Missing Out on Kevin Durant Hasn't Doomed the Knicks
Sure, they managed to avoid trading for Eddy Curry or paying big money to Jerome James, but this has been a rough few weeks for a team that was giving us plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2019 off-season.
Missing out on what might be the most-hyped rookie prospect since LeBron James, one of the premier players in the NBA and a second-team All-NBA point guard doesn't mean they haven't done anything though.
With the third overall pick in the draft they look set to add R.J. Barrett, and they've made a handful of free agent signings, adding Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, and Wayne Ellington, essentially re-shaping their entire roster.
Those are obviously all disappointing signings for a fan base that once thought they had a chance to land all three of Zion, KD, and Kyrie, but that doesn't necessarily mean this off-season has been a loss for the Knicks.
The Big Men
Julius Randle is definitely the premier signing in the group, and the team-high $20 million he's set to make this season reflects that.
The 24-year-old has played four NBA seasons since having his rookie year cut short by injury only 14 minutes in, and he's shown improvement with each year.
If we look at Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Randle has made strides with each NBA season, posting marks of 13.9, 16.3 and 19.9 before hitting a career-best 21.0 last year. His usage rate has also increased with each season he's been in the NBA (up to 27.8% last year) while he's also notched effective field goal percentages of at least .555 in each of the last two years.
He adds strong rebounding numbers (16.6% career total rebound rate) and unusually strong playmaking ability (15.4% assist rate) for a big. Over the last three seasons, he's one of only seven players to score at least 22.0 points per 100 possessions, post a rebound rate of at least 14% and an assist rate of at least 15% three times. The players that join him in that group are Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not bad company to keep.
The other big they paid up for was Bobby Portis, who doesn't look to be quite as exciting. Portis has already played for two teams across his first four NBA seasons, and while he's shown some flashes of potential, he hasn't looked overly special. He played a career-high 26.0 minutes per game between his two teams last year, averaging 14.2 points, 8.1 boards and 1.4 assists on a .504 effective field goal percentage.
Last year the Bulls' defensive rating was 6.7 points better with Portis off the floor than on, and the Wizards' was 0.3 points better with Portis off. He has never finished a season with a favorable number in that split, with the Bulls' defensive rating sitting 6.1 points worse with him on in his rookie year, 2.4 points worse in the 2016-17 season, and 0.9 worse in the 2017-18 season.
Taj Gibson doesn't move the needle much either. He rebounds at a pretty middling clip (his 14.5% rate last year was his highest since the 2010-11 season, and he posted a weak 12.4% mark two seasons ago), and he's averaged only 14.3 points per 36 minutes over the last two seasons.
The Other Three
This will be four teams in the last three years for Elfrid Payton, who has just never really lived up to the potential that made him a top-10 pick in 2014.
He's a nightly triple-double threat that can put up some flashy lines in the box score (averaging 10.6 points, 7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game across 42 contests last year), but he's another guy that often looks like a liability on the defensive end.
The New Orleans Pelicans had a 115.2 defensive rating with him on the court compared to a 112.1 when he was off, and the differentials were even bigger with both the Orlando Magic (9.1 points worse) and Phoenix Suns (7.6) in the 2017-18 season. ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric had him ranked 87th among 114 point guards last year -- coming in only two spots ahead of New York's Frank Ntilikina.
Bullock and Ellington aren't going to be guys that do much to change the outlook of a team, but they both have their places on a roster. Both are capable shooters from deep, and Bullock ranked 43rd while Ellington finished 53rd among 130 qualifying players in 3-point percentage last season. Neither offers a ton on the defensive end though. Bullock ranked 481st among all 514 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus last year, while Ellington ranked a better but still unexciting 279th.
It's still too early to write off a 19-year-old top-10 pick, but Knox had a pretty egregious rookie season, ranking 512 out of 514 in Defensive Real Plus-Minus while his .438 effective field goal percentage ranked dead-last among the 120 players that qualified, per Basketball-Reference. The undrafted Trier didn't fare a ton better, with a .498 effective field goal percentage while ranking 75th among 84 shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
Dennis Smith Jr. has shown some rough offensive efficiency in his first two seasons, with a .459 field goal percentage and 2.9 turnovers to go with 5.0 assists per game in the pros, but he's shown reasons for optimism too. Both the Knicks and Dallas Mavericks had significantly better defensive ratings when he was on the floor last year, and he's one of only 17 guards since 2010 to play at least 1500 minutes with a PER of at least 12 in each of their first two seasons. Among the 14 players in that group that have already played their third season, the average PER in year 3 has been 16.1, with only three falling short of 13.9.
Mitchell Robinson is also quietly somebody to be excited about. He generated 6.1 win shares last year, which is tied for the 7th-highest mark for a rookie since 2010. That ties him with Anthony Davis, while Greg Monroe, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, and Blake Griffin are the only players to post a higher mark. His 1360 minutes played are by far the fewest in the group, and his .217 win shares per 48 minutes sit well ahead of Jokic's .185 from 2015 as the highest pace in the group.
We didn't see a ton of him, and he didn't score much (7.3 points per game) but he seems well aware of his limitations on that end, not attempting a single 3-pointer and shooting .694 on 2's. His 16.3% total rebound rate is the 16th-best for a rookie with at least 1000 minutes played since 2010, and his absurd 10.0% block rate (which led to 2.4 blocks per game) crushes the second-highest mark of only 6.4%.
What to Expect in 2019
After the draft lottery had sealed their Zion-less fate, FanDuel Sportsbook's lines looked to be hedging the potential addition of Kyrie Irving (or another superstar that could affect this season).
The over/under for their win total was set at only 29.5, which ranked 25th in the NBA, while they were +3500 to win the NBA Championship -- implied the 12th-most likely in the NBA. A difference in ranking of 13 spots between those lines was the highest of any team.
With the bulk of the big free agency moves played out, their win total line has fallen to only 26.5, while they are down to a near-hopeless +15000 to win the championship.
There wasn't a ton of optimism to start with, as evidenced by a sub-30 win total line, but missing out on the big name free agents have made things even worse, and now their championship odds line up a lot more closely with their win total.
This is a team that won only 17 games while finishing with the league's worst Net Rating last season, though, so 26 wins is a not-insignificant improvement.
Not tanking for Zion and sitting with a pretty deep core of young players (9 of their 12 players are 25 years old or younger, and that number will climb to at least 10 after the draft), the Knicks also have more incentive to play hard in trying to develop their young team this year.
With a couple of intriguing young pieces in town and a few quality free agents added to the mix, there's some real room for optimism for the Knicks next year.
Sure, it's not the return-to-glory kind of optimism that Zion, Durant and Kyrie Irving would have brought to town, but hitting the over a win total bet would be a nice step in the right direction.