The Knicks spun quickly to a Plan B in free agency this summer, realizing that their long-held dreams of signing the biggest names in the market were left wanting. So without even a meeting from Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, they turned to stocking the roster with a second-tier assortment of solid veterans.
On paper, like most of the plans that have been put in place as the franchise has compiled the worst record in the NBA during the last 20 years, it was an understandable and not totally disappointing turn. Within 24 hours, they had secured deals with six free agents, and they would push the number to seven before the NBA’s annual game of musical chairs had stopped spinning.
Solid veterans such as Taj Gibson and Wayne Ellington were secured as well as rising young players such as Julius Randle and Bobby Portis. An argument could be made that the Knicks will be better. (Let’s be honest; when you’re the worst team in the league at 17-65, it’s not a real high bar to set.)
But the Knicks also have set themselves (and particularly second-year coach David Fizdale) up for what could be a troubling season.
They have preached player development since jettisoning Phil Jackson as team president and pushing away just about every bit of veteran talent they had in place. Last season they dedicated themselves to the plan of getting minutes and lessons for the young players added to the roster. Rookie Kevin Knox played more minutes per game than any other player on the roster once the Knicks traded away Tim Hardaway Jr. Mitchell Robinson got 20.6 minutes per night, starting 19 games and earning All-Rookie second team honors. Even though they traded away franchise centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis, they could point to 21-year-old Dennis Smith Jr. as something to build on.
But Fizdale will be tasked this season with trying to find some happy medium of continuing the development of the young players while keeping the veterans with guaranteed one-year deals (and maybe being shopped at the trade deadline is a better guarantee) pleased with their next contract on the line.
“I like the players we have signed,” Knicks legend and current Madison Square Network analyst Walt Frazier said last week while appearing beside last year’s lottery pick, Knox, and this summer’s No. 3 overall pick, RJ Barrett. “There’s a lot of talent there, a lot of versatility. It’s going to put pressure on these young men. Guys that they paid $15 million or so think they’re going to start.”
So does Fizdale continue to live with the on-the-job lessons for Knox and Robinson, Barrett and Iggy Brazdeikis, Smith and maybe even Frank Ntilikina? Or does he hand the ball to Elfrid Payton and generate minutes for Randle and Portis?
“That’s going to be great for us,” Knox said. “To be able to compete, I don’t think anybody’s guaranteed no starting lineup, no minutes, none of that . . . Everyone is gonna have to earn their minutes, earn their position. I think that’s going to be great for us going into training camp and competing. Nobody’s got a starting spot. Everyone’s got to fight to earn their minutes and earn their position.”
That’s certainly the right thing to say, at least now. We’ll see when the first minutes are cut.
Frazier spoke about the disappointment of the Knicks fanning on stars in free agency, but he pointed to the group that did sign and optimistically turned the attention not to how this group will get enough shots but if they can play defense well enough to win. And he believes that they can.
“The key to winning is always defense to me,” Frazier said. “Every day I wear these [championship] rings with a lot of pride. They’re all symbolic of defense. The Knicks were lower echelon in defense [last season]. I think they have a lot of good defensive players they signed. If they play with that tenacity, the Garden crowd is going to support them. They realize it’s not an elite team, but if they give 100 percent, they’re going to get the support of the Garden, and if they play a very aggressive defense, they can perhaps make the playoffs.”
Origins of style
When Puma staged an event in Manhattan to debut a new version of sneaker first made famous by Frazier (with the Hall of Famer sitting alongside two new clients of the sneaker line, Barrett and Knox), Frazier not only offered basketball advice but memories of how sneaker deals began.
“My first contract was $5,000 and all the shoes I wanted,” he said. “As a rookie, I wasn’t playing good, so to pacify myself, I went shopping. I figured I’m not playing good but I look good. Then I went to Baltimore and bought a wide-brim hat. People were making fun of me.
“Two weeks later the movie 'Bonnie and Clyde' came out. My teammates were like, ‘Hey, look at Clyde.’ That’s how they got the nickname, and I’d strip the ball. Later I got the Rolls-Royce, the mink coats. It was being in the right place at the right time. Then the Puma sneakers came out, not just sneakers, but a style. I did a poster with the mink coat … Today I can’t believe my luck, 40 years later to still be with Puma. It exceeded all my expectations.”