This first appeared in the Dec. 11 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
NEW YORK — Here’s what the New York Knicks have: Kristaps Porzingis, a foundational star around whom to spend the next decade building.
Here’s what the Knicks don’t have: a clear path to effectively doing it.
That’s why Knicks General Manager Scott Perry became the latest team executive to discuss the sensitive topic of tanking for a high draft pick during an interview with the team’s beat writers this weekend.
“I think it’s very important if you’re playing meaningful basketball late in the season because of the culture you’re trying to build here,” Perry said before the Knicks played the Chicago Bulls Saturday. “I’ll also say wherever we wind up in the draft, whether on the playoff side or lottery side, I have extreme confidence in the scouting and front-office staff [that] we’re going to add some talented players to the mix here.
“I just believe it’s important to compete hard, do the very best you can, let the amount of wins organically happen vs. trying to put your team in position not to win. I don’t think that’s healthy for any culture. I think if you try to institutionalize losing, that’s hard to get out of your building. You may never get that out of your building.”
There was irony in what Perry said given the two teams his Knicks faced this weekend — first the Bulls in Chicago and then the Atlanta Hawks here at Madison Square Garden Sunday — both are very clearly gunning for the highest draft picks they can get.
Ask executives from either opponent, however, and they’ll tell you all the same things. Their players and coaches aren’t trying to lose games. Their players and coaches aren’t worried about what draft pick they get. Anyone needing further proof of that can point to the fact Chicago beat the Knicks on Saturday, and Atlanta came within a hair of forcing overtime on Sunday.
But, at the same time, the Bulls and Hawks are playing with rosters predicted to be among the league’s worst for a reason — they simply don’t have much talent.
That’s where the Knicks come in, and makes their current situation both intriguing and complicated. While Chicago and Atlanta are both at the start of rebuilds after watching their prior stars go elsewhere (the Bulls having traded Jimmy Butler and Atlanta watching Paul Millsap and Al Horford leave via free agency), the Knicks have Porzingis, precisely the kind of young talent the Bulls and Hawks hope to draft next June.
The problem for the Knicks is that to become a consistent playoff team and, beyond that, a realistic contender — something this franchise and its fan base desperately craves — requires at least two players like Porzingis. So the question for Perry, team president Steve Mills and the rest of the Knicks organization is, how do they find Porzingis the co-star he so clearly needs?
Despite Perry’s protestations, the clearest path is through the draft. Due to a pile of onerous contracts the team has either signed (Joakim Noah, Tim Hardaway, Courtney Lee) or acquired via trade (Enes Kanter), the Knicks can’t acquire that kind of talent through free agency. It seems equally unlikely the Knicks will be able to compile an attractive enough trade package to land a player of that caliber, either.
That brings us back to the draft, which, of course, is where the Knicks got Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in 2015 . . . after winning 17 games. A similar win total this year would have New York well-positioned to grab one of the talents at the top of what appears to be a strong 2018 class, which includes European star Luka Doncic, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton.
Porzingis, though, may be so good that such an option is rendered impossible. After finishing with 30 points and eight rebounds against the Hawks Sunday night, the Knicks are now 13-13, tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Is New York likely to remain in the playoff picture? No. But that doesn’t mean Porzingis and Knicks Coach Jeff Hornacek are going to think that way.
So of course Perry is going to stand up publicly and say the Knicks have no interest in trying to get the highest draft pick possible. With his team on the edge of the playoffs, he has no choice.
That doesn’t mean it’s the best answer for the franchise’s long-term interests, though. As the next several weeks play out, and the Knicks — who have played 17 of their first 26 games at home (going 12-5 as opposed to 1-8 on the road) — see where they fall in the East’s pecking order, don’t expect the debate about how they should proceed to go away.
The fate of the franchise’s next few seasons could hinge precisely on how it all plays out.
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