The Knicks have had as good an offseason as a franchise mired in a 20-year slump can have. They hired the best man available for their open coaching job in Tom Thibodeau. They have made a slew of excellent hires to flush out his staff and the front office, notably assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Johnnie Bryant.
They had a lousy lottery night but that’s par for the course for the team across the past 35 years, and if there was a draft in which to take a positional hit it was probably this one. There was no obvious franchise cornerstone, although it certainly would have been intriguing to see if LaMelo Ball is equal to his reputation.
The important business will begin soon enough. The most essential part of the Knicks’ immediate blueprint is also the simplest one, in theory: get better players. Get more talent. The Knicks have been a raging, epic fail for two decades and there is little mystery to why: on most nights, going all the way back to 2000, they’ve had inferior players than the other guy. Basketball is a simple game to figure out in some ways.
The inner core — RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle (average age 22.5) — is the building block for now, and all three are players who ought to thrive in Thibodeau’s system, which is going to be heavy on player development.
The immediate need, the screaming, crying desperate need, is for a professional point guard. Frank Ntilikina has shown flashes, but by Year 4 the Knicks need to see more than flashes. Dennis Smith Jr. has been a tease his whole career, and the Knicks can no longer afford to be seduced by what-might-be-but-probably-won’t.
There will be point guards aplenty available in the draft, starting with Ball, but the most intriguing one that seems most likely to drop to the Knicks at No. 8 is Cole Anthony.
Anthony might well be worth the futures bet, a city kid (Archbishop Molloy) who would be a Knicks legacy (his old man is Greg, an NCAA champ at UNLV and a member of the ’94 Knicks Finalists). But it is a gamble. He had an injury-plagued and disappointing freshman year at North Carolina, he struggles as a shooter (.380) and his assist-to-turnover ratio was 4.0/3.5.
For the Knicks, the smarter play is finding an established point guard and making him an immediate part of that building-block foundation — freeing them to either take the best player available at No. 8 or turn into more assets for their deep pile of same. And assuming the Knicks have been paying reluctant attention to the Nets’ adventures in the NBA bubble, they have to be thinking seriously about making Fred VanVleet an offer he can’t refuse.
VanVleet emerged in last year’s playoffs for the Raptors and this year has blossomed into a just-below-elite-level point guard who can score (17.6 ppg), shoot (39 percent from 3), distribute (6.6 assists) and play defense (his 1.9 steals per game are double his previous high). He also has played in the kind of winning environment his whole career that Thibodeau wants — and needs — to create here.
Is he a no-brainer? He isn’t. He’s smallish (6-foot-1), and while he’s young (26), even with him you’re talking about 2-3 more years before the Knicks are playing the kind of big games with regularity that Toronto plays now. VanVleet has said he wants to remain in Toronto, which makes perfect sense on a lot of levels, and that means the Knicks will have to pay for the privilege.
And while they will have plenty of immediate salary-cap room, there will forever be the looming specter (regardless of how deep a long shot it might be) of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But the Knicks have spent too many years — too many decades — relying on hopeful future outcomes rather than building an immediate infrastructure that can last. Kevin Durant never did come here. LeBron James never came here (multiple times). Anthony Davis is a free agent in a few months; does anyone have any hope he would come here?
Players want other players to play with. Say what you will about Carmelo Anthony, but when he sought out the Knicks nine years ago, he did so knowing he would carry the weight of the franchise on his back. Nobody wants that anymore. The very best players want to know they’re coming to something solid, and established.
You build that with talent. You build by collecting players that good players want to play with. Fred VanVleet puts the Knicks one step closer to being that kind of destination, one that hasn’t existed at the Garden since dial-up internet still ruled the day. It’s the right time. He’s the right player.