Are the New York Knicks Finally Making the Right Moves?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2020

Former player agent and new New York Knicks president Leon Rose, center, takes a phone call during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets in New York, Monday, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As the NBA's offseason begins to emerge from its tumult of transactions, one team has remained noticeably, and uncharacteristically, quiet amid the hustle and bustle: the New York Knicks.

This is not tongue-in-cheek. Nor is it a sleight of phrase meant to imply something unseemly. It is an actual fact.

Could this relative mild action be a sign of what's to come—of a more gradual, measured, organic rebuilding approach the franchise has so often eschewed for grandiose insta-fixes that eventually turn into defunct pipe dreams?

For the first time in a while, it's a question worth asking.

The Knicks entered free agency with more cap space to spend than any team other than the Atlanta Hawks, by all appearances priming themselves to do something significant. Whether that included backing up a Brink's trunk for Fred VanVleet or Gordon Hayward or trading for Russell Westbrook was never quite clear. But they would do something, something big, something likely expensive, even if only in the short term.

What followed was the exact opposite. The Knicks used nearly league-best cap space to bankroll deals for Alec Burks (one year, $6 million), Nerlens Noel (one year, $5 million), Elfrid Payton (one year, $5 million) and Austin Rivers (three years, $10 million, with only the first season guaranteed). They traded not for Westbrook or Chris Paul, but Ed Davis (who they sent to Minnesota), Jacob Evans, Omari Spellman and extra second-round picks.

New York's draft-night activity didn't even engender controversy. Was Obi Toppin the consensus No. 8 pick? Hardly. The Knicks could have, maybe should have, taken a swing at Tyrese Haliburton, a lengthy and engaged defender who shot 42.6 percent from deep through two seasons at Iowa State and has a chance to develop into a lead initiator. There was also Devin Vassell, the polished three-and-D prospect with the ball skills to potentially do a lot more.

Such was the nature of this year's draft class. Absent concrete consensus near the top, teams were free, if forced, to consider more directions than usual. It matters more that Toppin wasn't the wrong pick. As The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote while noting he would've made the same decision: "The Knicks just need talent, and Toppin is a brilliant offensive player, one who can shoot threes, run the floor and score in the post."

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Landing Immanuel Quickley at No. 25 ended up aligning with the rest of their offseason; it was understated and interesting. The Knicks desperately need spacing around RJ Barrett and their non-Toppin bigs, and Quickley can really, really shoot. 

Even the method by which they ended up with No. 25 was subtle ingenuity. They began draft day with Nos. 27 and 38. Through a series of trades, they parlayed those into Nos. 25 and 33, the latter of which they sent to the Los Angeles Clippers after the Charlotte Hornets snagged Vernon Carey Jr. at No. 32.

Pretty much everything the Knicks did during free agency mirrored that type of thinking. They mined value where they could, without taking substantive, timeline-defying swings.

Noel is a potentially funky fit for a team that should be heavily vested in Mitchell Robinson; has Julius Randle, a minimal shooting threat who will factor into both the 4 and 5 rotation; and might want to consider some smaller lineups with Toppin in the middle. But a one-year, $5 million commitment isn't a commitment at all. It is zero risk.

The pure value of this signing also verges on absurd. Noel was among the most effective reserve bigs last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He rated in the 88th percentile of pick-and-roll finishers while remaining ultra-disruptive on the defensive end, where he is an active paint defender and has the foot speed to stay in front of smaller ball-handlers. Opponents shot 8.4 percentage points below their average when being challenged by him inside six feet of the basket. Given the rate at which both he and Robinson dole out fouls, it shouldn't be hard to give them both adequate run.

Payton's return is tougher to love. The Knicks offense improved by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor last year but remained well below league-average efficiency in the time he logged without Marcus Morris Sr. Their half-court attack specifically during those stretches was messy altogether. It would have been nice to see them go in a different direction.

But that is more whimsical than actual critique. The point guard market dropped off a cliff after VanVleet and Goran Dragic, leaving the Knicks with few viable alternatives. Someone like Jevon Carter doesn't bring enough creation. New York has done the Emmanuel Mudiay thing before. Riding with Dennis Smith Jr. doesn't cut it, even if they buy into his potentially improved jumper. Ditto for Frank Ntilikina.

Shabazz Napier and Jeff Teague are more in the mold of what they can use next to Barrett, but not so much so that either is worth harping on. It is more meaningful to lament the Knicks passing on Haliburton than any point guard they didn't sign.

Burks and Rivers can help them get into the offense anyway, and they stand to be huge for a rotation that fielded zero reliable off-the-dribble shooters last season after the Morris trade. Rivers canned 35.9 percent of his pull-up threes in 2019-20. Burks converted 39.4 percent of those same looks, on appreciably more volume. They are smart adds. 

Signings like Burks and Rivers make a ton of sense for New York.
Signings like Burks and Rivers make a ton of sense for New York.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Some of the Knicks' signings may pay dividends in the same vein as Morris. They flipped him to the Clippers at the February trade deadline in exchange for Moe Harkless, a first-round pick, a second-rounder and one of the objectively most hysterical first-round swaps in history. (New York can exchange its 2021 pick with L.A.)

Nobody the Knicks just signed should yield anything close to that value, but they are players who will appeal to other teams. In the interim, they fill tangible needs on the roster without threatening to eclipse the development of the franchise's primary building blocks.

This isn't exactly in stark contrast to how the Knicks operated last offseason. It just isn't being viewed against the backdrop of missing on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving only to have them sign in their backyard. But this offseason also hasn't included any single-year overpays or, more importantly, a Randle-type contract—money that was seemingly spent for the sake of spending it, across multiple seasons. The Knicks' dealings thus far matter not only because of what they've done, but because of what they haven't.

Is all of that really enough to suggest lasting, essential change? It is, again, a fair question. And it's tough to say.

Baseline sensibility is an awfully low bar to which to hold an NBA franchise. Celebrating what feels like the bare minimum of coherent thinking doesn't sit right. But we'd be remiss not to acknowledge that, in this case, it also represents a shift in operations. The bare minimum has by and large proved to be unreachable for so long. Even when promising groundwork appears to be laid, it is inevitably short-circuited for a chance at superstar hoarding.

Maybe this iteration of the front office, led by Leon Rose, deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe.

The tentacles of CAA, Rose's former agency, continue to have a tight grip on the organization. Just for starters, Toppin is represented by them, as is head coach Tom Thibodeau. The latter's arrival itself was seen as a red flag.

Never mind the optics of a recently hired agent using his new position to hire his former client. Thibodeau isn't the coach you choose to chaperone one of the league's youngest rosters and oversee a thorough rebuild. As the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy noted: "In his last 15 seasons as a top assistant or head coach—with the Rockets, Celtics, Bulls and Timberwolves—Thibodeau finished with exactly two losing records."

Boxing coaches into a roster type is lame. They can adapt. (Though, Thibodeau has yet to show he can update his defensive approach.) And Thibodeau isn't in New York under false pretense. No amount of cap space was going to rescue the Knicks from the fringes of the NBA's basement. It wasn't that type of free-agency class. Both he and Rose emphasized player development about a kajillion times when Thibodeau was hired. This version of the Knicks could be different.

What does the Thibodeau hire say about the Knicks' direction.
What does the Thibodeau hire say about the Knicks' direction.Jim Mone/Associated Press

At the same time, these are still the Knicks. And that's written without a hint of vitriol. They need to act like a savvy team for more than, like, nine months before gaining the trust of fans, indifferent bystanders and meme-makers. 

New York will reveal a lot more about its intentions in the months to come, depending on how much leeway is given to youngsters like Barrett, Toppin, Robinson, Quickley, DSJ, Ntilikina and Kevin Knox. The roster isn't loaded with enough veterans for Thibs to completely bury the youth, but how he juggles the rotation and the stomach he has for the ugliest growing pains will be telltale.

Patience is not a given. Not yet. What the Knicks have in place now, under Rose, isn't even necessarily by design, or for a lack of trying to accelerate their position. They were among the teams most seriously engaged in a Hayward pursuit.

"After the Knicks weighed their own trade for Westbrook, they pursued Hayward much harder, with coach Tom Thibodeau serving as lead admirer," the New York Times' Marc Stein wrote. "The Knicks eventually decided to increase their offer to four years from two to compete with sign-and-trade interest from Indiana and Charlotte, but the Hornets went to a financial level for Hayward that no rival was willing to match."

That is not a throwaway chase, and refusing to match the Hornets' four-year, $120 million offer isn't some harbinger of wisdom or restraint. That the Knicks came up to four years at all is a farce.

As ESPN's Zach Lowe relayed on The Lowe Post, both Boston and Indiana were offering somewhere between $102 and $110 million. The Knicks needed to sling something comparable to enter that fray, and even investing slightly under $100 million in a 30-year-old Hayward would've been a regrettable call. He doesn't punch your ticket into the playoffs, he's dealt with injuries in two of the past three seasons, and adding someone like him via free agency lends itself to more win-now pursuits.

Weighing a trade for Westbrook falls under a similar umbrella. He has three years and $132.6 million left on his deal, and while he's the type of player who might get the Knicks a play-in bid, he more so undermines their bigger picture. He is 32, has multiple knee surgeries in his rear view and still relies on his athleticism. 

Going after Hayward and Westbrook reeks of classic Knicks.
Going after Hayward and Westbrook reeks of classic Knicks.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Acquiring him is one thing if the Knicks are getting other assets to lease out their long-term cap space, and if his arrival doesn't embolden them to view their entire outlook in a different context. It is another, more damaging thing if they surrender actual value to get him, treat his arrival with implicit urgency or get him to placate Thibs' own personal timeline. (The latter shouldn't matter. Coaches want to win. It's on the front office to keep their expectations in check.)

Losing the Hayward sweepstakes and resisting whatever temptation there is to acquire Westbrook doesn't guarantee the Knicks won't invariably do something eerily similar. They could have more than $70 million in cap space next offseason if they waive Randle's partially guaranteed deal. This may be another stopgap roster in their eyes, the team that holds them over until they can assemble the spate of marquee names they're supposed to have.

Rebuilds seldom work like that. They definitively haven't worked like that for the Knicks. And make no mistake, they are risks to aim for the quick fix again. They already appear to have at least considered them.

That's still different from acting on them. Whether it's by their own hand or thanks to the Hornets and Rockets, they had an opportunity to deemphasize the bigger picture this offseason and didn't. Which, to be sure, isn't proof of lasting change. The Knicks can turn around and blow up everything on a whim, flipping prospects and future picks for someone(s) shiny (they've done a good job not doing this in recent years), prioritizing signing superstars in free agency or just generally botching their player-development program.

And yet, their offseason thus far is so noticeable and out of character because it at least hints at another possibility: They might not.

              

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.