The Knicks could have had Zion Williamson, two stars via free agency, and stability. Months later they have no coach, no president, and no idea.
The New York Knicks fired head coach David Fizdale a quarter of the way through his second year with the franchise in December 2019 (he signed a four-year deal in May 2018). On Tuesday this week they parted ways with longtime executive Steve Mills, the team’s president of basketball operations since 2017. Last Friday, January 31st, marked the one-year anniversary of the costly Kristaps Porzingis trade, only to see the All-Star Latvian power forward put up back-to-back 35-plus-point double-doubles with last season’s Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic sidelined.
All of this was in the past nine weeks. It’s been a whirlwind, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg of New York’s 2019–20 season, which also included infamously striking out big time in free agency last summer after touting the “flexibility” the Porzingis deal created to gun for top free agents. Now that money is tied up in Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, and the expiring Marcus Morris, who was likely staying in the Big Apple until Tuesday when the organization’s short-term goals evaporated with Mills’ departure. Fortunately, most of that money is only partially guaranteed and relatively liquid, with flexibility still currently achievable.
But boy, what a week, what a few months, and what a year.
Simply nothing has gone right for the Knicks— not even their third overall pick from the 2019 NBA Draft R.J. Barrett, who has had solid stretches followed by very questionable ones during his freshman campaign in the Association. He’s still a rookie, though, so whatever.
What needs to be underlined, however, is how different this past year looks if a few things break differently for the Knicks, who have three playoff appearances in the last 10 years, and who, very bluntly, don’t look like they’re making another postseason for another four to five years without majorly overhauling both the roster and front office.
The Knicks were the league’s worst team last season but fell to third in the lottery (which, all things considered, was definitely not on the spectrum of terrible given the odds). Their front office was, at least from the outside perception, misled by chances at All-Stars and champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (the Knicks didn’t even have a meeting with reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard), and management will reshuffle both key decision-makers and a new head coach in the coming months.
What does the franchise look like if a few things break their way? Do they have Zion Williamson in orange and blue? Is Fizdale still employed on the sidelines coaching a star or two? Does the Porzingis trade look more edible as the Knicks have cap space invested in players on the team longer than this year or next?
It’s easy to say Durant and Irving, for example, were never coming to the Knicks. That’s probably all well and true, but Mills and general manager Scott Perry outlined a plan to use the space and assets collected from the Mavericks deal to swing big. They’ve missed with zero contact accuracy, and the consequences have been immense for a select few individuals and the franchise as a whole.
The Knicks are rumored to covet former Executive of the Year winner and current champion Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, who has a past with swindling the Knicks, as the New York Times’ Marc Stein referenced in the Carmelo Anthony trade and the Andrea Bargnani deal. Ujiri, one of the NBA’s leading advocate for inclusive and diligent foreign scouting, is a top executive in the league and would no doubt improve the team, especially from a front office perspective. I don’t think anybody believes he would turn the Knicks into a contender in a single offseason, but they would be more competitive than these past two seasons.
The cost would be one to two first-round picks, as reports indicate, because Ujiri is under contract through the 2020–21 season. With every Knicks move, whether in deliberation or actualized, there’s a downside, or poisoned pill. Provided that the last Knicks draft pick to re-sign with the team—without moving to another team, Tim Hardaway Jr.—was Charlie Ward in the late-’90s, maybe one or two less picks is O.K., particularly with Ujiri at the helm leading late-round and undrafted scouting.
Could anybody have predicted that the Knicks would be in this position one year ago today? The general consensus after the Porzingis deal, for instance, was that New York would have to land at least one star in free agency given how bare bones the franchise was with unproven neophytes and cap space aplenty. And should that fail (it did), they had a top draft pick; either Williamson or a top-five selection.
The Knicks are still far from contending, which has been tough to swallow between now and the Fizdale firing. Likely whatever they do by the trade deadline tomorrow at 3 p.m. ET, it won’t move the needle—and unless they pull off a big trade and sign reputable players (maybe with a new team president in charge by then) during the summer, they could be noncompetitive again in 2020–21.
Will we be saying the same thing this time next year?