The Knicks stand as one of many teams seeking multiple playoff appearances all while trying to move the needle without damaging future flexibility.
The New York Knicks’ success last season came as a bit of a surprise, especially to those who had despairingly watched a similar roster flounder the previous year.
Whether it came as a surprise or not to those in charge is another question. My guess: they expected to be better, but not that much better. And indeed, before the trade for Derrick Rose, that was about the level the Knicks were at, posting a record of 11-14 in their first 25 games. While this was a far cry from the 5-20 record they started the 2019–20 season with, by trading disappointing youngster Dennis Smith Jr. for Rose, the Knicks’ front office was sending a clear message: Tom Thibodeau’s inaugural season will not be a repeat of last year’s “gutted and rudderless roster” (heavy sarcasm here).
We all know how that ended: with the team’s first playoff appearance since 2013 and an entertaining but ultimately disappointing gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks.
Now the Knicks are back, freshly retooled with an eye towards fixing the problems of shot-creation and offensive limitations that plagued the team during the postseason. But if you take a closer look, there’s a bigger picture at play here, too.
The Knicks are, in fact, in the midst of attempting to walk the trickiest line in basketball: building a promising team for the future while also constructing a roster that can be a multi-round playoff threat in the present.
I can already hear your anxious response: “Eli, you ignorant slut, obviously building a championship team is harder, otherwise everyone would do it!”
Which is true, in a way. Building a championship team around your superstar is a much more complicated task than it usually gets credit for. But there’s basically a single factor that determines whether or not you have a chance to build a championship team: do you have a top-five (or borderline top-five) player?
If so, great! You’ve got a shot. If not…well, this year’s Suns and last year’s Heat offer the hope that in freakish, world-changing circumstances, with perfectly-constructed rosters to complement your star-to-superstar level players, you can maybe get to the Finals and then receive a most honorable drubbing at the hands of a team that does have a top-five player.
So for teams without established superstars, yes, I believe this balancing act to be the most difficult tightrope to walk for NBA franchises. Just a glance around at teams that have attempted to follow a similar path shows how rare a feat it is, and the potential pitfalls that arise along the way.
If we’re finding teams either currently or recently attempting this, these are the names that quickly pop up: the Spurs, Celtics, Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Hawks. Here’s how each has fared so far.
The Spurs have been trying to walk both roads ever since Kawhi Leonard demanded out, and what do they have to show for it? The ignominious end of their once-mighty empire. They’ve actually succeeded at the youth movement part, filling out the roster with interesting and medium-high upside young players. But their playoff ambitions have gone laughably, and now they enter 2021–22, for the first time in years, in full-on tank mode. They’re likely to be one of the five worst teams in the league this year, as they finally succumb to a complete rebuild.
Pelicans: Good Idea, Bad Execution
The Pelicans have by in large followed a similar blueprint as the Knicks: acquire an underperforming former Laker top-10 pick, turn him into an All-Star, draft a Duke one-and-done rookie, a hyper-springy young center, and hypothetical triple-double machine former top-10 pick point guard who has disappointed (albeit to varying degrees) in his time in the league. The problem is the Pelicans’ veteran additions, including their coach, that were supposed to help juice the team’s defense and get them into the playoffs, proved to be truly terrible fits, leading to a mostly miserable and losing season.
The Pelicans are set to improve, but barring a truly massive leap from their stars, and presumed starting shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, they’re still looking down the barrel of a play-in game in the Western Conference.
Grizzlies: Taking a step back
The Grizzlies, like the Knicks, were handed a 4-1 loss in the first round of the playoffs, the first postseason of their young core’s careers. Unlike the Knicks, the Grizzlies will be relying exclusively on internal growth as they move forward. When looking at the balance of current ambitions versus future potential, it seems that the Grizzlies’ front office chose to take a step back and prioritize the future. They’re likely to still be in the mix for a play-in game, but it’s hard to see them taking a major step forward this season.
Celtics: The originators
The Celtics are no stranger to this balancing act, as it’s one they’ve found themselves in for the last four years. They managed to build a team in which the two young cornerstones, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have experienced the playoffs every year of their career, going from complementary to focal points. This is an impressive feat.
And yet! The Celtics, too, have struggled with whether to commit to the now or the later. The running joke of Danny Ainge almost trading for every star that becomes available is a testament to this struggle. And while the playoff experience has been invaluable to the growth of the Jays, it’s hard not to see the team as having stalled out a bit in their march towards being a contender.
That said, three conference finals appearances in five years is something to aspire to for any team, and as it stands, the Celtics are currently the poster child for how to build on two separate timelines simultaneously. Though there may be a new contender for the crown. …
Hawks: The up-and-comers
Knicks fans aren’t going to want to hear this but the Hawks are currently the team-best exemplifying this practice. Having a burgeoning superstar in Trae Young is, of course, a big part of that, but it can’t be overstated how well Travis Schlenk has built out the roster around him. From smart draft decisions that complemented the young star to signing the right vets at the right time, the team has made all the right moves to turn a young team into a playoff mainstay while being loaded with talent for a potential future trade.
But back to the Knicks!
Now, the Knicks don’t have a Trae Young. It hurts to say, but it’s true. That’s not to write off R.J. Barrett and his development. Barrett had a great year on both ends, and while the additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier may mean that he doesn’t take as huge a step forward in terms of offensive responsibility as some fans might’ve hoped, he’s going to be the primary wing defender on a Tom Thibodeau team while offensively he has more lanes and space to operate in than he’s ever had in his basketball life.
And while the Knicks may not have a Young, they do have their own All-NBA talent entering his prime, with no reason to think he can’t continue to improve as he refines his shot selection, gets to the rim more, and, like Barrett, takes advantage of having actual shot-creators in the backcourt.
The most important thing, though, is that for the first time that I can remember, the Knicks have an entire roster of legitimately good players. Kevin Knox is now the worst player on the roster, and if the worst player on the roster is a 6’9″, 40% three-point shooter last season who can run the break as your third-string small/power forward, you’re probably in a pretty good position.
Moreover, the Knicks are entering a stretch where they’re proving themselves capable, competent, and relatively drama-free, depending on what happens with Mitchell Robinson’s extension, which agents and stars are going to notice.
Between the team-friendly deals the team gave out this summer, the current talent on the roster, and the future assets stockpiled over the last few years (the Knicks have up to 10 possible future first- and second-round picks in the next two drafts alone, though several are unlikely to convey), the Knicks have themselves poised to make a major consolidation move over the next two seasons, whether that’s for a star, or combining several of the larger veteran contracts (say, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks) for a single piece that frees up space for one of the promising young players (say, Deuce McBride, Quentin Grimes, or Jericho Sims).
Simply put, the Knicks are in a position to have their cake, eat it, and/or trade a slice or two for a more enticing dessert proposition if a tasty enough one comes along.
This flexibility is important but just as important will be identifying an opportunity when it arises and pouncing on it. As I wrote before, windows close quickly in the NBA. That’s why Leon Rose and Scott Perry leaving themselves a back door in the youth movement is fascinating, as it allows them to see the window closing and make a move to either extend it or to fully lean into the younger core.
The chances are, this Walker-Fournier-Barrett-Randle-Robinson starting core is not going to be winning a championship. And that’s okay! If Rose just wants to get a couple of years of playoffs under the belt, with hopefully a couple of series wins in the mix, all the while evaluating the young guys and preparing for the next phase, the real thing, the team is set up for that.
If they decide that the basic hierarchy of this team is the one to push their chips in for, trade Walker and/or Fournier, along with some of the other contracts and a couple of young guys and/or picks to get a star, well, they’re set up for that too.
Whichever path they choose, here’s the moral of the story: there will likely come a time when a decision has to be made. After all, a high-wire can only be walked for so long. The longer you’re on it, and the more indecisive you are, the likelier the chance of falling is. But that time isn’t here yet, and likely won’t be at least until this year’s trade deadline, if not later.
For a team that has backed itself into a corner more times than this writer can count, the sheer amount of promising options facing the future of the Knicks is exhilarating but equally exciting is the on-court product the Knicks are set to showcase this season.
So for now, let’s sit back and enjoy the deepest, most talented team the Knicks have had since the turn of the century.