The New York Knicks enter 2019-20 hoping for development and cohesion. As recently as this time last year, the Knicks expected to enter the season with at least one cornerstone piece in Kristaps Porzingis, a free agent superstar and a lottery pick added to the roster. Instead, the team experienced tremendous turnover, returning only six players from the 2018-19 team.
But the Knicks can boast one thing they haven’t had in some time – a unified vision from its leadership. David Fizdale is still viewed as a player-friendly coach, and general manager Scott Perry is slowing improving the Knicks’ reputation around the league and with free agents.
The Knicks’ 2019-20 season is more of a stepping stone than it is about the end result. They must demonstrate a good culture – because they’re structured to potentially be players in free agency again in 2020.
Five Guys Think…
Coming into season two under David Fizdale, there are actually some positive vibes in the Big Apple. The Knicks have a blue-chip prospect in RJ Barrett taking over as the face of the franchise, meaning they’ll have quite the young talent to work with and develop over the season. Contrary to belief, the offseason wasn’t quite a bad one. There were plenty of forwards signed -and there will be a logjam in the frontcourt – but this team didn’t have the veterans in the locker room to show the inexperienced players the ropes. Plus, the deals are flexible enough that there are some contracts that could be moved for more assets. New York will be in the basement of the Atlantic Division due to the ridiculous amount of tough competition, but this campaign should prove to at least be a step in the right direction.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The Knicks struck out on their top free-agent targets such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But they did sign a quite a few players, including a couple in Bobby Portis, Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson who all play the same position. Not bad signings at all, just a question mark as to how they’ll all fit together. They actually have some intriguing young talent on the team including RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox. It’s still going to be a rebuilding year for the Knicks, but if a few of those young guys pan out, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, sooner rather than later.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Knicks had an underwhelming offseason. They expected two max-level free agents, but had to settle for next-tier players and journeymen. While they enter 2019-20 with more talent than a year ago, it’s still nowhere near enough to compete with the likes of the 76ers, Celtics or Nets. However, if you’re looking for progress, the Knicks should demonstrate a decent amount of it. Coach David Fizdale is back for his second season in the Big Apple and president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry enter their third season together. So while there is practically no continuity on the court – only six players return from last season – at least there is some in philosophy and culture. Further, rookie RJ Barrett and free agent addition Julius Randle inspire a bit of guarded optimism.
5th place – Atlantic Division
Despite the hype of free agency misses, the Knicks actually came out of the summer set up smartly. They have promising young guys that should continue to see development opportunities while being surrounded by solid win-now veterans that are pretty attractive trade chips as the season plays out. Sure, many likely wanted the superstar this past July, but when you consider the modern NBA roadmap to sustained winning, the Knicks are well-positioned for the future. That may stink this season, as the Knicks may not have enough star-level talent to really compete on a night to night basis, but there is a glimmer of hope in this regards – no-name teams have done pretty well over the last decade, especially if all of those discounted veterans seize their moment in the New York spotlight. It’s likely the Knicks are lottery team, not a playoff team, but in the end, they may come out better positioned for a promising future than where they were two seasons ago.
5th place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
The New York Knicks and their fans had very high hopes entering this offseason. I won’t go deep into those details since it has already been covered in great detail and there isn’t much value in constantly reminding Knicks fans that they flooded social media with photo-shopped pictures of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson in Knicks jerseys. The more interesting discussion revolves around what the Knicks did after they missed out on their star targets this offseason. Through the draft, trades and free agency, the Knicks added RJ Barrett, Ignas Brazdeikis, Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Marcus Morris to the roster. Oddly enough, the Knicks put major resources into acquiring four power forwards in Randle, Gibson, Portis and Morris (though some of these players can play center as well). Individually, each move makes some sense. However, it’s unclear why the Knicks felt compelled to sign Portis to a two-year, $30.75 million contract. It should not be noted that New York has a team option on the second and final season of the contract, so there’s no long-term risk. But the market wasn’t particularly hot for Portis this offseason and there doesn’t seem to be any long-term advantage to signing him to this deal. However, the Knicks also signed most of their new players to short-term deals, so there’s no significant loss in future flexibility. This wasn’t a bad pivot from the Knicks’ front office after missing out on their key targets, but it’s just a bit confusing when you look at the structure of the roster at this point.
5th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
From The Cap Guy
Unable to land a single superstar this summer, despite the cap room for two, the Knicks invested heavily in players on extremely friendly contracts. Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock each signed two-year deals with just $1 million guaranteed apiece for 2020-21. That’s only $4 million of a combined $29.7 million of guaranteed money. Additionally, Bobby Portis has a team option for $15.8 million.
In addition to their multiple movable contracts (along with the one-year, $15 million deal for Marcus Morris), look for the Knicks to be active in discussions leading to the NBA Trade Deadline. New York also has a couple of future first-rounders from the Dallas Mavericks to include, along with young players like Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina. If a star becomes available, look for the Knicks to pursue aggressively.
– Eric Pincus
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Julius Randle
Julius Randle posted career bests last season in points and three-point percentage, and he will have far more opportunity on the Knicks as their primary scorer. Randle entered the league at essentially the perfect time – just as positionless basketball was really catching on. His ability to push the ball up the floor following a rebound is rare for his size. He is a tricky cover because he is too strong for most players his height or smaller, but quicker than most centers. Randle will be used in smaller lineups as a five and could even play some alongside two bigs. The Knicks are going to need every bit of production from Randle, though. The bar is higher this season as he enters the year as the Knicks best player And the pressure will be on immediately as New York is traditionally not an overly patient city.
Top Defensive Player: Mitchell Robinson
Robinson was one of the few positives on the Knicks last season. He oozes potential thanks to a unique combination of length, athletic ability and shot-blocking instincts.
Robinson averaged stellar per-36 numbers last season as a rookie: 12.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and an astounding 4.3 blocks. And despite playing nearly 1000 minutes less than most guys ahead of him on the blocks list, he still finished fourth overall for the entire league.
But it isn’t just blocks. It’s how and where he blocks shots. Robinson closes out on shooters, disrupting and blocking shots at an incredible rate. His instincts must improve while guarding ball handlers; and despite showing improvement regarding fouls, he must continue to improve his defensive footwork and avoid bailing opposing players out by using his hands. But the sky is the limit for Robinson, and he’ll be a huge part of the Knicks’ future.
Top Playmaker: Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith Jr. has been criticized for not progressing enough between his rookie and sophomore seasons; however, his play after being traded to the Knicks in February should inspire hope.
Smith Jr. is the Knicks’ best established off-the-dribble player. He seems to have improved his shooting stroke this offseason based on offseason workout videos, which will only further his playmaking abilities given that opponents will have to defend him even more closely. While he is regarded as more of a scorer than a creator, he can create for others simply by breaking down the defense and making the easy pass.
This season is a make-or-break year for Smith Jr. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with how he reacted to the Mavericks drafting Luka Doncic. He must demonstrate more maturity in New York. The Knicks just drafted a high-profile rookie (RJ Barrett). Smith Jr. must understand that he might not be the most important piece on the Knicks, but that he is still instrumental to their success. If he can accept his role and contribute whenever possible, it will begin repairing his image and – probably – benefit him on the court.
Top Clutch Player: Reggie Bullock
Bullock’s signing with the Knicks had a bit of drama. He originally signed this offseason for 2-years/$21 million; but once a health issue was identified in his physical, the deal was reworked (2-year/$8.2 million), which also allowed the Knicks to sign Marcus Morris.
While Bullock’s recovery from neck surgery will disallow him from starting the season with the Knicks, he will be a welcome addition once he’s available to them. Bullock shoots 39.2 percent from long-range for his career. He was brought on due to the fact that he’s seen as a sniper – unfortunately, injuries have derailed his career. If Bullock can get (and remain) healthy, he’ll be a fixture in the Knicks line-up in 2019-20. That is a big if, though. Currently, the timeline for Bullock’s return is undefined. He could miss the first month, or he could miss the entire season.
The Unheralded Player: Marcus Morris
Morris is the blue-collar bruiser New Yorkers have been clamoring for – only a modern version. Morris is a tough, versatile defender. He can also get the Knicks a bucket when they’re in need in a multitude of ways. He averaged 13.9 points last season and happily accepted a role with the Celtics behind Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and others. So there should be no fear in New York of Morris demanding a particular role.
He is a tough-nosed veteran who will be a leader in the locker room and on the floor. And more importantly, he will set a great example for the Knicks’ youngsters. He has been credited by opposing coaches for inspiring his team’s defense. Pacers head coach Nate McMillian said of Morris following a playoff win last April, “He’s a guy that really establishes their defense. He gets after the best player and they feed off that.” The Knicks definitely hope that he’ll have a similar effect in New York.
Best New Addition: RJ Barrett
RJ Barrett was selected third overall – shockingly, the Knicks highest draft pick since 1984 (Patrick Ewing). Knicks fans are obviously clamoring for a quick win with Barrett. Will he be able to pace himself and overcome efficiency issues with Knicks’ fans and the New York media breathing down his neck? Most rookies would struggle mightily with this – but not Barrett.
Barrett’s approach has been solid so far. Remember – it was Barrett who coyly said workout videos aren’t for him, and it was Barrett who was squarely focused on playing in New York throughout the draft process. He’s aware of the expectations and he understands the pressure. New York is an entirely different beast. But Barrett has the right mental makeup to get through all of the stressors that New York will throw at him.
– Drew Maresca
Who We Like
1. Kevin Knox
Knox struggled with efficiency last season – his effective field goal percentage was only 34.3 percent. He settled for threes when given space and he relied too heavily on runners rather than taking the ball up stronger and looking to draw fouls.
But Knox also has an incredible amount of potential. He is a well-built 6-foot-9 swingman who can score in a number of different ways. His shooting stroke was inconsistent last season, but he has good form and should show improvement now that he has a better understanding of the NBA game.
Further, the Knicks didn’t have a go-to scorer last season. So Knox came on board and was immediately among the primary focuses of opposing defenses. The addition of Randle, Morris and company will mitigate the attention on Knox, at least in the early going.
2. Elfrid Payton
Payton’s career has been a bit disappointing so far. While seen as a defensive specialist, he has underwhelmed – mostly gambling too much by jumping in passing lanes. Payton actually posted the worst defensive rating on the Pelicans in 2018-19.
But he can still contribute – especially considering the lack of experience amongst Knicks point guards. He is a solid rebounder and he creates opportunities for his teammates. He has shown flashes throughout his career – erupting for five straight triple-doubles last season.
It would be naïve to expect Payton to develop too much more at this point in his career. But his positive attributes can steady the ship when Smith Jr. has an off game and/or Ntilikina’s confidence wavers.
3. Bobby Portis
Portis is a player the Knicks might consider keeping on the roster beyond next season. He is an above-average rebounder– and most importantly, he has displayed the ability to shoot from distance. Portis shot 35.9 percent from three-point range in 2017-18 with Chicago, and he upped the ante last season connecting on 39.3 percent of his three-point attempts.
But Portis isn’t a one-dimensional offensive player. His size and athleticism enable him to score in a number of different ways. He rolls to the hoop well and can catch and shoot from the mid-range, as well.
Portis struggles on the defensive end of the court, though. And unfortunately, he is a sub-par defender in practically every way possible including pick-and-roll defense, shot-blocking. While he probably won’t improve much at this point of his career, the Knicks can mask his deficiencies by pairing him with guys like Robinson and Morris.
4. Allonzo Trier
Trier was a welcome surprise last season. But if you knew his game in college, you couldn’t have expected any less. Trier is a scorer who exudes confidence. He slowed down a bit as the season progressed last year, but that is to be expected from rookies.
Trier isolates incredibly well and gets buckets in bunches. He has a pure shooting stroke and a series of primary and secondary moves. While slightly undersized for a shooting guard, he was seen as a strong defender in college – which could help his case to carve out minutes on a crowded roster.
Trier must improve off the ball. Last season he attempted just 2.1 three-pointers per game, but converted on 39.4 percent of them. And his opportunities to play as the primary ball-handler will be limited given the number of lead guards on the roster, so it’s in his best interest to embrace his opportunity as a shooting guard.
5. David Fizdale
Coach Fizdale had a challenging first year in New York. But that had very little to do with him. Last season was about initiating a culture in the locker room. And Fizdale did just that. His “chopping the tree” mantra caught on in the locker room with players citing it time and again as the season wore on. He must continue building camaraderie in the locker room, and he must continue representing the Knicks outwardly – as the entire league will continue judging the Knicks moving forward based partially on Coach Fizdale.
– Drew Maresca
Young talent. The Knicks have a tremendous number of recent draftees with loads of potential including Mitchell Robinson, Dennis Smith Jr, Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and Ignas Brazdeikis – all of whom have less than three years of experience in the NBA.
But youth and wins don’t go together too well.
The Knicks are going to struggle to close out games. They must focus on developing their youth, especially Robinson and Barrett – the most important duo to take the court for the Knicks since Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. They must push through the discomfort of losing games as a franchise and maintain the course. They cannot default to their veterans in an attempt to get a few more wins, robbing their young core of valuable experience in the process.
However, there is a balance they’ll have to strike. They do not want to find themselves playing meaningless basketball too early in the season. That tanking-like strategy breeds bad habits.
– Drew Maresca
Point guard play has been an issue for the Knicks since approximately 2005, when Stephon Marbury famously declared himself the best point guard in the NBA – the season didn’t go as planned for the Knicks, nor have most since then.
It was widely assumed that the Knicks would acquire a lead guard in each of the last three seasons, beginning with the 2017 NBA Draft when they selected Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has looked good in the FIBA World Cup so far, even stealing starting point guard duties and drawing praise from the teammates including Rudy Gobert. But FIBA and the NBA are entirely different games, and Ntilikina’s confidence seems to wane when he’s back on this side of the pond.
The other point guard they had an eye on in the 2017 draft – Dennis Smith Jr. – is also now on their roster, and he is viewed as a more likely solution at this point than Ntilikina. Smith Jr.’s summer workout videos have been well-received by fans and the New York media, but most experts understand that those videos are engineered to build hype and are showing only highlight-worthy clips.
The Knicks also added Elfrid Payton, who is a Scott Perry draft pick from Orlando in 2014.
To summarize, the Knicks have three talented and unproven point guards on their roster – each of whom has his share of flaws. They can use 2019-20 to gauge who plays well with one another and which ones they hope to keep moving forward – if any. But don’t expect All-Star level play from any of them this season. And if that somehow happens, Knicks’ fans won’t be the least bit upset.
– Drew Maresca
The Burning Question
How will Fizdale manage the rotation?
The Knicks onboarded a number of fairly established players – Gibson, Morris, Payton, Portis, etc. He can’t play all of the new vets and continue ahead with the youth movement. And while Knicks fans and the New York media are behind the idea of a youth movement now, they will probably change their tune after falling a number of games below .500. Coach FIzdale has to strike a very delicate balance between playing his young core and keeping veterans on the court – after all, rookies and second-year players don’t usually win games.
But Fizdale also wants to get his youngsters experience playing in clutch situations. He must define lineups that complement each other deliberately while making sure to play as many of his young players as possible.
In addition to allowing the Knicks to remain competitive, playing veterans alongside younger players removes pressure from Knicks’ rookies and second-year players. Putting too much pressure on younger players can lead to poor habits and/or hurt their development.
Ultimately, the Knicks’ management and coaching staff must remember that this season is mostly a precursor to the future. While they are probably beyond tanking, they should be more concerned with developing their young talent than with wins; however if they can accomplish both at the same time, that would be best.
– Drew Maresca