Over the last couple of days there has been a degree of panic amongst the fans of New York Knicks. The free agency period has yet to yield a high profile signature, and combined with the drafting of project Kristaps Porzingas, it is clear there is a palpable feeling that not enough is being done. Closer examination reveals however that this approach is more likely to result in long-term success.
For many this represents a failure of Phil Jackson and his current administration. Memories of the Knicks as a prime destination for free agents run in competition with the repeated spurning of the Knicks by free agents this week. The final straw for many has been the double whammy of Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge spurning the Knicks for the Bucks and the Spurs (presumably) respectively. The Knicks have also targeted Wes Matthews, Danny Green, DeMarre Carroll and DeAndre Jordan, to no avail.
Truth be told it’s been a long time since the Knicks have been a prime destination for free agents. Carmelo Anthony forced his way to New York, and the Knicks signed Amare Stoudemire as the world’s most expensive consolation prize in 2010. But these two should be considered outliers in recent history. Actual in-their-prime superstars have not signed with the Knicks since before you were born.
That’s because the circumstances that made New York attractive: access to a massive commercial market and a perennial playoff team throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were attractive. But today, players don’t need to be in New York to access a worldwide market. And the Knicks haven’t been consistently competitive since Patrick Ewing left.
An easy way to think about this is to look at the stars that have played for the Knicks in the last twenty years. Patrick Ewing came by draft. Larry Johnson came by trade, and was broken by the time he got to the Knicks. Zach Randolph was acquired by trade and it took him another stop (the Clippers) before he turned into the player we have known at Memphis. Marcus Camby, Penny Hardaway, Steve Francis, and Latrell Sprewell came and went by trade. Stephon Marbury came by trade and went in flames. Carmelo was drawn to New York for non-basketball reasons. Only Allan Houston, Amare Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler came as a free agents – and only Houston and Chandler could be considered to be in their prime.
It’s clear that memories of New York as a premier free agent destination are just that.
But that hasn’t meant the desire to sign a name hasn’t been strong amongst fans. In particular, the drive to sign Monroe has been fascinating. His elite skill – low block scoring – mirrors one of Carmelo’s many elite skills. He plays average defence, exacerbating the already porous defence the Knicks have displayed post- Chandler. Paying him as a cornerstone of the franchise seems like the exact decision the Knicks would have made in the mid-to-late 2000s. It would have improved them in name but not necessarily in game. Further, having Munroe (or even Alrdridge for that matter) would also provide a second contender for Porzingas to beat out for time in the front-court. While Porzingas is still a project, he will need time on the court to improve – something that can’t occur if he’s fighting for time with Melo and Munroe or Aldridge.
In reality, the cautious, circumspect approach adopted by the Knicks has been encouraging. Rather than running to trade their pick for immediate help, rather than sign people like Munroe to improve ticket sales but not championship odds, the front office has instead taken a strategy of only trying to acquire assists that improve the team but maintain long-term flexibility.
The Knicks instead have signed Arron Afflalo to a team friendly two-year deal. Afflalo is an excellent long-distance shooter and will thrive shooting off Melo’s skip-passes out of the post on the weak-side 45. He is also a willing defender on the wing, something the Knicks sorely lack. In addition, at time of writing it appears Robin Lopez is the next signature at around $12m a season – he will provide the rim protection that will allow Melo to slide into the power-forward position where he thrives on offense, and is less vulnerable on defence.
These are smart decisions. They make the Knicks better. They do not put strain on the cap, allowing the Knicks to continue to build through free agency going forward. For possibly the first time in my lifetime the Knicks will be under the cap, even allowing them to be a player for teams trying to clear space in the next few days.
It is clear the Knicks are not contenders next year. But short of a miracle, they were never going to be. Instead, they have gone about the process of building a better team. It is a more patient and cautious approach than has been previously adopted.
And that is precisely why it is more likely to work.