This season is a big one in New York. What are the most pressing topics that will likely end up defining this upcoming campaign?
July 19, 2017—one year ago today.
The Knicks were five days into the Scott Perry Era. Kristaps Porzingis was pissed off and holed up halfway across the world, possibly drawing devil horns on photos of Phil Jackson and pasting them into his diary. Carmelo Anthony was still a Knick, even though all parties involved wished for that to no longer be the case. Jeff Hornacek was ostensibly still the coach, albeit with a ticking clock hanging over his head. The roster he had to work with, assembled to run an offense no one had any particular interest in being a part of, was a hodgepodge of vaguely intriguing youth, “meh” vets on bad contracts, and whatever was left of the decaying, beached carcass of Joakim Noah.
New York basketball fans had known some dark days over the previous 15 years, but this was certainly among the low points.
What a difference a year can make. No, the Knicks are still not very good. In fact, they might be worse (at least record-wise). KP is still overseas, this time for a different and unfortunate reason, but is at least on speaking terms with his employers. Melo, thankfully, is elsewhere, although the man he was traded for had fans hoping he found a new home next season.
Everything else though, at least in comparison to a year ago, has an entirely different vibe.
If someone had come up with a list of the most important questions that needed to be answered by Scott Perry during his first year on the job—How will you handle the Melo situation? Will KP be re-integrated? Can you finally get some youth and/or athleticism on the roster? Are we done handing out terrible contracts and making shortsighted trades? Is there a head coach in our future who has more gravitas than a traveling insurance salesman?—they would have to be quite pleased with the answers they got. It’s a rare occasion when this franchise can celebrate a year of competence, but that’s exactly the anniversary they just passed.
Big whoop. 365 days without making an ass of yourself as an organization gets you a place on the NBA ladder one rung above the Kings, but that’s about it. Still, with discontent and uncertainty brewing in more than a few locker rooms around the league, Knicks fans should hold their heads, if not high, then at least at a level where to see where they’re going. For the first time in a while, they might like what they see.
They should also keep the public pressure squarely on Perry & Co. to keep this train moving in the right direction.
With that in mind, below are the ten biggest questions facing the Knicks over the next 12 months. Honorable mentions go to: “Is Damyean Dotson a real 3-and-D weapon?”, “Can Mario Hezonja play himself into the long-term picture?” and “Did Joakim Noah just bleach his beard, or did a large army of very small, very blonde aliens claim his chin as their new home planet?”
On to the ten that made the cut, in accending order of importance:
10. What happens with Courtney Lee?
Jesus Rodriguez, who is not-so-secretly a confidant of Courtney Lee, recently confirmed that he expected the Knicks to deal their shooting guard before the start of next season:
#Knicks SG C. Lee is telling those close to him he expects to be traded. Hasn’t been told when or where but he is under the impression he will not be a Knick by the start of the season.
— Jesus Rodriguez (@JSports_ent) July 2, 2018
This is in no way surprising. Not only is New York trying to clear cap space for next summer, but it has a glut of guards on a roster that the organization needs to parse through for possible long-term keepers.
Additionally, as much as there’s still a sense the team wants to add veteran leadership, letting Kyle O’Quinn walk is only further evidence that they weren’t thrilled with the veteran leaders they had. This isn’t to say Lee is a bad guy, but sometimes change is necessary (unless you’re talking about Lance Thomas, who is Jesus and thus infallible).
As for what they can get for Lee, as I’ve already detailed pre-draft, the market for him figures to be thin. At this point, their best bet is to try and deal him for another team’s unwanted expiring contract who then might be waived. The only question is whether the Knicks will be giving or getting a second rounder to make the deal happen.
9. When does Joakim Noah get his walking papers?
Or, more directly, “Can the Knicks stomach another season with Wilson the Volleyball brooding on the bench?”
Let’s be crystal clear about this: following the release of Troy Williams, the roster now sits at the required maximum of 15 players (plus a pair of two-way contracts), so there’s no pressing need to excise Noah before the season starts. If they feel the desperate need to add another vet, they can acquire someone for Lee, or waive whoever he’s dealt for and sign a Vince Carter or someone of that ilk.
If the Knicks waive Noah shortly after September 1, it’s pretty clearly because they feel his mere presence on the team will be detrimental to the culture David Fizdale and his staff are trying to build.
This scenario is more complicated than it seems. The Knicks could simply play Noah spot minutes here and there to make their resident Richard Hatch impersonator happy, but aside from possibly not being enough to appease him, this would take away time from those who might actually be in the long-term plans (to say nothing of being at odds with the meritocracy Fizdale plans on instituting).
They could simply bench him, but that would lead to a pouty hipster, and nobody likes pouty hipsters. Fizdale already spoke about how the wrong vet who wants time on a young, developing squad can tear a team apart. If they just send him home, the NBA Players Association will be breathing down their neck, which is not the press the Garden wants or needs.
All of this has to be weighed against the alternative: simply waiving Noah at the beginning of September, stretching the remaining year of his contract over three seasons starting in 2019-20, thus depriving themselves of the option to dump his contract next July (when the price would likely be lower, as it would at that point be expiring), or simply waiving and stretching him then. Of course, if no max free agent came knocking, there would be no need to do even that. The Knicks could keep Noah on the roster until September 1, 2019, waive him then, and have his contract completely off the books by the end of the 2019-20 season.
These options all go off the table if they rid themselves of the Noah virus a month and a half from now. The question is: if he’s kept around, will he infect the rest of the locker room, and if so, how much?
8. Just how committed are the Knicks to Tim Hardaway Jr.?
There’s a line of thinking that Steve Mills would never allow his prized signing from last summer to be traded away. While this is a convenient narrative for the LOL-Knicks crowd, for as much as Mills might like Hardaway Jr., there is something he probably likes more—his job. If the Knicks signed two max players next summer, Mills would have the ongoing employment security of a Supreme Court justice.
This isn’t about whether New York would deal away Hardaway for the second time since the team drafted him in 2013. It’s about what the deal would look like.
The Knicks surely view Timmy as an asset—or at least they do so outwardly when talking with opposing front offices, as they should. With other avenues to max cap space for one free agent next summer, other teams might not get the impression they feel the need to move Hardaway Jr., and some team—Sacramento has been mentioned of late—might even view him as a neutral asset at his cost.
The question is whether the Knicks would consider simply salary dumping a 26-year-old who figures to be their best player this upcoming season. There’s a very strong chance that last year.when THJ slumped to 31 percent from deep in an injury-plagued campaign, was a low point for the Michigan alum. A bounce-back effort would only help their bargaining position. Then again, if he looked like the player Mills surely thought he was signing, would the Knicks asking price get too high? That much remains to be seen.
7. What the hell do the Knicks have in Mitchell Robinson?
Your guess is as good as mine.
If you listened to any of the Summer League broadcasts, you probably heard Robinson getting compared to the likes of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside, and Clint Capela. A 20-year-old who hadn’t played organized basketball in 14 months just led all rookies in PER, and all of Vegas in blocks per 40 minutes, offensive rebounds per 40 minutes, and offensive rebound rate. He also might be Thanos:
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) July 13, 2018
So yeah, the Knicks may have found themselves a player with the 36th pick in the draft. (Any guesses on whether the Thunder would rather have Robinson right now, or the player the Knicks dealt them to acquire the pick?)
Robinson will almost certainly spend some time in Westchester this season, for as impressive as his feats of strength were, there were also ample grievances about the finer points of his play, which are still incredibly raw. Still, by this time next next year, the Knicks should have a much better idea of whether they simply acquired a fun new toy or a foundational core piece moving forward.
6. Is Frank Ntilikina the answer, and if so, what is the question?
I’m not going to write much about Frank Ntilikina’s prospects for the upcoming season because that would be like me writing an argument for why my daughter is the cutest little girl ever (disclaimer: she’s pretty damn cute).
As captain of the clubhouse that sits atop Frank Ntilikina hill, there’s little doubt in my mind that he’s going to be an incredibly valuable NBA player. This notion was only reinforced for those who watched his second Summer League performance when he displayed the aggressiveness so many have yearned to see.
So, Frank Ntilikina just dribbled into the post and buried a turnaround jumper. OK, Frankie Smokes. pic.twitter.com/QNh11Sby4a
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) July 9, 2018
I see you, Kobe.
Ntilikina displayed almost everything you’d want to see on the offensive end against Utah, building off of a late-season surge when he scored in double figures six times over his last 15 games after hitting that mark in only seven of his first 63. But those games were meaningless and Summer League is Summer League. At the very least, his defense needs no discussion.
So no, the Knicks don’t yet know exactly what they have or how exactly they want to deploy Frank moving forward. In a league where the best point guards can either get to the rim at will, fire up step-back 27 footers with relative efficiency, or both, Ntilikina’s game is the definition of old school. He’s way more John Stockton than Donovan Mitchell.
So where does that leave him? Can he be a nominal starting point guard despite his deficiencies? Is he a two, as the organization seems to be pushing? Is he a starting wing that provides ball handling at a position not often seen? Should his versatility make him a sixth man who closes games with whichever four guys are having the best night?
Or could he be a trade chip, as Ian Begley recently suggested (not reported, suggested) on a recent podcast?
Everything is on the table. Lucky for Frank, the last thing his new coach does is put guys in a box. Ntilikina will have every chance to carve out the role that suits him best.
5. Is Fizdale finally the answer at Head Coach?
Five full seasons.
It doesn’t sound like too much to ask for, in terms of a franchise keeping a head man in charge for a certain length of time. Yet, since the day Red Holzman retired 36 years ago, the Knicks have had exactly one coach—Jeff Van Gundy—last that long, and his tenure was marked as much by rumors that the organization wanted to replace him with Phil Jackson as it was anything else.
The man who Van Gundy cut his teeth under is the same one who mentored David Fizdale from on high in Miami, and already it seems clear that Fiz has more than a little Pat Riley running through his veins.
Not since Riley have the Knicks had a head coach who felt eminently comfortable in the spotlight—one who thrived on it as opposed to shying away. If nothing else, Fiz has already been a very public whiff of fresh air for an organization that desperately needed one.
He also hasn’t endured his first loss yet, and there figures to be plenty of those, at least initially. How he endures what is sure to be a rough year will likely set the tone for his entire tenure. If he can make it to April with the same panache and positivity he has exuded since being hired, it’s at least a 50/50 bet that the five-year mark will be more than within reach.
4. Just how high is Kevin Knox’s ceiling?
Unlike Robinson,—who is much more of an unknown, there was little question that Knox was going to come in and be a serviceable NBA player. Those expectations hit another level over his first two summer league games, then the exclamation point came in a third quarter against the Lakers that fans might refer back to decades from now as the moment that Kevin Knox, superstar, first announced his arrival:
Retweeted NBA TV (@NBATV):
— En la Cancha Radio (@enlacanchapr) July 11, 2018
His ho-hum final game did nothing to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. The kid seemingly eats, sleeps, and breathes hoops, as we saw when he stuck around to watch games even after the summer Knicks had been eliminated.
Is he an above-average rotation player? Or is he, as some have suggested (including his new head coach), this year’s version of Jayson Tatum? The answer is likely somewhere in between. However, which end of the spectrum he’s closer to may go a long way in determining the answer to our next question.
Because if there’s one thing we know about the NBA, it’s that stars like to play with other stars.
3. Does anyone want to be the guy who rescues the Knicks?
I know. You don’t want to hear it. So let’s keep this one brief:
Despite some recent hedging, Scott Perry and Steve Mills are going to open up max cap space next summer. As Zach Lowe has noted multiple times now, the Knicks are 100 percent gearing up to make a run at the biggest fish there is—Kevin Durant. Kyrie Irving’s interest has been documented, at least tangentially. Jimmy Butler, the tread on whose tires scares many Knicks fans to death, apparently wants to be on the receiving end of Irving’s ally-oops.
There will be no shortage of rumors for the next 345 days. Best to accept it now, because they’re only going to get louder. And if you think the cloud of July 1, 2019 isn’t hovering over every possession of this season, stop kidding yourself.
It’s coming whether you want it to or not.
2. Can the front office stay true to its word?
If you’re a grammar nerd like me, you’ll appreciate the fact that this question has two possible meanings. The first, if the sentence is read colloquially, is simply, “Will the front office stay true to its word?”
This doesn’t need much explanation. Scott Perry and Steve Mills have both preached patience. They’ve vowed repeatedly that the organization, finally, will forgo moves that have the appearance of a quick fix. They will continue to, as they say, “build this thing the right way.” It’s a line that has been uttered before, but this front office seems to be doubling down, giving Knicks fans hope that should next summer not yield one of the names mentioned in the previous section, there won’t be a max contract handed to someone who in no way deserves it.
Hope. It’s not a word that has oft been associated with Knicks fandom, and that’s because of the man footing the bill for this whole operation, which leads us to the second, more strict reading of the question: “Will this front office be allowed to stay true to its word?” It is a very different question and one that would leave the most hopeful Knicks fan out there timid in offering up a positive response.
Jim Dolan has butted in exactly once in basketball ops since the day he hired Phil Jackson, and that was to fire him. If he can finally stay true to his word to leave the running of the basketball team to the people whose job it is to run the basketball team, maybe, just maybe, Knicks fans hope will finally be rewarded.
If, of course, one thing gets worked out…
1. Will Kristaps have the healthy prime he deserves, and will it be in a Knicks uniform?
Let’s be real clear about this up front: if the organization somehow allows Kristaps Porzingis to get away (and KP forcing his way out would qualify as letting him get away), nothing else on this list matters. Nothing.
The last player of Porzingis’ caliber to switch teams before their 25th birthday was James Harden, and that’s at least in part because the Thunder didn’t know what they had. In some ways, they never recovered from that decision. Before that, it was Steve Nash, for the same reason. While the Mavs still won a ring in his absence, there’s no telling what a Nash/Dirk partnership could have produced. Before Nash, it was Shaq in a move that crippled the Magic franchise for the better part of a decade. There is no other precedent in the last three decades.
Will Porzingis reach the heights of any of those players, all of whom won MVPs with their new teams? It’s possible he won’t—a possibility that increased significantly following the night of February 6. It’s also possible that he will. That, in and of itself, is reason enough for the Knicks to make securing Porzingis’ long-term future with the team the top organizational priority.
(By the way, if you’re reading this and are still unconvinced of KP’s ceiling, I don’t know what to tell you. He is unlike anything the NBA has ever seen, and he is about to turn 23. He is a star in every sense of the word.)
The Knicks have thus far held off on extension talks, which seems not to have upset any apple carts in the Porzingis camp. That counts as progress. Fiz’s visit to Latvia next week should also help continue to ingratiate the organization with Team KP. These are all good signs.
Just don’t screw around when it gets down to brass tacks. We have already witnessed that this is a young man more than willing to throw his weight around. In a league where contracts no longer prevent star players from forcing their way off of teams, keeping Porzingis feeling happy, valued, respected, and most importantly, like he has a chance to compete for championships, must absolutely be the top priority for the Knicks going forward.
A year from now, if he’s captain of the good ship lollipop, it’s a safe bet that everything else will fall into place just fine.