After a 17-65 season, New York Knicks fans knew they couldn’t see much worse, after all, it was the worst season in franchise history.
A torn down roster made up of D-League call-ups, NBA journeyman and castaways, and an injured superstar made the Madison Square Garden a welcome stop on visiting team’s schedules.
With an excess of salary cap space and a guaranteed top five draft pick, the Knicks were expected to have one of the biggest offseasons in franchise history. Knicks fans wanted them to draft one of the two top players in the draft (Kentucky’s Karl Anthony Towns or Duke’s Jahlil Okafor) and go out and sign one or two massive free agents. Marc Gasol, Greg Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, all seemed attainable at some point this past season.
But an unlucky bounce of ping pong balls derailed all that, and the Knicks were left with the fourth pick in the draft, which was considered purgatory given the strength of the top three guys on the board, and a lot less appealing of a pitch for free agents.
Fast forward to early June, on the heels of the NBA’s free agent frenzy, and the Knicks emerge a smarter, better constructed team. They didn’t sign any big names – Greg Monroe spurned the big market Knicks for max money in Milwaukee, while DeAndre Jordan chose to play for Dallas, a playoff team and fringe title contender, before going back on his word and re-signing with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Aldridge cancelled his meeting with the team and chose to play with the Spurs.
Towns, Okafor, and Ohio State Guard D’Angelo Russell were off the board when the Knicks picked at four in the draft. At those two moments, Knick fans collective optimism fell down the drain.
But as we exit the tumultuous NBA offseason period and inch toward opening night, it’s important to recognize that President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson did a tremendous job this offseason. His moves on draft night and in free agency made the Knicks a respectable NBA franchise, one that could contend for a playoff next season, and one that is much more appealing to free agents than whatever they threw out on the court a season ago.
Let’s start with the draft. the Knicks angered their fan base by passing on safer bets (and good fits) in Justise Winslow and Willie Cauley-Stein, deciding not to trade down, and instead select Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis.
A 7’3” stretch power forward, Porzingis was and remains one of the most tantalizing prospects in the draft class. With an incredible touch from the perimeter, and a long, athletic frame, the former Sevilla man has the potential to be a superstar in the league. If his post game matures, he can score from anywhere, shooting over his opponents on the perimeter or out maneuvering them down low.
While Porzingis will obviously struggle in year one. his body isn’t strong enough to bang down low with experienced NBA big men, and he’ll have to transition to the NBA game, His potential is immense. Jackson took a calculated risk by drafting Porzingis, a move that could pay huge dividends down the road.
Drafting Porzingis was the only real risk Jackson took in the offseason. The rest of the moves he made were smart, sound, and need-based.
The Knicks primary need in the offseason was talent – Porzingis fills that role in numerous ways. He gives them a potential second scorer to support Carmelo Anthony, as well as a big who can rebound and space the floor. The Knicks also needed a point guard. Jackson acquired one on draft night, flipping the overrated and underachieving Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Atlanta Hawks for another Notre Dame point guard in Jerian Grant.
At 22 years old, Grant is one of the most NBA ready players in the draft. He is a tremendous passer, can run the pick and roll, and shoot when he needs to. He’s also a serviceable defender who fits pretty well in the triangle. Grant is a low risk prospect who could end up beating out Spaniard Jose Calderon for the starting job come October.
Another big need for the Knicks was a rim protecting center. While Jackson didn’t acquire any of the biggest names – Jordan and Marc Gasol – he did acquire Robin Lopez, who anchored the Portland Trail Blazers defense to back-to-back 50 win seasons.
Lopez will protect the rim, rebound, box out, and set screens, doing all the gritty work and doing it effectively – something that couldn’t be said for Jason Smith, Samuel Dalembert, or Lou Amundson all of last season. Lopez is locked down for the next four years and could end up being a huge asset for the team.
Beyond Lopez, Jackson also acquired Kyle O’Quinn, a solid, hardworking backup center who proved to be very good for the Orlando Magic off the pine. O’Quinn is a definite upgrade over Amundson at the five, especially because of his shooting ability and floor spacing ability.
The Knicks also needed upgrades on the wing. Arron Afflalo was signed to a two-year deal, with an annual payment of $8 million. A 3-and-D winger who can create his own shot, catch and shoot, the defend the perimeter, Afflalo was acquired at a bargain price. the Knicks also signed Derrick Williams, who at 23 years old still has lots of untapped potential. Williams gives Knicks depth at either small or power forward, a luxury they didn’t enjoy a year ago.
Jackson didn’t make any marquee signings. But he also didn’t overpay any players who can’t play defense, or any aging superstars with injury histories, or trade away parts of the Knicks future. What Jackson did was lay down a very solid foundation, one that will be very appealing when $20 million of cap space opens up next summer.
While the Knicks won’t contend for a title next season, nor will they do better than slip into the playoffs as an eight seed, they are no longer the laughing stock of the NBA, but rather a team in the right rebuilding direction. And the primary person to thank for that?