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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Forget signing stars -- Knicks' rebuild will require work and patience

Knicks head coach David Fizdale looks on during

Knicks head coach David Fizdale looks on during the first half against the Pistons at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the Knicks cleared $70 million of cap space for this summer’s free agent market, Garden Chairman James Dolan didn’t hide his belief that the stars were coming to join the planned remaking of the long-suffering franchise.

In his appearance on ESPN radio’s Michael Kay Show in March he reminded the audience that New York was the mecca of basketball and admitted, “We hear from people all the time, from players, representatives. It’s about who wants to come. We can’t respond because of the NBA rules, but that doesn’t stop them from telling us and they do. I can tell you from what we’ve heard I think we’re going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.”

And when the dust cleared the Knicks hadn’t even scored a meeting with the top free agents, signing seven players who could be aptly described as journeymen to fill the cap space and the nearly barren roster. To add insult to injury, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant landed in New York -- just across the bridge in Brooklyn with the Nets.

So what went wrong? And maybe just as important, what went right in Brooklyn?

The reality struck that the power belongs to the players and the best-laid plans can crumble once players decide that your offer isn’t the one that tantalizes them. It happened to the Knicks, but not only them. The Warriors were left to wonder why Durant spurned their offer — which was for more years and more money than the Nets could put on the table. The Raptors, with a championship culture and a countrywide effort to convince Kawhi Leonard to stay came up empty.

What none of the stars did though in their pairing up was head to a team like the Knicks who were a league-worst 17-65 last season. Durant and Irving set up a combination in Brooklyn to team with a group that already had managed to reach the postseason, and one that got there by exceeding expectations with a focus on player development. 

Kendrick Perkins, Durant’s former teammate and friend, appeared on a podcast on KNBR.com and explained that it was the Nets’ culture that made the difference.

“I think people had speculation that the Knicks were actually the front-runners, but they weren’t,” Perkins said. “In my opinion, it was either Brooklyn or going back to Golden State. I asked Kevin what was the reason behind him ultimately choosing Brooklyn and he told me: ‘Perk you’re not stupid, you know why I chose Brooklyn, man. Look at the organization and look at the direction they’re going in.’”

Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson took a franchise stripped of assets and somehow turned it into something exciting and alluring. Caris LeVert was the 20th overall pick. Jarrett Allen was No. 22. Rodions Kurucs was picked 40th. Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie were both second-round picks elsewhere, shuttled to and from the G League and waived by teams before the Nets made them into reclamation projects.

And it's that, not stars, that lured Durant and Irving. If that surprised the Knicks and the NBA, it also surprised the Nets.

“Quite honestly, it did surprise me,” Atkinson said. “Obviously we improved a lot last year but it wasn’t a so-called star system. It was a group of guys that play really well together. I think it gives more credit to the guys that are coming here that say I like that style of play, I like the way they play. I think they want to participate in something like that. 

“Yeah, it surprises me just because we’ve come a long way in a short time. That’s the biggest surprise. And it happened quicker. I know Sean was strategizing and thinking big picture. I was kind of focused more on the day to day. It was a surprise they chose to participate in this type of system that we’re running.”

“Our whole infrastructure has been built around development,” Marks said, pointing to Atkinson as he added. “That’s why he’s here.”

Coincidentally, Atkinson was once with the Knicks, serving as the player development guru. Now, the Knicks are hoping to do the same thing, but so far have not been able to do it despite having four lottery picks starting with Kristaps Porzingis in 2015. 

David Fizdale and the Knicks front office folks spent last year talking player development, but spent much of the season relying on the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, Mario Hezonja and Noah Vonleh — all who departed as free agents while Frank Ntilikina was shuttled from role to role and rookies Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier got minutes.

And of course, the most painful part of the player development struggles came when the Knicks shipped Porzingis out to Dallas because they couldn’t create a culture that satisfied the star they had in place. Atkinson and Marks talked about their players being the best salespeople for their program and that is not just talk. 

Players talk and even when it’s not stars, they sell — or they don’t. Consider what the Knicks have done in that case. The prior regime, although plenty of faces remain even after Phil Jackson departed, pushed Carmelo Anthony to remove the no-trade clause Jackson provided him with ugly sniping. 

Whatever you think of the decision to rid themselves of Anthony, who remains in limbo, still in search of a place to renew his career, he was a popular figure among players — part of the banana boat crew and a member of the NBA Players Association’s executive board — and his story didn’t make the Knicks look good. Charles Oakley being dragged out by security and the team unable to appease Porzingis had the same effect.

The Knicks don’t have stars. Maybe RJ Barrett will become one. Perhaps Knox will take a step forward in his second season. What they can have and the real lesson learned from free agency and the Nets success is that there is a way to get better in a rebuild — and it’s not with star power or the allure of Madison Square Garden. It takes work and patience and planning. The Knicks bought themselves another year with the free agent contracts they signed this summer. Now they have to show that the wait is not in vain.

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