It’s hard to think of a tougher offseason than the one the Knicks just had. Not only did they not get the No. 1 draft pick despite having the worst record in the NBA last season, but the top free agents didn’t want to go anywhere near their 17-win team.
Yet in the team’s first news conference since Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant spurned Madison Square Garden to play for the Nets at Barclays Center, Knicks president Steve Mills declared the summer a success. He said the Knicks went into free agency with contingency plans, with one of them apparently being to sign a bunch of non-marquee veterans to short-term contracts.
“New Yorkers are going to like this team,” Mills said Monday when asked what he would tell the fans about his new Knicks. “The grittiness of these players. The toughness of these guys. And it’s a group of guys that had places they could go. They made the decision to come here to New York specifically to play for the Knicks.”
Only time will tell if New Yorkers like this team. One person with solid reasons not to like it is coach David Fizdale, who is being handed a very tough assignment: integrating veterans in contract years with young, developing players such as Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett.
Of the Knicks’ seven free agent additions, six are playing on contracts that are guaranteed only for this season.
The addition of Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton means the Knicks will have better talent than they did last season. That is both good news and bad news.
Remember how difficult it was to get Enes Kanter to accept a reduced role last season? That’s because he was one of the few players on the team who wasn’t a reclamation project.
Fizdale now may find himself with a roster full of Kanters, players who believe in a meritocracy in which playing well means extra minutes regardless of whom the team is looking to groom and develop for the future.
What’s more, not much was expected from Fizdale last season. The whole point was to develop young players and position the franchise to have a big summer, both in the draft and free agency.
Although Mills declined to address why top free agents chose to go elsewhere, one solid theory is that the team, which has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, is just too much of a mess to be attractive. A team coming off a 17-win season with no Zion Williamson to show for it is not much to talk about, even if the Knicks actually had gotten a chance to sit down and talk with their top targets.
The Knicks never got to make their pitch to Durant or Irving. The free agent class also included Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson.
“You’ll have to talk to those players about why they made the decision that they made,” Mills said. “There were a lot of max-type players that we could have met with that were interested in coming here. We had a certain way that we wanted to build this team. This is how we chose to build it.”
Did the Knicks actually turn down the chance to talk to max-type players? After gunning for Durant and Irving all season, was Plan B really to settle for Randle and six guys on one-year contracts?
The one thought that puts this in the realm of possibility is that the Knicks believe they have a legit shot at Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021 (now that Anthony Davis has engineered his way to the Lakers, there aren’t really any huge names available next summer).
Of course, it’s hard to see the Greek Freak — or any other superstar — wanting to join a 17-win team, which is why the pressure is on Fizdale to add a dozen wins this season and show that this is a club in ascension. He needs to develop the culture that they are talking about as well as continue to develop Knox, Robinson, Barrett and other young players.
And if he doesn’t? He might not be the only one with his job on the line.