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How the New York Knicks Can Return to Relevance this Offseason

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New York, New York.  The city that never sleeps.  Maybe that’s the problem with the Knicks.  Mired in mediocrity since Patrick Ewing decided to hang up his cleats, the team finally seemed to have direction upon the hiring of basketball legend Phil Jackson as their President of Basketball Operations before stumbling to a 17-65 record last season, good for second worst in the NBA.  Despite their major struggles, the hiring of Jackson should completely change the direction of the franchise – starting as early as this offseason.

Jackson started making moves when the Knicks traded defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler for veteran floor general Jose Calderon.  In a move that looked okay on paper, the Knicks have sorely missed Chandler’s defensive presence in the low post.  Chandler provides the type of high-energy defensive and rebounding any team needs, and without him the Knicks haven’t found their footing on the defensive end of the court.  While losing Chandler has hurt in the short term, the Knicks now have the opportunity to draft Kristaps Porzingis or Willie Cauley-Stein, and possibly sign Marc Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge.

Shane Larkin has the potential to be an integral piece of the Knicks bench for years to come.

Along with the opportunity to draft a franchise-changing center, the Knicks also acquired Shane Larkin – a young point guard who has shown flashes of greatness during his two seasons in the NBA.  Despite his struggles this season, and Jackson’s decision not to exercise his rookie option, the Knicks would be foolish to not re-sign the young guard – especially after missing out on Goran Dragic.

Phil Jackson has a lot of work to do this offseason, but by developing his young players and acquiring players with star potential, whether it be through the draft or free agency, Jackson can bring the Knicks to the top of the improving Eastern Conference.

Player Development

Flush with young players on his new team, Jackson has the opportunity to mold them to his style of play early in their careers.  Players like Shane Larkin, Tim Hardaway Jr., Langston Galloway, and Cleanthony Early have shown flashes of brilliance in their respective college and young NBA careers.  With more seasoning, each player can play an integral role on the 2015-16 Knicks squad.

As mentioned before, Shane Larkin was a sneaky good pickup by Phil Jackson in the early days of his tenure.  Larkin showed subtle improvements this season – evidenced by his 6.2 PPG and 3.0 APG in 24.5 MPG (up from 2.8, 1.5, and 10.2 last season, respectively), but under the tutelage of Derek Fisher the young guard can flourish.  With lightning fast speed, many assumed Larkin could speed up the Knicks’ bench unit and provide a solid amount of scoring.

While that wasn’t exactly been the case this season, Larkin is still only 22 and averaged a solid 1.6 turnovers per 36 minutes.  Adjusting to the triangle offense is difficult, and with a full season of experience – Larkin should get a full grasp on the system come October.

Tim Hardaway Jr. has played valuable minutes for the Knicks this season and looks to be a major piece of the team heading forward.

In a season full of solitude and misery, Tim Hardaway Jr. has proved to be a bright spot in the Knicks organization. While his shooting percentages took a hit without Carmelo for most of the season (down to 39% from 43% last year), Hardaway averaged 11.5 PPG (17.2 per 36 minutes) and showed flashes of brilliance.  Hardaway will only continue to improve as he works on his outside shooting and defense, something the Knicks lacked this past season.

 

One pleasant surprise for the Knicks this season was the emergence of Langston Galloway, the St. Joseph product who went undrafted last year. Galloway seemingly came out of nowhere and averaged 11.8 PPG in 32.4 MPG.  With a thin backcourt, Galloway had ample opportunities to establish himself in New York, and after his performance this season, his future with New York – at least next season – should be secure.

Remember last year when Wichita State made a marvelous run and went undefeated until the fateful game against Kentucky? Now Knicks forward Cleanthony Early was a major reason the Shockers were able to… wait for it… shock the world and play consistently excellent basketball throughout the season.  At Wichita State, Early was a streaky scorer that could hit shots from anywhere on the court, proving to be just enough of a distraction to allow his teammates to make plays.

Cleanthony Early’s growth as a shooter will be vital to the success of the Knicks’ bench next season. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

After adjusting his shot late in his college career, Early became an effective weapon from mid-range and behind the arc.  With seldom playing time for the Knicks last season, the young forward wasn’t been able to establish himself in the NBA – yet.  This offseason, Early will only improve his understanding of the triangle offense, and should come into next season ready to be an effective bench scorer when Carmelo sits.

The Knicks roster is currently filled with expendable pieces, and many will most likely be gone this offseason (looking at you, Andrea Bargnani).  Assuming Phil Jackson doesn’t move Larkin, Hardaway Jr., Galloway, or Early this offseason – each could be major pieces for the Knicks in the coming years.

Draft

After finishing the season with the second-to-worst record in the NBA, the Knicks fortunes sunk even lower on lottery selection night – landing with the fourth pick in the draft behind the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers.

With four NBA-ready prospects at the top of the draft, it’s widely assumed that the two top big men – Karl Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor – will be taken first and second.  The other two players – guards D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay – both have very high ceilings, and many believe they’ll be taken third and fourth.

While it’s looking very likely that the T-Wolves select Towns and the Lakers settle for Okafor, recent rumors indicate that the Sixers will pass on Russell to take Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis, a project stretch four with a high ceiling.  These are only rumors, of course, as the Sixers have openly expressed their interest in the combo guard out of Ohio State – although his interest in playing for Philly may be little to none, at best (though he’s publicly denied any indication he doesn’t want to play for the Sixers).

Assuming Towns goes number one to Minnesota, Okafor is selected by the Lakers, and the Sixers take their franchise point guard in Russell, the Knicks are left with quite the decision to make.  The remaining options with star potential are unknowns, but the Knicks may have to take a risk. Combo guard Emmanuel Mudiay and Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis are the Knicks’ most likely selections, but former Kentucky defensive stalwart Willie Cauley-Stein may become Tyson Chandler 2.0 within only a few seasons.  Both players are gambles, as Mudiay played only 12 games in China during the 2014-15 season, while Porzingis can be yet another big man over-hyped because of his size and jump shot.

As the most valuable franchise in the NBA, losing is a tough pill to swallow for Knicks ownership and fans.  With that in mind, it looks as though Jackson will take the most NBA-ready prospect in this year’s draft in order to right the ship in the big apple.  Though the question remains, who is that player?

Former high school standout Emmanuel Mudiay caused a heated debate over NBA Draft age limits when he decided to forego college at SMU, and instead electing to play in China for at least a season.  The 6’5″ guard possesses elite athleticism that allows him to get to the rim at will – and despite a work-in-progress jump shot, it’s widely believed he has one of the highest ceilings among any player in the draft.

Emmanuel Mudiay has the talent and upside to lead the Knicks alongside Carmelo Anthony next season.

In 12 games for the Guangdong Tigers, Mudiay averaged 18 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 6.2 RPG in 31.5 MPG.  With concerns over his jump shot, Mudiay shot 34% from beyond the arc – showing he could at least knock down threes at a respectable clip at the professional level.  Mudiay’s pure athleticism will allow him to thrive playing alongside Carmelo Anthony –  but without a consistent three-point shot, it’s easy to see Jackson passing on the young guard in favor of a free agent.  If Jackson does indeed pass on Mudiay, his second-best option, Kristaps Porzingis, may not be the pick fans cheer for.

Drafting an unknown European player often leads to criticism from fans and the media, alike – but many times, a player’s pure potential outweighs rally cries from distressed fans.  Kristaps Porzingis is a towering 7-footer with a smooth jump shot and a developing post game.  With some work and a bit of luck, it’s easy to see Porzingis becoming the best player out of this year’s draft class.

Kristaps Porzingis has shot up draft boards over the past few weeks, but it remains to be seen if the Knicks are truly interested.

In 50 games last season, Porzingis averaged 11.1 PPG in nearly 21 MPG while shooting 39% from three.  At only 19 years old, there’s a lot of work and growing left to be done by the Latvian – but a season learning off the bench can do wonders for any young prospect.  Porzingis is the most intriguing player in the draft for a reason, but it remains to be seen whether Jackson will pass up on a proven commodity, like Willie Cauley-Stein, come Thursday.

Teams know what they’re getting in big man Willie Cauley-Stein, a defensive anchor capable of blocking shots and stretching out to the perimeter when necessary.  In his junior season, Cauley-Stein averaged 8.9 PPG and 9.9 RPG while blocking 1.7 shots per game (though that number was 2.9 just a season earlier).  With a few seasons to work on his offense, it’s expected that Cauley-Stein will eventually blossom into a player with 15/10 potential, but right out of the gate, Phil Jackson would be happy with a dominant post presence on the defensive end who can also run the pick-and-roll.

Emmanuel Mudiay and Kristaps Porzingis will give the Knicks a beacon of hope for the future, but it’s unlikely either would be very effective in their rookie seasons.  Willie Cauley-Stein, although not the flashiest player in the draft, represents a solid rotation piece who, if things work out, can develop into one of the better centers in a league devoid of productive big men on both ends of the floor.

Free Agency

Flush with cash and the allure of the big city, the Knicks have consistently been a glamorous destination for free agents. With Carmelo Anthony on the court and Phil Jackson running the show from his desk, the team should have no problem in finding players with at least mild interest in playing for the Knickerbockers.  While the Knicks can pursue basically any free agent this offseason, their main targets depend on whomever they select in this year’s draft.  The team’s top targets come July look to be Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Brandon Knight – and for safe measure, Greg Monroe.

Memphis Grizzlies do-it-all center Marc Gasol is arguably the best free agent in this year’s class, and for good reason. Gasol is dominant in every facet of the game, and stats often don’t do his talent justice.  After averaging 17.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 3.8 APG, Gasol went on to lead his Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion Warriors, while also earning NBA First-Team honors.

Marc Gasol is the franchise center the Knicks have desperately needed for years.

The Knicks efforts to sign Gasol wouldn’t be contingent on their drafting of a certain player, either, as Gasol figures to be a better player than Willie Cauley-Stein for the next 4-6 years, barring major regression from the Spaniard in the next few years.  It would take a lot for the Knicks to convince Gasol to leave Memphis, but after several go-arounds in the playoffs with limited success, it’s possible the 30-year old would like to leave to try his hand at a playoff run with another superstar.

Like Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge is among the game’s top big men due to his ability to score and rebound at will – and has no true reason to leave his partner in crime, Damian Lillard.  However, if the Knicks manage to draft Emmanuel Mudiay, joining him and Carmelo may prove to be too enticing to pass up.  The Knicks should begin the courting process early, as Aldridge averaged 23.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG in his age 29 season – and the big man’s suitors surely won’t be limited.

Blazers’ forward LaMarcus Aldridge may be tempted to join Carmelo Anthony in the bright lights of New York next season.

While the Knicks would love to have Aldridge regardless of who they draft, selecting Kristaps Porzingis – who arguably could develop into a LaMarcus Aldridge – may prove to be a waste of resources that could be allocated to other areas.  Porzingis may take two or three seasons to develop, but there’s no sense in having him sit behind Aldridge for the first five or so years of his career – while playing the two alongside each other would weaken the Knicks post defense that could be oh so dominant with a player like Gasol.

Now, Gasol and Aldridge would be great players for the Knicks regardless of who they draft, but if that player isn’t Mudiay – the team needs a floor general for the future.  Cue Brandon Knight.  The 23-year old was in the midst of a breakout season for the Milwaukee Bucks before being traded to the Phoenix Suns and ultimately struggling to adapt to a less ball-dominant role alongside Eric Bledsoe (averages went from 17.8 PPG and 5.4 APG to 13.4 and 4.5, respectively).

Despite his relative struggles in Phoenix, Brandon Knight proved himself as an effective floor general with Milwaukee. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite his relative struggles in Phoenix, that shouldn’t take away from what was a dominant 52 games in Milwaukee.  The guard underwent a transformation into a true floor general that increased his assists and three-point shooting percentage (33% in 2013-14, 41% in 2014-15 with MIL). At only 23, the Knicks could afford to offer a max contract in the hopes that his decreased efficiency in Phoenix was in fact due to playing in a two point guard lineup.  Playing with Carmelo Anthony and potentially Kristaps Porzingis would take the scoring pressure off of Knight and allow him to thrive as a distributor, and most likely a second-scoring option.

Another intriguing option for the Knicks, although it may be a backup plan in Phil Jackson’s eyes, is to target the talented, yet disgruntled Detroit Pistons big man Greg Monroe.  The center/forward enjoyed a breakout 2011-2012 season in which he averaged 15.4 PPG to go along with 9.7 RPG, establishing himself as one of the more exciting young front court talents in the NBA.  A few years later, and struggling to play alongside Josh Smith and Andre Drummond, and it appears Monroe is ready to cash in and dominate in his own front court.

While the Knicks would prefer Gasol or Aldridge, Monroe wouldn’t be a bad pickup by any means.  With averages of 18.5 PPG and 11.9 RPG per 36 minutes last season, it’s clear Monroe is ready to shine in the spotlight – without another big man taking up space in the post.  The Knicks could probably land Monroe at less than a max contract, but with the potential to enter the upper-echelon of NBA centers, Jackson may want to hand Monroe a blank check.

Any of these options would provide a significant boost in talent for the seemingly talent-less Knicks, and realistically, free agency is their only way to acquire proven NBA talent.  Without many assets – in the form of players and draft picks, unless Jackson is intent he won’t get a franchise player with the fourth pick – the Knicks will have to rely on their own resources to acquire talent.  The true beginning of the Phil Jackson era in New York will begin in just a few short days, and there will be no shortage of eyes watching to see how it plays out.

For more content follow me on Twitter @FustorThePeople, and check out my blog Fustor for the People.


Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Nick Fustor

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