With their 17-65 season thankfully over, the Knicks no longer need to voice the pretenses of focusing on the game in front of them and pretending to ignore the much more important summer season.
The purpose of the season was not exactly a tightly guarded secret, discarding talent and veterans and putting the ball in the hands of a trio of rookies and a bunch of former first-round picks discarded by their former teams. The Knicks still won’t admit it, but they put a team on the floor with the purpose of doing exactly what they achieved — losing a lot and earning the best chance they could at the top spot in the upcoming NBA Draft.
While they wait for the May 14 lottery to determine whether it worked or not, they also are now watching the postseason as closely as any fans, scouting out the potential free-agent targets that they can splurge on with their accumulated salary cap cash.
But there is another reality for the Knicks. If they can manage to coax two star free agents to take their money and they land a big-time prospect in the draft, they still have a lot of roster spots to fill up around them. And that means that with the cap space lavished upon those stars, much of the roster still will be made up of players who endured a season that matched the worst in franchise history.
“I think it’s tough, but if you study the league over the years a number of players have gone through that, especially when you’re young and the team is young as we were,” Knicks general manager Scott Perry said. “You don’t want to look up three or four years from now and they’re still in that same boat. But I think for year one, it teaches a little bit of a lesson, just how hard you have to work to be a winner in this league.
“A lot of times when you come in the NBA as a 19-year-old and you’re thinking the NBA might be easy. The reality of playing an 82-game season playing against grown men hits you square in the face and you understand, OK, this is going to take a little time, I’ve got things I’ve got to correct and get better at. I think the kind of young people we have are self-reflective — I think what our coaching staff, in terms of what trying to impart and teach these guys, will resonate more, as we go into the offseason and into next season.”
Knicks coach David Fizdale conducted exit interviews with the players over the final days of the season and when it was over, it was Perry and team president Steve Mills who met with the players for exit interviews of their own — the kind that will likely determine just who is exiting for good.
They praised the rookies — Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier — as you would expect, but also came out of the meetings with praise for other players who could stick around.
“For us, development is a key word, on-court [and] it’s off the court development,” Mills said. “How do we develop these guys into young basketball players and young men and leaders? We have a guy like Damyean Dotson. Lance Thomas said in his exit, ‘Hey, he’s going to be a leader on your team. When he talks the guys on the team all listen to him.’ Those are things we’re trying to develop because we want to find guys as we move into the next phase who can be leaders within the team and what they’re trying to do.”
“I’d single out some of the individuals,” Perry said. “You look at a guy like Emmanuel Mudiay. Many people said he’s not going to be able to make it in the NBA and he posts career-highs in points and became a leader. Noah Vonleh, who signed a non-guaranteed contract with us, former first-round pick, got better here and put up career-highs as well. Damyean Dotson comes back second year after struggling in summer league, shows the entire NBA, hey, he can be a good rotational player on a good basketball team. . . . What it showed us, while we didn’t win a ton of games, those guys got better. We talk a lot about development here. It reaffirmed to us that we have a good development team in place, guys, if you look around the league, feel they can come here and improve their games.”
Still, on a 17-65 team someone has to score and someone has to play. The question is who developed enough to stick around if better times really are to come. And that question remains unanswered. But Mills insisted that the year wasn’t a waste.
“My initial thoughts I’ve never been around a group of guys like this that respected each other the way this team respected each other and rooted for each other, as they were competing for their professional lives and their jobs,” Mills said. “These guys all wanted to compete against the other guys, but also wanted to see everybody do well and see the team do well, that came across clearly in how they played. It came across how we watched them in practice every day and it came across in exit interviews. Every guy who was here wants to be back next year. It felt like there was some way they could contribute to how we’re moving forward. I gained a ton of respect for the group that we had.”