Kevin Knox surveyed the court off a pick-and-roll at the top of the arc. The forward took two strong dribbles to his left, caught the attention of a pair of Atlanta Hawks defenders, then whipped a precision pass to a cutting Mitchell Robinson for a dunk. The 6’9, 20-year-old connecting with a 6’11, 21-year-old made for the most impressive New York Knicks preseason play of the year.
Mitchell Robinson slips the screen and Kevin Knox makes the quick read pic.twitter.com/lkYQTyD2aK— Danny Small (@dwsmall8) October 17, 2019
Plays like that are everything Knicks fans should want to see this year. The most logical way the franchise can build an Eastern Conference contender for the first time in decades is through developing their draft picks. After swinging and missing on yet another crop of game-changing free agents, and this time losing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to crosstown rivals, the future is clear. It rests in the hands of Knox, Mitchell, R.J. Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr., Allonzo Trier and Frank Ntilikina.
At least, it should.
New York’s front office learned from its previous mistakes. It didn’t use cap space to overpay a complementary piece like Joakim Noah and his four-year, $72 million deal in 2016 or Tim Hardaway Jr. and his four-year, $71 million contract in 2017. Instead, the Knicks focused on shorter term contracts. See Marcus Morris’s and Bobby Portis’s one-year, $15 million deals, Taj Gibson’s two-year, $20 million contract, and Elfrid Payton’s and Wayne Ellington’s two-year, $16 million deal.
While that salary cap ingenuity was lauded over the summer, it’s bound to create a separate issue entirely.
The Knicks’ veteran signings are at odds with their future
The Knicks flushed out their depth with in-their-prime players looking to play big minutes, prove they can win games and ultimately earn a long-term contract elsewhere. Ellington is 31 and Morris is 30. Neither are here to play the Knicks’ rebuilding game. Payton (25) and Portis (24) tested the market this summer for the first big deals of their careers but swung and missed. They have ulterior motives, too. There lies a problem.
How Knicks head coach David Fizdale weaves through this problem is a mystery. Once again he has pieces, but few of them fit on the same timeline. Half his roster is a land of opportunity while the other half’s a blockade. Last season, in a botched opportunity to plummet and land Zion Williamson, Fizdale leaned into the latter, playing DeAndre Jordan, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke as many or more minutes than Ntilikina and Robinson. This year, he’s been silent about his starting lineup, though some are suggesting Morris and Julius Randle are already locks, presumably over Knox.
There is a way for the Knicks to escape the hole they’ve dug themselves into. The preferable solution would be for the Knicks to play the core six building pieces the bulk of the minutes and let them suffer through growing pains while the vets grumble. See Barrett play point guard next Ntilikina, find out what Knox can do as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, discover Smith Jr.’s capabilities off-ball and realize Trier’s ceiling. But that won’t happen.
The Knicks could trade veterans for assets at the deadline
The best Knicks fans can hope is for their team to become the hottest fire-sale club come the trade deadline in Feb. Unlike the Noah and Hardaway Jr. contracts, these veterans will have market value. Teams who believe they can contend will want Morris’s and Portis’s expiring deals, and they may even be willing to overpay in desperation.
Think the Lakers, who swung and missed on depth-signing opportunities in pursuit of Kawhi Leonard over the summer, and factor in the inevitable injuries that will hamper other contenders’ rotations. There is a chance the Knicks could net draft picks at the expense of half a year’s worth of player development. And maybe that’d be worth it. But there are no assurances.
The Knicks won’t spend all season attempting to justify a senseless contract like in years prior. But they will inevitably stumble trying to play too many players minutes. Fizdale will have to find time for his present and his future while keeping his butt off the hot seat. The franchise’s goals are unclear, and so too are its players roles.
The Knicks are at risk of getting in their own way again.