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Best Case, Worst Case: New York Knicks

The no. 26 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has seemingly dedicated itself to a rebuild. But how long will their patience last?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 26
Last Season: 29-53
Notable Additions: Kevin Knox (draft), Mitchell Robinson (draft), Mario Hezonja (free agency), Noah Vonleh (free agency), Frank Ntilikina’s 10-to-15 pounds of French muscle (est-ce que vous soulevez même?), head coach David Fizdale
Notable Subtractions: Kyle O’Quinn (free agency), Jeff Hornacek (fired)
Vegas Over/Under: 29.5

Best-Case Scenario: At a recent town hall event for Knicks season ticket holders, Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry, and incoming coach David Fizdale said all the right things. That’s a low bar for success, I know. But it has Knicks fans like myself hyped. The best-case scenario for the Knicks would be that they mean what they say.

In the Dolan era, the New York Knickerbockers have often presaged their numerous awful moves with appallingly ill-reasoned remarks. So when Steve Mills declared, “We’re not going to trade our draft picks,” as if he was planting his boot on the virgin surface of the moon and not parroting a common sense team-building strategy, the gathered crowd applauded. I did, too. This is, after all, the team that burned two second-rounders as part of a package to bring in the dried husk of Andrea Bargnani and traded a grip of vibrant young players and picks to get Carmelo Anthony, who, if they’d been patient enough, could’ve been signed in free agency. The Knicks are commiting, at long last, to a rebuild. Or so they say.

So let’s talk about that weird and wondrous collection of talent! Star unicorn Kristaps Porzingis, the lone glittering jewel in MSG’s rusted crown, will miss much of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn ACL. That leaves plenty of space for the team’s embryonic core to gestate.

Kevin Knox is the most promising of these raw recruits. (Warning: I am now going to reference summer league.) He looked great in Summer League! A solidly built 6-foot-9 with nearly-7-foot wingspan, Knox displayed the elements of a modern scoring palette. He rained 3s, making enough of them to turn the desert of my soul into a verdant garden of hope. His very first basket in a Knicks uniform was a slaloming two-handed dunk against the Atlanta Hawks. He scored 16 points in the third quarter of a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on his way to 29 points and nine rebounds. He was active on defense, if often out of position.

New York’s other rookie is 6-foot-11 Mitchell Robinson. Any best-case scenario involves Mitch figuring out how to play. Robinson was a five-star recruit who had a curious will-he-won’t-he saga as a Western Kentucky commit before electing to withdraw from the school entirely; he declared for the draft without playing a game of college basketball and fell to the 36th pick. He plays like three kids standing on each other’s shoulders, tripping acid in a Rudy Gobert jersey. He’s equally capable of getting five blocks in a quarter or fouling out in five minutes or not showing up to the game at all. Finding an impact player in the second round is a great way for the Knicks to outperform their win projection and level up quickly.

Frank Ntilikina is entering his second year. According to Perry, Frankie Smokes got taller and added up to 15 pounds of muscle over the summer. Frankie Swole is already a solid defender, especially in the pick and roll. Now apparently over 6-foot-5, he has the frame and athleticism to guard three and maybe four positions in the switch-heavy defense many of the top teams today employ. His offense … is bad. He shot 36 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3 last season. And that’s when he shot at all.

Joining that nascent nucleus is a motley assortment of once-promising, now intriguing players. The Knicks are infamous for trying to import culture, paying top dollar for faded veterans and washed stars. But under the direction of Perry, the formula has been tweaked in an important way. New York is still targeting distressed assets. But, and this is crucial, these players are young enough to have never owned a landline. Mario “Croatian Kobe” Hezonja was the fifth pick in 2015. Noah Vonleh was the ninth pick in 2014. Last season, Perry brought in Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke, both former top-10 picks. Burke, in his 36 games with the team, averaged 12.8 points on a career-high 50.3 percent shooting. If either Hezonja or Vonleh can recapture their pre-draft promise, that’s a huge step forward.

Worst-Case Scenario:

[Blues riff]

On the day I was born
The nurses all gathered round
To gaze in wide wonder
At the scion, they had found
The head nurse spoke up
She said, “Leave that one alone”
She could tell right away
I was James “Guitar” Dolan

WHAT IF HE GETS INVOLVED? Jim Dolan has been remarkably hands-off in recent years, beginning with his hiring of coaching legend Phil Jackson. What if that changes? What if Dolan decides he wants Jimmy Butler or some other star—whatever it takes—despite Steve Mills’s assertion that the team wasn’t going to take shortcuts, wasn’t going to trade picks?

It’s quite easy to trust the rebuilding process in July when the youngsters are showing out in summer league and in August when nothing of consequence is happening. Then you hit September, and star players begin agitating for a change of scenery. Then the season arrives and, low and behold, the team is losing. Now the back page of the New York Post is blaring “FIZDALE FIZZES OUT” and Craig Carton is on the radio screaming that the team is a disgrace in between preparing for his trial for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme.

The 2018-19 Knicks will lose a lot of games. Development comes at the cost of wins. Will James Dolan see it that way?

TL;DR: As fans of the 52-win Philadelphia 76ers like to say, “Trust the process.”