Knicks: A comprehensive look at their place in the Eastern Conference now and in future

May 14, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum reveals the number three pick for the New York Knicks during the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery at the Hilton Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
May 14, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum reveals the number three pick for the New York Knicks during the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery at the Hilton Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /

Where do the New York Knicks stand in the Eastern Conference and how can they become contenders?

The New York Knicks might be gaining on their relative competition by remaining patient this offseason.

With the reckless attempts by Charlotte and Atlanta to move out of the basement, they have distanced themselves from the Knicks, at least on paper. The acquisition of Russell Westbrook doesn’t bode well for the Wizards, as he and Bradley Beal will not mesh. Without significant improvement from their young players, the Knicks are not the equal of Indiana and Orlando. The rest of the East has improved as well. New York’s record may not be much better than last year, but, at least, they avoided the mistake of mortgaging future title contention for a spot in this year’s playoffs.

Beware the Free Agent quick fix

The Los Angeles Clippers mortgaged their future in an attempt to win now. Their $70+ million roster coming up short. Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti held the Clips up for four, yes 4 first round draft choices and up-and-coming guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. By the way, Paul George’s four-year contract originally signed with the Thunder contained a player’s option for the 2020-2021 season, but not 21-22. Perhaps he agreed to waive this provision when he went to the Clips.

After a huge flop, the Clippers’ legendary coach was released. Their fire and fury guys, Pat Beverly and Montrezl Harrell, caught cold from the preferential treatment accorded these stars. Poof, there went the chemistry, leadership and long term future of this up and coming team.

If the Clippers had signed Jimmy Butler instead of Paul George, they would have battled the Lakers in the Conference Finals, in my opinion. As a team, the Clippers embodied the expression, “No guts, no glory.” Doc Rivers failed to unify the various egos and the Clips were less than the sum of their parts. These signings were a huge gamble that look very problematic right now. The same Sam Presti made minced meat out of Daryl Morey in the Westbrook trade. Two firsts from the Rockets and another from Phoenix when he moved CP3.

Leadership is a tremendously important part of a winning team

The Nets may face some of the same difficulties. Neither Kyrie Irving nor Kevin Durant have been known for having strong leadership qualities. On the contrary, Kyrie has been a disruptive force in the past. Although the Nets didn’t have to give any value for these signings, the very large salaries of these two FAs will not allow them to re-sign some their own valuable free agents. Is three leaders — the coach and two players — the same as no leadership? We shall see.

All this to say that planning to win by signing very talented free agents is a road filled with landmines. When you go all in, you’d better win it all. Ask Masai Ujiri.

What about the aftermath? The Miami Heat have been in the NBA finals five times, winning two titles over the last ten years. Their record was below .500 twice. In their first run, with the trio of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, the Heat were two of four in title playoffs. The year before their most recent trip to the finals, they were 39-43, only their second below .500 finish in that 10-year run.

The way they accomplished this should be the model for the Knicks.

  1. Develop young talent. Bam, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro.
  2. Sign a super star with proven leadership ability and a burning determination to win first, get paid second, Jimmy Butler.
  3. Sign a significant vet or two who are plus defenders and can make open shots, Jae Crowder and Andre Igouadala.

Where the Knicks rank among the top players in the league

A recent article in the Athletic listed their Top 125 players. As with any list of this type, it can be justly criticized on the bases of criteria, inclusions and exclusions. However, the list also correlates quite closely with the results of the most recent NBA playoffs. The emphasis was on the best players today, not yesterday or tomorrow.

Rather than rank the players from 1 to 125, a five-tier system was used, with six players in Tier-1, ten in Tier-2, 42 in Tier-4, and 46 in Tier-5. When we give a weighted score to each tier from 5 to 1, the Clippers were alone at the top with a 16, Miami and the Lakers had scores of 12. At the other end were the New York Knicks and the Charlotte Hornets with one Tier-5 player and 1 point each.

Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the Eastern Conference teams with a Tier I player. The Nets have a solid core of younger players to go with KD and Kyrie, mostly Tier III. Boston has great balance, terrific young players, an excellent management team and four draft picks, including three firsts, from this year’s draft. Miami’s culture and Jimmy Butler is a marriage made in Basketball Heaven. They are also a team built on their youth. Toronto has one superstar, Masai Ujiri, and will be perennial title threats as long as he is there.

Is Philly struggling because ‘God don’t like ugly?’ They have five players listed in the Athletic’s Top 125 and have the same composite score as Toronto and Miami, yet they were not the competitive team we saw when Jimmy B. was driving them to the top. Individual talent needs leadership and direction for a team to be at its best.

The Celts, Heat and Raptors look like they will be at the top of the Eastern Conference for some time to come. The Nets, Bucks, and Sixers have boom or bust potential, based on the whims of their super stars. They lack the stability of the top three franchises.

Analyzing the prospects of the remaining teams is very disheartening for any Knicks fan who isn’t wearing Rose-colored glasses. We should be acutely aware that our fellow cellar dwellers are building for tomorrow, as well. The future Knicks may not have to overcome LeBron, Harden and present day superstars. The battle will be contested by today’s twenty somethings, and we will examine how the Knicks stack up.

By the end of year three, we shall see what direction the Leon Rose management team has taken and how successful their path has been. The other teams in the battle with the Knicks to get to the top of the conference cannot be ignored. The young players these teams have accumulated are at least as good, and in most cases, better than those on the Knicks’ roster. It is vitally important that New York holds on to all their draft choices. If this year is any indication, they plan to do just that.

Next. 4 make or break Knicks for this season. dark

The Knicks will not make the playoffs in 2020-21. At this stage of the team’s development, eighth place is a distraction, not a destination. The development of a core identity and a solid group of young players with championship potential must be the immediate goal. Until this is in place, New York will not be a desirable destination for ‘win now’ free agents. Even if two or three great players collude to win a ring, why would they choose New York? The cupboard is nearly bare in MSG. But the process is in place to start improving.