Every year it comes to this, so here we are again. The New York Knicks, a summer after making a series of ill advised, short-sighted, win-now moves, are on the verge of having the math formally confirm what every sober observer has known for at least two months now: they're not making the playoffs. Carmelo Anthony is bitter and sarcastic in post-game interviews like the girlfriend you took to Buffalo Wild Wings on Valentine's Day. The one year rental who made premature comments about wanting to retire as a Knick is waging a war of words with the coaching staff. The young guys are playing irrationally hard to save their careers and probably knocking the Knicks out of prime lottery odds in the process. We were here a year ago, we'll probably be here a year from now. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Reality is dim and horribly predictable. If we stay here, we know what will happen. The regular season will end and Carmelo Anthony will go home to defend his honor in Instagram comment sections and watch MVP Kawhi Leonard lead the San Antonio Spurs to their sixth NBA title. The summer will come and the front office will pay lip service to the idea of building something sustainable for the future. Phil Jackson will emerge from his Zen-do and say something weird and crotchety about system basketball and "finding the right players," and then approximately five minutes later will trade Lance Thomas, Willy Hernangomez, and Chasson Randle to the Clippers for Jamal Crawford and use the Knicks' fresh cap space to sign Tyreke Evans to a max contract.
That's the reality. It's depressing, but more than that, it's really boring. So let's imagine a different world—a better world, a simpler world. Let's imagine a world where the Knicks are a sane NBA franchise whose front office sees that they have a budding superstar player on their hands in Kristaps Porzingis. Let's say, even, that this fantasy front office accepts that they have gone about as far as they can trying to create pseudo-contenders on the fly around the aging Carmelo Anthony. In this world, Phil Jackson calls up general manager Steve Mills and the conversation goes something like this:
JACKSON: Hey, Steve, it's Phil. I'm your boss and I also won eleven NBA championships as a head coach. Anyway, I was just
doing peyote--I mean, fly fishing up here in the Montana wilderness and I had a realization that I think could change the course of our basketball club's future.
MILLS: *shuddering as repressed memories surface of Joakim Noah signing a $72-million contract while his paper mache legs crumble audibly beneath him* Oh, yeah? What's that, Phil?
JACKSON: Well, I was just thinking, you know, this Kristaps Porzingis kid is pretty talented and I really messed up giving that Carmelo guy a no-trade clause in 2014. What if we just said, you know, screw it and decided to build around the skinny foreigner. What if we, say, surrounded him with a bunch of young, skilled players who could grow on his timeline? I mean, you know, what if?
MILLS: Uh, wow Phil, that sounds pretty great! Let's do that!
*Mills rushes to get off the phone before Phil can change his mind.*
MILLS: Alright, Phil, that's a bold and unconventional move very much befitting your reputation as a basketball renegade, and I think it just might work. I'll get right on it and talk to you soon.
JACKSON: Sounds great, Steve! Also, the only valid way to penetrate a defense is to feed the low post.
MILLS: *dial tone*
In this imaginary world, the sane Knicks front office would look at their current roster and see some pieces that are worth keeping around for the new, Porzingis-centric future. Here are some of the names that the Knicks should look to hold on to, either through re-signing or simply not trading them, if a hole rips in the space-time continuum this June and transports us to that strange, benevolent alternate reality:
Children's book author and 23-year-old undrafted rookie guard Ron Baker is this year's fan-favorite scrappy player over at Madison Square Garden. His counting stats aren't anything breathtaking, but he hustles like a mad man on defense and plays well within himself on offense. He's developing into a solid wing defender and a smart, patient cutter. The Knicks should keep him on as a reserve. He can hold down the fort against NBA bench units and can spot start in a pinch.
Randle was a favorite of the coaching staff coming out of training camp this year and probably would have had Baker's roster spot if not for having suffered an orbital bone fracture before the start of the season. He had a coming out party in the fourth quarter of last week's game against the Magic, where he conducted the offense with poise and confidence, propelling the Knicks to an oddly thrilling, come-from-behind victory. He was rewarded for his brilliance with a DNP-CD in the Knicks' next game, a dispiriting loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Given more opportunities, Randle could prove himself to be a solid NBA starter or, at the very least, a good option as a triangle lead-guard, should the Knicks continue to run that (in)famous triple-post offense.
Thomas was a revelation last year as a 3-and-D guy with an off the bounce game that rated as unwieldy-yet-somehow-pretty-effective. He was paid handsomely this off-season in return, as the Knicks locked him up for four years and 27 million dollars. He was in and out of the lineup for the first half of the season, but since coming back at full health has been every bit the player he was last year, if not more. In his last 10 games, he's averaging 9.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists while shooting 46.9% from beyond the arc. His defense is versatile and consistent and his effort on that end of the floor is infectious. Good things happen for the Knicks when Thomas is out there harassing primary scorers and aggressive wings. His smart offense is just gravy after that. He's a great first player off the bench and could even slot into a starting role at the 3 or 4 should the Knicks decide to move on from Anthony or move Porzingis to center full-time.
Supposedly a throw-in from the Bulls in the
unfortunate Derrick Rose trade last summer, Holiday has proven himself to be a rangy and willing defender with a solid outside shot and a penchant for keeping the ball moving in his first season with consistent NBA minutes. The jury is still out on whether or not he could develop into a full-time starter, and, at 27 years old, he doesn't have much time left for development. Still, the advanced statistics universally jibe with the impression you get from watching him—he makes his team much better at pretty much everything and makes his opponent worse. Even if he never becomes a consistent starter, Holiday makes for a great backup guard and could be a key piece in a rangy perimeter defense in front of Porzingis's rim protection.
His name is spelled "Willy" but is pronounced "Billy." He's 22 years old, has the post moves of a ballerina, passes brilliantly, and has (maybe) the highest basketball IQ on the Knicks roster. His defense his mediocre but has shown signs of improvement in recent games. He and Porzingis played together in Spain and are, apparently, best friends. When they get on the court together, they do cool basketball things like this:
He is the center of the future for this franchise. At least, he is until Porzingis grows into his own and becomes the true center of the future for the franchise, at which point Hernangomez will become the backup center of the future [for the franchise]. Viva Willy.