The Knicks are in the endgame now


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EXACTLY TWO YEARS ago, the New York Knicks officially hired Leon Rose as president of basketball operations.

Since then, Rose has had one in-person news conference — a gathering with a small group of reporters prior to the 2021-22 NBA season at the team’s practice facility in Westchester, New York. Throughout that 40-minute chat, Rose identified three tenets that underpinned the Knicks’ offseason moves:

Stability, continuity and flexibility.

The first two tenets were callbacks to the team’s surprising success in the 2020-21 season. Julius Randle, coming off the best season of his career, signed a four-year, $117 million extension. Derrick Rose, the catalyst of New York’s midseason turnaround after being acquired via trade, had been re-signed, as had Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson.

They, coupled with additions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, were supposed to help the Knicks maintain the momentum created by finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference, Tom Thibodeau winning the NBA’s Coach of the Year award and Most Improved Player Randle claiming All-Star and All-NBA honors for the first time.

But this season has been beset by instability, and the continuity once boasted by the franchise hasn’t helped in the standings: Walker was benched, then hurt his knee, then was sent home. Derrick Rose has missed the majority of the season because of an ankle injury.

Randle, who has feuded with the fans and failed to repeat last season’s success, has been the face of the harsh reality check hitting the Knicks (25-36), who match up against the Philadelphia 76ers (37-23) on Wednesday night (7:30 ET on ESPN).

Only one of Leon Rose’s preseason pillars remains. And with no superstar to build around and no guaranteed path to getting one — the franchise’s uncharacteristic flexibility moving forward might be the only option that can save New York’s future.

IN THE FIVE-PARAGRAPH news release announcing Leon Rose’s hiring in March 2020, the same sentiment appeared twice: Rose, during his decades as a top-flight NBA agent, had represented some of the league’s biggest stars.

The message was clear: The Knicks hoped that Rose, who had worked with players such as former Knick Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, was the man who could deliver the next face of the franchise to Madison Square Garden.

But New York is no closer to getting the franchise-changing star — or stars — needed to compete for an NBA title.

“The Knicks have done a lot of things fine, and I like a lot of their young players,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “But some of their veteran signings have not been great. I don’t know that they’ve constructed a coherent direction.”

New York has tried to accomplish two things at once. First, the signings made this summer — re-signing Derrick Rose, Burks, Noel and Gibson, and adding Walker and Fournier — were designed to give the Knicks as much future flexibility as possible.

Walker was the only signing not to get a team option; he agreed to a straight two-year deal. Gibson signed a two-year deal with a team option in the second season. Derrick Rose, Noel and Burks signed three-year deals with team options in the third, and Fournier signed a four-year deal with a team option in the fourth.

Together, they could allow the Knicks to have more than $40 million in expiring contracts for the 2022-23 season, and potentially more than $60 million in 2023-24.

Second, unlike Knicks teams of the past, they’ve also stockpiled draft picks. New York has north of 20 tradeable picks over the next seven years — including controlling all of the Knicks’ own picks moving forward. (That’s a novel concept for a franchise that hasn’t signed one of its first-round picks to an extension since Charlie Ward in 1999.)

Even after flipping a protected first-rounder (via the Charlotte Hornets) for Cam Reddish earlier this season, there’s still plenty of draft capital remaining to send out in a potential deal for a star.

At the same time, New York is also trying to develop its young talent — a group including RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes. All have shown flashes, specifically Barrett, who had a career-high 46 points in Friday’s loss to the Miami Heat.

But overall, it’s a mix that has worn some of the luster off any potential future package for an available star.

“If they are going to give up their picks and swaps to get someone, it doesn’t matter who they are trading,” a Western Conference executive said. “But if their hope was to turn these guys into good players by themselves, I’d be hard-pressed to see a team thinking they’ll take that for a star.”

SINKING TO 12TH in the East was never the Knicks’ goal.

“Expectations for this season are straight forward: We want to continue to develop our players, we want to build on what we did last year and we want to get better every day,” Leon Rose said in September.

But New York’s fall back to earth after last season’s surprise run might ultimately salvage this situation.

The Knicks entered Wednesday tied for the league’s eighth-best lottery odds. Under the new, flattened odds introduced in 2019, several teams have jumped from the middle of the lottery into the top four spots: the New Orleans Pelicans (eighth-best odds), Memphis Grizzlies (ninth) and Los Angeles Lakers (11th) in 2019; the Chicago Bulls (seventh) and Charlotte Hornets (eighth) in 2020; and the Toronto Raptors (seventh) in 2021.

The Knicks can look to the Cleveland Cavaliers, another downtrodden franchise that has resurrected itself with a few seasons of draft luck. Rookie of the Year favorite Evan Mobley has helped change the direction of the Cavs after being the third overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft. That’s the jolt the Knicks need.

That’s especially true after Randle, thought to be an anchor to build around, might no longer be viewed as the star who can attract another to New York.

“If you look at the last two or three deals that happened, those teams already had a guy, and were adding a second guy,” another East executive said.

James Harden [to the 76ers], Jrue Holiday [to the Bucks], Anthony Davis [to the Lakers] … Philly had Embiid, Milwaukee had Giannis, the Lakers had LeBron. …

“The Knicks do not have that. They’re trying to get the first guy.”

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