Julius Randle looked up from a third loss in the four-game preseason, one that ended in defeat after his hero-ball game-winning attempt from three missed the mark, and assessed life, so far, with the Knicks.
“We’re building,” he said. “We’re just going to have to have patience . . . It’s going to take time, but we’ll get there.”
Randle was one of the most coveted second-tier free agents on the market this past summer, but quickly became the top priority for the Knicks once the hope to sign Kevin Durant ended with the former MVP, with his torn Achilles, opting to join forces with Kyrie Irving
in Brooklyn. It wasn’t the offseason haul the Knicks had originally hoped for, but the work to build up the league’s youngest roster was based on quantity. Almost $90 million in salary cap space was used to add young talent, like Randle, and experienced veterans
like Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson, along with short-term fliers on young vets such as Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock.
“We all know, in this league, free agency is a very fluid process,” team president Steve Mills said about the offseason. “Our look at free agency is, the one thing we know is what’s important is to control the things you can control. Guys make decisions about
where they want to play and those are decisions they come to on their own. What you have to do is be prepared.”
Mills said what he and general manager Scott Perry were most proud of is that they were able to quickly transition from the original plan to make a run at Durant and, perhaps, Kawhi Leonard, to being in position to lock up six free agents “that were important to
us” on the first day of free agency.
So, no, it wasn’t the headline we were all waiting for, but it did show the front office was not caught unprepared for what transpired — most of the top players already had their destinations chosen — on the days before the official opening of free agency. In
the past, Plan B for the Knicks might have been to throw desperate max money at other free agents that didn’t quite fit. But this time, the determination was to maintain future cap flexibility by using their money to overpay short-term and give themselves
many options going forward.
In terms of franchise health, the Knicks still have a wealth of first round picks (six over the next four years) and a host of expiring contracts (with team options) over the next two years. In the past, they have not had the assets to get into the trade market
when stars such as Irving, Leonard and Anthony Davis have made trade demands. This is notable because all three had the Knicks on their list of preferred destinations. Now, the Knicks can be players in a marquee trade if — or is it when? — another star wants
out of his current situation.
When it comes to the franchise’s health on the court? That’s a different story.
As Randle said, it’s going to take time. It often does when you have nine new players added to a team that returns players with three or fewer seasons of experience. David Fizdale, in his second season, is still looking to set an identity for his team. Forget
that, he’s still looking to find a starting five that can last the majority of a season. Last season he used 30 different starting fives. Thirty!
This season, all but one spot seems to be locked up in a starting five that, barring injury, should be somewhat stable. You can expect Randle, a power and finesse scorer with game both inside and out, and Morris, a rugged post player who can shoot the three, at
the forward positions, with second-team All-Rookie selection Mitchell Robinson, a shot-blocking dynamo, at center. It appears rookie R.J. Barrett, the No. 3 pick in the draft who plays with precocious power going to the basket, earned himself a starting spot
in the backcourt.
But the other guard position remains a battle, according to Fizdale. The fact that Dennis Smith Jr., the centerpiece (along with cap space and two first round picks) in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, is not a lock to start is alarming. Smith Jr. spent the summer
working on his diet, conditioning and his jump shot, remains a raw product as a scoring point guard who struggles to organize an offense, read opposing defenses and, most importantly, play effective perimeter defense.
Frank Ntilikina is the team’s best perimeter defender and had somewhat of an arrival playing for France in the World Cup this offseason, but his poor shooting remains a concern in an era of scoring and efficiency. Then there is Payton, who, like Smith and Ntilikina,
is a former lottery pick. Like Smith and Ntilikina, he has an inconsistent shot. Payton does know how to organize an offense and his defense is, at the very least, reliable.
Now here’s someone you can’t ignore in the backcourt mix: Allonzo Trier.
The second-year guard, who was an un-drafted gem found by Perry and his scouts, is arguably the most dynamic guard on the team. Trier puts pressure on opposing defenses with his ability to get into the paint (which is a critical element in today’s NBA game) and his 39.4% shooting from three might be the most unheralded part of his game. He’s a worker, so his defense needs to improve and should with consistent minutes. But you can’t deny his 17.1 points per 36 minutes last season.
Fizdale often uses the phrase “positionless basketball,” which suggests he may be open to not using a traditional “point guard” in certain lineups. Would he consider starting Trier, though? Barrett, despite being a rookie, showed some ability in the preseason to handle the basketball and run the offense. Randle averaged 4.5 assists per game in the preseason and also has a willingness to let the offense run through him. Morris, as well.
It will be interesting to see who Fizdale uses on opening night in San Antonio, but it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in today’s NBA to use a backcourt of Barrett and Trier and go without a traditional floor general point guard.
That leaves a bench with a lot of depth and a lot of competition for minutes. Smith, Ntilikina, Payton and sharp-shooting veteran Wayne Ellington are there and, don’t forget, Bullock (neck surgery) is expected to be ready sometime around the New Year. That’s five
guys for two spots, and we didn’t mention Daymean Dotson.
“We’re going to play whoever is performing,” Fizdale said, which seems to establish a meritocracy.
Someone who may thrive off the Knicks bench this season is second-year forward Kevin Knox, who has gotten physically stronger and has looked a lot more confident. A bench role, with regular rotation minutes, should allow him to develop while going up against opposing
subs. Portis and Gibson add to the depth and rookie Iggy Brazdeikis showed in Summer League that he’s got game. He’s a player to watch develop as we get into the season.
Projections for the Knicks have been modest, at best. After a 17-win season and the addition of 9 new players, there isn’t much to go on when it comes to predicting what this team can be this season. Another lottery appearance? Contend for the playoffs? The potential
is wide-ranging, but could come into focus rather quickly with a challenging first half schedule, with two West Coast trips and a lot of road games. If the Knicks can stay in the fight through the holidays, the second half is very amenable for a run. And if
they’re in it come trade deadline, there’s motivation to make a move or two to end what is now a six-year playoff drought.
For now, while the talk was about being a tough team that brought back the nostalgia of the ‘90s, in reality the Knicks need to establish an identity, first, of a team that can keep up with today’s high-energy game. The NBA’s scoring average last season was 111.2
points per game, which is 11 points higher than just five seasons ago. Three-point attempts were shot on average of 32 per game last year, the first time the league average was over 30.
So the question is, can the Knicks, at the very least, be a team that can keep up with the averages?
There’s also been a lot of talk about defense. The same issues from recent years in regards to defending the three-point shot appeared in the preseason. Rebounding is also critical. But this takes us back to shooting and the offense, because a bad offense often leads
to poor defense. How? When you’re missing shots and coming up empty on the offensive end, you lose focus on defense. It’s human nature.
Why do I bring this up? Here’s why: when the Knicks talk about being a “tougher” team this season, that’s the first kind of toughness they need to establish.
With that and the 10-man rotation to juggle, this will be a far more challenging season for Fizdale to coach compared to last year’s development year.
“Everybody has a different set of problems and things that they have to try to figure out,” Fizdale said. “Ours is getting this team to jell as fast as possible, because of the new faces and figure out who’s going to be the guys that’s playing the minutes.”
This is the third year for Perry and the second for Fizdale. History shows in the NBA, unless you have that free agency bonanza summer the Knicks initially hoped to have, building a winner organically takes time.