As the Knicks finish another season out of the playoffs, this time with the NBA’s worst record, there are nearly as many questions about where this will lead as there were victories. Most center around what is next for the rebuild that many thought could not happen in New York, and if it was all worth it.
The fans still showed up and still cheered at the few highlights to the bitter end, content to grab a free T-shirt or watch Mitchell Robinson finish off a lob as another loss was etched into the standings. But when the Knicks broke this down — they mostly tried to stick to the script of not skipping steps and patiently creating a culture — there still was the allure of a quick fix coming this summer.
If it doesn’t quite work out the way that fantasy basketball figures — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving arriving together as free agents, the Knicks winning the lottery and introducing Zion Williamson — will the fans stay patient? Will they still believe in the plan set forth by Steve Mills and Scott Perry? Will they take David Fizdale’s relentless positivity for another season when what they see doesn’t match the words? It is a true test and one that will become clear very quickly.
1. Who’s on the way?
The Knicks went through a nightmarish season trying desperately to keep an eye on this summer, when they would have cap space cleared and the chance to remake the franchise . . . again. Garden chairman and principal owner James Dolan has said he believes stars are coming, and nearly everyone around the league thinks the top prize — Kevin Durant — is headed to New York. The memory of this season will fade quickly if the Knicks can land a pair of max-contract stars from this deep free-agent class.
2. Did the player development work?
The Knicks threw a trio of rookies — Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier — into the deep end, giving them huge minutes and often starting and starring roles. That is a pretty good formula to challenge the worst season in franchise history. But the Knicks hope Knox now will ease into a complementary role alongside stars, no longer required to create so much for himself. And most of all, they hope Robinson can expand his offensive game and become a complete defender rather than just a shot-blocker.
3. Can the last vestiges of Phil Jackson survive?
Frank Ntilikina is not actually the last player from the misery that was Jackson’s tenure as team president; second-round pick Damyean Dotson is. But Ntilikina is the painful reminder of what went wrong, the lottery pick who was selected to head the triangle offense. Jackson is gone, as is the triangle, and Ntilikina has gone through two seasons of trying to find his place among the Knicks. He still has some regard around the league as a defensive-minded guard with great length. But his shooting is erratic, he is a marginal offensive player in a league in which point guards flourish on that end, and his confidence often seems shot.
4. Is it time to go?
The Knicks gave opportunities to a handful of discarded former lottery picks, and it produced mixed results. The common denominator for Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja and Henry Ellenson is that all were lottery picks by other teams and are on expiring contracts. Burke already is gone, packaged in a trade, and the rest are likely to be headed elsewhere as the Knicks clear all the space they can for stars. Will any of them return? Mudiay had the best season among them, but he must be renounced with a $12.8 million cap hold. He’s likely to get a decent payday somewhere.
5. What if nothing works?
This is the real problem, the one that no one at MSG really wants to consider. Suppose the lottery goes like most lotteries and you’re left ripping up a losing ticket while Zion Williamson heads to another town. Then maybe Durant decides that playing on the best team in a great city isn’t so bad after all, not to mention the additional $60 million the Warriors can pay him. How do you tell fans that the humiliating season and the discarding of the last franchise centerpiece — Kristaps Porzingis — for cap space all went for nothing?