The concerns for him on offense are about shot selection and getting to the FT line. On defense however, he was dreadful in every conceivable way last season. So after a rookie season where he was allowed to do what he wanted, things could be very different for him. Either poor shot selection or ghastly defense could keep him out of the rotation on many a night this season. Can he show the maturity to stay on the straight and narrow offensively and rotate defensively? If this team has 35+ wins in it, the answer will have to be yes.

Mitch Robinson established himself as an official “phenom” as a rim protector last season. This season, for me the question is whether he will mature into setting hard Tyson Chandler-type screens, or stick with the Enes Kanter fake-screen nonsense he picked up. (I can’t imagine from where.) Even without improved scoring or rebounding he could be a big part of the solution to the team’s offensive spacing woes. I use Chandler as an exemplar of a player who offered virtually nothing on offense but lobs and putbacks, but who nevertheless used his body to create space for others (and easy lobs for himself).

Other guys seem less likely to be part of the rotation without an injury to a starter or key reserve. As a resident of Frank Ntilikina Island, Frankistan province, that pains me to say. Allonzo Trier has value as a decently efficient bench scorer. He looks intentional about taking open threes on ball rotation and getting to the FT line. Of all the bench bros (i.e., Trier, Dotson, Ntilikina, Brezdeikis and Allen), he’s the best bet to carve out a regular role as a closer. The Knicks need (efficient) offense, especially at the ends of quarters.

Can Fiz implement a coherent vision?

I still don’t think I can see what this team is trying to do or be yet. Of course, it’s worth noting that last season’s roster was mostly a bunch of kids and gunners who didn’t defend. In the pre-season thus far, I’m seeing a lot of forward-initiated offense. I like Julius Randle‘s ability to put it on the floor when opportunities present themselves, but if he and Marcus Morris are primary offensive facilitators the turnovers will come in waves. Many fans are wondering (me among them) if R.J. Barrett might be the best fit as a “point wing” initiating the offense. We shall see.

WHAT THE KNICKS DID, FREE AGENCY EDITION (Day 1, Part 1)

Summary: Most of what the Knicks have done under Perry & Mills is defensible and at some point people just have to concede that Dolan has mostly stayed out of operations, as he promised.

Sunday was the first day of NBA free agency and people were coming off the top rope on the Knicks with intensity; people I didn’t even know were basketball fans. I’ve been a Knicks fan since Patrick Ewing was drafted. So I have caught those #LOLKnicks Ls, like Keith Damn Hernandez standing on first. I don’t like it, but you put what we’ve put on the floor for two decades and the one-liners write themselves.

That said, people are gonna make me do a thing I never thought I’d do. They’re gonna make me (gulp) defend the loathsome James Dolan. You simply cannot write the story of how the Knicks got to where they are after 2013 without casting Phil Jackson as a central villain (too). If you don’t follow the team like that, fair enough. But if you call yourself a journalist or analyst you’re just being lazy, dishonest or both.

Why does it matter? Well, by pretty much all accounts, when Dolan hired Jackson he stayed out of basketball decisions and has stayed out. So the mess that Scott Perry is cleaning up is mostly Phil’s. (That ghastly Tim Hardaway, Jr. contract is on Steve Mills.) When people claim that Durant spurning the Knicks was inevitable, because “look at how they treated Porzingis,” that’s fair but it is also superficial. Phil Jackson damaged that relationship, full stop. He spurned a rebuild much of the fan base begged for to re-sign Carmelo Anthony. He regretted it before the ink dried, then passive-aggressively shifted blame to Anthony. When Porzingis publicly defended Anthony the 70-something Jackson publicly shanked the kid. That move went a long way toward his firing. Porzingis, perhaps rightly, was leery of the “new” regime, which includes people from the old regime. At the same time, the new regime (also rightly) said, “We’re not good with Porzingis. If we’re ever going to burn it all down it has to be this summer, where between the FA market and the draft there are 4-5 franchise-altering talents in play.” They pivoted to arson, and got what I still think is one of the better deals of the past few seasons.

Much of the #LOLKnicks vitriol yesterday came late in the evening when a report surfaced that the Knicks wouldn’t offer Durant the max because of the injury. There’s little to gain in debating the semantics, but I doubt there was ever any offer. This seemed obvious last week when the Knicks said publicly that they’d scrutinize the injury. The conditions changed and it just made sense for both parties to walk away. That blows, but the Knicks were trying to buy Durant’s gravitational pull–his capacity to attract another max talent along with other quality players–not just his jump shot. They needed both. Without both it wasn’t the right gamble. It’s a more sensible gamble for the Nets.

Yeah, I’m Still on Team #TradeThePick

By most accounts, the Knicks are set to select Duke wing RJ Barrett with the third pick in the 2019 NBA draft (ESPN+). Though I remain cooler on Barrett than many, there is no clearly better option to draft at #3 overall.

Instead, I will continue to argue that the Knicks should look to deal the selection (probably for a vet and a pick). To be clear, I’m not interested in compensatory star chasing now after missing out on Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. My rationale is that New York has to adjust to the new way of thinking in the NBA. Now that there is no lottery payoff* for losing, it is especially important to stay out of the NBA’s 15-20 win cellar. All else equal, the best way to do that is to NOT field one of the youngest teams in the league.

*I think NBA conventional wisdom is shifting (or has shifted). It used to be franchise death to end up in the NBA’s “murky middle” with the 8th, 9th, or 10th best record. You’d rather just be awful and max out the odds of getting a franchise-altering draft pick. Now that those odds are flattened–even acknowledging that a top 3 guarantee isn’t nothing–teams know that the next Zion or Tim Duncan is only 14% likely to walk through that door. A better bet may be what Doc is doing in LA: trying to convince a star that an 8-10 seed with cap space and a solid foundation is a near-term contender. A terrible team with nothing but a low-odds lottery ticket will find it increasingly hard to draft its way out of the cellar OR chase stars.

Many people are in love with Barrett’s “star” potential and I’m not going to fight with anyone over that. My only response is that you better be a true believer that he’ll peak as a perennial top 5-8 player at his position to justify adding yet another 19 year old to this roster. I’m not doubting Barrett can be good, but I’m absolutely not willing to say he’s a good bet to be a top 5-8 wing. Add to that, David Fizdale’s record as a talent developer is mixed. Of course, whose isn’t? And in fairness, at least some of that is about having so many mouths to feed. There’s a limited supply of developmental instruction to go around and New York was pretty maxed out on it in 2018-19. But some of y’all want to add another kid to the mix? Yikes.

Meanwhile, the trade market could be white hot this off-season and the Knicks could benefit without star chasing. With the Warriors hobbled, teams are opening up the proverbial game board. Some of them are–surprisingly–star chasing. Others are shedding salary to go star chasing (also, the Bucks looking to dump salary). Still others are just looking to stay out of the luxury tax. Some good players will change uniforms this off-season, and there’s no good reason for some of them not to end up in NY (even if only until the trade deadline). The Knicks are not a playoff team in 2019-20 (duh), but they can make some smart, short-term plays that keep them out of the cellar while helping the kids by not asking them to do too much.