At the conclusion of Thursday morning’s summit meeting between the Knicks brain trust — team president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and head coach David Fizdale — and gathered reporters, it was impossible to ignore what wasn’t present at the introductory presser for the season.
The trio spoke with one voice. No real outstanding issues of scandal or discord, a team out of step with how the league operates or at war with itself existed.
These are your holding pattern New York Knicks. And that, in itself, is a remarkably quick turnaround, though the results to follow still require both the kind of skill level in talent evaluation and the healthy dose of luck any championship contender enjoys.
“Our process and our view of where the season is going and where the team is going hasn’t changed since we talked about it a year ago, hasn’t changed since I talked about it two days ago,” Mills said, responding to questions about Jimmy Butler, the latest NBA player to hit the trading block. “We’re committed to not missing any steps. It’s a step-by-step process. We’re focused on the guys we have on our roster, how can we build them, how can we develop them and we’re going to continue on with our plan.”
Butler, in virtually any other recent era in Knicks history, would be a major topic of internal discussion for the team, no matter where on the arc the success cycle the Knicks found themselves. That he doesn’t make sense for the current version of this roster wouldn’t have been a material reason to exclude him — not when past versions of the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, not when this franchise traded a first round pick for, and you can look this up, Andrea Bargnani, along with too many other assets wasted in an effort to speed up time to list here.
But these 2018-19 Knicks, finally, have more than just a desire to change things up, an opportunity to evaluate, and truly, they have time to try and figure out exactly what they can be.
Adding Butler, for instance, to the roster means little without knowing: what, precisely, is Kristaps Porzingis moving forward? Is he the superstar he appeared to be before a knee injury cost him the end of last season and, perhaps, all of this one? As Porzingis himself acknowledged at Knicks Media Day on Monday, there is no precedent for a 7-foot-3 recovery from an ACL tear, and moreover, results and outcomes from surgery is entirely personal.
And thus, the Knicks are in no hurry to give Porzingis the extension that, say, Joel Embiid received last fall at a similar stage of his career, but rather to build a relationship that they hope can translate into a long-term partnership should Porzingis make a full recovery.
These are the new Knicks. David Fizdale flew overseas to meet with Porzingis. This may seem obvious in many other organizations — hey, go spend time with your preternatural franchise cornerstone, rather than publicly attacking him — but it represents a new level of engagement with proper team-building in New York.
“I wanted to be open and honest and share with him in a way that we can get it all out on the table if there is something that needs to be discussed,” Fizdale said Thursday, failing to provide the tabloid fodder Phil Jackson served up in New York as frequently as he used to win championships in Chicago and Los Angeles. “To my pleasant surprise, I got over there and that was very little part of our discussion. It was family, vision and a lot of eating.”
And so, Porzingis is not on the block. Young players like recent draft picks Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, along with second-chance young players like Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh and Mario Hezonja (all 25 or under) will be rostered, and they will play, Fizdale insists, and it is easy to believe him. The Knicks have a vested interest in discovering how much talent is in-house before they go out and spend on next summer’s free agent market, and simultaneously get to show those free agents exactly how far along they are once Porzingis returns.
“We have a young roster, so those guys are going to play,” Fizdale said. “I think it’s what you emphasize in practice, the environment you create, the defensive-minded coaching that you’re going to put forth. When you put that on the floor, I feel like it’s going to give us a chance with everybody.”
Future draft picks, too, are no longer already-endorsed checks for future trades. Mills was quite adamant about that point.
“Generally, our philosophy is that we’re in a building mode, we need to draft players, we need to build through the draft, we need to develop our young players and we feel comfortable organizationally where we are going here,” Mills said. “When it’s time for us to go after free agents, we’ll be a place to attract free agents. We shouldn’t use our draft picks like that. We should focus on drafting good players. Our plan is not to use our draft picks [for trades]. We want to draft players and develop. That’s the plan we laid out as a team.”
Will it work? That’s the part the Knicks cannot control. Porzingis might return with his time away a mere pause in a Hall of Fame career, or he might be Bernard King, still good but some fraction of his pre-injury self. Kevin Knox is as speculative as any 19-year-old, exciting in summer league but far from a finished product. Frank Ntilikina, picked in those frantic final days of the Phil Jackson tenure, could be a star, his defense already at veteran level, or defense might be his lone calling card when he’s finished developing.
But what’s always been the primary reason for the Knicks failing to win a championship in nearly a half century, particularly since Y2K, is a self-sabotage that’s kept them not just from the finish line, but even starting at the same place as 29 other teams.
Now it is up to Mills and Perry to figure out the alchemy — Mills insisted Thursday that Jim Dolan would only need to be consulted if there were to be any deviation from this plan, citing his hands-off history with the New York Rangers as proof he wouldn’t act as he so frequently has with his NBA team — and Fizdale to make it work on the court. The antiquated Phil Jackson system, and the unhelpful wars within, are gone.
Now all the Knicks need to do is catch up to and pass those teams who have been operating this way for decades. It’s not guaranteed to work. But for the first time since Patrick Ewing patrolled The Garden floor, it’s got a chance.