Straight facts! Knicks actually building something

NBA

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Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week in Fact or Fiction: Should Kyrie Irving represent the NBA in the 2023 All-Star Game?]

The New York Knicks bullied the defending Eastern Conference champion and first-place Boston Celtics in TD Garden on Thursday in a victory that would’ve made Charles Oakley proud, if the franchise had not alienated the embodiment of its 1990s oeuvre. Within the win, they might have reaffirmed an identity that has worked before when the talent gap was too wide to sincerely contend for championships: Giving a s***.

The Knicks are working on 25 years with a single playoff series victory to show for their effort since James Dolan took control of the team in 1999. They’ve tried just about every possible team-building approach between catastrophe and mediocrity, achieving both by accident and on purpose, but that one constant has worked against them at every turn. Now, they are attempting a bold new strategy — basic competency — and hoping their luck will turn against the narrative that they will simply never win with Dolan at the helm.

It has been a decade since New York’s latest superstar bid peaked in the conference semifinals. That era began seven general managers ago, when their impatience to acquire Carmelo Anthony cost them assets that would’ve left them in better position had they waited a few more months. It still might’ve worked if Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees had held up, but the Knicks took that risk when an insurance company would not.

It is always something with the Knicks.

They handed the front-office keys to Phil Jackson, a retired coach with no experience in that role, who in turn handed the head-coaching gig to Derek Fisher, a retired player with no experience in that role. With the end of an era already in sight, they handed Anthony a maximum contract, complete with a no-trade clause, because they could not let another asset go to waste, only to let his value wane over the next three years.

The reward for their incompetence was Kristaps Porzingis, New York’s next great hope. Best attempts to build around a rising star included a four-year, $71 million contract for Tim Hardaway Jr. and several more swings around the fringe that made the Knicks just good enough for the lottery odds not to favor them.

Porzingis blew out his knee in February 2018 and joined Knicks fans in souring on the situation around him during his rehab. The Knicks bottomed out in his absence, ultimately dealing him and Hardaway to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for two future first-round picks and their second 17-win season in five years.

Armed with the league’s worst record and nearly $75 million in cap space entering the 2019 offseason, the Knicks fell to third in a draft that reserved its top two lottery spots for Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. They whiffed in free agency when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving prioritized the existing culture in Brooklyn over creating one amid chaos. Even the simplest task — presenting Madison Square Garden as a blank canvas to a pair of basketball artists — can be arduous when Dolan is the one constant behind every sliding door.

Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson are embracing the old-school essence of the New York Knicks. (Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports)
Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson are embracing the old-school essence of the New York Knicks. (Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports)

When no power player in 2019 free agency would even meet with the Knicks, general manager Steve Mills paid four power forwards a combined $112 million instead and apologized as he was doing it. The only explanation beyond complete ineptitude was a willingness to tank another season and roll the cap space forward to 2020, when they were fortunate enough for Gordon Hayward to reject their hefty four-year offer.

The odd collection of veterans the Knicks had signed made them just good enough not to finish with one of the league’s five worst records. The Knicks pivoted again, trying to straddle two trendy strategies at once. They hired Leon Rose, the powerful agent, to run their basketball operations, just as the Lakers sent Rob Pelinka star-hunting in Los Angeles, and Rose hired hard-nosed coach Tom Thibodeau to recreate what Kenny Atkinson had done for the Nets, instilling an identity that might attract the next available superstar.

Under Thibodeau’s tutelage, Julius Randle emerged to earn a spot on the All-NBA second team in 2021 — just New York’s luck. Randle was good enough to lead the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 2013 and warrant a $117 million extension. A taste of the good life led Rose to invest fully in Randle as the face of his franchise, acquiring Evan Fournier and doubling down on deals for Kemba Walker, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose. In a rush for relevance, the Knicks abandoned what made them worthwhile: a defensive mindset that closed the gap between them and more talented teams at the top of the East.

Leon Rose’s executive record is a wild ride. He hired Thibodeau to oversee his rebuild, only the coach has never been known to make development his priority. Rose stockpiled picks, only to attach a number of them to salary dumps of his overzealous signings. And he traded his last two first-round picks for Cam Reddish and the possibility that one of his future conditional picks might turn out better than the ones he has discarded.

Randle is sandwiching All-Star campaigns around a year in which he openly feuded with fans, emblematic of the difficulty in building around an imperfect star. The Knicks might just be constructing a house of cards.

Rose’s biggest win is the signing of Jalen Brunson, his first client’s son and his son’s first client. However he got there, Brunson is the best Knicks point guard since Mark Jackson and a throwback to that ’90s era. He has resurrected Randle’s best brand of basketball — a brutish force that covers for his inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride have earned playing time on the defensive end. When Mitchell Robinson mans the middle, Thibodeau can field lineups capable of defending with a toughness Knicks fans might recognize from when he was last their assistant coach 20 years ago.

The result is a 27-23 record, a half-game out of a guaranteed playoff spot and top-10 ratings on both sides of the ball since the start of December. The Knicks are inconsistent, as evidenced by four straight losses to sub-.500 teams before this week’s back-to-back wins against the East’s elite, but the aggregate is encouraging.

Randle, Brunson and R.J. Barrett compete, but they cannot contend, not without Barrett rising to stardom. They might have dealt him and a handful of future first-round picks for Donovan Mitchell this past summer, but they considered the price too steep, and Mitchell transformed the Cleveland Cavaliers into a contender instead. It is so Knicks — to demonstrate prudence when audacity is needed or, all too often, the reverse.

The Knicks are competent again on the court, even if their ceiling is set below championship level. The bar was so low that basic team-building is progress, but it’s on Rose to raise his game, too. His reported interest in Toronto’s OG Anunoby is evidence that he understands the type of player who fits his team’s identity.

It cannot be lost on the New York faithful that on the day of their beloved team’s biggest win of the season, Dolan emerged from his media boycott, defended his use of facial recognition for settling strange scores inside his buildings and threatened to suspend the sale of alcohol at Madison Square Garden in retaliation.

There is always something, or someone, working in opposition to every Knicks plan, so the franchise still waits for its luck to turn, but at least now everyone on the basketball side is trying to create it on their own.

At least now the Knicks give a s***.

Determination: Fact. The Knicks are building something, even if that something isn’t the best thing yet — or ever will be. Fans have had plenty of reasons for pessimism, but competitiveness shouldn’t be one of them.

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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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