The Knicks are going to be bad this year, flirting with the best odds in the NBA Lottery for most of the season. At this point, barring improbable and unexpected trades, it is unavoidable – but just because a team is bad, doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
Knicks fans should be embracing this team. They have eight players that were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents, and all of these players are 22 years or younger. The oldest of the group? Obi Toppin, who was born in Brooklyn on March 4, 1998. Even though it seems like they have been on the roster a long time, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson are only 22 and Kevin Knox is only 21.
Their two oldest players under contract are Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks, both of whom are only 29 years old. Austin Rivers is the other grizzled veteran at 28 years old. The Knicks are truly rebuilding around a young, homegrown core for the first time since they drafted Patrick Ewing.
Knicks fans are going to get to see their young players play. Some fans might have already given up on the likes of Knox, Ntilikina, and Dennis Smith Jr., but they will have every chance to prove they can stick long term with the Knicks. Mitchell Robinson will have a chance to show extensive growth in his third season and deserves a contract extension next summer.
RJ Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis will embark on their second seasons. Barrett had a productive, if inefficient, rookie season, and will try to improve as a shooter everywhere. Brazdeikis had a strong rookie season in the G-League, and has potential to be a good offensive player.
Rookies Toppin and Immanuel Quickley will have the chance to get on the floor right away. Toppin is older with a mature NBA-ready offensive game, while Quickley’s shooting could earn him playing time immediately.
Even recent additions, like former 2018 first round picks Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman (both also 23 years old), will have a chance to compete. Former undrafted free agent Jared Harper, who is on a two-way contract, will have a chance to fight his way into the point guard competition, as will 2020 undrafted free agent Myles Powell.
These players will have a chance under an accomplished coach with a long track record of winning in Tom Thibodeau, and an extensive and ever-growing player development staff, to make their way with the Knicks. There is talent on the roster, if it can be nurtured and used the right way.
Knicks fans have been waiting for this for a long time. They are going to get to see the young players get extensive playing time, and improve over the course of the year. There is joy in that. It can be fun. Seeing what the team can turn into one day, all the while dreaming about a potential top draft pick in a loaded class to add the core, provides real excitement. Knicks fans can also enjoy watching these potential draft picks play college ball this year, but that’s a topic for a different column. If the Knicks’ own young players play so well the team is competitive every night, and they are very competitive, it means the current staff knows how to develop players and their recent drafts are better than initially thought.
Aside from Bullock, Burks, and Rivers, there are also veterans like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, and Nerlens Noel to compete with for playing time. Given the front office’s approach thus far, it would be hard to believe that these players would be given the majority of the available minutes in favor of younger players that could be a part of the future.
The Knicks have embraced where they are as a franchise in terms of team building, and given the synergy between Tom Thibodeau and Leon Rose, it reasons they will be on the same page with the approach to the younger players on the roster. Thibodeau approached the Timberwolves in his first full season there the same way, when he played the younger players on the roster to understand exactly what he had in them.
One misconception out there about the Knicks is that they have been rebuilding since 2014, since they haven’t won more than 40 games or made the playoffs since 2013. They have certainly been bad since then, but they haven’t been rebuilding. There’s a difference.
Carmelo Anthony was on the roster until the 2016-2017 season, and the Knicks were trying to win before he was traded. As soon as the team had cap space in 2016 and 2017, they immediately filled it by dolling out long-term onerous contracts to Joakim Noah and Tim Hardaway Jr – and even after Anthony left, the team thought it could quickly build around Kristaps Porzingis.
Once the Knicks traded Porzingis in the early months of 2019, the rebuild was truly on. Despite that, when the Knicks had cap space in the summer of 2019, they filled it all quickly. Even though they didn’t spend it on any contracts of more than two seasons (Julius Randle was the only two-year deal), they still spent it all on expensive one-year deals.
The decisions had multiple effects. The team was unable to use the money to acquire additional draft picks, though they were able to trade Marcus Morris for a future first-round pick. The larger contracts also made the organization feel obligated to dedicate minutes to these players. As delusional as it may have been, the front office also believed that the mix of veterans gave the team a chance to make the playoffs. The front office did not operate as though they were in a rebuild in the truest sense of the word.
They are operating that way now. It doesn’t mean that every young player is going to play major minutes, and every veteran is going to be benched. It is impossible give all of them a significant role, so there will be competition. If a player like Frank Ntilikina can’t prove he can provide something in his fourth NBA season that’s better than a low-end NBA veteran can, that’s on him.
Hope is powerful. There should be real hope the Knicks are building towards a bright future with their current young core and whomever gets added with their four picks in the 2021 NBA Draft. Before the team can think about trading assets for a star or dishing out a massive free agent contract, they need to build a young core and find a young star from within. That’s what this year is about, and watching it come together can be a lot of fun. So while the team might lose a lot of games, it doesn’t mean there won’t be important and fun basketball to watch at Madison Square Garden.
Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk