The Knicks have one of the most interesting narratives going into the 2015-16 season, and not (just) because they play in the New York market. With a stripped roster, Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher seem to be in no-man’s land in terms of finding a compromise between their long-term and short-term goals.
Carmelo Anthony is coming off knee issues and isn’t getting any younger while Jackson isn’t a spring chicken himself. However, the sun on the horizon might be a long-time coming, as the team waits on Kristaps Porzingis to develop into the superstar they hope he becomes. The two most important players on the team are on completely different timelines, and how the two mesh together will define the immediate future for the Knicks.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR
In short, nothing good happened last year. The record speaks for itself, but the little things might be worse than the aggregate. Because Anthony stretched his year out so long despite playing on a partial tear of his left patella tendon, people don’t remember that the Knicks basically didn’t have him at all for the entire season. He played in 40 games and made it to the All-Star Game which was hosted by the New York teams, but he started dealing with the knee issues during the second game of the season and was a limited athlete for most of the run.
In the mean time, the Knicks traded J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cavaliers, and finished the season with a lineup of Langston Galloway, Tim Hardaway Jr., Lance Thomas, Jason Smith, and Cole Aldrich.
And when I say nothing good happened last year, I mean nothing because, even with that compromised lineup, the Knicks beat the Magic and Hawks in two of the last three games of the season to significantly reduce the number of lottery balls they would have had, which, in turn, hurt their chances of getting a top-three pick.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
Jackson finally picked up (some) support from Knicks fans. They added Robin Lopez, Kevin Seraphin, and Kyle O’Quinn to the frontcourt. Arron Afflalo was a good pickup for a team that desperately needed to add scoring, and his short-term deal didn’t lock the team into anything down the road if he doesn’t work out. Fans even have started to come around on Porzingis, a pick that they seemingly, universally dreaded and then panned on draft night.
Not every move was applauded (cough) Derrick Williams (cough), but most of those moves were short-term band-aids. Jackson’s administration isn’t ultimately going to be judged on short-term success, and for better or worse first-round picks Porzingis and Jerian Grant will have to exceed rather lofty expectations in order to turn this into a good offseason for the Knicks.
They didn’t land the big fish in free agency, and that’s okay considering said fish was likely going to be Greg Monroe. They surrounded Anthony with a supporting cast that should be able to trump what he had last year, especially if guys like Afflalo and Lopez can provide a consistency that just was never there with Bargnani and Smith.
This was never going to be a one-year turnaround with the Knicks back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1999, but it has pushed them back in the right direction. They have significantly improved around a healthy Anthony, but the focus is on the 2016 and 2017 offseasons when they will make their real push to reshape the roster, hopefully around the talent of Porzingis and Grant.
PLAYER TO WATCH: KRISTAPS PORZINGIS
‘Melo should be the player to watch because the Knicks not only need to see him healthy, but they also need to see he can survive as an elite scorer through the life of his contract. However, the player Knicks fans will be watching closest is Porzingis.
He is an unknown commodity, but one that falls all over the map in terms of projection. Scouts loved him, which is why he was not only the fourth pick in the draft, but was also the best player left on most draftnik boards after Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Jahlil Okafor were selected.
With all that hype, he is still fighting the stereotypes of European players being soft, boom-or-bust draft picks. At somewhere between 7’1″ and 7’3″ depending on who you ask, and only 220 pounds when he was drafted, there have been questions about how his skill set will translate to the NBA. He has a sweet shooting stroke and is working on some skills in the post, but he is going to have problems rebounding and defending down low against NBA big men.
What it comes down to is a necessary acknowledgement that the Knicks are not going to compete with the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season, even if optimistically they could push for a playoff spot without strong competition at the bottom of the conference.
The team doesn’t have a first-round pick and hopes not to draft in the top five again when they come to the podium in 2017. That means Porzingis is the future of the franchise, and for a team that has more to hope for in 2018 than they do this year, eyes will be on their young Latvian star with the potential to led the next era of Knicks basketball.
The Knicks project better than most people think, and certainly better than last year. That 17-65 record was the worst in franchise history, and a healthy Knicks team will easily surpass that mark. A healthy Anthony was magnificent for an underachieving Knicks squad in 2013-14, scoring 27.4 points per game on 45% shooting. Of course, of the 18 players on the Knicks that year, only Anthony remains with the team. Hopefully, Jackson’s supporting cast will provide more help than the 37-45 roster from that year, and they could compete in the Eastern Conference.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are the class of the conference, and then there is a tier behind them where injury luck and a few breaks put them in the conversation at the top of the East. The Knicks aren’t currently as good as that group of teams, including the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Toronto Raptors.
Count up those teams and you have eight in the playoffs. The Knicks then are somewhere in the pack that includes the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Charlotte Hornets. Maybe this is optimistic, but they should be a solid step ahead of the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers and avoid handing over a top-five pick to the Nuggets or Raptors (Nuggets have pick-swap rights, Raptors get the lesser of the picks). And if one or more of those top eight teams has some bad injury luck or just generally underachieves, the Knicks could find themselves in the playoffs with a little luck of their own.