The Knicks are winning—and mostly due to the efforts of their younger players. That being said, they won’t be too competitive, so should they tank?
Sam DiGiovanni: Quentin, my friend, we find ourselves having a conversation that I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams thought of having before the season started: are the New York Knicks winning too much?
I know that question sounds ludicrous given that this team has done a whole lot of losing in recent memory, but this team is still rebuilding and there are a ton of great prospects in this year’s draft. Right now, they’re in the thick of the playoff race. I don’t think it’s insane to hope that New York finds itself in the lottery again, seeing as though they’re still a few pieces away from truly competing at a high level.
Quentin Haynes: Sam! I’m glad you started there. I never thought the Knicks would be in this spot where they’d make me feel optimistic about things. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Knicks are going on the right track.
My answer: they might be? New York continues to teeter between that play-in area and a top-10 spot in the lottery. They could really use two picks in the top 10, but I’m a believer that getting guys those big game reps will also be key for the organization. Ideally, Immanuel Quickley should see around 1,500 minutes this season, while R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson should see upward of 2,000 minutes. If those guys lead us to the play-in game…I think I’m fine with that?
Let me ask you this: How do you feel about the upside of some of our young guys? Specifically Barrett, Quickley, and Robinson?
Sam: Those three and Obi Toppin are the only youngsters whose development really matters in my opinion. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina are out of the rotation when everyone’s healthy and Ignas Brazdeikis is in the G League. They’re all on the outside looking in, and I don’t expect any of them to be on the team in two years.
Barrett, Quickley, and Robinson are some of the most important pieces in New York’s rebuild. They’ve all shown promise this season and are all younger than 23. I’m very excited to see how they develop. Toppin is pretty disappointing thus far, but he’s not even 20 games into his career, so it’s not time to sell all the stock in him.
The reason why being competitive is even a legitimate discussion to have right now is because those young guys play such big roles. For most teams that are rebuilding with young players, losses are expected, and sometimes part of the plan. But the Knicks’ kids are winning—they’re 1.5 games away from the fifth seed. Barrett is the team’s second option, Robinson starts and plays the third-most minutes per game on the team, and Quickley has a pretty sizable role off the bench. Toppin is a regular in the rotation. And although he’s 26 years old, #JuliusRandle is playing like a #NBAAllStar.
If the young guys are playing well and leading the team to a respectable record, why should they be told to slow down? Building a winning atmosphere is a great way to foster a young team.
Quentin: I 100% agree and that’s why I think the Knicks might be looking at the Mavericks pick as the true asset for them to get into the lottery while chasing playoff dreams, which, I think I can understand that.
Barrett looks like a legit third-best player on a title team some nights, capable of defending various positions, creating in the halfcourt, and having an impact on the glass. He does the little things very well. Robinson looks like a perfectly fine center, while Quickley could have the highest upside out of all of them if the shooting is legit and he can run the point. It’s a fun group to work with.
Sam: It is a pretty fun group. The supporting cast around them and Randle isn’t, though.
Alec Burks has been the only veteran acquisition that has been actually good. Austin Rivers has his moments but is mostly just decent, Reggie Bullock and Nerlens Noel are meh, and Elfrid Payton is building a case to overtake Kristaps Porzingis for the most hated no. 6 in Knicks history. And I’m not very optimistic about Derrick Rose in his second go-around in the Garden.
All of New York’s vets are on expiring contracts except for Rivers, who has two non-guaranteed years after this one. That suggests to me that the front office is willing to move them, or at least doesn’t have much desire to keep them around for the long run. What do you make of the Knicks’ supporting cast?
Quentin: Not a fan. They don’t offer much confidence. Burks has been good, I wish he was two, three years younger so we can argue him as a keeper. Bullock and Noel are guys who should move on and Payton is reaching “He Who Must Not Be Named” territory. Rivers is a tough one because the Knicks should probably move him, but he’s so cheap that if they decide to make some upgrades this offseason, he’d be fine in a smaller role.
We’ve held off long enough, haha. Do you think the Knicks should consider tanking or going in for the play-in game?
Sam: I think the best way to approach this question is to ask yourself what the ‘Bockers should do at the trade deadline. Should they be buyers or sellers? I think it should be the latter, and therefore I would lean towards the tanking option.
This team isn’t going to contend for a title this season and its key players are very young. I think it’s in the franchise’s best interest to trade their non-Randle veterans for assets rather than cash in some assets now for a chance to be better in the short term.
Now, that doesn’t mean I want the team to lose every game from here on out. I want them to keep competing now so that an intense, competitive mindset is something with which they develop and grow. As long as the young guys do the heavy lifting, I’m fine with them winning. I just don’t think they’re ready to go all-in yet.
So, I guess I want the front office to operate like they’re tanking while also installing a winning, competitive culture. Do you think that’s possible? And which direction are you more in favor of?
Quentin: I’m on the fence. I say let it ride because I think getting the play-in game and getting these young guys reps is so important. You see Quickley, Barrett, Robinson, and Randle being contributors to winning basketball and you can start to dream big. Imagine the Knicks somehow winning the play-in series and getting an actual playoff series versus the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers? We’d lose, but the information the team can glean from that is valuable.
Why do I sit on the fence? The Knicks need a few more pieces. Writing this after the Heat game, I still feel like the Knicks need talent. That guy who can score at the end of games and just little things—we could use another player who can both shoot and dribble!—would do wonders.
Getting better odds to get Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs would be great, but if we can use that pick to trade and add someone? There are so many avenues opened by having that asset in our stable. I feel like we’re heading towards the eighth and 12th picks somehow, which is fine, but somehow getting a premium pick in there could do us wonders.
What say you?
Sam: I would very much like to see Cunningham or Suggs on the Knicks. I don’t think you can go wrong trying to secure the best draft lottery odds with talents like them and Evan Mobley available. I think the Knicks putting themselves in a position to land a top pick in this loaded draft class is an imperfect but understandable strategy.
However, I’m not really interested in the Knicks bottoming out to secure the best odds in the draft for two reasons.
Number one: they have a surplus of picks at their disposal. In this draft, they have two first-rounders and the Detroit Pistons’ second-rounder. The Knicks own all their picks moving forward, will receive another first-rounder from Dallas in a few years, and have four extra second-round picks between 2022 and 2026.
New York can’t use all those picks to draft players. They’ll just be going in circles with new young players to develop and aging players to trade for more picks. Trading up for a top pick is well within play thanks to the picks acquired in the Porzingis trade and Leon Rose’s wheeling and dealing during the offseason.
And the Knicks might not even need to trade up, which brings me to point number two: middle-of-the-pack teams in the lottery can secure top picks. The Pelicans and Grizzlies weren’t in the top six in the 2019 draft lottery yet they landed the top-two selections. The Lakers in that year and the Hornets and Bulls last year jumped up considerably, too.
I know having the best odds is the best plan you can have when pursuing a top-of-the-line draft prospect, but going for broke doesn’t even guarantee a top-three selection. New York has the draft capital to trade up for a top prospect.
And besides, there’s no way the front office is going to make Tom Thibodeau a tank commander. He’s not going to accept a role like Brett Brown at the start of “The Process” or Kenny Atkinson when he arrived in Brooklyn. Thibs is here to compete.
Quentin: Fair enough. I’m sure we’ll be in a position to get whoever we want on draft day, though I’m not too keen on giving up premium assets for a draft pick. I kind of like the middle of this class. Tennessee’s Jaden Springer is my guy and I think he’s a special fit alongside Quickley. People love Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert and Arkansas’ Moses Moody and I’m a bit intrigued by NBL player Josh Giddey. We got time.
Let me ask you this before we wrap up: Do you think making the play-in game helps us in free agency? We’ve seen the news media talk about it, we see some players boost the Knicks, but ultimately, you have to show and prove on the floor. Do we see that as fine progress for us to get in that game and would that help us in the long-run?
Sam: I definitely think a surprise appearance in the play-in makes the Knicks a more attractive destination. The best players want to join winners, or at least teams that are looking to win and have a good foundation.
Take the 2018–19 Clippers and Nets as examples. Neither of those teams sniffed a championship but they made good enough impressions that they came out as the biggest winners of the offseason, each reeling in two of the 20 best players in the league.
This upcoming free agency class is nowhere near the 2019 class, so I’m not saying that the exact same thing will happen for the Knicks. I just want to point out how even a little success—just a simple playoff berth—can make a team an attractive destination. No great player is gonna waste years of their career with a team that isn’t ready to win yet.
At some point, you have to stop losing. You have to show some progress eventually. The Knicks are doing that now with several young players in big roles and plenty of draft capital on deck. I think there’s a way to build a good team in this situation, and I hope Leon Rose finds it.
It doesn’t sound like we have a real conclusion here, but I think that’s okay. There are a lot of ways to build a good team and every contender’s rise to the top is different. Shooting for a spot at the play-in and tanking both have their pros and cons. The franchise seems to be buying into the first option, so we’ll see how it goes.
Any last thoughts on the matter?
Quentin: No clear conclusion, but that’s fine with me. We got another 47 games to go and I’m sure we’ll find some more things to agree and disagree on. Just wanted to end this on a high note for Knicks fans:
This is a fun moment in Knicks history. The Knicks have someone who can make an All-Star game and three players under the age of 23 who are providing positive minutes on a basketball floor. They have oodles of cap space and some draft picks to supplant whatever direction they want to go. This could be the start of something great—whether they make the play-in series or not.