Carmelo Anthony enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012-13, earning Second Team All-NBA honors and leading the New York Knicks to their first home playoff seed in a decade. A franchise desperate to be relevant interpreted that patchwork roster's run as reason to double down, rather than what it was — a sub-championship ceiling for both the star and his team — and the Knicks promptly began careening downhill.
Julius Randle enjoyed the best season of his career in 2020-21, earning Second Team All-NBA honors and leading the Knicks to their first home playoff seed in a decade. Seven coaching staffs and five front-office regimes later, the same desperate franchise doubled down again on the downslope of another small peak.
Leon Rose now faces a task familiar to his predecessors: Pull the Knicks out of a nosedive, or join an ever-growing list of executives who failed in spectacular fashion to resurrect a long-sleeping giant of a franchise.
In 2013, the Knicks acquired Andrea Bargnani, re-signed Kenyon Martin, Pablo Prigioni and J.R. Smith, and handed recently amnestied Queens native Metta Sandiford-Artest a two-year deal. Bargnani was a mistake from the start. An ankle injury cost Martin all but 32 games. Prigioni and Smith were expendable before the ink dried on their three-year contracts. Predictable knee problems marred Sandiford-Artest's homecoming.
Eight years later, the Knicks acquired Evan Fournier, re-signed Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, and handed recently waived Bronx native Kemba Walker a two-year deal. Fournier was a mistake from the start. An ankle injury has cost Rose all but 26 games. Burks and Noel are expendable before the ink has dried on their three-year contracts. And predictable knee problems have marred Walker's homecoming.
The parallels are uncanny, right down to the five-year, $124 million extension that awaited Anthony in 2014. The four-year, $117 million extension Randle signed this past summer also does not start until next season.
Whereas it did not take long for Anthony to tell Knicks fans critical of his contributions to the team, "You are stuck with me, buddy," a struggling Randle has already taken to telling the home crowd to "shut the f*** up."
The end of each bad contract the Knicks have signed over the past two decades has always been met with the promise of cap space in the NBA's biggest media market, only for the next bad contract to fill the role reserved for whatever big-name player opted not to serve as Anthony's costar on a mostly mediocre roster.
Does Knicks management have a plan for Randle and company beyond following a failed blueprint?
The offseason signings of Fournier, Rose, Burks, Noel and Walker for a combined $192 million had to have been made with the intent of trading some combination of them at the first opportunity. None of those deals make sense otherwise. Pair a couple of the four first-round draft picks they own over the next two years with one or more of their recent lottery picks and a few of those neutral mid-tier contracts, and the Knicks should be in the hunt for Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns or whichever All-Star next requests a trade.
Prioritizing tradable contracts over cap space is a decent strategy, given how so many stars are changing teams in the player empowerment era. Sign-and-trade deals are more commonly facilitating movement.
Except, those mid-tier deals are not as neutral as the Knicks might have hoped. Nor are their recent lottery picks as valuable as they would like. Nobody is taking the $54 million guaranteed to Fournier through 2024 without the addition of draft compensation in the deal. RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin have not shown enough to headline a package that fetches a superstar in return without the addition of first-round picks to a trade.
Sure, the Knicks could mortgage their near future, but as enticing as Madison Square Garden may be, which superstar views Randle as the second option who can help him win a title? Is Tom Thibodeau the coach to lure this generation's empowered superstars? What has Leon Rose done to alter the perception that the Knicks are mismanaged from the top down? Last season looks more and more like an anomaly.
The Knicks' last victory against a winning team came against the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 23. They are 20-21, 11th in the Eastern Conference, precisely where the Minnesota Timberwolves were when they fired Thibodeau in 2019, midway through the encore season to his last playoff aberration.
The Wolves have been chasing their tails ever since, and it could cost them Towns, a former Leon Rose client who has two more years remaining on his contract after this one. That timeline fits the end of every cumbersome contract on New York's books but that of Randle, Towns' predecessor at the University of Kentucky, where another Knicks executive, William Wesley, was "a goodwill ambassador to our program."
These are the dots Knicks fans hope connect, but they are rightfully weary of a team that has long focused on the next big thing at the expense of little things that lead them there. New plan, same as the old plan, and if history is any indication, nobody but Knicks owner James Dolan will be around by the end of it. There is nothing to show for the short-lived glory of playoff basketball in New York but another empty promise.
– – – – – – –