The Knicks will spend much of next season evaluating the ceiling of their players’ potential, but if they wait too long they could join prospect purgatory.
Whether by their own designs or by default after striking out on two banana boats’ worth of franchise-player-level free agents this summer, the Knicks are trying to accomplish one of the hardest feats in the NBA: constructing a contender through the draft without a 99th-percentile building block prospect already in place.
Forging a competitive team out of a collection of young, undisciplined, big-name players is hard enough when you have a top-tier prospect in the mix—just ask Devin Booker, who has yet to experience a 25-win season after four years in the league. But without one of those guys, a team can be in real danger of going the way of the Orlando Magic, who, after seven years of post–Dwight Howard rebuilding, finally rode a robust 42-40 record to the seventh seed, marking their first playoff berth since the former Defensive Player of the Year’s departure. The Magic have a former number one (Fultz), number four (Isaac), and two number-six picks (Bamba and Gordon) all under the age of 23 and still don’t have a clear path from run-of-the-mill competitive to playoff threat competitive, nor a clear plan for how to best utilize those high-pedigree prospects, especially with Nikola Vucevic fresh off signing a brand new max contract to stay in The City Beautiful.
“Hold up, who’s to say the Knicks don’t already have one of those top-tier prospects on the roster? What about Mitch? What about R.J.?”
It’s a fair question. It’s certainly possible one of them pops in a major way, addresses the holes in their game, and raises themselves to true centerpiece levels. For this current rebuild to succeed, it’s almost a requirement. But barring a semi-unprecendented leap from R.J. Barrett in terms of court awareness, shooting ability, and feel for the game, it seems unlikely he’ll ever be what the Twitterverse might call “the best player on a championship team.” To even reach the threshold of second-best player on a contender, basically everything in Barrett’s development will have to break right.
And Mitchell Robinson, for as monstrous as he is on the defensive end, is at best a release valve and tertiary option offensively. If he can develop some short roll and dribble hand-off passing chops or a workable jump shot, there’s plenty of room for growth, but for now he’s complementary on offense, which caps how far he can go as a franchise cornerstone.
From the lottery odds to the draft evaluation process to the challenges of developing young players, building through youth is a road pockmarked with uncertainty and pitfalls. So let’s look to the past to see if any lessons can be gleaned from teams that have tried similar tactics.
All the Wrong Moves in All the Wrong Places
Some rebuilds are doomed before they begin. Sometimes this is due to poor draft choices, sometimes the chemistry never clicks, and sometimes it’s just plain bad luck.
And on rare occasions, it’s all three. That’s right, I’m talking about the 2000–05 Clippers.
On draft night, 2000, Elgin Baylor, at the time Vice President of Basketball Operations, made a series of moves he thought would single-handedly usher in a new era of competitive Clippers basketball. With the third pick, he took Darius Miles, the next great high-schooler-turned-pro; and with the 18th pick, selected Miles’ buddy Quentin Richardson. He also traded a 2006 pick for second-year wing Corey Maggette, fresh off a promising rookie year in Orlando, and 10th overall pick Keyon Dooling. The cherry on top was Marko Jaric, one of the most exciting young guards in the EuroLeague, drafted with the first pick in the second round.
In just a few short hours, the Clippers had created their core of the future almost out of thin air—or had they?!
(Cue Law and Order “dun duns”)
Of course, we all know how that went. Maggette was the only player acquired that fateful night to play more than four seasons with the Clippers, the only member of that core still with the team during their one playoff berth of the era, a 2005–06 playoff run that saw them get to the second round before losing to an Amar’e-less Suns team in seven games. This section of Clippers history is referred to by Wikipedia as “Further Struggles at Staples Center,” and it offers a glimpse at the darkest timeline for a rebuilding team.
Too Much, Too Soon
Another classic mistake in team building is mistaking baseline competence with being ready for the big stage and cutting corners trying to expedite the growth curve.
The current Timberwolves are a great example of this. When Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine were joined in Minneapolis by generational big man prospect Karl-Anthony Towns, all the talk was about how this team had next. Sure, they were coming off a 16-66 season, but they had the Rookie of the Year, his Dunk Contest–winning Bounce Bro, the best offensive big man prospect in who knows how many years, and the heartthrob point guard maestro to tie it all together. Not only that, but halfway through the season, they brought back one-time franchise player Kevin Garnett to mentor KAT and instill some defensive grit into a baby fat-filled squad.
Despite the emotional turmoil of losing beloved coach Flip Saunders and an overmatched Sam Mitchell having to step in as head coach, the Wolves’ win total bounced from 16 to 29 the following season, in large part thanks to Towns’ unanimous Rookie of the Year season. The defense was still a mess and Wiggins still hadn’t developed as many would’ve hoped through three years, but the pieces were in place.
Then, Tom Thibodeau was hired in the summer as both coach and President of Basketball Operations and with him came expectations that development time was over and winning time had begun. Thibs drafted Kris Dunn over Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray, presumably because of his defense and Thibs’ lack of trust in Rubio, and brought in role players like Lance Stephenson, Brandon Rush, and Omri Casspi, none of whom helped the team in any noticeable way. The following summer, Thibs shipped LaVine, Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (which became Lauri Markkanen) for Jimmy Butler and the 16th pick, which he used on Justin Patton (John Collins, Harry Giles, OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma, and Derrick White were all still on the board).
You’d hope that from this move, Thibs learned a couple valuable lessons—one: the importance of hitting on the margins once the key pieces are in place, and two: that development can be nurtured, expedited even, but not forced. The truth is, KAT wasn’t ready, Wiggins had been taught all the wrong habits by being indulged as a score-only player for his first few seasons, and Thibs had missed on basically every draft pick and ancillary move he made trying to build his new-look Bulls.
Instead of entering the 2017–18 season with the excitement of a Murray-Wiggins-Lauri-KAT core that could eventually be one of the most potent offenses in the league, they entered with unrealistic expectations, faltered when Butler got hurt at the end of the season, and the Thibodeau/Butler era ended with a single playoff game win and a whole lot of embarrassment to show for what was just a few years prior one of the most exciting young collections of talent in the league.
Now, it’s possible that with this summer’s draft night trade to get Jarrett Culver, they’ll rebound back to their previous levels of excitement, but with KAT and Wiggins locked into max extensions, the need to hit on cheap supporting players is increasingly vital—something new front office Scott Layden (hi there, old friend!) and Gersson Rosas have done a good job with so far, bringing in Robert Covington on a great contract, along with promising wings Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop. Even so, in the powerhouse Western Conference, it’s hard to see a path toward any semblance of contention anytime soon.
I call this strategy the Icarus Directive, and if the past is any indication, it seems like the trap the Knicks are most likely to fall into as they build toward the future.
Presti pulled off a draft run that Elgin Baylor and countless other executives could only dream of, selecting three MVP’s and a multiple time All-Defense First Team section in three straight years. Two years later, OKC was competing in the franchise’s first Finals since 1996.
But part of being the smartest (or luckiest) guy in the room is sometimes you get too smart (or lucky) for your own good. As quickly as the SuperThunder came together, they fell apart. Concerns over fit and money caused Presti to choose both Ibaka and, to a lesser extent, Westbrook over Harden. (One of my personal favorite what-ifs is what if the Thunder had traded Westbrook, for a far greater return, instead of Harden that fateful day) Harden went the way of Justin Timberlake, perfecting his solo game, and Presti tried and failed to put a competent shooting guard next to Russ and KD up until the moment KD left for goldener shores.
And while the Thunder were still a slew of injuries and a 3-1 implosion against a red-hot Klay Thompson away from making at least one other Finals appearance, that 2012 run marked their last time reaching the ultimate stage.
Let’s also be clear: this is probably the best-case scenario for a team building around its draft picks while still falling short of the ultimate goal, but impatience, short-sightedness, and yes, stinginess, all coupled with some unfortunate luck brought an empire to its knees before it could ever truly begin.
Rather Be Lucky Than Good
We’ve seen how bad luck has scuttled many a rebuild, but what about the flip side to that coin? The truth is, almost every successful rebuild has been the beneficiary of a liberal sprinkling of good luck. A prime example of this is the Warriors, whose run of nearly unprecedented luck directly contributed to landing Kevin Durant and adding two championships to the franchise’s total.
Another example, though, is the freshly-made powerhouse Lakers. The Lakers were terrible for years, and because of their remarkable luck (almost suspiciously remarkable), not only did they manage to avoid, year after year, losing the lightly protected picks they’d traded in the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash trades, they also jumped into the top four in this summer’s draft, giving them the extra asset needed to land Anthony Davis.
Now, the Lakers did just about everything wrong during this process—they missed on free agent signings, they drafted decently but not great with their high picks (though they did much better with their low picks), they overpaid bad players and had to attach assets (like D’Angelo Russell) to get off them, and they had a ton of front office drama. But a combination of Los Angeles exceptionalism and a freakish amount of good luck led them to where they are now: genuine championship contenders once again.
This method is called Operation Dumb Luck and it’s likely the only way the Knicks will see a conference finals appearance in the next decade or so.
So what can we learn from this trip down the annals of NBA history? As is the case so often in life, more from the failures than the successes.
One of the most apparent, obvious danger areas is figuring out the right time to cash in your chips for a difference-maker—and making sure you choose the right difference maker to sell out for. Minnesota and Oklahoma City are key examples of this, as are, to a lesser extent, the 76ers. Philadelphia jumped the gun after a ridiculous rookie year from Ben Simmons and sophomore year from Joel Embiid saw them square off in the second round against their mortal enemy Celtics. Deals for Butler and Tobias Harris sapped almost all their depth and kept them out of the running for the Kawhi Leonards and Kevin Durants of the world this summer, when they’re closer to being ready for the Finals. They’re still in a good position as a team, but they’re now locked into long-term deals for pieces that don’t quite fit together perfectly, some of which (Al Horford and Tobias Harris) could end up looking pretty ugly in a couple years.
Waiting too long to cash in those chips has its downfalls too. The Celtics shipped Isaiah Thomas at the perfect time—they traded him before most other franchises would’ve, and in doing so, caught him exactly at the peak of his value. But they were unable or unwilling to deal cash in on their stockpile of assets time after time, and it’s only Michael Jordan’s terrible ownership that led to them being able to sign-and-trade for Kemba Walker.
The moral seems to be: if you’re giving away some of your top-flight assets, make sure it’s for someone good enough to raise up the young guys left on the team and that there’s enough flexibility to keep making moves after the first deal is done. If all you’re looking for is to go big-name hunting, that’s not going to be enough. Even Jimmy Butler, a top 15-20 player in the league, on his own isn’t enough to transform a franchise.
The scary part for Knicks fans is, two of the keys to succeeding this way are two of the areas Knicks management has long been lacking: patience and planning. If Scott Perry is going to prove himself as somehow different from all the GM’s who came before, he can’t fall victim to the same reactionary moves that have plagued the franchise for years.
He seems to have a plan, but only time will tell if he knows how and when to pivot in order to turn the team from a collection of interesting young players into a bona fide powerhouse.