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Knicks remain a team in flux as NBA season begins

Steve Mills, Knicks president, left, speaks alongside general

Steve Mills, Knicks president, left, speaks alongside general manager Scott Perry, center, and head coach David Fizdale during Media Day at MSG Training Center in Greenburgh on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. Credit: James Escher

The first thing you need to remember about this Knicks season is that they say this was planned.

Maybe not Plan A. Perhaps not Plan B. But it was a plan.

“Free agency is a process,” Knicks president Steve Mills said as he opened training camp last month. “There are certain parts of it you can’t control. And we had a plan in place. We had a roster that we thought we could end up with .  . . Those are guys that were part of what we had planned on doing. It played out in a way that we were prepared for it to go.”

Just remember that as this begins to unfold, the latest chapter in what has been two decades and counting of futility.

Well, let’s start with the positive. Among the seven free agents the Knicks have added to the roster Julius Randle and Marcus Morris are better, established professionals than anyone on the roster last season (at least once the team dealt away Kristaps Porzingis). RJ Barrett looks ready to start from opening night.

OK, that’s out of the way. Now on to the reality that the front office may not want to admit to and that Knicks coach David Fizdale will try to find his way through.

1. The Knicks have no clear-cut point guard in a league dominated by point guards. Dennis Smith Jr. still has struggled with his revamped jump shot and is a marginal defensive player despite great athleticism. Elfrid Payton also is little threat from the outside and in his five NBA seasons has yet to guide a team to a winning record. Frank Ntilikina turns back into the same player he has been the last two years when he moves from the international stage back to his odd-job role with the Knicks. How desperate are the Knicks for a point guard? Fizdale already has begun experimenting with Barrett, the 19-year-old rookie, at the spot — and he might be the best option.

2. The rotation is, well, problematic. Randle, Morris, Payton and Bobby Portis signed here expecting huge opportunities and you can see why they would think that, joining a team that not only struggled to 17 wins last season but gave starting jobs to Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh, who settled for minimum deals as backups elsewhere. But other than Randle, all the free agents have one-year guarantees in New York, and the longer-term prospects are — or better be — Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Smith and Ntilikina, who are all still on rookie deals.

3. Besides pacifying this roster, Fizdale has problems of his own. Even if it was a player development year spent jockeying for position in the lottery, the 17-65 slog is still on his record. The Knicks clearly would like to see marked improvement this season after the struggles left them as an afterthought to stars in free agency. So if they are not markedly improved, who do you think gets blamed? The owner? The front office? Or the guy who has to answer the questions every night?

4. Speaking of free agency, the Knicks went into this past market expecting to land stars, a notion that was voiced by Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan and whispered by the front office days before the signing period began. Now, they provided an opening to get back in next summer even as they picked up the rookie options on Ntilikina, Smith and Knox Monday, but the free-agent class expected to be available is nothing near this last class. So the gamble is to maintain flexibility for the summer of 2021, and cross their fingers that some of the players expected to hit free agency remain in play.

So what does this season hold? A roster in flux with nine new faces, no clear floor leader and a brutal start to the schedule could provide a quick exit to all of their dreams.

“Everybody has a different set of problems and things they have to figure out,” Fizdale said. “Ours is getting this team to jell as fast as possible because of the new faces and figuring out who’s going to be the guys that are playing the minutes.”

The positive is that they should be better than last year with the influx of better talent than last year. They aren’t a very good defensive team although Robinson and Ntilikina provide some young talent on that side. They aren’t very good at shooting, although Wayne Ellington is a professional shooter.

The negative is that they are still spinning the roster and there has been little sign of stability or development. A best-case scenario would have the Knicks contending for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with the likes of the Pistons, Heat and Hawks. The reality is that they’ll be hoping to fall in the right position in the lottery to grab another young star.

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