'This Growth Process Is Fun': Rebuilding Knicks Are Proving They Can Compete

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Jarrett Jack #55 of the New York Knicks celebrate in the second half against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — Jarrett Jack was bothered by the question. Not angry, more just confused.

It was mid-September, and he'd recently signed a deal with the New York Knicks. The team was introducing him to the New York media for the first time.

"And one of the questions they asked," Jack recalled Monday night to Bleacher Report, "which I thought was crazy was, 'Now that being a winner isn't at the forefront for the team, how do you feel about everything?'"

Jack, a loquacious veteran, said he didn't know how to respond.

"I'm like, 'Are you asking me about losing? What are we even doing?'"

The question wasn't out of line. Coming into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Knicks had made it clear that their plan was simple: They wanted to prepare for the future, or, to use the parlance of new general manager Scott Perry, build "a solid foundation."

But a funny thing has happened so far this year. We're now 16 games in, and the Knicks, following their 107-85 shellacking of the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, look like they might actually be…decent? Good? They're certainly not awful, which is what most basketball observers expected.

The season is still in its embryonic stage, or as Jack put it: "This ain't even a dent in it." Yet you can't help but wonder whether the Knicks could be headed for the playoffs.

Of course, caveats abound. Eleven of the Knicks' 16 games have come at home, and just eight of their matchups have come against teams with winning records. The defense, while putting up solid results, has been sloppy.

It has given up the most three-point attempts per 100 possessions and the second-most makes, per NBA.com. Head coach Jeff Hornacek has spoken multiple times about the unit's inconsistent and ill-timed weak-side rotations.

Also, this isn't the first time the Knicks have gotten off to a hot start. They won 14 of their first 24 games last year, only to finish the season 31-51. They'd seen multiple seasons before that derailed by losing road trips.

So those are all the qualifiers. Yet look at the Knicks, and the signs of a potential playoff team are there. They have a star in Kristaps Porzingis, who on many nights is the best player on the court. The Porzingis-led offense is sixth in the NBA in points per 100 possessions (109.5), according to Cleaning the Glass.

New York is playing well at MSG; finishing the season with a home record of around .500 would give it 20 wins. The Eastern Conference might no longer be the JV league, but 30 total wins could still get a team close to the eighth seed.

All of that could be leading the Knicks down an interesting path.

Is there a point where chasing a playoff spot takes precedence over the future? Would the Knicks start chasing veterans instead of trying to trade them? Or what if management views a playoff berth as more valuable than a mid-level lottery pick?

Also, speaking of a lottery pick, would the Knicks, who own their own pick this offseason, be better off tanking and adding one more lottery pick to their young core of Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall selection in 2017?

Right now, the Knicks' decision-makers are saying the right things.

"Sometimes there's that [playoff] talk, but we have to emphasize to the guys that's not really a concern, especially this early in the season," Hornacek said Tuesday. "It should be about building a foundation, see if we can get better. It's not going to get better immediately, but we can take a couple [of] steps forward and maybe have a step backward, but going in that direction, you'll win enough games.

"So I think it's more about what we're trying to do as a team, how we want to establish the culture here and how we want to play and not worry so much about the wins and losses."

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 3:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 and Jeff Hornacek of the New York Knicks high five during the game against the Phoenix Suns on November 3, 2017 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
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The message is one coming down from Knicks management. Team president Steve Mills and new general manager Scott Perry have made it clear they don't believe tanking is a good strategy. They'd love to make the playoffs but have other goals for the 2017-18 campaign.

"We went into the season saying we want our young guys to grow in these positions and with KP being the main guy with the shots down the stretch," Hornacek said.

Knicks players seem to share this sentiment, which will make that job easier. 

"We want to make the playoffs, but we're not going to jump the gun and make that our only priority," Knicks forward Lance Thomas told Bleacher Report. "This growth process is fun."

Still, if the wins keep coming, the decisions will only grow more difficult. Can you shop Courtney Lee—a prototypical three-and-D guy on a solid contract (two seasons for about $25 million after this campaign) that every contender would love—if losing him would hurt a playoff run? The same question goes for players such as Thomas and Kyle O'Quinn, both of whom could contribute to playoff teams.

This is why threading the needle of rebuilding and competing can be so difficult and why it's important for a team to choose one as its primary goal. If you can pull off both, though, well that's the kind of thing that helps build champions.

"When I was at Golden State [in 2012-2013], they gave us a zero percent chance of making the playoffs," Jack told Bleacher Report. "But we did ... and we made it to the second round. I thought we kind of built the foundation for what that team is now."

                                           

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.