Out of the Ashes, Normalcy

Out of the Ashes, Normalcy
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José Calderón seems pretty embarrassed by it. Carmelo Anthony would rather forget it ever happened. Knicks fans have largely moved on from it, pinning their hopes for the future on the back of a 9-foot, 135-pound (these numbers are approximate) Latvian wunderkind. And you know what? I don’t want to talk about last season, either. The 2014-15 season was a historically awful one for the professional basketball team (or whatever you want to call the group of D-Leaguers and college-level players that were given Knicks jerseys) that played at Madison Square Garden. We suffered through 78 of the 82 games the Knicks played last season. I’d be happy to never think about it again. What happened after that miserable season, however, does bear some discussion. In order to understand the state of the Knicks as they get ready to start the 2015-16 regular season, to get an idea of where they stand and where they could be going, it’s essential to first go back and retrace their quietly radical offseason.

With the dumpster fire of the 2014-15 season behind them, the Knicks moved into the May 19th draft lottery with hopes of receiving the top pick of a strong draft class. A first or even second pick would have allowed them to walk away with a consensus franchise-altering player like versatile big man Karl Anthony-Towns or back-to-the-basket virtuoso Jahlil Okafor. But, of course, Phil Jackson’s Basketball Gods are vengeful deities, and the ping-pong balls fell as they did. In an instance of unfortunate cosmic irony, the Knicks left that night with the 4th pick in the draft.

Speculation raged in the proceeding weeks over what path the Knicks would take with their pick. Would they keep it at all, or perhaps trade it for an established player or multiple lower and future draft picks? If they kept it, would they take the consensus-best player available at that spot? Would they still do so if that player were point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a big guard ready to contribute now but whose lack of shooting ability may have rendered him a poor fit for their triangle offense? If not, would they make the safe choice and take a player with a higher floor and less upside, like a Willie Cauley-Stein or Justise Winslow?

What they actually did on draft night defied expectations and set the precedent for a series of radically normal offseason moves. With the fourth pick in the draft, the Knicks took the 7’3” Latvian Kristaps Porzingis, a 19-year-old whose athleticism and shooting touch made him a high-upside choice, but who, many pundits agreed, would probably need a few years of development to be a consistent contributor at the NBA level. Knicks fans in attendance at Barclay’s Center booed the pick, likely remembering the disappointment of European big man Frédéric Weis, the Knicks’ selection in the 1999 draft, and, more recently, that of Andrea Bargnani. A matter of minutes after selecting Porzingis, the Knicks pulled off the biggest coup of the night. In a moment of front office brilliance and opportunism, the Knicks traded Tim Hardaway, Jr., the underwhelming 2nd year shooting guard, to the Atlanta Hawks for the rights to 19th pick Jerian Grant, a 22-year-old point guard out of Notre Dame with elite size, good court vision, and great penetrating ability.

When free agency rolled around, most people figured that the Knicks would do the predictably Knicks-y thing and throw max money at every big name star who would listen. As expected, they (reportedly) offered Greg Monroe a max contract the moment the clock struck 12:00 on July 1st. When Monroe declined their offer and opted instead to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks turned their attention to the remaining marquee free agents, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan.

If past actions were to be a predictor of future decisions, the smart money bet that the Knicks would ignore all concerns regarding potential fit and future financial flexibility and extend a max offer to Aldridge. After all, it was that sort of rash decision-making that had brought the Knicks to offer the perpetually injured Amare’ Stoudemire an uninsurable five-year max in 2010, to force a crippling midseason trade for Carmelo Anthony in 2011, and to give up yet another 1st round draft pick in the still-confounding 2013 trade for Andrea Bargnani.

This is where things really got weird.

On July 2nd, reports began to surface that the Knicks had canceled a scheduled meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge. Why? Because, according to David Aldridge of NBA.com, he didn’t want to play center. That’s right—the Knicks ended their pursuit of a big name player because he didn’t fit into their on-court plans. On paper, this move seems perfectly sensible—after all, Aldridge’s midrange-heavy offensive game wouldn’t mesh well with that of Carmelo Anthony if they played alongside each other at the forward spots. But, again, you have to remember that these are the Knicks we’re talking about—being sensible has, historically, not been their bag. In that light, this was a truly bizarre move for a franchise that had made pursuing star players at the expense of the on-court product their thing for over a decade.

You know what happened next. DeAndre Jordan spurned the Knicks, made a verbal agreement to sign with the Dallas Mavericks, reneged on that agreement, and re-signed with the Clippers. Rather than taking the max money they had been reserving for Monroe, Jordan and Aldridge and doling it out to a lower-tier player, the Knicks filled out their roster with a bunch of solid yet decidedly unflashy players. They signed, to reasonable deals, guys like Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo, players known more for their defensive acumen and professionalism than their ability to put up points or sell jerseys. They took a flier on Derrick Williams, hoping that, in the right environment, his raw talent and athleticism could be molded into something at least worthy of a two-year, $8.8 million contract, if not more. They signed Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin, betting that they could increase their production and expand their games in ways for which their limited previous opportunities hadn’t allowed. Finally, they re-signed Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson, two holdovers from the 2014-15 roster who had proven to be willing defenders and capable locker room leaders.

In essence, the Knicks conducted their offseason in, what was for them, the most radical way possible: as a normal and reasonable NBA franchise.

This shift towards normalcy is a good long-term sign for a franchise that has so often shot itself in the foot by mortgaging its future for quick fix solutions to big structural problems. By drafting Porzingis and Grant, signing O’Quinn, Seraphin, and Williams, and keeping Cleanthony Early and Langston Galloway, the Knicks have gotten significantly younger and thus made a visible commitment towards building something sustainable. They didn’t give out any particularly onerous contracts, and so they’ll have the flexibility in the coming seasons to take advantage of the rising salary cap and be full participants in the impending free agencies.

Where does that leave the Knicks for 2015-16? It’s impossible to say for sure, but the early indicators are good. While teams coming off seasons as bad as the Knick’s 2014-15 campaign have rarely improved on the level the Knicks would need to in order to compete for a playoff spot this season, there are recent examples, notably that of the Buck’s 26-win jump between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, that indicate that marked improvement is possible, however unlikely.

To that end, the Knicks’ first 5 preseason games have been heartening. They’ve pushed the ball up the floor after defensive rebounds and opponents’ made baskets, which has resulted in a lot of early and transition offense. Per Basketball-Reference.com, they’re averaging 101.5 possessions per game, which is something of a revelation after they averaged a miserable 91.2 possessions per game in the 2014-15 season to rank 28th in the league in pace. They seem to have improved their horrendous perimeter defense, dropping from 1st in the league last season in opponent 3-point percentage (38%) to 27th in the preseason (25.4%), according to stats provided by NBA.com. They’re running the triangle with more fluidity and to greater success, and the new players seem to be adapting well to the offense.

Of course, the preseason is still the preseason, and the Knicks production over the past 5 games needs to be taken with (at least) a grain of salt. Serious questions still linger about this team. While their opponent 3-point percentage looks good so far, they’re still allowing mountains of uncontested shots from behind the arc that opponents are just missing. Sooner or later, teams will start making those open looks, and when they do, it will be bad. Though the Knicks got younger, longer, and quicker this season, they are still relying on a lot of perimeter players who are either below average or unproven on the defensive side of the ball. Melo looks healthy and has shot the ball spectacularly well in the preseason, but the vast majority of his shots have come from  midrange. As last Friday’s game against Boston showed, he will have off shooting nights. It has yet to be seen whether his physical interior play has survived his knee surgery, but if the Knicks are going to compete offensively this season, they’re going to need Melo to work the post and fight for offensive rebounds on nights when his jumper just isn’t falling.

It’s still unclear if Derek Fisher can coach an NBA team. His game management last year was awful, but it’s hard to say how much of the Knicks’ futility coming out of timeouts and in late game situations was his fault and how much can be attributed to the lack of talent on the roster. The Knicks are going to be relying pretty heavily on rookies Grant and Porzingis and a handful of players who have never borne the brunt of serious minutes in the NBA. Whether or not those players will produce offensively and defend in their new and expanded roles is hard to predict. Finally, the question of backcourt rotation is still an open one. Currently, the Knicks have a log jam at the 4 and 5 spots, with five players who exclusively play those positions (Porzingis, Lopez, O’Quinn, Seraphin, and Amundson) and three players who figure to spend some time at the 4 (Melo, Williams, and Thomas) all vying for playing time.

With so many variables at work, it’s hard to make a solid projection for this team. There are sound arguments to be made for any number of potential outcomes. If I time traveled to April 2016 and someone told me the Knicks had been hit by a rash of injuries and imploded once again, I wouldn’t bat an eye. If I was instead told that everything had broken just right and they had scrapped their way to a low playoff berth, that wouldn’t surprise me either. When faced with such extreme realistic potential outcomes, it’s probably safest to bet on mediocrity. No matter how the Knicks’ season turns out, though, whether they end up being horrible, mediocre, brilliant, or some combination of the three, it looks like they might finally be normal. And that, in and of itself, is worth celebrating.