How did this happen?
Quite simply, the Nets just won 42 games and made the playoffs. The Knicks won 17 games, good for the worst record in the league.
Is the sky falling? Did the Knicks just blow their shot at ever winning a championship? Is it time to stop being a Knicks fan?
The answer to all of these is no.
Like I just said, the Knicks only won 17 games last season. A healthy prime Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant would have had difficulty carrying the current Knicks roster to a championship. But Kevin Durant isn’t healthy. He’ll be 32 and coming off an Achilles rupture the next time he plays. This isn’t the first injury Durant has suffered, either. Howard Beck goes into detail on this in “Say Goodbye to Kevin Durant as You Knew Him:”
Durant has an extensive history of soft-tissue injuries, from calf and hamstring strains to ankle sprains. He missed most of the 2014-15 season because of a broken foot and then played 72, 62 and 68 games over the next three seasons.
According to [Jeff] Stotts’ database, Durant has missed 103 regular-season games with lower-extremity injuries, including the broken foot, ankle sprains on both sides, a left knee sprain and various other strains.
“He is injury-prone,” said the doctor. “How can we not say that at this point?”
Even if Kevin Durant didn’t lose too much of a step, he likely would have been on a minutes restriction and would not have been able to carry the Knicks. Beck writes:
“He’s not going to be an 82-game-a-year guy,” said a doctor working for another NBA team. “I always say that they can be the same player in smaller doses. So, fewer minutes, fewer games. You will see flashes. The sustained greatness is really, really tough.”
Durant, the doctor said, “can still be a really, really great player. But it’s going to be in 28 minutes, and it’s going to be not in back-to-backs. And it’s going to be saving himself for the playoffs.”
If the Knicks drifted away from that minutes restriction and let him attempt to carry the team, he likely would have overexerted himself and have gotten injured.
People use Dominique Wilkins as an example of a guy who had a great return from an Achilles injury, and they’re not wrong to. Wilkins tore his Achilles at age 32 and came back the next season and averaged 30 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game. It’s worth noting that the Hawks only won 43 games and got swept in the first round that season. The other 11 players on the roster to play at least 25 games were an average of 25 years old. Wilkins also had 30-year-old Kevin Willis as a running mate, and he averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds per game after being an All-Star the prior season. Two aging stars added to a young and bad team isn’t necessarily a championship formula.
The Knicks could have potentially traded some of their young assets to build a better roster around Durant and Irving, but I don’t think Durant is the guy to invest in. Achilles injuries are harder to come back from, especially on the wrong side of 30. If Durant returns as a good player, it may not be long until he falls off again.
Irving has his own concerns. Outside of seemingly being an issue in the locker room and coming off a dreadful postseason (though he might have just given up on the team because he knew he was leaving), Irving has a history of knee injuries and surgeries. In 2015, he suffered a fractured kneecap, causing him to miss the NBA Finals. In 2018, he had to miss the playoffs again and undergo knee surgery.
Make no mistake, if Kevin Durant hadn’t ruptured his Achilles, it still would have made sense for the Knicks to have signed both he and Irving, though even that wouldn’t have been a guaranteed championship.
I don’t even think the Brooklyn Nets, while better suited than the Knicks for Irving and Durant coming off a 42-win season, will be true title contenders when Durant returns from injury as the roster currently stands.
Despite that, there are still lessons worth taking away from how the Nets were in the position to land Durant and Irving.
Not too long ago, the Nets were in an even worse position than the Knicks are in now. In the infamous trade with the Celtics, Brooklyn traded three first-round picks in exchange for an aging Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. Within two years, every player from the trade was gone, and the Nets had nothing to show for it but early playoff exits. Frankly, the Nets sucked — and they weren’t even able to tank because they didn’t own their first-round picks.
The Nets only had one option — take chances on as many guys as possible, accumulate as many assets as possible, and try to see if they could acquire some future pieces by the time they got their picks back. They traded Thaddeus Young for the pick that became Caris LeVert. They signed Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, who were in danger of falling out of the league entirely. They traded Bojan Bogdanovic for a first-round pick that became Jarrett Allen. They traded Brook Lopez and took on the contract of Timofey Mozgov to take a shot at D’Angelo Russell. They took on Demarre Carroll for two picks, which became Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs.
There were also countless players they acquired who didn’t pan out, like Jahlil Okafor, Chris McCullough, and Anthony Bennett. All you can do is take a chance on guys and hope some become good, all while developing a good culture.
To win in the NBA, you need a superstar. But you don’t necessarily need to develop that superstar. You just need to attract one. The Nets weren’t world-beaters. Russell was an injury-replacement All-Star. The Nets simply became good enough to the point where they were attractive to Durant and Irving. The Nets’ process was about four or five years long. The Knicks are essentially one year into rebuilding the “right way.” The worst team in the league truly shouldn’t have been in the running for players of this level to begin with. The fact the Knicks seemingly had a chance at all is a win.
The Knicks are also in a better spot than the Nets were when they first started rebuilding. They own their own picks and have great prospects in Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett. They’re also already doing a lot of things similar to the Nets and creating their own “island of misfit toys.” The Knicks took chances on Mitchell Robinson, whose draft stock plummeted after electing not to go to college; Allonzo Trier, who fell out of the draft after PED allegations; and Damyean Dotson, who dropped after transferring schools due to sexual assault allegations (I wish they hadn’t for that reason, but I digress). This offseason the Knicks took on Ignas Brazdeikis, who put up great numbers en route to Big Ten Freshman of the Year on a national contender but flew under the radar due to his lack of athleticism. They also took on Amir Hinton, who went undrafted because he only played at the D-II level. These guys won’t necessarily all become good, but I think taking chances on guys who have potential to become good that are looked past — simply because of where they did or didn’t go to school — is a good way to find diamonds in the rough.
The Knicks have also made strides in building a positive culture and environment. Fizdale seems to have a great relationship with the players, evidenced by his playoff attendance with some over the last two years. Things are much different now than they were under Phil, when the “Zen Master” publicly shared his skepticisms on his own players, comparing Kristaps Porzingis to Shawn Bradley and cryptically roasting Carmelo Anthony. If anything, the Knicks may give our young guys too much love — after all, they were unwilling to formally offer Kevin Knox in a trade for Anthony Davis.
It does seem like the Knicks won’t be taking on bad contracts in exchange for assets. It’s disappointing, but the Knicks already have a lot of assets and a plethora of young players, along with the picks they got from the Mavericks and the Hornets.
Relating to the Mavericks picks, a question a lot of people have been asking is, “Why would the Knicks trade Porzingis to sign Julius Randle and Bobby Portis?” Personally, I was against giving Porzingis a maximum contract due to injury concerns, and because I think he’s a bit overrated. But ultimately, that deal happened because he didn’t want to be a Knick. The Knicks also reportedly attempted to trade Porzingis for assets other than cap space, such as reaching out to the Jazz about Donovan Mitchell, the Kings about De’Aaron Fox, and even the Pelicans about Anthony Davis. In the Mavericks trade, outside of cap room — which the Knicks used to add shooting, depth, veteran leaders, and the opportunity to take chances on more solid young guys — they also received another prospect in Dennis Smith Jr. and two first-round picks.
Why did Porzingis request a trade in the first place? Likely because he lost patience in waiting for the Knicks to become good. Instead of building a team like they are now and patiently focusing on developing young players, they tried putting a playoff team together centered around an elderly Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Joakim Noah and an infant Porzingis. If they had simply blown it up and rebuilt around young players instead of trying to half-ass a playoff run, they likely would have landed De’Aaron Fox instead of Frank Ntilikina, and instead of discussing how the Knicks tried to trade Porzingis for Fox, Porzingis probably wouldn’t have even requested a trade to begin with, as Fox would be a player worth sticking around for.
While the caliber of players is different, trying to make a good team out of an old Melo coming off a major injury and a raw player in Porzingis reminds me of hypothetically building around present-day Durant and Barrett.
I was still a big proponent of not doing much besides simply re-signing Kornet and Vonleh (which I’m disappointed they’re seemingly not interested in) and using the rest on younger guys while also taking on bad contracts for assets. But I don’t mind what the Knicks have done this offseason.
The Knicks had no true full-time power forward. They’ve filled that need with Randle and Portis, two solid young forwards. By signing Ellington, Bullock, and Gibson, they’ve added veteran players that should make life easier for the young guys, but likely won’t be taking away too many minutes or adding too many “meaningless” wins. The Knicks should still be one of the worst teams in the league, and be in play for a good pick. The Nets also had guys like this in players like Luis Scola, Trevor Booker and Tyler Zeller. All of the Knicks’ new contracts aren’t too long, and could likely be traded later like Booker and Zeller were by the Nets. With Nikola Mirotic opting to play in Barcelona, the stretch-four market is thinning. Portis’ and maybe even Randle’s outside shooting might be desired by a playoff team.
Reading this, you may think I’m some big Knicks optimist, which isn’t really true. I haven’t been a big fan of Fizdale thus far, or the past few Knicks coaches. I’m not high at all on any current Knick outside of Robinson and Barrett. I’m still skeptical of Perry and don’t like how he’s talked about wanting a defense-first identity followed by acquiring some of the biggest defensive sieves in the NBA in Sessions, Jack, McDermott, Burke, Kanter, Mudiay, Hezonja, Hicks, Smith, Ellenson, and now Randle and Portis. I don’t get how Steve Mills still has a job after recommending the Knicks hire Isiah Thomas and after being the GM during the Phil Jackson era. I don’t understand why they’re apparently not bringing back Kornet, and I’m not happy about it. I just really didn’t see Durant and Irving as the path towards a championship for the Knicks, and I think the path they’re on now should give them a good shot. The Knicks could still screw it up and they have a lot to prove. But they should at least have a shot.
But I really do think things are generally different now, even with Dolan still owning the team. The toxicity appears to be gone. They’re not throwing massive deals at anyone like they did with Hardaway and Noah and Stoudemire. They didn’t pursue any B-level free agents like Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton.
New stars will become available — hopefully without major injury concerns. When they do, the Knicks have the potential to have a quality team they’ll want to play for. And it’s not just because of where they’re located, though that doesn’t hurt.