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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

This year's replacement players seem to fall short of the rebuild Knicks hoped to complete

Knicks coach David Fizdale looks on during a

Knicks coach David Fizdale looks on during a game against the Wizards on Sunday, April 7, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Throughout the struggles of last season when the Knicks — and their fans — endured a 17-65 season, it was believed that the real game for the franchise was set for July when free agency would change the direction of the long-struggling team.

But as the team readies to open training camp Monday morning the stars are making their new starts in other places and the Knicks are left to perhaps finally explain what went wrong in a free-agent market that left them without even a meeting from the biggest names and instead a seven-player rebuild that feels more like running in quicksand than a step forward.

Last season it was a roster filled with former lottery picks as reclamation projects that was handed the ball and playing time. The result? The 17 wins are the obvious part, but the telling reality was that the star of the show, Emmanuel Mudiay, settled for a veteran minimum contract to sign on as a backup with the Utah Jazz. Noah Vonleh, who Knicks coach David Fizdale, called the most complete player on the roster last season, likewise took a minimum one-year deal from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

So the Knicks replaced that assortment this summer for players with a better resume and maybe a lower ceiling. Julius Randle put up numbers last season in New Orleans that last year’s Knicks players can only dream of achieving. Bobby Portis garnered an invite to Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Pro Invitational. 

Still, there is little hint that any of the players the Knicks signed are going to lift them into contention the way they counted on last year when boasting about what they could do with the salary cap space cleared by the trading away of franchise centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis.

So as they begin, it falls to Fizdale to find a way to blend these short-term Knicks, hoping to play their way into their next contract with the real hope of the franchise — this summer’s lottery pick, RJ Barrett, and last season’s rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. 

Like all teams, every year, the Knicks players have been peppering social media with tales of heated scrimmages and hard-fought workout sessions. 

“A lot of guys have impressed me,” Knox said last week. “You can just tell a lot of guys have been working on their game all summer. I watched a lot of games on television …  everyone’s game has gotten a lot better. I can’t wait to start training camp so we can all play together.”

But days after Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were introduced in Brooklyn, the Knicks will introduce a lineup of players who may or may not be here a year from now, a group that might help the young players develop or impede their progress. Which way that goes might go a long way toward determining how long the people making the decisions at Madison Square Garden are here.

Traveling men

Every year the NBA and its referees set a point of emphasis, a rule that will be carefully watched and scrutinized and this season it is traveling. 

But it’s not the traveling that you think it is, the ones you are sure you see and that the referees are missing. It is not James Harden.

While your eyes may tell you that Harden is toying with the rule book every time he steps back or steps sideways, the officials have studied it in slow motion, in stop motion and determined that your eyes are lying. It isn’t the Harden step back or the euro-step that has you replaying moves that the league is watching this time around. 

Last season the officials changed the way that they sequence how they watch a play after noting that it was exceedingly rare that a player committed a foul before an offensive player initiated his move. What they did find they had missed though were many traveling violations where a player changed his pivot foot before his first dribble. While the referees began to change their habits last season, that is going to be a point of emphasis this season. 

The challenge

The NBA is cautiously venturing into the rule adopted by the NFL and MLB — allowing their coaches to challenge a call. 

It is a one-year experiment right now and it won’t work quite like the other leagues — starting with there will be no flag to throw on the court like the NFL. And unlike the other leagues, a successful challenge won’t open up an opportunity for another challenge. 

A coach will have one challenge that can be applied to one of three factors: a called personal foul charged to its own team; a called out-of-bounds violation; or a called goaltending or basket interference violation. The out-of-bounds and goaltending calls can only be challenged in the first 46 minutes of regulation and the first three minutes of overtime since those calls are reviewed by the replay center.

The strategy for coaches will come into play with how they use this. The team must have a timeout — and if the challenge is won the timeout is kept, but the timeout is lost if the challenge fails. And the challenge must be made immediately before the ball is inbounded. And unlike the other sports where a coach can hold up play while waiting for a replay, if a timeout is called the challenge must be signaled concurrently. 

Wishful thinking

The other attempt to rein in a problem by the NBA is the memorandum sent to teams on tampering after the “please believe us, we just decided and agreed on a number one minute after free agency began” fiasco of this past summer. Rather than bother with the rules on this one we’ll just say, show us how it works.

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