Yes, NY Knicks’ Newcomers Can Fit the Rebuild

As you might have heard, the New York Knicks haven’t had a banner free agency campaign.

They didn’t land any of the blue-ribbon players they coveted, and then they claimed they weren’t planning on offering Kevin Durant a max contract. New York subsequently settled on Julius Randle, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton.

Meanwhile, KD and Kyrie Irving inked deals with the crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Nets.

That’s right, one of the NBA’s flagship franchises dealt Kristaps Porzingis last winter and ended up with a slew of mid-to-lower tier power forwards and a few middling guards. Now they don’t have enough cap space to take on a bad expiring contract and accompanying draft picks, as NBC’s Tommy Beer noted.

It’s disappointing for sure, but it’s not shocking considering we’re talking about the largely, longly hopeless Knicks.

Let’s skip the part where we lament that James Dolan, Steve Mills and Scott Perry failed to land megastars—Stephen A. Smith already covered that for us. (Like, a thousand times.)

Instead, we’ll try to sort out what coach David Fizdale can do with the journeyman newcomers and young core.

That’s because some of the consolation signings are respectable pieces. Randle is a talented 24-year-old. Fortunately, the rest of the additions are only on short-term deals. Vets like Gibson and Ellington will give the youngsters much-needed guidance.

There is actually reasonable avenue for this 2019-2020 team being watchable and building somewhat of a foundation, even if they don’t win more than 30-35 games.

It will be tricky to strike a balance between giving key prospects ample court time and implementing lineups that complement each other. Right now, Mitchell Robinson, R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox are the priority developmental projects; All should get at least 25 minutes per game. That still leaves ample time to evaluate the rest of the group and keep some floor-spacers in the game.

Jan 28, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (26) passes the ball to forward Kevin Knox (20) during the second half against Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (0) at the Spectrum Center. The Hornets won 101-92. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Randle and Robinson will likely get the nod as the starting frontcourt. Mitchell is a non-shooter and Randle is an unreliable one, which means it will be tough to stretch the defense unless Randle makes another leap from three-point range (he improved to a career-high 34.4 percent last season).

The widely-presumed starting lineup is Dennis Smith, Jr., Robinson, Randle, Knox and Barrett. Randle had the highest three-point percentage of that group last season, which is scary given everything in the previous paragraph.

The lack of perimeter punch will beg opposing defenses to pack the paint. That will shrink the floor for slashers like DSJ, Barrett and Randle, minimizing their full potential. I understand that this is the most talented lineup available, but Fizdale should rotate some shooters into the mix early in the game.

And while the Knicks don’t have the splashiest stable of long-range names, they do have legitimately viable options.

Damyean Dotson shot 36.8 from deep last season. Bullock has converted a minimum of 37.7 percent every year since 2015. Ellington is a career 37.9 percent from the arc. Allonzo Trier hit 39.4 percent of his treys as a rookie.

New York should experiment with lineups that deploy two of these four alongside Randle, Mitchell and either Barrett or Knox.

Next, forget about a listed point guard for a bit and let Barrett intermittently serve as the primary creator. He showed glimpses of passing proficiency at Duke, including in the pick-and-roll. He could run some screen action with Mitchell, while shooters like Bullock and Ellington spread the floor.

There will be growing pains, but Fizdale should empower him to develop as a part-time playmaker. That’s only gonna help for better years down the road:

It’s a crowded backcourt, and returning third-year guard Frank Ntilikina will have to fight to prove he’s a worthwhile component of New York’s future. Considering the underwhelming impact we’ve seen in his first couple of years, he hasn’t proven to be a legitimate NBA weapon.

However, he’s still not even 21 years old and could make strides as a combo guard. The incoming signees and DSJ are all either more talented or more consistent unless Ntilikina shows substantial progress during the first half of the season.

Otherwise, the Knicks should consider shipping him at the trade deadline.

Fizdale must also assess the healthiest big man rotation. As previously mentioned, Robinson is the most valuable frontcourt prospect, so he should start at center and get 25-plus minutes. Although Portis and Gibson are solid pros who play hard, they shouldn’t supersede Robinson.

Among all the newbies, Randle is making the most money ($21 million per year) and could be around the longest (through 2021-22 via team option). The Knicks could eventually extend him as part of their long-term rebuild. Therefore, he’ll inevitably get a sizable chunk of playing time in the near future.

Randle’s combination of physical aggression and agile finesse will, at the very least, draw fouls and put pressure on opponents. Many laughed because he’s the Knicks’ top signee, yet this is no slouch: Randle churned out 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game for New Orleans in 2018-19.

Gibson and Portis should also get some run at the 4 spot, right? Well, it’s not that simple.

They’ll get some mop-up minutes, but some of their potential time at power forward should be devoted to Knox. Fizdale could experiment with the second-year pro as a small-ball 4 next to Mitchell or Robinson. Knox is 6’9″ and has a better chance to be a matchup problem as a power forward. Ultimately, Gibson and Portis may be odd-men out on many nights.

Given how these backcourt and frontcourt rotations and hierarchies work and how these newcomers fit, here are the most intriguing lineup combinations:

Starting Talent: Smith, Barrett, Knox, Randle, Robinson

Shooting Priority: Trier, Bullock, Barrett, Knox, Portis

Small-Ball: Smith, Dotson, Barrett, Knox, Randle

Barrett PG: Barrett, Ellington, Dotson, Randle, Robinson

Defense-First: Payton, Ntilikina, Dotson, Gibson, Robinson

Jan 13, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina (11) at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s borderline exciting to envision some of those combos, they all have significant weaknesses.

If Fizdale goes heavy on the shooting, he’s sacrificing some defense, and vice-versa. And putting too many ball-handlers together might create some chemistry issues.

But in these early stages of the rebuilding process? It’s worth mixing and matching to give nearly everyone a shot to prove themselves.

The Knicks’ path to contention got much longer when it didn’t land championship-caliber stars in free agency. If big names don’t want to join now, New York will have to build things the hard way, much like the Nets did the past three years. But all is not actually lost. This coming season will be a crucial one in terms of development and ascertaining who’s worth keeping beyond 2020.

The foundation isn’t nearly as shaky as it looks from the street.

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