Now comes the hard part for the New York Knicks.
The perennially lousy Knicks surprised the pro basketball world by routing the Cleveland Cavaliers in round one of the NBA playoffs and losing in a gritty six games to the Miami Heat in the second round. Now, to satisfy their ever-hopeful fans, the Knicks must take the next step and become an elite team.
It won’t be easy. The Knicks will have to find a way to add a legitimate superstar to lead them out of the wilderness and on to a trip through the Canyon of Heroes.
On the bright side, the Knicks are a very young team with a substantial amount of upside potential. Many of the team’s brightest lights are under 26 years of age, implying that they will continue to take giant steps as they gain more seasoning.
But that promise is overshadowed by a National Basketball Association fact of life: Teams don’t win championships unless they have at least one superstar on their rosters. Most championship contenders have a Big Three, a trio of acknowledged all-stars led by one player who is a certified game-changer.
The Warriors have Stephen Curry, who set a record this post-season by scoring 50 points in a playoff game. The Celtics have Jayson Tatum, who scored 51 points in game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers and established a new high-water mark. The 76ers have the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, high-scoring Joel Embiid. The Denver Nuggets have the otherworldly Nikola Jokic. And the Los Angeles Lakers, of course, boast LeBron James, often referred to as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), and the explosive Anthony Davis.
The Knicks have nobody have that caliber. Yes, Jalen Brunson had some sensational games, but he is, alas, not a one-man team.
Knicks fans have been salivating over unconfirmed reports that the Milwaukee Bucks’ two-time MVP, 28-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo–aka The Greek Freak–is getting restless in Wisconsin and may want to transfer to a big-city team. Similar rumors that Portland Trailblazer all-star guard Damian Lillard may be willing to take his talents to Broadway.
Either one of those stars would make the Knicks a championship contender, overnight. The Knicks are currently a joyous, hard-working, unselfish team. But those admirable qualities can take the Knicks only so far, every spring. Right now, the Knicks are a virtual lock to win approximately 48 games and make the playoffs and get eliminated by a more powerful team in the first or second round of the playoffs.
NBA teams tend to add superstars either through free-agency signings or the pro draft. Only rarely does a player like the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar join a team through a trade. Think about it. Why would a team want to part with a generational player?
As long as they make the playoffs, the Knicks won’t have access to the most promising draft choices because they will no longer be eligible for the lottery. That’s where the lowliest NBA teams routinely draft the best rookies.
The Knicks have also not had any success in luring superstars through free agency. When LeBron James was poised to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers through free agency in the summer of 2010, the Knicks dutifully made their pitch. But James rejected the Knicks and its owner James Dolan, preferring to take his talents, as he put it, to South Beach and the Miami Heat and Patrick Rilly which he led to two titles. James has since moved back to Cleveland and then on to Los Angeles, where he won a championship ring in each city and is in the western conference playoffs again this year after recently defeating the defending champion Warriors.
Knick fans are still furious that James toyed with them over a dozen years ago when he reached “The Decision” and went elsewhere after the Knicks cleared cap space to sign him.
But James is typical of NBA royalty. They prefer to play elsewhere. Maybe they are turned off by the specter of the suffocating New York media. Or the demanding fan base, Or the team’s record of losing (the Knicks have not won an NBA championship since 1973 and haven’t even made the finals since 1999).
The Knicks will have to convince choice free agents that Madison Square Garden is an arena of fun and not a house of horrors for an NBA player who fears getting booed by a furious fan base.
And whoever they can land via trades or lure via free agency means they will have to shuffle some of their current lineup. Is Julius Randle who helped the Knicks to the number five seed in the East but slumped badly in the playoffs a building block or trade bait? And what about R. J. Barrett, who also played well in the regular season but after the game six loss to the Heat was unusually frank in the post game presser. “I played terribly,” he acknowledged of his play in the knockout game. He is also only 22 and remember Brunson, Barrett, Randle and late season pickup Josh Hart all played well when all were healthy. Same with sixth man Immanuel Quickly who struggled with injuries in the playoffs but was strong in season.
For the Knicks, the future is an open book. They can continue on this path and fall short of the promised land. Or, if the team’s management can somehow bring on a superstar from another franchise, the Knicks can end years of frustration and join the elite of the NBA.