Joakim Noah has always been a fiery vocal leader on the court, but it was his vocal recruitment over the phone with fellow Knicks free agent addition Courtney Lee that persuaded the shooting guard to come to New York.
“I just told him, ‘Stop bull—–ing. Come to New York,'” Noah candidly told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing like playing here and it’s true because it’s a very special place to play basketball and regardless of what happens, I’m not going to take that for granted.”
“I think Courtney is a guy who is going to do all the little things, whatever it takes to win games,” Noah said. “This team has a lot of star power, especially with Carmelo [Anthony] and the emergence of [Kristaps] Porzingis. I think it’s just important to have guys who are willing to do the dirty work. I think he’s a great locker room guy. He’s very well respected all around the league from his style of play and I’m just really happy that he’s here.”
Noah’s frontcourt mate Porzingis expressed similar affection for Lee.
“He’s very consistent, that’s what I love about him,” Porzingis said after the Knicks beat the Brooklyn Nets, 116-111, in the team’s final preseason game. “He’s always – no matter what – he’s always playing hard defense, and he’s doing his thing offensively. He’s very consistent, and that’s the type of player you need on your team if you want to win. He’s a winner, so he’s a really good addition that we have this season.”
Lee signed a four-year, $48 million deal with the Knicks. New York was seeking a consistent starting shooting guard and believed Lee would be in play because the Charlotte Hornets had four notable free agents on the market and were expected to keep only two of them. Charlotte retained forwards Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams while guards Jeremy Lin and Lee fled the Hornets’ nest.
After speaking with Knicks president Phil Jackson and general manager Steve Mills, Lee felt like an essential piece of the puzzle New York was building.
“They just told me to come in and my game fits what they’re looking for as far as spacing the floor, shooting, being an option out there and – especially on the defensive end – getting after people [and] being able to guard multiple positions,” Lee told Basketball Insiders.
In his final two combined preseason games, Lee shot 12-for-15 from the field, nailed both of his three-point attempts and scored 26 points in 43 minutes total minutes.
“His defense on guys is pretty darn good,” Coach Jeff Hornacek said. “He’s an explosive player, a little bit herky-jerky. It’s hard to guard him when he comes flying off those screens. He can stop and come hop back one way. He’s very athletic. He can get that shot off.”
Those characteristics were evident in two specific plays during New York’s preseason finale victory over Brooklyn. The first play was at the 1:16 mark of the first quarter when Lee came around a Noah pick, stepped inside the arc with one dribble and swished a 22-foot jumper. The second play was a buzzer beater before the end of the first half when Lee dribbled up the court, took a hard step back dribble and nailed a fadeaway jumper in Bojan Bogdanovic’s face.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) October 21, 2016
With the additions of Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Noah and Lee, the Knicks have made it clear they want to win now. Lee believes the new additions will be enough to push New York over the hump and get back into the playoffs for the first time since losing in the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“One hundred percent,” Lee told Basketball Insiders when asked if the Knicks are a playoff-caliber team. “Thinking of everybody that’s on this team, there’s a lot of playoff experience and there’s a lot of playoffs games that have been played throughout the group of guys on this team. That’s every team’s goal and every player’s goal to try and win big, win in the playoffs and come out with the jewelry at the end.”
While the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the class of the Eastern Conference, only four wins separated the third and eighth seeds. If the Knicks indeed make the playoffs as Lee and his teammates expect, where would New York fall on that spectrum?
“The ceiling is high,” Lee said. “We’ve just got to go out there and compete night in and night out, make sure we handle business and win one game at a time. Then we’ll position ourselves at the end in the playoffs, to be in a good spot, and we’ll go from there.”
If the Knicks get back to the playoffs and appear to resemble a contender, Madison Square Garden will be rocking like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s the Mecca,” Lee said. “It’s the best place to play basketball. The fans are supportive, they’re crazy at times and they want to win. You could feel their emotion. You’ve got Phil Jackson in the front office and the team they were assembling and the talent that was here. It was a good fit for me.”
Lee appears to be a valuable complementary piece for the Knicks thanks to his consistent three-point shooting, perimeter defense, toughness and veteran leadership.
However, several questions need to be answered if the Knicks want to fulfill the high ceiling Lee mentioned.
Will the revamped roster develop chemistry quickly and make up for the time Rose has missed due to his trial?
Can Rose and Anthony, two stars who thrive with the ball predominantly in their hands, co-exist?
Will Rose and Noah make it through the season? Rose has missed 201 combined games over the past four seasons while Noah missed 53 games after left shoulder surgery last season.
Can Porzingis take another step forward in his development and avoid a sophomore slump?
If the answers to those questions are “no,” the roof will collapse on the Knicks’ playoff chances and the high ceiling Lee mentioned will buckle.
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