5 Realistic Goals New York Knicks Should Set for 2017-18
Let the Kristaps Porzingis era begin.
For what little we know about who the 2017-18 New York Knicks are or what they'll become, 'Bockers backers can at least trust this team is in the hands of its 7'3" potential savior.
This campaign will be a learning process, though thankfully clear of the clutter former team president Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony created. It will also almost assuredly be light on wins, which isn't a bad thing when the Knicks need more youngsters and this is the year to tank, with lottery reform making it a trickier task going forward.
That about covers the certainties, save for the fact this defense won't be worth a darn again. Taking it out of Kurt Rambis' hands should help, but the roster has too many sieves to make notable progress.
If it sounds like our bar for this bunch is low, that's because it is. As long as Kristaps has control and the Knicks don't win too much to miss their chance at a difference-maker in the 2018 draft, they will have accomplished their most essential tasks.
But since an 82-game schedule leaves time to get more things done, we have identified five realistic ambitions they should hope to achieve.
Climb 10-Plus Spots in Pace
This should be the season in which Madison Square Garden meets—or rediscovers, at least—modern offense.
Jackson is out, and hopefully the antiquated triangle attack followed him out the door. Gone, too, are the ball-pounding ways of Anthony and Derrick Rose, replaced by the high motor of rookie Frank Ntilikina and the turbo-charged transition attacks of Tim Hardaway Jr.
The 2017-18 Knicks will be younger and more athletic, shaped by an offensive vision built around spacing and movement of body and ball. In other words, they should do more of what one would expect from a Jeff Hornacek-led club.
"We're trying to open it up," Hornacek said, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. "The strength of our team should allow us to do that. ... We'll get up and down the court and put pressure on the defense."
The Knicks weren't sluggish last season (15th in pace), but Hornacek's old Phoenix Suns teams made it seem that way. During his first year in the desert, Phoenix played at the Association's eighth-fastest speed. By year two, it was third in tempo.
New York must keep the accelerator floored. It would not only maximize any physical advantages this roster has, it would cut down on the inevitable wonkiness in the half court.
When your point-guard options are a 19-year-old, Ron Baker and what's left of Ramon Sessions (or Jarrett Jack), going against set defenses sounds disastrous.
Career-High Points, PER for Tim Hardaway Jr.
Two years ago, the Knicks deemed Hardaway's worth to be on par with Jerian Grant, a player they discarded after a single season. Now, they've brought the second-generation baller back to the Big Apple on a $71 million pact even he didn't see coming.
Whether Hardaway is actually worth that much coin is debatable at best. That said, this is not the player New York sent packing in 2015.
Hardaway, who's still only 25, is coming off his best professional campaign. His second season with the Atlanta Hawks saw him post personal bests nearly across the board, highlighted by 14.5 points, 45.5 percent shooting and a 15.2 player efficiency rating.
Those are not $71 million numbers, but they're also not what the Knicks hope they purchased. Ideally, they're springboard stats to volume and efficiency improvements over the life of this deal.
The table is set for another step forward, perhaps a sizable one. Hardaway should have the inside track on being the No. 2 scoring option, and he'll benefit as much as anyone if New York shifts to a higher offensive gear.
Willy Hernangomez Cements Himself as Building Block or Trade Chip
No matter what happened to the Knicks last season, Willy Hernangomez was the exception.
They were a dysfunctional disappointment over all, but the smooth center gave them a pleasant surprise. They didn't make a draft pick in 2016, but there was Hernangomez—taken 35th by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015 and dealt that same night—at year's end with a spot on the All-Rookie first team.
"He's a guy who can score, he can pass, he can play D," Anthony said last October, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. "He can do it all. I try to not make comparisons but I see a lot of Marc Gasol in him."
Hernangomez looks like a keeper, but it's not that simple.
The 23-year-old is still relatively inexperienced at this level, thanks to fluctuating floor time during the first half of his freshman campaign. He's productive when his number is called (16.0 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes), but his offensive range is limited and his defense needs plenty of work.
His place in the Knicks' hierarchy is also a little murky. While he's one of their better young prospects, he happens to play at their deepest position. Manning center means fending of Enes Kanter, Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn for minutes, not to mention keeping Porzingis away from his ideal position.
But fit isn't overly important at this stage of New York's rebuild. As long as Hernangomez stays on the right developmental track, he'll maintain value as either an on-court contributor or a coveted trade chip.
Frank Ntilikina Earns All-Rookie Spot
Ntilikina is young, skinny, inexperienced on this side of the Atlantic and wasn't overly seasoned on the other (5.2 points and 1.4 assists in 18.3 minutes in France's LNB Pro A league last year).
Basically, the newest Knick is a 6'5", 190-pound plea for patience. Both his game and his body need maturing, and he might have been slow-played as a rookie had he landed in a different situation.
But between New York's perpetual point guard problems and present lack of upside, it has every reason to throw the 19-year-old into the fire and live with his growing pains.
As Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman observed, there's a recent rookie blueprint that could afford Ntilikina a smooth landing:
"Ntilikina should succeed the way Malcolm Brogdon did last year with the Milwaukee Bucks—by moving the ball, shooting and defending. The Knicks' new combo guard brings similar length, three-and-D capability and basketball IQ, which should translate in a complementary role, even if he isn't the most dangerous athlete, scorer or playmaker."
If Brogdon is the reigning Rookie of the Year, would a simple All-Rookie roster spot be aiming too low for French Frank? Not at all.
Last season's rookie class was historically unproductive. Brogdon's points (10.2) and minutes (26.4) averages were the worst ever by a Rookie of the Year.
On paper, the 2017 crop looks completely different. Despite Ntilikina's seemingly favorable opportunity, he was not one of the 12 first-year players assessed odds of capturing the 2017-18 hardware, per OddsShark.
Kristaps Porzingis Makes All-Star Debut as Starter
The idea of Porzingis goes back farther with the hoop heads than the actual person.
He's essentially the cheat-code-created player that people have been abusing video games with for years—a 7'3" giant who somehow has three-point range, elite rim protection and the basketball and physical abilities to conquer the Skills Challenge.
The real version of Porzingis is nowhere close to what he could become, but there are flashes of superstar play. Last season, he recorded the league's first-ever outing with 26 points, 13 rebounds, seven blocks and three three-pointers. He also had 20-point outbursts on 26 different occasions, made more impressive that it was on a team on which he was only third in field-goal attempts (14.9) and usage percentage (24.3).
It wasn't enough to secure an All-Star spot, but it got him close. Only five Eastern Conference frontcourt players received more votes.
As Porzingis knows himself, there shouldn't be a barricade this season. Not with his stat sheet ready to soar as he climbs behind the wheel of the Carmelo-less offense. And definitely not with the East losing more frontcourt All-Stars (four) than it returns (three).
"If [Porzingis] isn't an All-Star come February, something has gone terribly awry," Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman wrote.
That's why the aim needs to be for a starting gig. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo aren't giving up theirs, but Jimmy Butler vacated his. Gordon Hayward, Joel Embiid, Kevin Love and Hassan Whiteside should all be in the running, but super-sized statistics could give Porzingis the edge.