Schmeelk: How Rose Can Build Knicks Into A Contender

Hitting It Big In Draft Is Best Route To Long-Term Success

John Schmeelk
February 11, 2020 - 11:54 am
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With Leon Rose soon to be named Knicks president, there’s no way to know what his plan is going to be to get the team back to contention. There’s more than one way to do it, and the Knicks’ treasure trove of draft assets (seven first-round picks and five second-round picks in the next four seasons) will give Rose and whomever he names general manager a lot of flexibility in how they want to go about it.

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Make no mistake, however, rebuilding in the NBA from the bottom to become a true contender is extremely difficult. It isn’t simply a matter of slapping together a couple of All-Stars, even young ones, and then figuring things out from there. There’s a pace and nuance to it that maximizes a franchise’s odds of sustained success.

Getting to 40 wins can be the easy part if a franchise sells out all its assets to get there. If it goes that route, it’ll be stuck there with no flexibility to make the next jump. It’s essential for a team to become respectable without using all its cap space and draft assets. It has to maintain those two things so when it gets to 40 wins, it can use them to become true contenders in its conference.

The Knicks are more or less starting from the bottom. They have no one on the roster who is a perennial All-Star-caliber player or is very likely to become one. RJ Barrett might get there, but he has a long way to go. Kristaps Porzingis had that potential, but his position, injury history and lack of shot-creation skills are all serious questions. Maximizing their chances of finding those true difference-making players needs to be the Knicks’ priority.

Knicks players during the second half of their game against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 5, 2019, at Madison Square Garden
Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Images

A team can obtain players like that in one of three ways: the draft, free agency or trade. To get to the top, you have to utilize all three successfully at different stages of development. But the best way to start the process is through the draft. It isn’t easy. Depending on the year, few true difference-making players are draft eligible. The true stars rarely make it out of the top few picks. It is possible to find players later in the draft who play to this level, like Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam, but it is very difficult and unlikely. The new lottery system leaves teams’ fates up to chance more than in prior years.

If the Knicks can find just one such difference maker in the draft (maybe Barrett is that player), it would allow them to get out of the first stage of this process. A Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Ben Simmons or even a Trae Young is the perfect kind of piece to put a team closer to 40 wins with a young core making little money. It would allow the team to begin to utilize free agency and the trade market to jump from mediocrity to contention.

Drafting well also allows a team to build a wide talent base that allows it to survive injuries, even losing top players. The Raptors went 17-5 without Kawhi Leonard in 2018-19. Toronto serves as a perfect example for the Knicks. The Raptors drafted players such as DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Fred VanVleet to become good, before acquiring players such as Leonard and Marc Gasol (for DeRozan and Valunciunas) to put them over the top. They are still a top team this season despite losing Leonard.

The Warriors similarly used the draft first (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson) to rise to 40 wins before eventually using other means (Andre Igoudala, Kevin Durant) to be nearly unbeatable when healthy. The Heat won with Dwyane Wade before obtaining LeBron James. The Spurs’ entire dynasty was built around Tim Duncan. The Mavericks won their title because of Dirk Nowtizki. The present-day Celtics have Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. The Sixers drafted Simmons and Joel Embiid.

It is nearly impossible to become a true title contender unless you draft a special player first and then build around him. There are outliers, arguably the Rockets, Lakers and Heat, but they are models that are hard to duplicate. The Rockets obtained James Harden in a trade without knowing what he would become. James chose the Lakers due to location before they unloaded all their assets for Anthony Davis (including drafted players), and the Heat were stuck in cap hell and mediocrity for a long time before finally maneuvering to get enough cap room to sign Jimmy Butler.

As difficult it is to draft a cornerstone player, it is still a more likely path than those of the three teams above. The most likely way to draft a foundational piece is to be selecting in the top three of the draft. Therefore, if a team gets to 40 wins using trades or free agency before drafting such a player, its pick will not be high enough to make finding one likely, spare some serious lottery night luck. 

A team can choose to start this process via free agency, but it is tougher. Most players obtained in free agency, due to the nature of the market place, are often overpriced. It is rare a true superstar or the best players coming off their rookie contracts ever even hit the open market in a real bidding war. More often than not, it is good-but-flawed players like D’Angelo Russell who are the best that can be found on the marketplace.

If a true star or young player with star potential does hit the open market, the Knicks would be wise to pursue him, but there’s little guarantee he will come to New York. The Knicks tried this strategy, in part, in 2010 when they missed out on their top targets in free agency (who went to more preferable destinations) and settled for overpaying an Amar’e Stoudemire with bad knees on a five-year deal.

They were later able to add Carmelo Anthony via trade (which liquidated the team’s assets), but because Stoudemire didn’t play to the value of his contract due to poor defense and injuries, the Knicks only managed to win 50 games once. With few assets left to trade and no cap space, they trapped themselves in mediocrity for all but one season by depending on free agency and a trade.

Going the free agency route first also makes it essential the team doesn’t miss on who it signs. If a team misses on a first-round pick, the player eventually comes off the books after a couple of years and doesn’t adversely affect the salary cap. Even signing just a good player to “great player money” can be debilitating given the restrictions it might put on other possible moves. If a player fizzles out quickly, like Stoudemire, it can cripple a franchise.

The Knicks could easily go all-in next summer and spend up to the cap signing solid NBA players and making trades to get them to playoff contention, but then what? They would be picking in the teens in the draft and unlikely to find a special player that way, and they would have little money to add anyone as a free agent. If they kept their war chest of draft assets to make a trade, there’s a chance it could work, but it would still be hard.

It is even more difficult to build up to a championship contender if making a trade is the team’s first move to get to respectability. If a team trades a lot of draft assets and young players for a star player, it drains the asset pool. The acquired player does not only cost draft picks, but his big contract also takes up cap space. It makes it very difficult to add enough around that one player, especially if the initial trade only got the team to .500. Much like in the free agency scenario above, the team would also be selecting too late in the draft to add the second star necessary to become a contender.

Missing in a trade would have even more debilitating results than in free agency. If a team fails to optimize its return just a little bit, it can trap itself in mediocrity for years with few means to lift itself out of it. The Pistons the last two years are a perfect example of a team that trapped themselves at 40 wins, with all their money invested in Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Griffin was a great All-NBA-caliber player to trade for and Drummond a productive young center, but they weren’t a good match. And the Pistons weren’t able to spend on the right people to add to them. They also never drafted high enough to add to their group and lacked the cap space or assets to trade for someone.

The Timberwolves are now in a position where they have two very good players in Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns taking up nearly half their salary cap. Having traded a potentially high draft pick to acquire Russell, they now have only two real chances to add to those two players: their 2020 first-round pick and 2021 free agency, when they could have room to add one max level player. If Towns and Russell together get the Wolves to 45 to 48 wins, will those remaining resources be enough to catapult themselves into true Western Conference contention? It will be very hard given both players’ defensive deficiencies.

They might not even be able to reach where the Trail Blazers have gotten to at the top end of the noncontender group. They are capped out with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as their two best players and no way to significantly improve their team, which is not good enough to win a title. They’re probably going to have to, at some point, trade one of those two players.

It’s why if the Knicks want to maximize their chances of getting where they want to go, it needs to start with the draft. If they can find their own Morant or Doncic, or Barrett becomes that type of player, then using free agency and trading future assets are on the table. To start spending a lot of money on long-term contracts or sending a lot of future assets in trades before that happens is backward thinking and will lead to a very hard ceiling being put on where the Knicks can go.

It might take another couple of years for that to happen, but until it does, the Knicks are better off continuing to acquire draft picks and give themselves the best chance of finding difference-making players in the draft. It will mean more losing and take more time than some fans are willing to wait, but it’s their best chance of getting this thing started and setting themselves up for long-term, sustained winning.  

If impatience wins out and the Knicks try to skip steps in the process, there might be satisfying short-term gains, but the franchise will regret it in the long run. Rose needs to continue to go about it the right way. If the process remains sound, the results will eventually follow.

You follow John on Twitter at @Schmeek for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can find his podcast, “The Bank Shot” on WFAN.com, RADIO.COM and all your favorite podcast platforms. 

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