The Knicks just happened to be an innocent bystander, the national television opponent last Wednesday when the Nets swung a massive four-team trade to bring another superstar to Brooklyn. But as they were overrun by a shorthanded incarnation of the Nets that night, it put them in a spotlight that they may not want right now.
In dealing for James Harden, the Nets made the questionable and controversial decision to mortgage their future in the form of not just two young, talented players in Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen but also control of numerous future first-round picks. Still, as Kevin Durant led the Nets past the Knicks that night, it showed off the allure of securing a superstar.
The deal echoed the 2013 trade the Nets made with the Celtics to acquire Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry — a deal that turned Boston into a contender and set back the Nets nearly a decade in a rebuild. But it also reminded observers of some of the Knicks’ previous pursuits of stars — the deal for Carmelo Anthony being the most notable. And it raised questions about the Knicks’ current rebuilding efforts.
If the Nets took a Knicks-like approach to this effort to contend right now, the Knicks either have taken a very patient tack or, perhaps just as likely, failed to convince stars to join them to speed up the process they insist they want to trust.
The Knicks chased Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019 and failed to convince them to even sit down for a sales pitch. Whispers that they would push for Kawhi Leonard that summer also were met with no interest from Leonard, who instead paired up with Paul George for the Los Angeles Clippers.
The latest brief free-agent market found the Knicks and their new management team with a huge amount of salary-cap space, but they were unwilling to go all-in on Gordon Hayward and never got a face-to-face meeting with Fred VanVleet.
What they have done is maintain their flexibility to be able to swoop in and make a trade with a team looking to cut payroll in the form of star power or a disgruntled star looking for a new home. But a procession of those stars have switched teams, and the Knicks have not been the landing spot for any of them.
James Harden is just the latest and this four-way deal included Victor Oladipo, who might have been the next-best opportunity.
So is patience and trusting the process the right approach? It’s a question worth asking as the Knicks prepare to hit another arduous stretch of the schedule with a five-game losing streak, a 5-8 record and a lineup that is not exactly soothing the fan base’s frazzled feelings.
Maybe it’s worth wondering how it is satisfying the roster in place. Echoes of the struggles of the last few years are being heard.
"We want them focused on the process," coach Tom Thibodeau said after Saturday’s practice session. "A big part of learning is the trial-and-error part of it. So come in each day and look at what we did well, what we didn’t do as well as we would have liked. Try to correct those things, but focus on the work and the improvement.
"I think they’ve been great in terms of the attitude and the approach. The way we’re practicing right now, when we do get the opportunity to practice, has been very positive and we’ve fallen short in this streak.
"But I do want us to focus on that improvement and getting better. As we get guys back, I think we’ll get a rhythm offensively in terms of making shots and then we’ve got to get our defense going. When we do that, we’ll win."
The Knicks still have their surplus of picks and still have cap room for the dwindling free-agent market to come in the summer. But other than Julius Randle’s improved play, it’s hard to point to a budding star on the roster.
So should they have gone all-in the way the Nets did, or like their own history before the arrival of the current regime? That is a question for team president Leon Rose, when he speaks.