1995—young me is watching the Hale–Bopp comet screaming across a charcoal sky with my grandfather in the driveway, I’m drinking copious amounts of Yoo-hoo with no regard for my future, and heartbreak is a foreign feeling that I won’t have to face for 15 more years. I loved staying over at my grandparents’ house because it meant that when I fell asleep, I’d eventually wake up, run downstairs, and flip open to the sports section of the newspaper (my grandpa had it delivered to him every morning), just to trace my finger over the box scores from my favorite Knicks at the time: Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Anthony Mason. The trade-off to acquire this modest jubilation was usually a bowl of soggy Rice Krispies, but I’d say it was well worth it—considering how that short-lived but memorable ritual would steer me towards finding a direction with basketball.
Well, it’s 2018, and those box score Knicks aren’t reanimating on the hardwood anymore—but times are a-changin’ in the Big Apple, slowly but surely. Kristaps Porzingis is out indefinitely with an ACL injury, and spinning the loss of a star player as a positive is foolhardy at best, but the Knicks gained an all-important label they would have never been granted otherwise without something drastic happening with the team—a “lost” season. Why is this label important? Hell, why is the Porzingis injury so important, in all of its misery? Well, because of it, the Knicks themselves have started to find their own direction. This offseason has the chance to miraculously transform the energies wafting in the Mecca’s underbelly with a sudden painter’s palette of talented young players whom are expected to be used and brushed all over the MSG easel under Coach Fizdale. And this isn’t taking into account a Barrett, Reddish, or Williamson sort of talent joining the roster next year. As long as this upcoming year isn’t dubbed the “Tim Hardaway Jr. & Enes Kanter Show”, which is admittedly very possible, this season will be looked back upon as a huge win even if the final record isn’t all too pretty.
Steve Mills and Scott Perry are now the conductors of their own orange and blue tinted engine room, and this room is where they’ll attempt to procure a few major themes that they’ve been aiming to reach since Perry’s hiring (more accurately, since the injury to Porzingis): retooling with youth, and building a sensible identity. Identity is one of the hardest things to attain in the league—and the Knicks haven’t really had one since Ewing was lubing the floor up with his perspiration. It’s now or never.
The Knicks began their quest for identity—knowingly or not—in early May of this year with the hiring of David Fizdale, a player’s coach who immediately brought with him coaching qualities sorely needed in New York—a gravitational personality that won’t hesitate to hold players accountable, but more importantly, a teacher who will give young players the proper opportunities on the court to grow and make mistakes without fear of failure. Evidenced by his long flight to Latvia to visit an injured Porzingis, and his statement about his willingness to start a promising 19-year-old rookie in Kevin Knox, Fizdale is ingratiating himself with the players and fans of the Knicks from the get-go.
In this “lost” season, undoubtedly most of the wandering eyes will be set squarely on Knox—and for good reason. In a truly Knicksian manner, his welcoming was, shall I say, apropos for a fanbase that doesn’t mind voicing their displeasure at the drop of a hat. But just like Porzingis, Knox hastily elated those same boorish fans only a few weeks later. And hey, at this point, it’s basically a trial by fire and a sign of respect all in one. Whine too much about the draft night boos, you clearly aren’t going to make it in New York—put up or shut up. Kevin Knox passed his Summer League performance test with flying colors, and those results were enough to give him some breathing room to mess up while attempting to solve the complex, symbiotic relationship he’ll soon have with the fans that cheer him on nightly inside Madison Square Garden. The predictable overhyping of Knox followed almost instantly, but honestly, everybody saw what the Knicks fans did during Summer League—the long, Giannis-esque strides and emphatic finishes through traffic, the natural movement on the court, the ease in which he scored. It’s real. Only a few years ago, the Knicks would have selected the big name prospect with red flags and colossal hype—not anymore. They’re showing devout trust in their scouting department, and well as their gut, with the Knox pick encapsulating the spirit of the new(er) front office and their tinkered thought process.
Frank Ntilikina, who signed up for the automatic 15 pounds of muscle meal plan in the offseason, doubled up on his Knick commitment by skipping the FIBA World Cup qualifiers and focusing on an important sophomore season where he will be tasked with running the show. The Dhalsim-like bully guard on D wants to show marked improvements in his offense (ideally that he can handle the day-to-day operations of the point guard position), and a continuation of his pest control defense. He seems to have similar question marks that Exum had leveled at him early on, minus the injury concerns, and with more of an already established reputation as a defender from his rookie season. Ntilikina is essentially a big ball of clay, and contains a skill set that isn’t present in many point guards. All of those eyes that will be on Knox at the start of the season could shift over to Ntilikina very quickly if he starts to feel comfortable early on in his second year.
The signing of Mario Hezonja (and his decision to sign with New York because of Scott Perry) is the epitome of a low-risk, high-reward move, which in and of itself is an overused sports phrase, but spot on for Mario’s situation. He could stay in New York long-term because of Perry, and the Knicks will welcome his services if he plays with the fire he’s known to contain. In the games he started for Orlando last season, Mario shot 46% from the field and 37% from the three-point line while chipping in a respectable 14 PPG. There’s a good chance that Hezonja improves upon those numbers as a member of the Knicks and secures himself a coin-filled bag in the process. He’s a 2-3-4 hybrid begging to show off the Barcelona swagger he often effused while playing for the Spanish team, and should be hungry enough to shake off any leftover murmurings of the “draft bust” label that began to get tossed around early on last season. The Knicks were a bottom two fast breaking and three-point shooting team last season—Mario will unquestionably help improve the team in both of these areas.
Mitchell Robinson dazzled and astounded the howling Knicks fans in Las Vegas with his Summer League performances which aren’t harbingers of future success, but his consistent impressive performances gave fans arguably the second most important thing in basketball after winning: hope. His unique penchant for leaping out at three-pointers and swatting them to Ronkonkoma is a neat weapon to have packaged inside of a new-age center—it’ll be fun to see how the coaches can help that translate in the NBA. I can see his style providing a nice change of pace (after a little bit of patience) at the center position when subbing him in for Enes Kanter, a legendary character who will make him feel at ease in the locker room, teach him some moves from his offensive repertoire, and train the young buck on how to loosen up in front of the media.
The Knicks also boast a smattering of other youngsters, who I like to call the Fancy Flyers. The Knicks have brought flyer-taking to new level with Noah Vonleh joining Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Burke, and even Mario Hezonja as formerly hyped lottery picks. It’s quite a smart plan for teams that have the resources and time to attempt to breathe a second life into once-heralded players. Burke has proven to be quite a haul since his acquisition, even donning the cornrows in solidarity with Kawhi and Wiggins. He currently finds himself as a quasi-safety net in case the Ntilikina Project goes haywire. Mudiay, on the other hand, has proven to be a mixed bag of sorts, and Vonleh’s impact is TBD until he gets to show his stuff on the court. But you can tell what the Knicks are trying to go for here. If you throw enough cut up hot dogs into a lake, eventually a fish is going to bite. The real Franks are still in the package, untouched.
As you can see, it’s easy to see just how many players on the roster will use this season to benefit themselves—the Knicks—and their possible future with them. It’s a season full of moving parts giving it their all to fit together for the betterment of the team, and for their identity: a young, tough team with a bright future. Or at the very least, a team that can lure stars in with their bright future.
It has to be stated that the Porzingis injury was not a blessing in disguise for the Knicks—not if it has the ability to warp the upward trajectory of his young and promising career. But what it did do was provide a much needed, long overdue buffer for management, which in turn will pacify the pressures of the always grumbly New York media. We’ll actually get to see the New York Knickerbockers enjoy the benefits of taking one long exhale for once. And even if the internal and external pressures are a short-lived reprieve, Knicks fans won’t have to make vein-bursting rant videos on YouTube every other day anymore, they’ll be too busy tracking the improvements of their prospects instead of raising their blood pressure from an over-hyped season spiraling out of control. The New York Knicks, for the first time in a long time, are enacting a respectable, patient plan instead of appeasing the talking heads, short-sighted philosophers, and dissidents within the franchise, with the temporary joy they're so used to having—and Kristaps Porzingis has influenced this decision in more ways than one. As a society, we’ve moved past “what have you done for me lately?” and now look at life, especially in our sports, as “what have you done for me yesterday?” Yesterday for the Knicks was like the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that—all steps forward.