In one of the few interviews he has given since taking over as Knicks president in March, Leon Rose was asked how many players he thought would come back from last season’s 21-45 squad.
"I think it’s still a little early to call that just because of how much time we have until the draft, until free agency, in order to fully evaluate with some of those decisions coming after the draft," he said in June in an appearance on the team’s network.
"Right now, I look at Mitchell Robinson and RJ , two young core pieces. I look forward to working with Kevin Knox]. I think he’s just starting to scratch the surface. Frank Ntilikina, given the right circumstances, I think can really prosper. And Dennis Smith, that’s a special talent right there. We have some solid veterans, Julius coming back."
It seemed like a polite but unrealistic assessment. These were all leftovers from previous regimes, and the Knicks were headed into free agency with a huge cache of salary-cap space.
But as the first flurry of free-agent signings and trades rumbled through the NBA, several of those holdovers were still in place . . . and the additions were not exactly getting the fans to line up for playoff tickets.
The Knicks made moves to acquire some future draft picks, but in terms of immediate help, what they accumulated were Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Ed Davis, along with bringing back Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock and Theo Pinson (on a two-way contract).
Davis then was flipped to Minnesota for Omari Spellman, Jacob Evans and a future second-round pick.
Add that to the draft day additions of Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley and Myles Powell, and there is little reason to believe the 2020-21 Knicks will be rising from the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
Given options that likely would not have lifted them to contender status, this patient approach — holding on to their cap flexibility — certainly can be seen as a valid path for the Knicks. However, their history has shown that there are no assurances that the next free-agent chase will be better than the last one.
Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Donovan Mitchell already have agreed to rookie contract extensions that took them out of the running for what seemed like a stellar 2021 free-agent class. So unless Rose has a move up his sleeve — the possibility of a trade for Russell Westbrook is still out there — the Knicks are left to try to piece together a season under new coach Tom Thibodeau that looks better than the last incarnations.
Rivers and Burks could help provide a bit of shooting for a team that was abysmal from long range last season — and one that has lost the top five shooters in terms of three-point percentage from that team.
Noel is an athletic defender who can back up Robinson with a similar skill set. But some of the signings also would seem to block minutes from some of the young players Rose spoke about seeing rise.
Though Rivers and Burks are both combo guards, the addition of those two and the return of Payton could signal another move on the way to clear up the logjam.