There are different ways to go about a lost season. The 76ers took an extreme, scorched earth approach and put accumulating assets, developing talent and getting the best lottery odds they could above all else. The Lakers focused on helping Kobe Bryant catch Michael Jordan in career points and pivoted towards player evaluation mode after he went down, giving Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Tarik Black and Ed Davis minutes. The Timberwolves aimed at remaining competitive, but once injuries struck, they unleashed their stable of young talent on the court to learn on the fly. The unifying thread seems to be that teams use that time to try to find and develop players that can help in the future. And then there’s the Knicks.
New York put its system at the forefront and traded the ill-fitting and disgruntled Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon. Carmelo Anthony focused on making the All-Star Game and shut it down after that. Phil Jackson traded two functional NBA wings for nothing. Those moves are not in themselves bad for a team that’s out-tanking Philadelphia for the best odds in the lottery and will have enough room to offer a max contract. But while the Knicks have done well on both clearing the deck and bottoming out, they haven’t been taking chances on prospects other than Alexey Shved, Shane Larkin and Langston Galloway, who are not prototypical high reward players.
Shved will be a free agent next season, is already 26 and before exploding in March hadn’t shown he could be a competent NBA player. It’s possible he just needed to adjust to the league before reaching the level he showed on the international stage, but it’s more likely that his great play as of late is simply an anomaly and bringing him back would prove to be a mistake. Galloway is equally hard to peg. He’s just 23, can get to the line and has a serviceable three-point shot. He’s neither an efficient scorer nor a natural playmaker, which puts him in the lower end of the combo guard spectrum. Larkin is 5-feet-11 and a below-average creator. What all three have in common is they can’t defend.
While other rebuilding teams loaded up on athletes or at least players who have size for their position, the Knicks went for undersized scoring guards, the easiest players to find. There’s no young, long forward who can already lock someone up and could make a leap after learning to shoot, no springy big man who could turn into a disruptive presence inside. When all those contracts expire and the dust settles, the surefire rotation players will be Carmelo Anthony, Jose Calderon and Tim Hardaway Jr. Do Shved, Larkin and Galloway complement the talent already on the roster? It really doesn’t seem so.
The Knicks do have Cleanthony Early under contract and the rights to Thanasis Antetokounmpo, two long athletes. Early has played under 500 minutes this season and Antetokounmpo hasn’t been called up. Travis Wear and 26-year-old Lance Thomas have gotten those minutes. They’re clearly the better players now, but incorporating young talent should have been the priority this season, yet the Knicks are giving precious minutes to Andrea Bargnani and Lou Amundson.
Of course Phil Jackson has famously said he considers free agency to be the main aspect of the rebuilding process, and there have even been rumors about New York’s draft pick being available. The Knicks haven’t done the whole youth movement thing well for ages, and with Anthony nearing the end of his prime, relying on youngsters might simply not be a part of the plan at all. If Jackson makes the right signings, not investing in the development of young bench players would be a footnote on an otherwise successful transition period. Yet it also puts a lot more pressure on nailing every single addition.
If the Lakers, who will also put an emphasis on free agency, land a star big man, they’ll have depth behind him. And if they get a good point guard, they’ll have Clarkson backing him up. They can focus all their resources in getting the difference-makers they need knowing the young guys they have plus their draft pick means their bench is taken care of. The Knicks won’t have that privilege. New York doesn’t just need a star big, it also needs its backup. And since they didn’t develop one, they’ll have to pay for it with money they could use elsewhere.
If Marc Gasol chooses New York and the Knicks can pry away Danny Green or Wesley Matthews — plus a veteran or two for cheap — they’ll be fine. There’s also a chance whomever they pick in the draft is ready to contribute right away. They’re well positioned to change their fortunes soon. Not finding their own JaMychal Green or Robert Covington won’t doom their rebuilding effort if they make the right decisions in the offseason.
What’s worrying about New York’s disinterest in finding cheap, young talent is what it represents. Even with Jackson handling things, the Knicks are still trapped in the past, not only with their outdated offensive system but in their front office practices as well. The smart teams are all looking to figure out ways to shore up their depth without spending much, even if it means constant experimentation. Instead of putting in the work to find every edge they can, the Knicks are hoping their ability to throw money at the problem will be enough to fix it, just like they have for the past 20 years.