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NYK101 with The Professor: The Knicks are better. What’s next?

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Two roads diverged in a blue & orange wood...

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Welcome to another NYK101, in which we discuss a statement, a question and a suggestion regarding the New York Knicks.

Statement: The Knicks have improved by using all the avenues available to them — the draft, trades and free agency.

There haven’t been many sexy moves or slam dunk acquisitions, but the Leon Rose Knicks have shown an encouraging acumen with all forms of roster-building. Julius Randle was signed with cap space created by unloading Kristaps Porziņģis, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee two years ago. That transaction preceded Rose, but since Scott Perry belongs to both regimes and needs some extracurriculars on his resume or he may lose his internship, I’m including this move, especially since the Porziņģis trade literally and symbolically kicked off the Knicks’ latest rebuild.

Reggie Bullock initially signed a two-year, $21M deal with New York, but health issues forced him to re-negotiate for two years and $8.2M. The Knicks used those savings to add Marcus Morris, whom they parlayed to the L.A. Clippers for the draft pick that two draft-day trades later became Immanuel Quickley. Elfrid Payton was signed to a two-year, $16M deal in 2019 that included a team option for the second year; rather than pick that up, the Knicks were able to bring Payton back on a 40% discount. Nerlens Noel ($5M) and Alec Burks ($6M) are reasonably priced veterans on one-year deals.

Derrick Rose may be the only player on the roster who came via trade, but a comparison of what the Knicks traded for him the first time versus the second exemplifies a new era of intelligent governance. In 2016 the Knicks acquired Rose from Chicago in exchange for two starters (Robin Lopez; Jose Calderón) and 2015 first-round pick Jerian Grant. This year the price for Rose was a non-rotation player (Dennis Smith Jr.) and a second-round pick. As you can see below, other than age the player the Knicks landed this time around looks to be the sweeter-smelling Rose.

The draft is the mixed bag of the party. RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson are second and third on the team in minutes per game. Quickley has been an A+ for a late first-rounder. That’s good!

Question: That does sound good! So what’s the issue?

In 2013-14 the Philadelphia 76ers began a three-year stretch of putridity, winning 47 games while losing 199. The losing was intentional: Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius Sam Hinkie set the Sixers on a course both ambitious and not — lose as many games as they could for as long as they could to maximize their chances at landing the kind of high-end lottery talent we assume will improve a team enough to become a contender. It seems a reasonable premise. Is it?

Over the past 25 drafts, here is the list of players who’ve played a primary role in the team that drafted them reaching the NBA Finals: Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard. That’s four guys, or 16% of the past 25 #1s. That’s a lower number than how many busted (Michael Olowakandi, Kwame Brown, Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Anthony Bennett). The 76ers present a seemingly different equation, as they stunk it up for a while, aiming for a bunch of lottery tickets rather than a dollar and a dream. Does chance multiplied work out any better?

In 2013 the Sixers traded Jrue Holiday for the draft rights to Noel and the pick that became Payton, whom they immediately shipped to Orlando in a deal that netted Dario Šarić. In 2015 they drafted Joel Embiid. The next year it was Jahlil Okafor. Then Ben Simmons. Finally they traded the third pick in 2017 and a 2019 first to move up to #1 and select Markelle Fultz.

Ups and downs, for sure, and that’s without getting into Philadelphia drafting hometown hero Mikal Bridges, son of their VP of Human Resources, only to trade him RIGHT AFTER his mother was interviewed with him about how special that moment was for both of them. Bridges has blossomed into a two-way plus for a title contender in Phoenix; the player he was traded for, Zhaire Smith, is currently on Memphis’ G-League team.

The Sixers were able to turn all those high draft picks into a brilliant but brittle MVP-caliber player, an All-Star level player with the shooting range of a fifth grader and 55 games of Jimmy Butler. They also traded two 1sts and two 2nds plus three players, including 2018 first-round pick Landry Shamet, for Tobias Harris. Philadelphia’s come a long way from 47 wins in three years. They also, it must be noted, are yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

One of the more impressive accomplishments of the Knicks today is that their improvement is due mostly to youngsters. Randle is the same age as Embiid, Mitch is 22, IQ 21 and RJ 20. What makes their growth even more striking is how many youngsters they’ve bombed on.

Frank Ntilikina, 22 and in his fourth season, has been unable to secure a stable spot starting or off the bench. Kevin Knox is 21 and can’t crack the rotation. Obi Toppin is 23 and it’s hard to see what his fit is on the Knicks going forward; he’s stuck at the one position where the Knicks have an All-Star, and the 2020 draft’s purportedly most NBA-ready player struggles to back guys down, has a high dribble when he posts, is uneven from the perimeter and gives off strong WTF vibes whenever he appears to be swooping in for the one thing we were sure he could do — dunk.

The Knicks have kicked the tires on a number of lottery picks in recent years, which is smart; many players are far more impactful on their second or third teams than their first. But outside of Noel, there’s bupkis to show for it. Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, Mario Hezonja, DSJ — nothing from nothing means nothing.

So what’s the point? Where’s it all lead us? Or at least me?

Suggestion: Be at peace with the Knicks improving slowly but hopefully surely.

The 2006 Mets broke a lot of hearts. Mostly those focused on how that season ended.

But the Mets entered ‘06 having missed the playoffs five years in a row. They soared to the top of the National League early on and never looked back, to the surprise and delight of the fan base. If you’d told 100 Mets fans before that year the team would make it to the 9th inning of Game 7 of the NLCS, most would have signed up in a heartbeat.

Expectations change, sometimes faster than we can process. In December I thought the best-case scenario for this year’s Knicks would be 30 wins. Maybe they’d sneak into the play-in tournament as the 10th seed, get knocked out and be rewarded by karma for exceeding expectations and doing so “the right way” by landing a top-four pick. If that’s how things turn out, this will still be a successful season. But my brain and heart are hungrier. Why not 36 wins and a .500 record? Why not the 8th seed, the 7th or even the 6th, so they can avoid the play-in tourney altogether?

I’ve been torn about this for a while. The nightmare scenario is the Knicks winning enough to make the play-in, only to lose without advancing, having won enough games to have no shot at a high pick. But Ii think there is value in the journey itself, and in the young players who are here learning about and testing themselves in the crucible of meaningful games.

However wonderful Cade Cunningham may be, there are soooo many variables that could keep him from leading whoever drafts him to a Finals. I’m not rooting for the chance that a ping-pong ball will land in a way that gives the Knicks the chance to take a chance on someone unproven, no matter how hyped that person may be (unless my dream scenario comes true, in which case greetings & salutations, Mr. Cunningham).

It’s a little weird saying this, but it’s true: keep it up, Knicks. You’re doing fine.