Staff writer Peter Saclarides and managing editor Reid Goldsmith debate whether the Knicks have overachieved expectations in the season with only 26 games remaining.
Despite a blockbuster trade in September 2017, which sent Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder, the New York Knicks’ roster remained filled with familiar faces. Roster turnover characterized the Knicks’ offseason in the previous two seasons, however, New York started the 2017–18 season with co-captains Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas still on the team, Kristaps Porzingis firmly in the fold with an anticipated break-out season, plus native New Yorkers Kyle O’Quinn and Joakim Noah on the roster with All-Rookie First Team center Willy Hernangómez falling behind in the depth chart. Additionally, Tim Hardaway Jr. made an Odysseyian return to New York, via a big payday from Steve Mills, and Ron Baker was unceremoniously and handsomely paid.
The Knicks, sans Carmelo Anthony, never had lofty expectations for 2018—even according to Scott Perry—but they had a point to prove with rising star Porzingis and a hungry team tossed with veterans and neophytes. Through 56 games, the team’s record stands at 23–33, the exact same record as last year’s team at this point in the season. Even with Porzingis down, we can evaluate whether New York had made the most out of two-thirds of the season or not. The team will look pretty different for the remainder of the year (Mudiay in the fold, G League players Kornet and Hicks given more run).
That being said, have the 2017–18 Knicks underachieved?
Having lost Kristaps Porzingis to a torn ACL, the Knicks’ 2017–18 season is unequivocally over. Fans will watch New York basketball hoping for losses rather than wins for the remainder of the season, as they have for the past three years. However, for a team that traded arguably its best player in the offseason, the Knicks have actually overachieved up until this point in the season. Having entered the 2017–18 campaign with virtually no expectations, it’s safe to say that the Knicks have performed pretty well for a team that lost its number one option and didn’t have much assets in the first place (in TKW’s pre-season roundtable, the average prediction was that New York would pick up only 30 wins; they have 23 right now).
Taking a look at the record of this year’s squad compared to last season’s “super team” shows that the 2017–18 Knicks have actually slightly outplayed last year’s team, as they currently hold a record of 23–33, the same record as what the 2016–17 Knicks possessed through 56 games.
An underwhelming season (if you call an All-Star selection underwhelming) for Porzingis had been one of the biggest stories surrounding New York this season. While KP hadn’t been as effective as most expected him to be this year, it’s unrealistic to expect a player who’s never been a primary option before to breakout in his first season as the undebatable best player on the team, especially when that team’s second option, Tim Hardaway Jr., has been hurt for half the season. Suffering from fatigue and the effects of being on one of the worst teams in the league, the Unicorn had still managed to put up a career high in points and blocks per game.
While the Knicks are set to drop off heavily in the the rest of the season due to KP’s injury and whatever happens at the trade deadline, this season has been better than expected to this point. Even if the Knicks still flat-out stink in the final 26 games, taking into account the expectations most fans had for them entering the season, New York has definitely overachieved.
After finally realizing their season is done, the Knicks are stripping down their team in place of younger players to try out and the accumulation of assets like draft picks. Arguably, this should have been done much sooner before the ACL tear of Kristaps Porzingis.
Regardless, despite having the same record as this time last year, the Knicks have underachieved because they haven’t lived up to management’s promise of investing in youth, creating a team identity, and valuing defense.
The team traded Willy Hernangómez on Wednesday to the Charlotte Hornets after weeks of speculation of where New York could find a new team for the Spanish center. Although Hernangómez’s ceiling may not be extremely high like a lottery pick’s, Willy was never given a fair shake, with the team burying him behind Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, and Joakim Noah. The team, under Jeff Hornacek, sparsely plays Frank Ntilikina, who routinely gets half the minutes of Jarrett Jack, certainly not a piece the Knicks intend to build around. With the acquisition of Emmanuel Mudiay on Thursday’s trade deadline, the Knicks introduce another unwieldy guard to tinker with around Ntilikina and G League call up Trey Burke. But if New York truly wants to prioritize then why not amp up Frank’s minutes and let him run the show instead of benching him in moments like the 25-point blowout in Toronto last night where Jack subbed back in halfway in the fourth quarter?
The Knicks lack a clear team identity, too. To be fair, it’s difficult to conjure an identity on a bad team. However, while the Knicks could have been developing Porzingis at the center position, they instead pushed him further from the basket while being guarded by faster stretch-four opponents. Miraculously, Porzingis led the league in blocks at the time of his season-ending injury, despite on many occasions being pushed away from the basket; imagine the sort of rim protecting damage he could have done with a semi-full-time promotion at the 5?
On the point of valuing defense, the Knicks start Jarrett Jack and Enes Kanter. Full stop.
It’s tough to swallow New York’s promise of investing in youth and defense when two key contributors for the team are Jack and Kanter, both players who have trouble keeping their defensive assignments between them and the basket. One thought that’s inescapable, to me, is the Knicks organization does not feel comfortable to leave their young players out on the court to flourish or wither. If the Knicks had the same—or, more likely, worse record playing the 20-something-year olds—I would feel prouder to say New York is doing the most for their current situation. However, the Knicks self-sabotage themselves by wrist-slapping Frank Ntilikina.
The Knicks have underachieved in 2018 because, regardless of win-loss record, the team does not make the right decision in prioritizing a true youth movement to take over. Hopefully, we see a new approach in the final stretch of the season with more playing time allotted to Ntilikina, Burke, Mudiay, Kornet, and Hicks, but there hasn’t been a consistent track record to be confident.