With high marks from this offseason’s free agency takeaway, we look back at a few under-the-radar great signings by the Knicks.
The New York Knicks were among the most active teams of the 2021 free agency period. They re-signed Julius Randle, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel, and Alec Burks to multi-year extensions while bringing on former Celtics Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to address the gaps in last year’s squad: three-point frequency and shot creation. All due respect to the departed Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton, but Fournier and Walker are undoubtedly the superior backcourt pairing.
Bringing (most) of the band back from last season’s success story and upgrading the two thinnest positions on the roster, there’s a lot to like about the decision-making of New York’s front office this summer. Let’s not forget the Knicks have a tumultuous history when it comes to free agency. Highlighted by Jerome James, Eddy Curry, and Joakim Noah, the ‘Bockers have a long-standing tradition of handing out undeservedly large contracts to middling players or over-the-hill stars.
With all that said, though the Knicks may—historically speaking—have more free-agency whiffs than hits, the team still made several great value signings over the years. For fans, it’s only natural that the bad signings linger in minds more than the good. Why exactly? The same reason tough losses stick with people more than extraordinary victories. It’s in our DNA. But enough harping on the bad; that has been done enough over the past two decades.
In an attempt to shed light on the contributions made by unheralded Knicks, here are three underrated free-agent signings of past generations. These Knicks played at least two seasons in New York and ended up being worth every penny and more.
Chris Duhon (2008–10): 146 games
Duhon was the textbook definition of what’s called a journeyman; he suited up for four different teams across his eight-year NBA career. Back in the summer of 2008, after spending his first four seasons with the Chicago Bulls, Duhon agreed to a two-year deal with New York worth approximately $6.5 million. The consensus initially was that Duhon would battle then-Knicks guard Stephon Marbury for the starting point guard job. However, New York waived Marbury before the 2008–09 season, essentially handing the keys to Duhon.
Duhon’s maiden season in New York was the pinnacle of his career. He saw considerable minutes in Mike D’Antoni’s offensive-centric system, 36.8 on average, and finished 24th in the league in total minutes played. With this boom in playing time, Duhon reached personal bests in points and assists per contest, at 11.1 and 7.2, respectively. A pass-first point guard, facilitating was Duhon’s calling card, and he was one of the NBA’s most prolific dimers in 2008–09. Duhon accumulated 566 assists in 78 games, which was good enough for the ninth-most in basketball. For perspective, he was only one spot back of LeBron James and ahead of Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Andre Miller, and Russell Westbrook.
Scoring inefficiency plagued Duhon for the lion’s share of his time in the pros (career 39.3% field-goal percentage), but not his first year in the Big Apple. Duhon nailed 44.9% of his two’s and reached the 40% mark from deep, the latter being 70th percentile among point guards that season, per Cleaning the Glass.
As fans are well aware, lackluster defense is what dug the 2008–09 Knicks in. But Duhon was one of the few players on that roster who was not liable for the team’s defensive woes. Finishing in the 94th percentile in foul percentage (and the 92nd the following year), Duhon defended without fouling. Not only that, at 0.9 steals per game, he had a knack for reading passing lanes.
Admittedly, Duhon’s second season in New York went less swimmingly than his first. He was still the de facto starting point and arguably the best passer on the team, but he couldn’t replicate his scoring efficiency from year one. Duhon’s field-goal percentage in 2009–10 was a lowly 37.3%, and his effective field-goal percentage was cut in half percentile-wise from the 78th the season before to the 39th, per Cleaning the Glass. After a mediocre contract year, Duhon hit the market in 2010. And once the Knicks inked Raymond Felton and Amar’e Stoudemire, the writing was on the wall for Duhon. He chose to sign with the Orlando Magic, who were fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
Despite Duhon’s accuracy problems in his second and final season as a Knick, folks should remember him fondly. He was a consistently excellent conductor of New York’s offense for two seasons. If it weren’t for his elite ability to create scoring chances for others, New York likely wouldn’t have ranked fourth in the league in points per game in 2008–09 and 10th in 2009–10. Duhon’s playmaking wizardry and penchant for pushing the pace made him a hand-in-glove fit on the D’Antoni-led Knicks.
Kurt Thomas (1998–2005): 530 games
There’s little debate that the 1990s were the golden age of (modern) Knicks basketball. Guided by Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Charles Oakley, New York clinched a playoff berth every year of the decade, and only once, in 1991, did they bow out in the first round. But as the new millennium began to approach, the Knicks looked less and less like the Ewing-led teams of old. By the time the 1998–99 campaign rolled around, Starks, Mason, and Oakley were all on different teams, and, while still an all-star caliber big man, Ewing was in the twilight of his career at age 36.
Fortunately, Ewing now had a younger cast of supporting talents with which to work. Allan Houston and Larry Johnson provided long-range shooting and stout perimeter defense, and Latrell Sprewell gave a scoring punch off the bench. But an underrated member of the cast that helped propel New York to the Finals was Kurt Thomas. Then entering year four in the pros, injuries had hampered Thomas’ last two seasons in Miami and Dallas, as back-to-back stress fractures in his right ankle limited him to just 23 games from 1996–98. But when healthy, Thomas produced, so the Knicks took a gamble on the injury-ridden big. The two sides agreed to a two-year deal worth $3.7 million.
The 1998–99 campaign was a lockout year, and thus the regular season lasted just 50 games. Yet, Thomas managed to log 44 starts and play all 50, the only Knick to do so aside from Charlie Ward and the aforementioned Houston. Offensively, Thomas was a traditional interior scorer who lived at the front of the rim, as he shot a remarkable 70.7% from within three feet, according to Basketball-Reference. He also was comfortable firing from the 10-16 feet range; 31.5% of all his combined field-goal attempts fell therein, and a respectable 37.8% found the bottom of the net.
Despite being a relatively efficient offensive player, Thomas was most impactful on the other side of the floor. He was, quite instantly, in the running for best individual rebounder on the team. Thomas played with a brute force that allowed him to snag defensive rebounds at an elite rate; his defensive rebounding percentage of 19.6% ranked second on the team behind only Patrick Ewing. And while Thomas didn’t sky to block shots like the great big-man defenders of the 20th century, his strength and ability to hold his ground down low meant he was one of the more intimidating post defenders in all of basketball.
While it was a productive regular season for Thomas, not until New York’s 1999 playoff run did he truly burst onto the scene as a defensive stalwart. When the postseason was all said and done, Thomas ended ninth among all playoff participants in Defensive Rating (95), 20th in defensive rebounding percentage (21.2%), 14th in total rebounding percentage (16.1%), and eighth in defensive win shares (0.8). Once Ewing tore his Achilles tendon before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was Thomas who took his place in the starting lineup. With his stabilizing presence, the team didn’t skip a beat and continued to play great team defense that was crucial to New York advancing and defeating the rival Indiana Pacers in six.
Thomas went on to spend six more seasons in New York following the Cinderella run in ’99. As Ewing retired and the team shifted to a full-scale rebuild, Thomas began to carry a heavier offensive burden, and by the time he was approaching his 30s, he averaged double-digit points night in and night out. Thomas honed his mid-range jumper so much that by the 2004–05 season (his last in New York excluding 2012–13), Thomas attempted 50.9% of all field goals from beyond 16 feet, compared to a mere 13% back in 1998–99. One of the longest-tenured Knicks ever and a critical component of a team mere wins away from a title, Thomas belongs in any discussion of the greatest New York bigs to ever don blue and orange, particularly from a defensive standpoint.
J.R. Smith (2012–15): 213 games
Like Thomas, Smith’s story with the Knicks began with a lockout-shortened season. The year was 2011–12, and with many unsure if there would be an NBA season, Smith signed with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls of the Chinese Basketball Association. Unfortunately, his contract was without an opt-out clause, so as the NBA finally began on Christmas day 2011, Smith was still in the middle of his season in China. But at the time, it was unclear whether a team would pick up Smith once the CBA’s campaign ended. Although Smith put up points in China (34.4 per game), his stint there was marred by controversy, with storylines centered on an allegation that his girlfriend choked out an opposing fan courtside.
But despite this, there was at least one team out there who expressed interest in the guard: the New York Knicks. Then spearheaded by Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire, the Knicks were engulfed in the year of Linsanity as well—Jeremy Lin, a formerly undrafted point guard, put together one of the most unlikely storybook seasons in NBA history. The Knicks had their eyes set on a playoff run, but they were quite thin at the shooting guard position. Sure, sophomore Landry Fields and rookie Iman Shumpert both had their moments, but neither could be relied on to take the scoring pressure off Anthony, Lin, and Stoudemire.
So, in February of 2012, the Knicks and Smith agreed to terms on a two-year deal worth 5.74$ million, with a player option in year two. Almost right away, Smith’s skill set proved to be just what the doctor ordered. A fearless three-level scorer, Smith instantly became the go-to bucket getter off the pine for New York, a role he would possess until his departure in 2015. Not only was Smith aggressive in scoring the ball, but he was also efficient to boot. Across Smith’s four season-stint in New York, he never finished below the 57th percentile in three-point accuracy or the 59th percentile in mid-range accuracy.
Smith’s defining season in New York came during 2012–13 when he earned the elusive Sixth Man of the Year award. En route to 54 wins and the second seed in the Eastern Conference, Smith averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game while shooting 35.6% on threes. The Knicks felt like a legitimate contender for the first time in years. Anthony was a legitimate MVP candidate, the roster was loaded with veterans who could shoot and defend, and Mike Woodson seemed the right coach for the job. But a deep run was not in the cards for these Knicks. They bowed out to Paul George and the Indiana Pacers in round two in six games, and Smith had a woeful postseason overall. Smith’s scoring average in the postseason dipped to 14.3 points, and his accuracy plummeted to 33.1% from the field, including 27.3% from distance.
Though even with Smith playing at around 50% of his full capabilities, the Knicks still made things interesting against Indiana; the series was, at one point, tied at one game apiece. So, this begs the question that if Smith played to his 6MOTY level, would the Knicks have made it to the Conference Finals? It’s plausible and something fun to think about.
Although Smith underperformed in the most consequential playoff run in recent franchise history, it does not change the fact that he was one of the more dynamic bench scorers the Knicks ever had. He recently retired from hoops following a title-run with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019–20. Salute to Smith for a fabulous career, both with the Knicks and the NBA.