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Dr. Strangeknicks, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love New York’s Offseason

Could be worse. You could be a Bulls fan.

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Forgive me if I’ve told this story before. When I was eight, my grandfather gave me a gift: a brick-sized object, transparent, with what appeared to be a $100 bill inside. It was an illusion, he told me. Some kind of hologram or special effect to make it look like the money was there. It wasn’t, he assured me.

I didn’t believe him, or more accurately I believed my eyes more. There was a $100 bill inside the block. There had to be. I ran this question past my sisters and a half-dozen neighborhood kids. The consensus held: the $100 had to be real. So I got a hammer. As I chipped away at the beautiful, smooth, brick, me and the other kids talked about what we would do with the money (it had very quickly become “our” money). Everyone had plans: baseball cards, bubble gum, bomb pops when the ice cream truck came. Piece by piece, the brick chipped away.

There’s a parable in the Bible about a king who leaves for a while. He calls three servants and leaves them each some money. When he returns the king has the servants brought before him and asks them what they did with the money. The first two invested it and turned a profit, pleasing the king. The third buries the money in the ground — it was never really his, he figures — then digs it up and proudly presents it to the king, who goes on a rant that would make Tom Thibodeau proud:

“You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

There was weeping and gnashing of teeth yesterday from Knicks fans as the team kicked off free agency by agreeing to three-year deals with Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Derrick Rose and four with newcomer Evan Fournier, plus a one-year deal with Taj Gibson. The Knicks have a long and disappointing history with free agency. Really, there’s Allan Houston, a year of Amar’e Stoudemire and so far a year of Julius Randle to point to as big-time successes. Other than that? Not so much. The names they inked yesterday aren’t exactly LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh teaming up.

When you enter the summer with visions of Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball dancing in your head, only to end up with four dudes who were brought in as bench players last season plus a zero-time All-Star in Fournier, it’s easy to feel let down. You’re always entitled to your feelings. I am not down on the moves so far. If you’re interested, here’s why.

First, none of the years are guaranteed for the full length of the terms that were announced. Fournier’s final year is a team option, while the Knicks will have similar flexibility with Burks, Rose and Noel as they did with Randle’s contract. Randle was a disappointment in year one of his deal and a revelation in year two. The Knicks still have another year to evaluate him before deciding what kind of extension to offer. That’s flexibility. Not a bad thing.

Second, remember the reaction in many parts to the Knicks’ last two offseasons. In 2019, after months of speculation regarding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming to New York, the team’s big signings were Randle and Marcus Morris. Remember all the jokes about allll the power forwards? Randle has since been named All-NBA Second Team; Morris was traded for the pick that became Immanuel Quickley; Taj Gibson was an invaluable presence when pressed into duty last year; Bobby Portis became a key contributor off the bench for the NBA champion Bucks. Last year nobody was celebrating the arrival of Burks or the second go-around of Reggie Bullock. The Knicks drafted a lottery pick most fans didn’t want, one who barely registered last season. And yet, the sky did not fall.

Third, there is often one viewpoint privileged above all others among sports fans: that of the pure of heart supporter whose primary and perhaps singular reason for following their team is a championship. This is the beating heart behind every cheer, boo and take they make. It is a perfectly rational perspective, though not one shared by many fans — most, I dare say. Unless you root for the Lakers or luck into a crazy long golden age like the Spurs enjoyed for years, most teams stink long enough so that title dreams are pipe dreams. The Suns were lousy for a decade before this year. From 2002 to 2018, the Bucks never got past the first round. Even the vaunted Celtics have but one championship in 35 years. But again: if the Larry O’Brien trophy is what you’re here for, I can dig it.

The title-or-bust ilk tends to be especially fond of assets, draft picks and cap space, the latter of which must be preserved for only the most sanctified of saviors. This has become the coin of the conversational realm — you talk NBA, you best be fluent in whichever formulae are the latest rage. Talking about expiring contracts like they matter = suspenders with one strap down, a bent brim ball cap flipped sideways over your ear and a pair of Reebok Pumps, i.e. you looking dated. Have fun fossilizing alongside Bernard King torching the Pistons, your 1994s and 1999s, your Carmelo Anthony closing out the Celtics. To the modern pure of heart, messiahs > memories.

You can question how many teams not led by Thibodeau would give Derrick Rose the length and dollars the Knicks did. But don’t forget how far down this franchise fell in the industry’s eyes in recent years. The Knicks didn’t even get a sit-down with KD or Kyrie. When was the last time a major, transcendent player seemed remotely interested in signing with New York? There was a story a few years ago that a major college program warned its draft prospects not to bother working out with the Knicks. Rose came back for a second run with the team and delivered — and then some.

The money they’re now on the hook for to Rose can be viewed as partly compensation and partly public relations. The Knicks have fewer winning seasons the past 20 years than Golden State does Finals appearances. No coach here has lasted into a fourth season since Jeff Van Gundy; technically Mike D’Antoni did, but his first two seasons were throwaways with no expectation of winning. Meanwhile, look at the rest of the division over that same span.

Philadelphia had Maurice Cheeks and Brett Brown last at least that long; Toronto’s Nick Nurse is heading into his fourth year at the helm, which Dwayne Casey and Sam Mitchell both enjoyed prior; the Nets have had Lawrence Frank and Kenny Atkinson in charge that long, too. And the Celtics? Go back to Red Auerbach 12 coaches ago. Nine of that dozen lasted at least four seasons. The only ones who didn’t: Bill Russell, who coached three years, Jimmy Rodgers and M.L. Carr. Maybe paying to prove continuity is like a tax. If it is, the Knicks have earned the need to pay it.

You may have heard the Knicks haven’t signed one of their own 1st-round picks to a second contract with the team since Charlie Ward 27 years ago. Currently, RJ Barrett and to a lesser extent Mitchell Robinson are both candidates to break that streak. The Knicks drafted a two-way point guard and two-way off-guard this year and have a billion picks the next few years. There is the premise, if not the promise, of continuity. Continuity can be a good thing.

The Knick bench was a major strength of the team last year. Burks, Rose, Taj, Quickley and Obi Toppin combined to make $23M in 2021. Next season they’re slated to gross a tad over $34M, a number that’s neither cost-prohibitive as a group nor for any of the individuals. Same with the center position: for all the angst over Noel’s deal, the Knicks are paying their three centers about $15M combined in 2022, only $5M more than the Nets are paying DeAndre Jordan to atrophy on the bench. The team is committed to more years and more dollars than they were before. That’s how growth happens. You can’t keep signing people to one-year deals every summer and expect continuity; without continuity, there’s no culture; without culture, there’s no sustained success. Wanna see an ugly cap situation? Remember 2014?

Again: if you follow the Knicks — and by extension, P&T — because it’s a title you crave, that’s cool. If so, consider the last few champs. Did Milwaukee go on a big offseason spending spree last year? I mean, maybe they would have if they weren’t busted cold on the Bogdan Bogdanović “tampering,” but while they did add Jrue Holiday and other pieces, their foundation was laid years ago via Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. When Toronto won in 2019 it came after years of sticking with a roster that hadn’t won, something they were ridiculed for; then Kawhi Leonard became available and a team that had been solid for years had the right combination of salary and talent to move, plus the financial room to make it work. The Lakers play by their own rules that don’t really apply to anyone else.

After hours of hammering the clear brick and growing excitement, it eventually became clear my grandfather had told the truth. There was no $100 bill inside. It was an illusion. It certainly wasn’t my last chance at that kind of money; it wasn’t even the best. It was just the closest, or for one brief moment it seemed that way. It was never really there, though.

The 2022 offseason was supposed to be a barnburner featuring all kinds of transcendent talents. It wasn’t. There will be other, better chances for the Knicks to make transformational moves. When you’re known for rough seas, stability is transformation enough. Three years ago the Knicks won 21% of their games. Two years ago it was 31%. Last year they won 57% and finished fourth. They may not achieve either of those things this year. But investments show growth in all kinds of ways. Sometimes what looks like burying your talents is actually planting seeds.