The view from the bench after a 44-point drubbing in Milwaukee said everything that needed to be said about the state of the New York Knicks. R.J. Barrett had missed all nine of his attempts, Giannis Antetokounmpo had dunked emphatically over Julius Randle early in the game to set the tone, and David Fizdale was caught on camera trying to rally the troops down 30 at the end of the third quarter, doing whatever he could to try and find some life in his team.
But we all see the box scores, we see the scoreboards at arenas, quickly squinting at the jumbotrons above the courts and quizzically looking over to the seat next to us saying, “Wait, who just checked in?” This is the status of New York's favorite basketball team.
Whenever a new superstar takes to the court at Madison Square Garden, the commentators are always quick to note their career-high in points and where that ranks them among the all-time greats who have graced the court at the “Mecca” of Professional Basketball. With how the Knicks have played this past decade, it’s no wonder people are excited to play there because they know they might get 40 just by walking out of the locker room doors.
Putting it modestly and sarcastically, the Big Apple has been looking for something to cheer about for a while. Ewing and Starks won’t be making any curtain calls and Carmelo has found his way to Portland. Kevin Durant went so far at his introductory press conference in Brooklyn to say that “the cool thing now is not the Knicks”.
This article could go plenty of different ways, almost a choose your own adventure of sorts. Shall we start by blasting the play on the court? Should we at poke jokes at the front office and how their draft picks have performed (or in some cases haven’t) over the past decade? Should we go down the easiest path and take low blows at the New Yorkers who demand to have their team compete but are always received with below-.500 level squads?
What we won't do in this article is embed an angry Stephen A. Smith clip berating the Knicks and their franchise. What we won't do is use recycled takes on the incompetence of James Dolan as an owner, and we won’t go full NBA2K on everyone and try and flip the team by longshot trade scenarios. What we can do is assess the team as it is currently constructed and look at how they compare to previous rebuilding projects and speculate as to where this team could be in a few years.
Let’s gain a baseline to where the Knicks sit 21 games in.
At the typing of this article, the Knicks sit at 4-17, 15th in the NBA Eastern Conference and are projected by FiveThirtyEight to win 18 games by the end of the year. 18 victories would improve their win total by one and would put them in a firm position to once again claim the best odds at gaining the #1 Draft Pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Currently, the Knicks trot out a starting lineup of Taj Gibson, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, R.J. Barrett, and Frank Ntilikina. Mitchell Robinson, Bobby Portis, Kevin Knox and whenever Elfrid Payton or Allonzo Trier come back relieve the starters.
This collection ranks the Knicks 30th in Offensive Rating and 23rd in Defensive Rating, and they are third in the league in second-chance scoring according to NBA.com
Nothing from these five sentences jumps out and screams, “This is exactly where I want to be with my team.”
This is where it gets interesting for the Knicks. When the Knicks agreed to send Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, it was assumed they were trying to clear capital to sign max free agents that following summer. When the gold they were looking for turned into one-year deals for Taj Gibson and Julius Randle and a handful of centers, the waters got a little murkier. Dennis Smith Jr., arguably the only asset that Knicks were excited to see right away, has been lackluster, to put it mildly.
The major bright spot from that trade is that they gained two-first round picks from the Mavericks in the 2021 and 2023 NBA Draft. The one-year rentals they signed this summer have clearly proven not to be the fruits they were hoping to harvest, and can cut bait with them later on. Depending on how Dallas performs, the picks could be extremely valuable in a run for a star player.
What the Knicks do have is plenty of flexibility, something that could prove valuable come free-agency or developing future trades. With so many short term deals, finding room to play with the roster if a deal were to present itself wouldn’t be too tantalizingly difficult. They could acquire players with undesirable contracts to pick up draft picks if they are savvy enough on the trade market to increase the already strong amount of picks they do own.
Swinging and missing in Free Agency and whiffs on trades are becoming the new normal for New York, and they face a new reality that is slowly shifting how the league has power: you can become a superstar in any market. Gone are the days where you need to head for the bright New York lights or the beaches of Los Angeles to plant your flag in the superstar realm. Milwaukee, Wisconsin owns the most coveted superstar in the world, Dallas, Texas lays claim to the league’s most likely next superstar in Luka Doncic and Russell Westbrook was the League MVP from the fields of Oklahoma. With the birth of league pass and almost instantaneous coverage of any team and any player on the planet, where a player is located no longer affects their value.
Going forward, the Knicks can’t have the mentality that they will land a superstar just because they can wield a max contract and pitch Madison Square Garden as their next dwelling. It starts with rebuilding, and that process will take time. But the success stories are everywhere throughout the league on teardowns that produced contenders. Philadelphia “trusted its process”, the Milwaukee Bucks trotted out a lineup in 2014 that was so underwhelming a hunter looking to fill his deer tag wouldn’t even waste a bullet on them. The future starts with patience and recognizing that this is going to take some time.
What also needs to be pitched is change. Change is broad enough that it can encompass nearly every facet of the organization, but the biggest change that needs to happen is the culture in the locker room. When you watch the New York Knicks, you watch a team that is just waiting to see what is going to be written about them later. The change will have to come from their upcoming draft pick who will arguably be the co-face of the franchise with R.J. Barrett as the team looks to elevate its play, but if the culture change doesn’t occur, any chance at improvement is quickly scrapped.
Yes, they’re behind on the talent front, but the lack of urgency is far alarming enough to wonder if a coaching or management change wouldn’t spark something new for the team. Canceling out a proven player-minded coach like David Fizdale might be difficult to swallow, but a change-up top that empowers him could.
When your team sucks, you want to see everything blow apart and torn to pieces. When you cheer for the Knicks, everything you do seems to be put under a microscope, and each failure amplified just a little bit more. The challenge for New York will be where to go from here, a season that could end up with the worst record in the NBA again and seemingly no sign of life for the future. However, they have a strong rookie in R.J. Barrett, upcoming first-round picks to play with, and no flatter line to change than they do right now. New York needs a jolt, a rejuvenation that the city can get behind, that has to include changes in all facets of the organization.