New York Knicks missed out on superstars, but built a competitive core

NBA New York Knicks RJ Barrett (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
NBA New York Knicks RJ Barrett (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

The 2019 offseason may be seen as a failure, but it’s something that the New York Knicks can certainly build off of

During Game 2 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals, New York Knicks legendary center Patrick Ewing suffered an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the 1999 playoffs.

The Knicks, behind Alan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and Marcus Camby defeated the Indiana Pacers in six games to move on to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs.

A year later, Ewing was traded to the Seattle Sonics in a 4-team trade that brought Glen Rice, at 33 years of age, to the Knicks. The Knicks won 48 games in the 2000-01 season, the lone season Rice spent with the Knicks but lost in the first round to the Vince Carter-led Toronto Raptors.

Since trading Ewing, the Knicks have been in search of a superstar player to lead them back to championship contention. That search continues 19 years later, losing out this summer on free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who signed with the cross-town rival, Brooklyn Nets.

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In the last 18 years, the Knicks have had just three winning seasons (2010-2013) and have only won one playoff series. The Knicks nearly two-decade long doldrums has certainly not been caused by a lack of acquiring marque level players. Since the acquisition of Glen Rice in 2000, the Knicks have added aged superstars Penny Hardaway, Steve Francis, Jalen Rose, Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups, Amar’e Stoudemire, Derrick Rose, Ron Artest, and the list goes on.

Among the superstars they have acquired, only Carmelo Anthony and Stephon Marbury were acquired in their prime.

The Knicks strategy of plug and play to maintain on the court relevance has been a mitigated disaster. However, in spite of the Neolithic incompetence with which the franchise has been run since Ewing was traded, the Knicks were rumored throughout the 2018-19 season to be headed toward signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the offseason.

These rumors were so potent that Kevin Durant went on an eight-day hiatus from media availability after the Knicks traded injured all-star Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks just before the NBA Trade Deadline.

Durant later ended that hiatus by lashing out at the media during a postgame press conference, calling out some members of the media by name for their misreporting of his free agency. Knicks owner James Dolan went on a radio show in March where he said:

"“From what we’ve heard, we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”"

In addition to being rumored to be signing Durant and Irving, the Knicks managed to win only 17 games during the 2018-19 season, thereby having the best chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft – in other words, the best chance to land Zion Williamson. The media also connected the Knicks to the Anthony Davis sweepstakes throughout the year.

Whether it was the media, the Knicks organization or a combination of both, the speculation of scenarios in which the Knicks might add Durant, Irving, Williamson, and Davis, created probably the loftiest offseason expectations of any team in NBA history. In a two-week span, those hopes were dashed as the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Anthony Davis in a trade with the Pelicans, Durant, and Irving signed with the Nets and Williamson was drafted by the Pelicans.

The Knicks will not enter the 2019-20 season with aspirations of returning their proud franchise to championship contention. However, after a series of lower-level free agent signings and the drafting of RJ Barrett with the third pick in the draft, there should be some optimism in New York.

It would be difficult to be optimistic about landing Julius Randle and Marcus Morris when the targets were Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but the Knicks have assembled a roster that should be far more competitive then they have been the last six seasons.

The Knicks will enter the 2019-20 season with a young core of RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Elfrid Payton, Bobby Portis, Frank Ntilikina, Alonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson, and Ignas Brazdeikis – all 25 years of age or under.  They also added veterans Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, Marcus Morris, and Taj Gibson.

They have team options after the 2019-20 season on Bobby Portis, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith and Kevin Knox. Furthermore, Marcus Morris, Alonzo Trier, and Damyean Dotson will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the year. This gives the Knicks roughly $49 million in potentially expiring contracts this season, which creates a considerable amount of flexibility. They could also potentially have about $80 million of cap space after the 2020-2021 season, coinciding with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency.

Beyond the salary cap and roster flexibility the Knicks have built, they have also assembled a roster deep with talent. They have a nice blend of veterans and young talent that should be able to develop without having to shoulder the burden of lifting a franchise rich in history from the ashes of oblivion to an expectation of contending for a title.

Free-agent signees Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, and Taj Gibson all have significant experience in the league. All seven players played significant minutes as starters last season. These veterans should allow their young prospects, Trier, Knox, Barrett, Mitchell, Smith, Ntilikina and Dotson time to develop with appropriate expectations.

The Knicks will not be starting Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson next season, far from it, but what has been lost on the offseason, that clearly failed to live up to expectations, is that they have built a team that should be able to compete for the playoffs and a roster that gives them the flexibility to continue to make moves to improve their competitiveness.

They are clearly a number of moves away from competing for a championship but if they can show the patience that they should have exercised years ago when they were unwilling to build for the future, then perhaps they will have more success in attracting free agents in the future. The Knicks have the opportunity with their current roster to build the stability and foster the winning environment it will take to add the top-notch free agents to their pool of young talent.

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It feels like a lifetime ago that Larry Johnson hit the legendary four-point play that helped propel the Knicks into the 1999 NBA Finals. Without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson on the roster, we are going to have to wait a little while longer for the Knicks to return to greatness.

However, if they manage their present roster and salary cap properly, one day we may look back on the disappointment of the 2019 offseason as the catalyst for the development of a championship roster and culture.