Jonathan Macri pens an open letter addressed to Knicks team president Steve Mills concerning the team’s need to practice patience among free agency spending.
You don’t know me. Well, you might know me—I’ve tweeted at you a bunch of times over the years. If you haven’t seen them, feel free to take a moment.
On second thought, it’s probably for the best that you didn’t. There were emotions, things were written…I was in a dark place. Let’s move on. The past, as they say, is the past.
Most Knicks fans love bringing up the past, but not me. I’m all about looking ahead, which is what makes this such an exciting time. For the first time in a long time, Knicks fans across the city and all over the world have visions of a future that isn’t taking on water as it floats down a river of heartbreak through a barren wasteland of despair. (Can you see the scars, Steve? They are so very real.) No, for once, Knicks fans see something in the distance that we’re not accustomed to. We see hope.
We’ve had hope before, but it’s always been a mirage. The Stephon Marburys and J.R. Smiths of the last 15 years weren’t building block—they were band aids. This time seems different.
Take the Summer League roster. There’s some honest to goodness talent on there, baby! And most of them aren’t even old enough to hit the casinos between games. Hell, Frank would get carded trying to see Hereditary by himself.
It’s been a while since New Yorkers could use the words “young” and “core” in the same sentence while describing the hometown team, but that’s where we are. You and Scott have talked about building something sustainable, and while they might not be as highly touted as other 25-and-under groupings across the league, as your new coach always says, there’s no need to put any of these guys in a box. The sky is the limit for most of them, and there’s no telling when a player is finally going to figure it out.
Your general manager seems to understand this better than anyone. In the last year, his low-risk acquisitions of former top-10 picks Enes Kanter, Michael Beasley, Trey Burke, and Emmanuel Mudiay all made sense in their own way. So far, none of them have been home runs, but he’s got a solid batting average—one that figures to go up after the recent draft. You all clearly have a plan: make player development the bedrock of the organization, acquire high character guys with untapped potential, and see if you can find some pearls in the oyster bed.
As we’re nearing July 14, the one-year anniversary of Mr. Perry’s hire and of that plan being put into place, Knicks faithful is as satisfied as they’ve been in some time. That said, as encouraged as I am for what lies ahead, I’m also reminded of another anniversary that is nearing even sooner—one that doesn’t generate nearly as many positive vibes.
I remember it well. We were nearly a week into 2017’s free agency and people were starting to think that (gasp!) the Knicks had turned a corner. Yes, the Carmelo Anthony cloud was still hovering overhead and Kristaps was M.I.A., but your former boss had been put out to pasture and through six days of spending, there were whispers that you were taking an approach not often associated with the franchise: patience. The team was clearly worlds away from contention, and with a cap crunch coming, you seemed to realize that unlike in real life, the time value of NBA dollars was only going to increase. Cap space was about to become more valuable than ever. Like a squirrel and his nuts before winter, you were hoarding.
We all know what happened next. The nuts came tumbling out of the tree, and poor Mr. Squirrel was left hungry for the winter.
If you squint hard enough, it’s easy to see your logic with our beloved Timmy: if you’re going to rebuild, it’s unfair to put everything on the still-somewhat-bony shoulders of a kid from Latvia barely old enough to drink. What better wingman (literally and figuratively) to give him than someone about to enter the prime of their career who already knew firsthand the pressure of playing under the brightest lights in basketball. This wasn’t a broken down Joakim Noah; Tim Hardaway Jr. was still on the upslope. Of course you pay a premium to pry him away. You had to know the optics would be bad, but executives who worry about what people say or write about them don’t last long. You went for it.
And I’m betting you’d probably do it again. When he was healthy last year, Timmy and KP made for a pretty nasty 1-2 punch. During the brief moments they shared the court with Frank Ntilikina, you guys killed opponents. This, we assume, was your vision. It was working.
If we sit down and take a big gulp of our brutally honest cocktail (it’s really just a bottle of Gentleman Jack with some grenadine; I wrote over the label), we know that none of the other 29 teams in the league would be clamoring to trade for Hardaway’s deal if you ever made him available. Apply all the lipstick you want; 31 percent from deep and “inconsistent” defense (I’m being kind) still gets you a feeding trough and a puddle of mud to call home.
True, THJ should get healthy, his stats will see an uptick, and a new defensive scheme under a coach born to motivate a player like Tim should bring instant change. That’s not the point though. The past is only the past if you learn from it. And I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t make damn sure that you have, especially with free agency upon us.
Even if you and Scott finding a suitable sign and trade partner for our resident Turkish Delight, you’re not going to have a lot to spend. That doesn’t mean mistakes can’t be made. You’ll have, at the very least, your full mid-level exception, which will be north of $8.5 million. This summer, teams with space are either going big-game hunting or taking on bad salary for assets, and other organizations are up against or over the luxury tax. That means about a week from now, that chunk of change is going to start looking pretty darn appealing to a lot of talented players—maybe even someone who fits in with the timeline of a young team.
Jerami Grant, Joe Harris, Mario Hezonia, Kevon Looney, Rodney Hood, and Nerlens Noel—just to name six—are all unrestricted free agents between the ages of 22 and 26 that bring something interesting to the table. Again: squint hard enough and there’s an argument to be made not only to bring one of them in for a one-year look, but to make them a multi-year offer.
I know, I know… you went on Stephen A.’s show on Thursday and said clearly the plan was to offer only one-year deals this summer. It’s not that I don’t believe you, it’s just, well, what’s that old adage? Fool me one, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me—fool me several dozen times, I must be a Knicks fan? Something like that. …
So just to make sure we’re all on the same page, a quick side story before I finish up: long before I ever wrote letters to people who I knew wouldn’t read them, I was a bartender. Not only that, I had sublet a sweet first-floor studio apartment on the Upper East Side back when such luxuries could be afforded using only graduation gift money and nightly tips. I was 22 and had the ability to give out free shots whenever I wanted. I didn’t know what it meant to sow one’s wild oats, but boy, were those oats about to be sowed something fierce. Nothing was going to stop me.
Nothing but myself, that is. First week in the new digs, I met a young nymphet at the bar who just so happened to be from the same little town (Staten Island) that I was from. She was 100 percent Italian and was listed in the dictionary right under “girl you bring home to mom.”
I don’t have to tell you what happened next. We started dating immediately, and I got rid of the apartment six months later. She was great in a lot of ways, but at that time, in those circumstances, my lack of foresight cost me a golden opportunity. That was my time to go nuts, but instead I put it off till later, during law school, which may or may not have resulted in my forgetting to sign up for the bar exam. I had to pay the piper and delayed the start of my career, but I lived and learned.
Now it’s time for you to learn from your mistakes. As it stands, between The Artist Formerly Known as Joakim Noah and young Timmy, the Knicks have cost themselves one full max salary slot. Meanwhile, the other NBA “destination” cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, and yes, Brooklyn—have all set themselves up to throw max money at multiple stars either this summer or next. Signing anyone to a multi-year deal at this point would be your version of getting a girlfriend at the worst possible time, especially because whoever you sign isn’t going to get you any closer to the ultimate finish line.
Flexibility is your friend—the good kind, who doesn’t let you get into serious relationships at 22 or forget major life responsibilities at 27. The seemingly too-good-to-be-true bargain free agent who wants to sign a two- or three-year deal is not your friend, no matter how cheap the cost.
Besides, if you’re truly all in on development, the less you bring in from the outside world, the more your current guys will learn through trial by fire. Taking another big gulp of our truth juice, should this have happened last year? Absolutely, but with KP testing the limits of his own stardom, some useful veteran pieces, and, oh yes, our freshly inked friend Mr. Hardaway Jr., wins were placed at the forefront.
Now the Unicorn is on the mend and while no one is suggesting that’s a good thing, it does give the franchise a unique opportunity. The change machine at the arcade spit out an extra token. You get to play for free. Gratis. No strings attached.
Don’t miss a golden opportunity. Resist the urge to take the lasagna out of the oven a few minutes early—the crispy corners are the best part after all. Keep things short and sweet. Give Scott’s old buddy Vince Carter a call—I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to give daily tutorials in work ethic and professionalism to a group of kids that could use such guidance. I know we don’t use the “T” word around these parts—I know, I know, try to win every game, max effort, make New York proud, yadda yadda yadda—but if the losses pile up a bit, so be it. No one’s counting.
So with that, I wish you a pleasant—and hopefully uneventful—summer. I’m now proud to say that I’m the fan of a franchise that has been downright competent for nearly 12 months. Give us all a chance to pop a bottle or two when we hit that one-year mark. Around here, 365 days of functionality is as good a reason to celebrate as any, but hopefully that won’t be the case for long.
A Patient Knicks Fan