The New York Knicks are usually a joke. The James Dolan era hasn’t been kind to the organization or its fans. More often than not, the Knicks are a confusing path to a punchline, rather than a team that will eventually pull it all together. Dolan sets the dysfunctional culture and his hiring decisions create even more chaos. Over the last three years, Phil Jackson was the chaos at the top. That doesn’t absolve Dolan from the poor culture he cultivated within his organization, but Jackson made that culture a lot worse.
His vision was noticeably flawed and archaic. His biggest move — drafting Kristaps Porzingis — wasn’t even his idea but the urging of Clarence Gaines Jr. Jackson pushed a once great systemic idea that, like all great sports strategies, has had the good parts co-opted and the futile points discarded. Jackson needed everything to have the original parts and no updates — like trying to put the computers NASA used in the 1960s up against an iPhone 7. Vision gave way to stubbornness and stubbornness poisoned the well throughout the organization.
Star player Carmelo Anthony was continually alienated. Whether or not Jackson was justified in doing so doesn’t matter. All that matters are the optics from the outside for other star players to observe. If Phil was willing to sign Melo to a big deal, give him a no-trade clause, and then use subterfuge to get him to want to leave, why wouldn’t that happen for another star player the Knicks might try to bring in? Jackson berated coaches for not following his vision, even after the few victories on the court. He signed marginal players to bad contracts. He kept the Knicks in the punchline and never set them up to be the ones laughing at the joke.
Finally, enough was enough. The Knicks decided to go through another era of management under Dolan, and it gave way to an offseason of transition once again. How did the Knicks do? Let’s take a look at their offseason and give them a grade:
How they did in the draft
Before we get into the subtractions, let’s get into the big draft pick of the Knicks. With the eighth pick, the Knicks selected point guard Frank Ntilikina out of France. This pick immediately becomes tricky with Dennis Smith Jr. being taken with the ninth pick by Dallas. That will put extra pressure on Ntilikina and the Knicks to ensure he was the correct selection. However, Ntilikina appears to be a very intriguing prospect to pair with Porzingis.
The concerns for Ntilikina reside in how much of a point guard he actually is. In his time with Strasbourg in the French League, Ntilikina didn’t show a ton as a pick-and-roll point guard. He struggled to score in those situations and his playmaking rated as subpar. NBA point guards must possess these skill sets to create in highly advantageous situations. Ntilikina possesses plenty of positives in his offensive repertoire that should help him boost the Knicks at the point guard position. They just may need patience until they can expect him to be a consistent high-impact weapon.
Where Ntilikina hurts defenses is his ability to free himself for a jumper. He can shoot off the dribble, he knocks down open jumpers, and he puts incredible pressure on defenders closing out. His superb handle allows him to create space against pressure, and his jump shot form remains extremely consistent in most shooting situations. Just look at how he attacks pressure:
Whether he’s a starter right away or a starter in the near future, only health problems could keep Ntilikina from becoming a scoring weapon in the NBA. He just needs to figure out how to be more than that.
The Knicks also selected Damyean Dotson — a 23-year old shooting guard most recently out of Houston — with the 44th pick in the second round. In his two years at Houston, Dotson became a big-time 3-point shooter and finished with a true shooting percentage over 60. With the 58th pick in the draft, they stashed point guard Ognjen Jaramaz out of Serbia. He’ll have to improve a lot to make it to the NBA, but he’s only 21 years old.
Fired Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson found his way out of being in charge of a Knicks. About 2.5 months after the Knicks picked up the final two years on Jackson’s five-year deal with the franchise, they removed him from employment. That kind of commitment to lighting money on fire has to make Heath Ledger’s Joker portrayal blush.
Jackson did everything he could to alienate Carmelo into waiving his no-trade clause, but things have become so tenuous between the two sides that Anthony appeared to be willing to force Jackson to pay him every penny of that money owed to him. Now that Jackson is no longer in charge, maybe Anthony will be more likely to accept a trade elsewhere.
As for the Knicks, this was always going to be the right move. Jackson went from rebellious as a president to reckless. It took about a year in charge to realize no heroic building process could ever take place. One can’t survive that position without adaptability, and Jackson kept trying to prove an older era could work now. Now with Jackson gone, the Knicks can try to bring back some normalcy, strengthen their relationship with Porzingis, and find a future worth believing in. Not a lot of that will be easy, especially right away, but the Knicks corrected a problem they created. While creating the problem in the first place is bad, going deeper into the situation without correcting it is worse.
Steve Mills received a promotion to president of basketball operations. The Knicks then hired Scott Perry from the Sacramento Kings as general manager and sent a 2019 second-round pick as compensation. There isn’t a high bar for Perry even though New York scrutiny can get intense. He just can’t be actively harmful to the organization — that’s an improvement.
Additions to the team
Tim Hardaway Jr. signed back with the Knicks. The contract could be described as crazy. Hardaway showed a little promise in his first two seasons with the Knicks, providing solid 3-point shooting and some binge scoring here and there, but after the Knicks traded him to Atlanta prior to his third season, Hardaway struggled to find his way. He barely played on the Hawks, and when he did, he struggled to knock down 3-pointers. However, last season we finally saw Hardaway break through with the Hawks, surpassing what he had shown as a Knick.
In the second half of last season, Hardaway exploded in his role with the Hawks. After January, he averaged 17.9 points on 60 percent true shooting. Maybe it was good timing for his impending restricted free agency, or maybe he’s really this kind of scorer when given the opportunity. The Knicks are hoping for the latter. With reports that the Hawks were expecting to match something in the $45 million range for his contract, what the Knicks brought to the table surprised everybody.
New York gave him a four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Hawks declined to match. This contract shocked a lot of people. He received $19 million more than Dion Waiters. Hardaway makes Evan Turner money. Making just under 17 percent of the salary cap under this deal seems like a lot of money for Hardaway, but being able to play into justifying this contract is doable. If he’s going to do that, he has to be better than a 35 percent 3-point shooter, which is both his career percentage and what he shot last season.
The Knicks also took a couple of fliers on Michael Beasley and Ramon Sessions. New York will task Beasley with providing a scoring punch off the bench. Sessions will act as the steady veteran hand at point guard when Ntilikina doesn’t quite have it. Neither are big commitments and have very low risk attached to them. For a bad team like the Knicks, that’s all you can ask in a summer of transition.
Losses to the team
They didn’t lose much. They really didn’t. Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday are the two most significant losses from last season’s team. Holiday went to Chicago on a two-year deal, meaning the Knicks lose a decent two-way role player. Rose missed out on his hopeful and highly optimistic payday. He ended up signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers for $600,000 less than Michael Carter-Williams signed for in Charlotte. Whether he’s better right away or not, Ntilikina makes the Knicks better off than if they had retained Rose.
Guys like Maurice Ndour, Marshall Plumlee, and Sasha Vujacic are gone as well, but Holiday may be the most significant loss for New York. Trade rumors surrounding Carmelo Anthony will pick up again during this dead period. That may add another loss to this team’s offseason, but for now the Knicks have upgraded their hope.
Offseason Grade: B-
This might be a little high for the Knicks, but getting rid of the culture of Phil Jackson was paramount to moving in the right direction. Jeff Hornacek may get to coach now instead of being chastised for not running enough triangle offense, even in wins. Some people believe Hornacek is a good coach. Some people believe he struggles to command the veterans of a locker room. Without the cloud of Jackson hanging over this franchise, the Knicks will get an answer to the question of whether or not he should patrol their sidelines.
Nothing will ever be great under Dolan’s ownership. Too many distractions and elements of dysfunction reign supreme. At the same time, even under extreme fortune Dan Gilbert’s team has won a title. Anything is possible.
You can attempt to minimize his self-destruction and it seems the Knicks mostly did that. For now, they overpaid for Hardaway and must help him justify the contract. They drafted well, but Smith in Dallas could make that look like a mistake. They can start preparing for the exit of Carmelo, whether that comes during a trade this season or as early as next summer if he exercises his early termination option.
The Knicks still might be a joke in this league this coming season, but perhaps they won’t be as much of a punchline as we’ve seen the past three years.
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