King James’ departure for the Western Conference leaves the East wide open for the taking—something the Knicks could grab onto when they lean into legitimate contention.
Unless you’ve been living in an underground fallout shelter over the past two months, you’re probably keenly aware that LeBron James sent shockwaves across the NBA (and the sporting world in general) after deciding to take his talents west and play for one of the league’s most storied franchises—the Los Angeles Lakers. Undoubtedly, the move has shaken up the entire Eastern Conference, and for good reason. The Eastern Conference—unequivocally considered the weaker of the two NBA regions—has had only James to make up for its clear dearth of overall talent over the past decade. His eight straight NBA Finals appearances alone proves that notion.
But while the league appears more lopsided than ever, one could actually argue that LeBron’s trek to the West could actually be the conference’s saving grace.
For the first time since, oh, I don’t know, 2004, the Eastern Conference doesn’t boast one of, if not the league’s best player. LeBron James’ decision, in a sense, resets the whole playoff picture in the East, similar to when some bald guy named Michael retired for the second time. Back then, we saw teams like the 1999 Knicks (an eight seed), the New Jersey Nets, the Miami Heat, the Detroit Pistons, and even a young Cleveland Cavaliers teams, appearing in the Finals. The East was seemingly always up for grabs.
This, once again, looks to be the case this upcoming season, as there is no one team that seems like a near-lock to make the Finals. Considering there’s no team employing LeBron James on it, that makes sense.
On the surface, LeBron’s move looks to greatly impact some of the already established teams in the East. The Boston Celtics, a squad that came one game away from the Finals last season and will see the return of their top guns in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, are a big one. Along with the C’s are the Toronto Raptors, a team that acquired one of the top five players in the league (when actually on the court); the Sixers, a maturing club that possesses, arguably, two of the top five players in the conference in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons; the Milwaukee Bucks, who could see another gigantic leap forward from Giannis and new head coach Mike Budenholzer; and even the Indiana Pacers, who took James and the eventual conference champs to seven games in the first round of last year’s playoffs. All of those teams could see their fortunes improve now that James is gone.
But while those teams might be the largest benefactors in the short-term, there’s one Eastern Conference team that might actually reap the most benefits from LeBron’s latest decision: our very own New York Knicks.
Now, let’s get one thing straight—the Knicks are, in all likelihood, going to stink on ice this coming season. Without their Latvian unicorn for what is looking more and more like the season’s entirety, the Knicks appear poised to resemble one of their team’s of the past—the 2009 Knicks. That Knicks team was exciting and youthful, but above all else, pretty damn bad. Some of the only bright spots on the team were the rookie Danilo Gallinari, a youthful Wilson Chandler, and a stat-stuffing David Lee. This year, we have Frankie Smokes, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson to instill some of the hope and youthfulness we haven’t seen from a Knicks team since that season. In fact, this team appears to have a much higher ceiling than the ’09 squad ever possessed, so long as KP comes back at full tilt.
The other similarity to that season? The team has their eyes dead set on next year’s free agency. And, once again, they aren’t playing coy about it.
This year, however, they won’t be in the running for King James, which in itself should improve their chances at striking it big with a free agent. The timing has never been right for a James and Knicks pairing, not to mention the fact that he, in all likelihood, never had aspirations to play in New York in the first place.
But next year’s free agency should certainly be a doozie, sans the king, with big names like Kevin Durant (potentially), Kyrie Irving, the aforementioned Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler all hitting the open market.
While the Knicks are, at this point, almost synonymous with striking out on free agents, they’re unsurprisingly an attractive location for free agents once again.
And, in a sense, you can thank King James for that.
First and foremost, let’s give the Knicks’ front office its due credit. They’ve drafted well, and both of this year’s picks—Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson—look like absolute steals early on. They hired David Fizdale, who is seemingly adored by every player in the league not named Marc Gasol. For the first time in over a decade, there is a plan in place. With a healthy Porzingis in 2019, this team looks, from sheer a talent perspective, like a much more attractive destination than in years past (so long as they don’t give up the farm in a ‘Melo-like trade). They’ve already been linked to guys like Irving and Butler, and the team isn’t shy about their interest in Durant. Leonard has also reportedly expressed interest in playing in New York.
With all that said, it’s James’ move to the Western Conference that could be the deciding factor in a Knicks revival.
The East is wide open right now. Sure, the Celtics and Sixers have competitive teams in place, but there is no true juggernaut in the conference. In fact, some of the marquee free agents can actually get a chance to do what James did for years—reign supreme in the East.
Durant appears to be the guy that could potentially supplant the King in his former conference, and a guy the Knicks reportedly are setting their sights on next season. For starters, he has a chance to break up the famed Warrior dynasty. If he does three-peat this season, which appears more likely than not at this point, he could, perhaps, look to rewrite his own legacy by signing with New York. Not only would this move make the West weaker, but it would instantly make Durant the best player in his own conference, and the Knicks could potentially be favorites to make the Finals. He’d have a chance to do something no player has done since 1973—win the Finals in the Mecca of basketball. The “snake” would instantly turn from a reviled figured to a revered one. Well, at least in New York.
Kyrie Irving could also be another intriguing storyline. Born and raised in New Jersey, Irving was a diehard Knicks fan growing up. According to the oddsmakers, the Knicks are currently right behind the Celtics when it comes to signing Irving next summer. If he comes to the Knicks, a KP-Irving-Knox pairing could quickly become one of the East’s most vaunted.
And let’s not forget the other benefit of James switching conferences—the Knicks won’t actually have to face him in the playoffs. The ‘Bbockers have had limited success against LeBron in both the regular and postseason, but whoever (hopefully) decides to join the Knicks next season would have the luxury of not having to face James in the postseason. This is, undoubtedly, another huge game-changer, and one that opens up an easier path to a Finals appearance, provided the Knicks are able to land a big fish.
While the free agent possibilities remain seemingly endless, one thing is for certain—LeBron signing with the Lakers bodes well for a team like the Knicks. Seemingly on the cusp of contention, the young Knicks could rewrite the narrative of their franchise by finally landing a marquee free agent. Not having one of the greatest players in league history in said conference only helps the Knicks’ chances of doing so.