But, unlike so many recent seasons full of similar struggles, the Knicks have a chance to capitalize on their poor play. After years of tossing aside one first-round pick after another in trades, the Knicks finally have control over all of their future first-rounders moving forward, allowing them the opportunity to finally build a young, sustainable core through the draft, rather than trying to capitalize on the fleeting hope of winning now through free agency and trades.
It is this longer road – the one that leads to a true rebuilding effort – the Knicks simply must embark upon over the final two-and-a-half months of the regular season. If the Knicks need proof that this plan can be successful, all they have to do is look back two years to their disastrous 2014-15 campaign. Yes, the Knicks wound up going 17-65 that season, their worst record in franchise history. But, in doing so, and winding up with the fourth pick in the 2015 NBA draft, they got the chance to draft Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 budding star Latvian big man who has become the franchise’s best hope for a foundational star since selecting Patrick Ewing 30 years earlier.
Even though last season was a marginal improvement – jumping up from 17 wins to 32 – it was the impressive play of Porzingis that immediately (and surprisingly) made the season a massive success. That should have shown the Knicks that, after decades of failed quick fixes, moving forward with a plan to build slowly through the draft around Porzingis was the only way to go.
Phil Jackson, however, had other plans. The 71-year-old team president chose to assemble a team that was ready to win now, fitting more with the timeline for the 32-year-old Anthony instead of the 21-year-old Porzingis. He traded for Derrick Rose, and then doled out four-year contracts to a pair of 31-year-olds – Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah – worth a combined $122 million.
Predictably, Jackson’s plans have gone up in flames. After trying to support Anthony this offseason, Jackson’s relationship with the nine-time All-Star has deteriorated to the point where he’s openly trying to trade him – and this is after Jackson made that task nearly impossible because of the no-trade clause he needlessly gave Anthony in 2014. Noah’s four-year, $72 million contract, is currently the worst deal of any in the NBA. Rose has played better than many expected, but remains an equally dreadful outside shooter and defender. Noah’s signing was necessitated, in part, by trading Robin Lopez to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Rose in June. And while Lee has been the solid two-way shooting guard he’s always been, he alone is incapable of shoring up New York’s horrendous perimeter defense.
As a result, the Knicks stand at 21-28, good for 11th place in the Eastern Conference and two-and-a-half games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth and final playoff spot. More importantly, they are just two-and-a-half games ahead of the Orlando Magic for the 14th spot in the Eastern Conference. And it is in that downward direction – not upwards towards a futile first-round loss – this team needs to head.
Even if the Knicks have absolutely no chance of catching the Brooklyn Nets (now an abysmal 9-39) for the league’s worst record, and have slim chances, at best, of catching up to the Lakers and Suns for the second- and third-worst spots, climbing into the top five of the draft would drastically increase the Knicks’ chances of some lottery luck.
And if there’s any year that’s worth trying to secure some lottery luck, it is this one. For a team with a talented young big man like Porzingis, the most important player it can find is a talented point guard to pair with him. This year’s NBA draft – said to be one of the deepest in years – happens to be flush with point guards. The current DraftExpress draft board for this year features six point guards within the top 10 picks – including Markelle Fultz (No. 1), Lonzo Ball (No. 2) and Dennis Smith (No. 4) all inside the top five.
Plummeting down the standings over the next several weeks could allow the Knicks to create a foundation with a pair of young players that could grow together for the next decade. By allowing them to play and learn together, the Knicks may even be in position to nab another top pick in the 2018 NBA draft, giving them the kind of young core necessary to truly become a long-term contender in the league.
With elite free agents given more and more reason to stay with their current team in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, obtaining top talent through trades and free agency is going to become even more difficult. That makes trying to improve their draft position, in any way possible, the only course worth considering. And the Knicks should do all they can to make that high pick a reality.
If they can get any decent return for Anthony, they should move him. If they can get something for Lee, they’d be wise to move on from him, as well. Assuming his expiring contract isn’t a useful trade chip between now and the trade deadline three weeks from now, they should buy out Rose after it passes and allow him to finish out the season elsewhere.
Knicks fans may not like to hear about the prospect of yet another ugly end to a regular season. Jackson may not like to see what will be a fourth straight season missing the playoffs while serving as team president. But the Knicks have spent 15 years searching for quick fixes, and have one playoff series victory to show for it. It’s time for a change.
That’s why taking the long view is the only prudent course of action. It’s the view the Knicks should have taken last summer. It’s a path they can’t afford to bypass now.