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Knicks’ Future Not as Bleak as it Appears

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Take a deep breath, Knicks fans. Perhaps try a few Zen-Master approved relaxation techniques?

Yes, it’s true that yet another Knicks season is slipping away. The Knickerbockers have seemingly nosedived from playoff contender to laughingstock/afterthought in a New York minute. Just a few weeks ago, they were 14-10 and had NYC buzzing. But, alas, here we are, in an all too familiar scenario for New York basketball fans: Their favorite team slumping through a soul-snatching losing streak on the court, while chaos envelops the organization off the floor.

While it is undeniably gloomy in Gotham right now, it could be argued that the future is not as dark and dreary as it might seem.

The Knicks may not be as far away from developing into a competitive, winning team as some might suggest. Many in and around New York have buried the team and are destroying Phil Jackson for what they view as an unmitigated failure of epic proportions. One prominent New York radio personality even claimed that Phil Jackson has been a worse GM than Isiah Thomas. Seriously.

Again, deep breath everybody. Let’s take a step back here and look at the bigger picture. There are reasons for optimism. Seriously. Let’s start at the ground floor.

The most important part of building an NBA team truly capable of competing at the highest level is finding a legitimate franchise player. Without at least one elite-level superstar, you have almost no chance to rise above the pack. Going back in history, how many teams have won a title, or even advanced to the Finals, without a top-10 player? There are very, very few teams able to claim such a distinction. Thus, getting your hands on a legit superstar is the most important piece to the puzzle.

This is why any discussion of a potentially bright Knicks future begins with Kristaps Porzingis.

There is no denying that Phil Jackson has made some bad trades. He also should not have given Carmelo Anthony max money, in addition to everything else Melo asked for, including the 15-percent trade kicker the much-discussed no-trade clause that has dominated headlines in NYC recently.

With that said, by far and away the most important decision Phil has made during his tenure with the Knicks occurred on June 25, 2015. That was the date of the 2015 NBA Draft. Despite New York slipping to fourth in the draft lottery, Phil needed to hit a home run with that pick to save the Knicks. He smacked a grand slam.

Porzingis is nursing an Achilles injury right now, but assuming it’s simply a minor ailment without any long-term ramifications, the sky truly is the limit for this kid. Too often we nonchalantly throw around cliches such as “unimaginable upside.” But sometimes the talent is so unique and the player so special, these banal platitudes actually apply. There are any number of statistics to choose from to highlight just how incredible the start to Porzingis’ career has been.

Porzingis has played a total of 108 games in his NBA career thus far. He has blocked 207 shots and knocked down 157 3-pointers. No only is he the first player in NBA history with more than 200 rejections and 150 treys this early in his career, but putting those stats in context helps to highlight their absurdity.

Porzingis has hit the same exact number of 3-pointers in his first 108 career games as Ray Allen did in Allen’s first 108 career contests. KP has more made treys than all-time great shooters such as James Harden, Michael Redd and Chauncey Billups to this point in their careers. In addition, he has blocked more shots in his first 108 games than Yao Ming (201) and Dwight Howard (175) did in their first 108 games.

This season, despite being only 21 years of age, he is averaging 20.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and is also on pace to become the first player in league history to average over two three-pointers and two blocks per game.

However, stats and numbers are just one reason why those that have watched him up close are so high on Porzingis. He is incredibly humble for a young kid rising to stardom in the biggest city in the world. He is confident, yet not cocky. He is aggressive and assertive, but a willing passer and a well-liked teammate. In short, he is the type of player and the type of person you want to build a franchise around.

You get the idea. He doesn’t turn 22 until next August and is still growing into his body and figuring out how to play in the NBA, but Porzingis has the potential to be a perennial All-NBA player and MVP candidate in the near future. It is also important to note that the league’s new CBA greatly increases the odds that KP will re-sign with the Knicks when that time comes.

Porzingis is the backbone of the franchise, the foundation on which the Knicks future rests. The dream of finding a player like Porzingis is why teams tank. The Knicks already have their main building block. The first and most crucial piece is in place. Now it’s incumbent upon Phil Jackson and company to creatively flesh out the roster around him.

Which brings us to another reason for Knicks fans to hold out hope for the future: For the first time in a very long time, the Knickerbockers own the rights to all of their future first round picks. This is why favorably comparing Isiah Thomas’ track record to Phil Jackson is nonsensical. Thomas bankrupted the Knicks’ future by giving away unprotected first round picks as if they were Snickers bars on Halloween. Jackson has been vigilant in protecting the Knicks draft picks (Phil has also done a decent job of protecting New York’s future cap space – more on that in a minute). Draft picks are incredibly valuable in today’s NBA, as rookie-scale contracts represent the greatest value available under the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

The Knicks owning the rights to their own 2017 first-rounder also softens the blow of the current 2016-17 campaign going off the rails. The worse the Knicks play this season, and the more games they lose, the better odds they have of landing a high lottery pick. In addition, their poor record prevents the team from foolishly giving up future assets in a needless chase for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

If the season ended today, New York would have the 12th overall selection in what is widely considered a loaded draft. There are a number of extremely talented players projected to be available for teams sitting in the back half of the lottery, including a handful of top-tier point guard prospects.

The Knicks also have two second-round picks in the 2017 draft, as they own the rights to Houston and Chicago’s second-rounders. This is relatively uncharted waters for this franchise. Amazingly, the Knicks haven’t made a pick in both the first and second rounds of any draft since 2005, when they selected Channing Frye with the eighth overall pick and Dijon Thompson at 54. The last time New York used their own first and second round picks in the same draft was 2003 (Mike Sweetney and Slavko Vranes).

The 2017 draft kicks off a very important summer for Phil Jackson and his team. The Knicks have to hit on their pick at the end of June, as well make a big splash in free agency once July arrives.

The salary cap for the 2017-18 season is projected to land at $102 million. The Knicks currently have approximately $75.4 million in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2017-18. That number does not include cap holds and non-guaranteed money in contracts for players such as Marshall Plumlee and Maurice Ndour. The biggest cap hold on the roster belongs to Derrick Rose, at nearly $29 million. Assuming they renounce their rights to Rose (which they definitely should do), as well as Brandon Jennings ($6 million) and Sasha Vujacic ($1 million), the Knicks would be looking at roughly $25 million in cap space to work with this summer. Coincidentally, a max contract for a player with six-plus years experience will start at around $25.5 million.

The Knicks primary focus next summer should be landing an elite point guard. Rose has put up good offensive stats, but he has used a ton of possessions to do so (his usage rate of 26.3 is second only to Anthony). More importantly, he has been a sieve on the defensive end of the floor. The Knicks inability to stop point guard penetration over the last few seasons has been absolutely crippling. The one-year Rose experiment has not yielded positive results. It’s time for the Knicks to move on.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of quality point guards set to hit the open market this summer. Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague are among the names that will be up for grabs. (It should also be noted that Serbia, Miloš Teodosić, who is currently playing for CSKA Moscow of the VTB United League, will also be a free agent this summer.)

Chris Paul could play a huge role in changing the direction of a wayward organization and transform the Knicks into a respectable team overnight. Would he consider leaving the ultra-competitive West to come East and join his buddy Melo in New York? A lineup featuring CP3, Courtney Lee, Melo, Porzingis and Joakim Noah would be interesting.

George Hill, who has had trouble staying healthy this season but has played superbly when he’s been on the floor, would also represent a significant upgrade. Jrue Holiday is 26 years of age and just entering his prime.

In the past, the Knicks have had a very difficult time convincing stars to sign in New York, but does the presence of Porzingis change that? One would think having the chance to run with KP in his prime would be enticing to any point guard.

And looking a bit further down the line, the Knicks currently have only $39 million in guaranteed salaries locked in for the 2018-19 season. While the Joakim Noah contract certainly doesn’t look good at the moment, the fact that it is the single worst contract on the team’s ledger is somewhat encouraging. Noah has been playing better of late (he’s averaging 11.3 rebounds over New York’s last 13 games), and with the cap rising, he will account for 17 percent of the Knicks’ total salary next season. That’s not an unimaginable price to pay for a player that leads his team in rebounding, plays hard every possession and is a positive influence in the locker room.

Furthermore, the Knicks have some terrific value contracts on the books. Kyle O’Quinn is set to make just $4.1 million next season, while Mindaugas Kuzminskas will earn only $3.0 million. And the Knicks have Guillermo “Willy” Hernangomez locked in at an incredible discount. Hernangomez will make $1.4 million, $1.6 million and $1.7 million over the next three seasons. To have quality role players making less than three percent of the salary cap is extraordinarily valuable in today’s NBA.

It is also important to note that the Knicks have a coach that has shifted them away from the antiquated and inefficient Triangle Offense, towards a more progressive and modern offensive approach. Jeff Hornacek has had an up-and-down start to his Knicks experience, but there are some positives to take away from his first few months as Knicks coach. In addition to updating the offense, Hornacek has shown a willingness to bench high-paid players when he deems it necessary. He drastically limited Noah’s minutes early on this season when Noah was struggling, which gave O’Quinn and Hernangomez an opportunity to shine. And in Monday afternoon’s matchup against Atlanta, Hornacek sent starter Courtney Lee to the bench in favor of undrafted rookie Ron Baker. In that same game, Kuzminskas also made his first career start and played a team-high 37 minutes.

Last but not least, Hornacek has stated that he will likely play Porzingis at center, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, when KP is healthy enough to suit up. This is important because it is something both Anthony and Knicks coaches were hesitant to embrace last season. Porzingis’ natural position is as a stretch five, as it will allow him to fully take advantage of his remarkably unique skill set.

All things considered, while there is undeniably plenty for Knicks supporters to be depressed about, there is also reason to believe that future will be considerably brighter. No one is suggesting that the present picture is rosy or that New York is on a can’t-miss path towards creating a contender. No, there is still plenty of work to be done. But the upshot here is that it is possible.

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About Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.