With five Knicks free agent signings official, the staff reflects upon a roller coaster of an offseason, answering questions concerning the incorporation of veterans and direction of the team.
The NBA’s 2019 free agency period did not exactly go the New York Knicks’ way. Despite solid signings in veterans Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, and Wayne Ellington, among others, New York ultimately missed out on crown prizes Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard.
Six of The Knicks Wall’s staff writers come together to answer questions about this summer’s free agency and the future of the franchise after another relatively disappointing offseason.
1. Which free agent signing has the potential to be a boom or bust?
Lawrence Scotti: Julius Randle has high boom or bust potential. His ability to play in a high-pace offense is very appealing, but the Knicks are full of young players who need the ball to be effective. How he is utilized by the coaching staff will be something to monitor.
Mike Cortez: Bobby Portis. Among the secondary signings, Portis has the highest ceiling to be a fan favorite and productive player. His price tag (and crazy eyes) soured some people on the signing. He has the personality for New York (ask Nikola Mirotic), as well as the position-less appeal the team has desperately pursued. At 6-foot-11, Portis can put the ball on the floor and score from any area, a useful skill for today’s climate.
Tyler Marko: Elfrid Payton is either the pass-first point guard that the team needs to set up Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, and the rest of the young guys, or he’ll frustrate fans by taking minutes away from Dennis Smith Jr. and possibly Frank Ntillikina.
Harley Geffner: Mr. Portis, for sure. I could envision him carving out a big role as a shooter the Knicks will desperately need to space with Mitch on the floor. I could also see him being pushed down in the rotation if Randle really thrives and shows more on the defensive end than in years past. Taj Gibson could also take a chunk of his minutes with his effort on the defensive end if Fiz decides the kids need to learn a lesson.
Eli Cohen: Julius Randle has the biggest boom potential but it seems highly unlikely he’d be the biggest bust, so I’ll go with Bobby Portis. Portis is an incredibly gifted offensive player and rebounder, and if he can channel some of his energy into being a disciplined defender and willing passer, he could make a lot of noise as the team’s sixth man. I think his motor and blue-collar approach to the game will win fans over regardless, but if he can’t get a little more under control, his value after this contract could have a hard time recovering.
Tyler Jordan: I think Portis has a lot of potential to earn playing time at the backup 4-5 spots, especially if Robinson ends up in foul trouble often. Considering how sloppy Mitch has been on defense in Summer League, this could turn into a big opportunity for him. It could also end awful if his defensive struggles are painfully obvious. While a Randle-Portis frontcourt would be able to stretch the floor defensively, they may end up letting everyone and their momma get to the rim. This has the potential to be a really great building block for a cohesive system or simply another roster design abomination. The Knicks have more power forwards than they know what to do with.
2. How can Fizdale manage the Knicks’ young players’ minutes while entertaining expensive veterans?
Lawrence: Fizdale has a heavy task this upcoming season to integrate all these new players into the rotation. It will be important to put these shooters on the floor with the Knicks young players like R.J. Barrett and Smith Jr. so that their playmaking ability can be maximized.
Mike: The only signing that deserves to start from day one is Julius Randle. The rest of the vets should have to outshine whatever young player is in front of them significantly to earn major minutes (i.e. keep Elfrid Payton away from the starting unit unless DSJ is a disaster).
The balancing act of development and winning games is tough, but last year Fizdale was spending his time developing the wrong guys (Mudiay) and not winning games. He must find that balance this year.
Tyler: The pessimist in me say that he won’t. I’ve been having nightmares of Payton, Ellington, Bullock, Randle, and Taj closing out games. But hopefully, R.J.’s Summer League struggles and Mitch’s propensity for fouling dissipates once the season begins, and they don’t give Fizdale a choice.
Harley: There are more minutes to go around than people realize. If you give Randle and Mitch 30 minutes a night; there still needs to be 36 more minutes filled between each of the big man spots (almost 20 for each of Portis and Taj). Ellington and Bullock’s skill sets are kind of overlapping, so I’m not sure which of them will get consistent time, but Fiz needs shooting in his lineups that have poor shooters (for now) like DSJ, R.J., and Mitch. He’ll find the time. I expect Knox to see the floor a little less this season than last.
Eli: Despite Ignas Brazdeikis’ monster second Summer League game, I expect him to take a while to work his way into the rotation, meaning Taj is going to be called upon a fair amount as the backup center, usually next to Portis or maybe Knox. The roster construction makes balancing their minutes relatively easy. Bullock and Payton will be a little tougher as they’re both relatively young (Payton is 25 and Bullock 28) and productive. I think ideally the second unit would look something like: Payton/Dotson/Bullock/Portis/Gibson, with an opportunity for Ntilikina to supplant any of the three non-forwards if this should finally be the season he fights his way into playing time. Ellington I don’t see getting more than spot minutes or coming in for specific shooting situations, despite his above-market value contract.
Ty: The “keep what you kill” comment by coach Fizdale last season was cute, but it didn’t work. He has to put his young guys out there to learn and make mistakes, but try to win ball games, too, to avoid the gloom that haunted the Knicks last season. The older guys in Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, and Taj Gibson all want playing time, I’m sure, but they knew what they signed up for.
They’ll most likely be given spot minutes, especially anyone who is most comfortable playing the shooting guard role because those minutes are already being shared by Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier—two younger, promising players. That doesn’t even account for what will happen with Barrett’s minutes in his rookie season and Ntilikina still trying to find an identity in his third. The older guys are just going to have to accept the minutes they’re given and collect checks. There are worse jobs.
3. Do you approve of the Knicks’ overall strategy of signing players to expiring deals?
Lawrence: I agree with the philosophy of the offseason—to an extent. The Knicks could have left some cap room open to absorb a bad contract for draft compensation, like the Clippers have done, but instead signed extra veterans to the squad. Next year’s free agency class is poor, so having all these players on team-option deals is a good move.
Mike: What was the other option? I get people screaming at the Knicks to tank, but need I remind you that the Pelicans won the lottery last season with 30 wins. Being historically bad is no longer rewarding. This current roster is much improved from last year’s garbage fire but is closer to a 30-win team than a playoff team.
Some lottery luck in addition to the cap flexibility of signing one-year deals puts the team in an ideal position to pounce on any opportunity to add a star player in the trade market or free agency.
Tyler: It surely beats overpaying lower-tier free agents. Once Kyrie and Durant were off the table, the team didn’t have much of a choice, if they didn’t want to have the worst team in the league again. Now they’ll hopefully show some improvement and instead just be one of the worst teams.
Harley: Maintaining flexibility is always a good thing.
Eli: It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s a plan, and that in and of itself is something of a relief. You can see what the front office is trying to do: instill a sense of competitiveness and competence while keeping flexibility for future moves, whether trades or free agent signings. It’ll take a lot more than one 30-win season to filter the toxic, Dolan-scented air out of the Knicks’ reputation, but this at least is a mark of a team trying to learn from past mistakes.
Ty: I see it as a lateral move and not the smartest. Essentially, what they’ve done is failed to sign big name free agents this summer and now they’ve decided to wait and see if they’ll have better luck two years from now. Granted, most of the teams who enviously picked up their targets will have their cap space locked up, but it’s still seems like they’re hedging against their own organic rebuild. The one-plus-one deals give them flexibility for sure, but, just like this free agency, it might just lead to them kicking the can down the road again. I don’t approve because the results of this free agency were horrendous for the Knicks considering everything they built it up to be, but that’s more disappointment than anything. This plan is fine. I’d feel better about it if it led to a savvy deal that netted them Bradley Beal, though.
4. What letter grade would you give the Knicks’ offseason, and why?
Lawrence: C+. The Knicks traded away their franchise player to make cap room to allure big name free agents, which they couldn’t land. Their fallback plan was only O.K. in my eyes. They get extra points for landing some young misfits who have obvious skills, like Bobby Portis and Julius Randle.
Mike: C+. It was not the Kevin Durant and star offseason we expected, but Randle and solid pieces on flexible deals is not a bad consolation. As the summer proved the league landscape can radically change so remaining flexible is key. The Knicks will be a better team next season and still be in a position to make a large move.
Tyler: B. I’m an easy grader. They’ve got to take a hit for missing out of the cream of the crop, but things could have gone much worse. Cancelling their meeting with Kawhi hurts, but especially with reports that he wouldn’t sign without a second star they were at least able to add a few younger guys who actually belong in the NBA. And to short, movable deals.
Harley: Straight C. Not landing any big fish really hurts, especially with all the expectations hoist upon us by Dolan himself and much of the media. But the Knicks did as good of a job rebounding from that as one could with smart, short-term deals for a mix of promising young players and wily vets. And they didn’t throw a stupid bag at, like, Tobias Harris or someone.
Eli: B-. Obviously any time you miss out on Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyrie Irving (to say nothing of Zion) it hurts. But the Knicks recovered from the gut punch and came out on the counter-offensive, targeting the guys they liked and signing them to team-friendly deals. Julius Randle is a really good player. Portis is interesting. Payton’s stats may be empty, but then again, there’s a chance they’re not TOTALLY empty. R.J. is a good consolation prize, regardless of how awful he’s been in Summer League. Iggy Brazdeikis has flashed enough to think that the Knicks might have found another contributor in the second round. And most importantly: they rebuffed inquiries about Chris Paul, didn’t sign DeMarcus Cousins, and ignored all the other big names with red flags in pursuit of their own vision. Maybe I’m grading on a curve, but with how the last 20 years of Knicks fandom has gone, a little competence goes a long way.
Ty: I give it a C-. Things didn’t go the way they thought they would. The Knicks front office thought they would just jog into the end zone, but instead got blasted back into the reality that they’re in the middle of a slow, painful rebuild. Their young core is on par with the Charlotte Hornets’ young core—it’s sad. Nevertheless, the Randle signing might be the best thing to happen to this offseason. They made the no-brainer pick for Barrett although it remains to be seen if he lives up to the expectations of a third overall selection. A lot of things were out of control this summer, but they also did the bare minimum to prepare for it. All in all, they didn’t fail or implode, which is good news. If they can keep it together and not trade for Russell Westbrook, they might even appear sane.
Right now, the Knicks just need to continue treading water.