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The Knicks’ Rebuilding Process Continues to Eat Its Own Tail

The best way for most franchises to reconstruct is to sign a megastar or two, but New York isn’t most franchises

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Knicks traded their franchise player for the ability to sign players who decided not to sign with the Knicks. In February, New York dealt away homegrown star Kristaps Porzingis in an effort to shed the brutal contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee. This high-risk maneuvering was all in pursuit of a larger goal: so the Knicks could enter the high-stakes free agency period with enough cap space to offer two players maximum contracts. Everybody knew who those two players were supposed to be: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. This was a worrisome plan. As I wrote at the time, the Porzingis trade ran the risk that Durant and Irving would turn down the Knicks, meaning the team would have traded away its future for nothing. For about a decade, the Knicks had mistakenly made moves under the assumption that superstars would trade everything for the opportunity to play in New York, with little success. What would be different this time?

As it turns out, Durant and Irving did want to play in New York—just not for the Knicks. Both players decided to play for the Brooklyn Nets, a franchise that won’t be considered New York’s second basketball team for much longer. Durant and Irving were even willing to take pay cuts to play alongside DeAndre Jordan, who is not particularly good and was on the Knicks last season. But getting stood up like this is something that happens when you have the worst record of any team this century (by a lot!) and when your owner is an odious, insecure egomaniac oblivious to how boorish his actions make him look and to how bad his blues band sounds.

And now, having dramatically failed in their pursuit of free agents, the Knicks’ strategy seems to be … doing the same thing again. Instead of pursuing second-tier options in free agency or helping other teams clear contract space and receiving assets in return, the Knicks signed six unremarkable players to contracts that the team can terminate early. Julius Randle, the best player of the bunch, is on a three-year deal with a team option in the third year, meaning New York can drop him after two years with no repercussions. The other five players (Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, and Elfrid Payton) are on two-year deals with team options in the second year. The idea, roughly, is that the Knicks can be entirely clear of commitments in 2021, when Giannis Antetokounmpo and others (Paul George! Blake Griffin? Uhh … 36-year-old LeBron!), become free agents. They could even pursue next year’s free agents, although they’re less appealing. (Notable names: Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, and Andre Drummond.)

If stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, the Knicks are the dumbest team in the NBA. For a solid decade, their primary strategy has been based on the idea of Knicks exceptionalism, that the biggest stars in the league will ignore everything and ditch the Middle American city they play in to star in the Big Apple, because the Knicks and New York are special. But years of free agency snubs have proved that the only special thing about the Knicks is that every big-name star understands not to trust the franchise with the prime of their career. After getting snubbed in 2010, in 2014, in 2016, in 2018, in 2019, the Knicks are deciding to spend the next two years in purgatory in the hope that Giannis will think differently than every other free agent of the past decade. The Knicks are a little boy who has, in his mind, decided that he’s 8 feet tall, and keeps trying to dunk, no matter how many times he falls 4 feet short.

However, when we evaluate a team’s decisions, we’re supposed to look at the process (or the Process) over the results. And while the Knicks have yet to convince a legitimate superstar to join the franchise, it’s clear that waiting around for a superstar to join your franchise is an effective strategy in today’s league, at least when other teams employ it. The power structure of the NBA, more than any other league, changes overnight when its best players want a change of scenery. Some NBA teams achieve greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them.

In the NBA in 2019, every failure becomes forgivable as soon as a new star comes to town. The two big winners of this offseason have been the Nets and the Lakers, two teams that in the not-so-distant past were blighted wastelands. In 2013, the Nets traded away five players and four first-round draft picks for rentals of washed Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Nets won one playoff series with Pierce and Garnett and then retreated to tanking-level performance without the draft picks you normally get for tanking. In 2016, the Lakers blew their free-agent budget on massive long-term deals for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, committing to $136 million in contracts for players who would play 111 games for the team, neither averaging 10 points per game. The Lakers still haven’t gone .500 since Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard were on the team. And none of this matters anymore, because both franchises had their crappy 2010s erased by the decisions of superstars. The Lakers signed LeBron James last year, Anthony Davis demanded a trade this year, and now the Lakers are front-runners to sign Kawhi Leonard and NBA title favorites. The Nets will be a championship contender as soon as Durant and Irving can take the court together.

Thus far, the Knicks haven’t signed any player who could turn the franchise’s fortunes. But for a team like the Knicks, landing a superstar-level player is the easiest, fastest, and most likely path to success. Sure, they could build a championship-caliber team from the ground up like the Raptors and Warriors did, with a series of stellar draft picks and savvy trades. But, like, that’s tough. Even after watching the Knicks get snubbed time and time again, I still feel like the odds of them putting together half a decade of quality roster moves seem longer than the odds of one or two elite players picking the Knicks someday.

So, the Knicks have swung and missed and swung and missed and swung and missed. It’s embarrassing, and they’re a laughingstock. But the Nets and Lakers were laughingstocks pretty recently, and that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

You could argue that organizational competence goes a long way. Durant and Irving probably wouldn’t have signed with the Nets if not for an excellently orchestrated rebuild pulled off by general manager Sean Marks without draft picks. The Lakers would have struggled to trade for Davis if not for a series of quality draft selections. The Knicks, meanwhile, have generally struggled in all areas of franchise-building. And the combination of their poor track record and massively unpopular ownership probably scares most players away.

But it hardly seems accurate to claim the small-scale successes of the Nets’ and Lakers’ fallow years are responsible for their turnarounds. The Nets instantly traded the rock of their rebuild, D’Angelo Russell, when it became clear he needed to be moved to make room for Irving. And the Lakers front office hasn’t exactly been competent lately: They wasted a year of LeBron James’s prime thanks to baffling roster-building. This year they seemingly forgot how the salary cap works, and their lead executive recently quit so he could tweet more. None of it mattered in the long run. Every embarrassment is instantly forgotten when superstars decide to overlook them.

The Knicks seem to be in a Catch-22. They could land a star free agent if it weren’t for the fact that they’re a toxic organization whose incompetence turns off star free agents. If they landed a star free agent, they could start winning and shed the reputation of toxicity, but they can’t land a star free agent because of their reputation of toxicity. The Knicks are the Knicks because they’re the Knicks, and their plan to break the cycle is perpetually foiled by their inherent Knicksdom. This will remain true until one day when it isn’t. The Knicks have committed to waiting, to trying the same thing and expecting different results. A stupid plan that might be their best.