Starting from scratch
While it’s crazy to talk about the Knicks having championship aspirations after seven straight losing seasons, but every rebuild has to start somewhere. Before the Warriors became a dynasty, they also went through a bad stretch, having only 2 winning seasons in an 18 year span. The fans famously booed the owners during Chris Mullin’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2012. For the Knicks, there are several steps that they will need to take in order to build their own championship team, the first is having the right mindset.
Step 1 – Build a culture
The biggest complaint of how last season unfolded was that the Knicks didn’t win games or develop their young players. For most fans, 2019-20 is considered a lost season.
Making the most of this season starts by creating a culture of hard work, focus and attention to detail. If the Knicks do that then they will put a quality product on the court every night. The team doesn’t have to win most of its games, just look well coached and have an identity.
Step 2 – Win more games
There is no reason the Knicks can’t win more games. Most of the young players are a year older, the returning vets have developed chemistry and the coaching is better. We all know Coach Thibodeau is all about winning, but it’s in his best interest to show improvement by playing the right way, but not overachieving.
A great win total to shoot for is 29, it’s higher than what the odds makers are predicting which is between 21-23 wins. A .403 winning percentage is an improvement over the prior season (.318), but not high enough to get out of the lottery. Most importantly, it would show the team is ready to take the next step as it approaches the 2021 offseason, while still having a chance at a top prospect in the lottery. The 2021 draft is projected to be one of the best in recent years.
Step 3 – Develop the young players
Most fans would put development over wins, but if the team can’t win 40% of it’s games with this young core, then that means they aren’t developing. The Knicks need Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett to take a leap in their development and show they are viable starters with All-Star potential. That is a reasonable expectation, especially when you consider how last season’s poorly constructed roster hindered them.
Robinson needs to prove he is more than a rim runner by developing some semblance of a post game and finally showing us the 3-point shot we have only seen on social media. He needs to prove he is closer to Deandre Ayton than Jarrett Allen. He also has to master the little things like setting picks correctly, moving without the ball and being a serviceable passer. Let’s not forget, play smarter on defense by avoiding silly fouls like what happened in the 2nd preseason game, 5 fouls in 19 minutes. A very good season for Robinson would be averaging 14 ppg, 10 rpg, 2.0 apg and 2 blocks per game.
As for Barrett, he needs to improve his outside shooting. Especially since the roster construction doesn’t provide him the adequate spacing needed for his game. But he also needs to tighten his handle and passing. If that happens, then you could use him in different lineups to exploit mismatches. A great season for Barrett would be averaging 19 ppg, 4.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds on a true shooting percentage of 54%, which would be a 7% improvement over his rookie campaign.
Aside from Mitch and R.J., Obi Toppin needs to prove he was the right selection. He is off to a good start in preseason. His talent is undeniable, it pops off the screen every time he enters the game. The biggest concerns for Toppin is his defense and getting enough playing time as Julius Randle is ahead of him on the depth chart and they really can’t play together.
Step 4 – Develop the other youngsters
The Knicks weren’t able to make a trade for a quality vet this offseason because they don’t have any assets on the roster besides Mitch and R.J.. Trading one of them for another player would be a zero sum game. They need to develop their own assets in order to be in the game for an established player that fills a need. They need one of their other young players to breakout, preferably one of the former lottery picks: Frank, Dennis Smith Jr. (DSJ) or Knox. If one of them breaks out the rebuild will be accelerated.
There is reason to think that at least one will. They all had their development stunted by poor management. Now that the Knicks have brought in some of the best development coaches in the game, there is no reason they won’t improve.
Step 5: Finding the right vets
Last season it felt like Mills and Perry brought in a bunch of mercenaries whose skill set and games didn’t compliment the young players. Of the 7 players they brought in, only 2 remain, Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, which most fans don’t expect to be on the team next season.
This year the vets that were brought in made more sense. Nerlens Noel is an improvement over Taj Gibson. He is younger, 26 years-old compared to Gibson, who is now 35 years-old, plus he provides a reductant skillset at center. Between Mitch and Nerlens, the Knicks will have 48 minutes of rim protection and lob threats. Alec Burks provides outside shooting, but is more versatile and Wayne Ellington. Austin Rivers can play both guard positions, get to the basket and shoot from outside. He is only 28 years-old and on a very team friendly contract, 3yrs/$10M, only the 1st year is guaranteed.
All the new vets have said the right things, have games that compliment the young players, and can contribute to the team for several seasons.
If the Knicks can execute these 5 steps then the sky’s the limit when they enter the summer of 2021. Remember the Knicks are one of the few destination franchises, they don’t need to be perfect just show they are set up to win.