But the Knicks have never been so open at the start of a season about the struggles to come. After glancing around the league at teams that embraced the process, in the wake of the Phil Jackson era and all of the dysfunction that accompanied the losses, the Knicks have come to accept the rebuild.
Consider what projects as a starting lineup for this team: Lance Thomas, who was waived when he arrived in a trade and signed to a 10-day contract, and who never has started a season opener in his career; Trey Burke, who started last season in the G League to try to resurrect his former lottery pick status; Frank Ntilikina, a 20-year-old point guard moving to small forward; and holdovers Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter. All of this guided by David Fizdale, in his first year as Knicks coach, as he adds into the mix trying to prod performance out of 19-year-old Kevin Knox, by moving the rookie with potential and plenty of bumps to navigate before he reaches that potential to a bench role.
To head toward a bright future, that meant constructing a roster built around expiring contracts and a handful of players too young to hit the hotel bar. And it means sticking to it no matter how painful it may be at times.
“We reiterated this when Scott [Perry, the general manager] came aboard, then when David came aboard,” said Knicks president Steve Mills, who has been in the middle of plenty of those hard times in his previous positions in the organization. “We’re committed to following the plan and not just shifting, pivoting, because we see something that is attractive and might fast-track something. I’ve seen that happen and go wrong too many times. That’s not what we’re doing.”
What exactly are they doing? Waiting for Kristaps Porzingis to fully rehabilitate his torn anterior cruciate ligament, waiting for next summer’s free-agent market to open and maybe waiting for one more lottery pick.
In the meantime, there is a lot of talk of establishing a culture. Fizdale may be new to New York, but he has tried to connect this team to the franchise’s history with lots of talk about the Knicks DNA — ignoring the strands that have made up nearly two decades of not only futility but dysfunction and embarrassment.
So he already has brought Patrick Ewing and Walt Frazier in to speak to the team. Chris Bosh, who played for the Heat during Fizdale’s time in Miami, showed up at a game in New York and spent time speaking with Knox. He already has gotten a message to Willis Reed to meet up with the team in New Orleans next month and has spoken of bringing in all of the franchise greats — well, almost all of them. He still hasn’t attempted to bridge the divide between the franchise and Charles Oakley.
“Yeah, because there’s a strand of the DNA we have to keep,” Fizdale said. “We just have to. This is a storied organization. So much history and legacy involved. I just think it’s important that these guys know their history. Someone did it before them so that they can do it the way they’re doing it.”
Some of these kids weren’t born when Ewing played in New York and the legends are nothing but grainy videos to them. But nothing establishes culture like winning, and the Knicks might not do much of that. So Fizdale is content for now to push for victories in preseason and anywhere the team can find them.
“Absolutely. Heck yeah. I want to win everything,” he said early in the preseason. “I want to win every game. These guys, we’re building habits right now. Winning is a habit. I don’t care, any time we step on that court, if they decide to play checkers together, pool, ping pong, I want them competing. And I want them competing to win. We have to get that really deep-rooted into who we are. As long as there’s time on the clock, we’re trying to win the game. I feel like our kids are really committed and not taking this for granted and not being cool about this or any of that. They’re just coming out and really competing, trying to be a good team.”
It likely won’t happen this season. The front office won’t speak of tanking and Fizdale insists he puts no limits on what this group can be, individually or collectively. But there is no doubt that all of the talk is just that, a path forward to a better time.