It’s seemingly a question asked by fans of the New York Knicks after every season comes to a close. Along with what now? What can we improve? And how do we avoid another mess? All fair and legitimate queries that fans have every right to ask after the turmoil that the franchise has endured since the 90s. And although they’re still suffering from past woes (relinquishing their 2016 first-round pick for instance), after the past few seasons circumstances can only improve, right?
With a new coach in Jeff Hornacek and in all likelihood a new system of play to be implemented, there is a slight buzz of excitement in the Big Apple. This is primarily because for once rational and in some cases, shrewd decisions are being made, which feels ostensibly foreign for fans that have suffered from disastrous management from the top-down since the millennium. Phil Jackson entered the fray in 2014 at a time of need and chose to completely break away from the toxic atmosphere that he saw in place. The process of ‘blowing up a team’ was an understatement, as Jackson traded away almost the entire roster in order to create a fresh build around its talisman, Carmelo Anthony. The summer of 2015 saw the Knicks land their first top five draft pick in thirty years and to the dismay of many, Jackson chose the slender 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia, a nineteen-year old that had largely been overlooked due to supposedly being nowhere near ready for the physical aspect of the NBA. Jackson received a barrage of abuse from prominent reporters, such as Stephen A Smith who took a page out of Malcolm X’s rhetoric by claiming that he had intentionally left the Knicks fanbase ‘hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok and flat out deceived’.
Fast forward almost a year and the decision to select Porzingis may have been a stroke of genius. One may even go as a far to describe him as a shining light in the dressing room that provides hope for the future. Not only was the young Latvian ready for the NBA, but he finished the season second behind Karl-Anthony Towns in the Rookie of the Year results. Displaying the ability to shoot with range while also contributing hugely on the defensive end by utilizing his height as a good rebounder and at times a lethal shot blocker, Porzingis emphatically proved to his critics that not only could he play, but the best was yet to come.
So with a dynamic new coach in Hornacek who will offer fresh ideas, a superstar in Anthony and a superstar-in-waiting in Porzingis, we arrive back to where we started: Where do the Knicks go from here? The difference between this offseason and the past decade is that the team is at a point where building an identity shouldn’t be difficult. When taking a glance at the heavyweights (that are conveniently situated across the land) such as the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, Phil Jackson can take some pointers from their continued success in the modern age of basketball. An emphasis on three-point shooting, elite point-guards, and quick ball movement which in turn eradicates the existence of ISO play, are just several features that co-exist within the winning formula.
Hornacek will undoubtedly invigorate the offense and will have some dangerous weapons in his forward tandem of Carmelo and Porzingis at the 3 and 4 respectively. But the task is finding what is necessary in galvanizing this franchise to where it should be, consistently competing in the playoffs. From currently evaluating the roster, the glaring weakness that stands out more than Shaquille O’Neal in a crowd of dwarves, is the lack of quality at the guard position. Jose Calderon, Aaron Afflalo and Sasha Vujacic are all players capable of holding their own in the league, but to rely on starters such as these in hope of a playoff position is quite frankly delusional. Phil Jackson is well aware of this and although there are several intriguing prospects at the position in Jerian Grant and Tony Wroten, it will be a huge risk to start the season with such unproven talent.
The Knicks don’t have the time to endure a repeat of last season’s lackluster efforts predominantly due to Carmelo Anthony’s age, just recently turning thirty-two and entering the tail-end of his prime. So with the absence of a pick in this year’s draft (as a result of the calamitous moves made in the pre-Jackson era), free agency is the best bet to construct a competitive team. With the Eastern Conference remaining significantly weaker than its western sibling, the ability to form a contender is certainly on the cards. Kevin Durant is undeniably the premier player available this summer and the Knicks shouldn’t even bother trying to attract his talents to New York. To think that a player of his value would abandon the Oklahoma City Thunder that just reached the Western Conference Finals (and somehow not advancing further), to join a team that is coming off a fifty loss season and having not made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2000/01 is unrealistic, to say the least. Instead, the front office should focus on attainable players that can authentically fit within a system, preferably one that uses aspects of the triangle that can be interwoven with a sharper and more agile focus, routinely showcased by teams such as the Warriors.
It is also vital that the Knicks don’t fall into the familiar trap of overspending. With Jackson in the hot seat, this is far less likely as he has made a deliberate effort since his introduction to clear cap space and eradicate the deadweight that stood on his roster. Mike Conley Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies, arguably a current top ten point guard, is also an unrestricted free agent that many tout as the answer to the Knicks long-standing issues at the 1. Jackson will surely attempt to lure him to Madison Square Garden as he will immediately enhance the face of the organization, but the fact that Conley does have a history of being injury prone and also will demand a max-contract may slyly eventuate a blessing in disguise in the event that he chooses to sign elsewhere. Which begs the question if players of the caliber of Durant and Conley reject the Knicks’ advances, to whom do they turn to?
Enter Nicolas Batum. The Charlotte Hornet’s multi-skilled two way forward that has flown under the radar since embarking on his journey in the NBA. With a reported wingspan of 7’4”, possessing brilliant vision on the court and proving to be an accomplished perimeter shotmaker are only a few reasons as to why Batum has all the tools to succeed in New York. Aside from the case that the Frenchman is essentially a ‘jack of all trades’ (being one of two players in the last decade to achieve a 5X5), favor what’s most alluring is his selfless nature on the court that was so evident during his time at the Portland Trail Blazers. Characteristically he is of a rare breed in the league, willing to put aside the penchant for personal favoring of the good of the unit.
The New York Knicks could do with someone that can act as the ‘glue’ within their starting five and Nic Batum would expertly fit into these shoes. His intelligence should see him hit the ground running in the expected style of play Hornacek will enforce and his proficiency in running the floor when necessary can allow the point guard to play off the ball, providing the Knicks will multiple dynamic forms of ammunition on the court. There are reports that Batum is content with his position in Charlotte due to an increased role as the second option behind Kemba Walker and may choose to re-sign because of this. However one should remember that the temptation to play in the ‘Mecca’ of basketball and the genuine prospect of the Knicks becoming a contender in the east could be too strong to turn down. The Hornets are a good team that made the playoffs and managed to take the Miami Heat all the way to a game seven before succumbing in the first round, but whether they have the potential to go further is debatable. Much like Conley, Batum will presumably also command a maximum contract, however Jackson will know exactly what he’s getting in a player not afraid to shun the limelight in favour of getting the job done. Pair a player like Batum next to a point guard within reach via-a-trade, for instance Darren Collison who currently plays backup in Sacramento and sits on a contract worth a little over five million dollars, the picture begins to become prettier in a flash.
Collison is another that has been under-appreciated during his time in the league, despite excelling as a starter in 2014 or most recently as a sixth man off the bench. With players presently a part of the organisation that have built value as respectable contributors including Afflalo and Derrick Williams, the Knicks have the assets to not only upgrade their own roster but also provide a boost to another team willing to negotiate in a trade. Two moves that may require much effort, but if achieved could drastically turn the famed Knickerbockers into a force the people of New York so badly crave. The necessity for ambition and change is crucial now more than ever. The Knicks have made sensible moves since turning a corner after Jackson’s appointment and one should keep this in mind when making impulsive assumptions of their future. Nevertheless it is up to them to utilise their clout as a huge market to assemble the right pieces in the challenging puzzle that lies before them of getting back to the top.