As reports swirl about a potential 2019 swing-for-the-fences free agency for the Knicks, fully realizing their homegrown talent would be the romantic idea of building a contender in New York.
It’s been a good summer for Knicks fans. I can’t express how rare that is. I imagine this is what it would feel like to emerge from the “long winter” Game of Thrones characters are always referencing; after a mind-numbing blizzard of James Dolan idiocy, heartbreaking injuries (get better, KP!), “meh” coaches, and Phil Jackson uber-idiocy, we can finally spot the sun’s orange tendrils reaching out over the snow-capped horizon to save us from our frigid demise. Rejoice! The long-overdue spring solstice has arrived in the shape of Kevin Knox. Winter is over.
What I want to ask you, fellow Knicks fan, is “Do we really want Kevin Durant? And/or Kyrie? Jimmy Butler?” The obvious answer is, “duh, yes with a capital ‘Y’ because Durant, Kyrie, and Butler would be ridiculous, and we would instantly become title contenders if not favorites.” But, if you’ll allow it, I’d like to explain to you why “no” is an acceptable answer, too.
I know, I know. This is the epitome of summer league overreactions. We get a taste of KnoxMania, a sprinkling of Frank Ntilikina progression, and whatever mystery flavor Mitchell Robinson is, and we collectively lose our minds.
Mitchell Robinson (@23savage____) showed out at the Las Vegas Summer League.
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) July 14, 2018
It’s easy to fill in the blanks though, right? In terms of evaluating prospects, Robinson is at least a little like the center version of a Jaylen Brown-type project (when Brown was 19 and not the monster he is now), a freak athlete who projects to be a great defender with a raw offensive game. Knox has been drawing Jayson Tatum comparisons for years, which only grew louder after his explosive summer league stint. Squint your eyes, dust off your crystal ball, and it’s not hard to see the Knicks falling into their own version of Boston’s prodigious Tatum/Brown tandem, arguably the two most irreplaceable cogs of the Celtics’ budding Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Then you have Ntilikina who, provided he improves his outside shooting, is the spitting image of peak George Hill, a perfectly competent starting guard on any roster. And, oh yeah, there’s Kristaps Porzingis, who could very well be the best two-way big not named Anthony Davis when he’s healthy. The future is unusually, tantalizingly bright in New York, so much so that it’s made a good portion of Knicks fans nervous. It’s like when someone who’s only been in traumatizing relationships starts dating a decent person for the first time. They’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop (Scott Perry and Steve Mills, please don’t drop the shoe).
Now’s not the time to ask, but I’m going to bring it up anyways: If this core that is so rife with potential hits its absolute ceiling, will that be enough to win a championship? Probably not, if we’re being honest. Porzingis plus whatever Knox, Robinson, and Ntilikina become feels like a three or a four seed at best, even in the laughably thin Eastern Conference. In theory, the Knicks need another big fish. It’s how the modern NBA works. It’s really hard to be better than all the other teams, which is why we see so many of these maligned “super teams” popping up every summer like their pop-culture counterparts, overblown superhero sequels. Only one team, the Dallas Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki, has ever pulled it off with a solo superstar, and it took a colossal meltdown from the Miami Heat for that to happen.
So the Knicks need KD if they want to win. Probably one of Kyrie and Jimmy Butler, too, if not both. But winning, even in sports, isn’t everything. There’s something deeply satisfying, on a level super teams will never reach, about the rose that grows from concrete. I promise you if you ask Golden State fans—not bandwagoners, true diehards that probably all got flattops because of Chris Mullin—the sweetest championship of the past four years was the first one. Why? Not because KD is a snake or because they feel like, on some unspoken level, that they cheated the system. For the record, I don’t believe either of those things to be true. Durant made a decision that he felt was best for his career and his family, as all working people should do. The Warriors didn’t steal him, either; they pitched him a plan just like every other team with cap room did. I think the first ring was the best because they drafted Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. They invested big cap space for Andre Iguodala when other teams overlooked him as a free agent. They took a gamble on Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut, both players with horrific injury pasts, and turned them into great rotation players. They freaking earned it. And before they won that ring? They freaking sucked.
It seems like forever ago, but the Warriors were one of the worst teams in the league before they drafted Curry. They were stuck in no mans land between the Baron Davis “We Believe” Warriors and the Monta Ellis “Monta-Ball” era. All of those moves—drafting Curry, signing Iguodala, and the rest—didn’t happen overnight. It was a process. And when they won with the fruits of that process, it must have felt better than any other way to win. The person that’s always dating crappy people eventually finds “The One.” I imagine that’s what Warriors fans felt like winning a championship pre-Durant.
That’s why it’s okay to not want him (or Kyrie or Jimmy Butler) to come to the Knicks next summer, as has been heavily rumored. The Knicks, as well as a bunch of teams across the league (the Sixers and the Celtics come to mind), are in the middle of a “Process,” to use a notorious Joel Embiid-ism. Of course I want this team to be the last one standing in June. Of course I want to see Porzingis hug David Fizdale as confetti rains down on them. Of course I want to hear Adam Silver give the Larry O’Brien trophy over to the team as he announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, your NBA Champions: the New York Knicks!” Trust me, I want all of that very badly. But there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to take the shortcut to get there. Which is why a big part of me doesn’t want the Knicks to have Kevin Durant or Kyrie or Jimmy Butler. Even if the Knicks need them.