Knicks center Mitchell Robinson goes in for a layup against the Chicago Bulls on April 1, 2019, at Madison Square Garden.

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Schmeelk: Examining The Ways To Build Knicks Into Contenders

John Schmeelk
July 12, 2019 - 11:03 am
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For the Knicks to finally reach their ultimate goal of competing for or even winning a championship, they have to find stars -- difference-making players. How do you find them? I took a deep dive around the league at the top players based on All-NBA teams, All-Star selections and my own biased opinion to find out where the Knicks have their best shot.

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There are three ways to obtain players: drafting them, signing them as free agents or trading for them. A trade is the most cost-prohibitive more times than not, free agency is expensive but doesn’t cost any assets, while the draft is the cheapest way to get a great player.

Here’s a look at how the current top players have gotten to their current destinations.

LeBron James: Drafted first overall, changed teams via free agency three times.

Kevin Durant: Drafted second overall, changed teams via free agency twice.

Kemba Walker: Drafted ninth overall, re-signed with original team, left via free agency.

Kyrie Irving: Drafted first overall, traded (OK value) and then changed teams via free agency.

Related:

Kawhi Leonard: Drafted 15th overall, changed teams via trade demand and then via free agency (discounted value due to contract/injury).

Paul George: Drafted 11th overall, changed teams via trade twice, once via demand (good value first trade, huge cost to acquire second time).

Anthony Davis: Drafted first overall, changed teams via trade demand (huge cost to obtain via trade).

James Harden: Drafted third overall, changed teams via trade (discounted value on trade – happened before he became a star at end of rookie contract).

Blake Griffin: Drafted first overall, re-signed with team that drafted him, then traded (good value).

Stephen Curry: Drafted seventh overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Klay Thompson: Drafted 11th overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Drafted 15th overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Nikola Jokic: Drafted 41st overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Joel Embiid: Drafted third overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Russell Westbrook: Drafted fourth overall, re-signed with team that drafted him, reportedly traded to Houston on Thursday night.

Damian Lillard: Drafted sixth overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Karl-Anthony Towns: Drafted first overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

Bradley Beal: Drafted third overall, re-signed with team that drafted him.

I might have missed some players in there, but I think that gives a nice cross-section of players to observe. What can we learn from that list?

The first lesson should be that the best and most common way to land a star is through the draft. The problem? It is also the toughest way to find a star player. Drafting in the NBA is difficult, and drafting well is not easy. There are teams that draft in the lottery for a decade and never find an All-NBA caliber player. Here is where the true difference-making players were drafted from 2002-16.

2002: Yao Ming (first overall), Amar’e Stoudemire (ninth)

2003: LeBron James (first) , Carmelo Anthony (third), Chris Bosh (fourth), Dwyane Wade (fifth)  

2004: Dwight Howard (first)

2005: Deron Williams (third), Chris Paul (fourth)

2006: LaMarcus Aldridge (second), Brandon Roy (sixth), Rajon Rondo (21st), Paul Millsap (47th)

2007: Kevin Durant (second), Al Horford (third), Mike Conley Jr. (fourth), Marc Gasol (48th)

2008: Derrick Rose (first), Russell Westbrook (fourth), Kevin Love (fifth)

2009: Blake Griffin (first), James Harden (third), Stephen Curry (seventh), DeMar DeRozan (ninth)

2010: John Wall (first), DeMarcus Cousins (fifth), Gordon Hayward (ninth), Paul George (10th)

2011: Kyrie Irving (first), Kemba Walker (ninth), Klay Thompson (11th), Kawhi Leonard (15th), Jimmy Butler (30th), Isaiah Thomas (60th)

2012: Anthony Davis (first), Bradley Beal (third), Damian Lillard (sixth), Draymond Green (35th)

2013: Victor Oladipo (second), Giannis Antetokuonmpo (15th), Rudy Gobert (27th)

2014: Joel Embiid (third), Nikola Jokic (41st)

2015: Karl-Anthony Towns (first), D’Angelo Russell (second), Devin Booker (13th)

2016: Ben Simmons (first), Jamal Murray (seventh), Pascal Siakam (27th)

There wasn’t an exact science in choosing which players to include, but over 15 years, there were 49 players drafted who were true difference makers. I was a little generous with some selections, so the number might even be a little smaller. Whether it is two, three or even four per draft, the number is small. There simply aren’t that many players available in the draft each year who can truly impact a team. Depending solely on the draft as a method to obtain star players is not a good strategy.

In order to attract a player in free agency, a team needs a few different factors working in its favor. It needs to have cap space, which oftentimes means stripping down a roster to create it. The team must show it is competent. Unless the Lakers are involved, players don’t want to sign with teams that can’t get out of their own way. Finally, players prefer certain markets. Los Angeles, New York and Miami are three of the top markets for players to target, so the Knicks do have that in their favor.

In order to consummate a trade, a team must have attractive assets in the form of young players and future draft picks. The Knicks control all their future first-round picks and have Mavericks first-round picks in 2021 and 2023. As we saw from the trades for Anthony Davis and Paul George, moves like that often require stripping a roster and potentially mortgaging the future.

The Knicks did not have the assets the Pelicans wanted for Davis, nor were they in position from a talent standpoint to add Davis to a winning situation that would have made a trade make sense. They could have backed up the truck for Davis, but then they would have been left with him, no other good players and little hope to add one in the future. What would have been the point?

The way the Knicks can get to the point where they can land a star free agent or have it make sense to trade for a star is to become a better and more talented team. They made some nice additions in free agency, but other than Julius Randle, those players will help on the margins more than they will transform the team. Where the Knicks can get to the point where they can use free agency and trades to add difference-making stars is by drafting well and developing those players.

If the Knicks are going to be a free-agent destination in 2021, it is going to be because RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, Allonzo Trier, Damyean Dotson, Iggy Brazdeikis and whoever they draft next June form a respectable team that proves the Knicks know how to develop players and build a roster. It is exactly what the Nets did leading up to this summer that made them more attractive to Irving and Durant.

If those players develop well, it makes trading for whatever superstar gets disgruntled next much easier, too. There will be a ton of pressure on the front office and coaching staff to turn this young group into something that can win games. If they don’t, then very little else matters.

This is why the Philadelphia 76ers went through their “process” and tanked to land players through the draft. The new lottery odds make that choice far less attractive and less likely to succeed. 

Of the 49 players I tracked above, only 22 were picked outside of the top five, which means there are fewer than 1½ players per year who are difference makers picked outside the top five. Twenty were picked in the top three, with 10 of those being first overall picks. If the Knicks show the improvement they need to next season and finish with 30 wins, they would have the sixth worst record in the league. It would give them a 50% chance of picking seventh or eighth.

Picking seventh or eighth, there’s a chance no true difference maker will even be available to select. Even if there is, it is likely one or two players out of dozens who are draft eligible. Picking the right guy is extremely difficult. The Knicks are going to have to get those picks right if they want to put themselves into position to use trades and free agency to become a contending team in the NBA.

The odds aren’t great. Then again, the odds weren’t great for the Knicks to be as bad as they’ve been for nearly two decades. Team president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry, player development chief Craig Robinson and coach David Fizdale have their work cut out for them. If they succeed, so can the Knicks. It just won’t be easy. Finding stars never is.   

You can follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports, You can also listen to his Knicks podcast, "The Bank Shot." In the latest episode, he answers your Twitter questions about RJ Barrett, Russell Westbrook, Scott Perry and the rebuild. Listen here. You can also find it on all your favorite podcast platforms.