The New York Knicks entered this past offseason by firing a Hall of Famer, and they capped it by trading away a likely Hall-bound player.
Yet, somehow, their 2017-18 season is set to begin Thursday with as much stability as this franchise has seen in years.
With a young franchise player flanked by fellow 20-somethings and a veteran coach now free to run the team without former team president Phil Jackson’s triangle offense getting in the way, the Knicks appear more committed than ever to building the team slowly and fostering success naturally.
That won’t translate into immediate success. While the Knicks aren’t expected to challenge for a postseason berth, here are three reasons to keep an eye on this team through April ahead of their season opener on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
KP’s time to shine
The Kristaps Porzingis era has officially arrived. The 22-year-old big man, who can do things with a basketball no other 7-3 human can hope to pull off, is now out of the shadow of Carmelo Anthony. Incidentally, Melo will be in an Oklahoma City uniform Thursday against his former team after being dealt for a package of young players and a draft pick.
Porzingis raised his scoring average by nearly four points to 18.1, scoring at a higher per-minute rate as well, in his second NBA season. But most of that was done while sharing the ball with Anthony, the erstwhile Knicks tentpole.
Now as the top option in Jeff Hornacek’s up-tempo offense, look for the Latvian forward to join the East’s elite frontcourt talent and earn his first All-Star nod.
Inconsistency marked the first two season of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s career, leading his a trade to the Atlanta Hawks on draft night two years ago. After struggling for minutes at first, he flourished last season and averaged 18 points over the final three months of the season.
The surge netted him a four-year, $71 million contract to return to the Big Apple and score from the wing. On nights when Porzingis isn’t the team’s top scorer, the expectation is Hardaway will be the one ahead of him most of the time.
Hardaway, 25, did not improve markedly on defense during his two years in Atlanta, so it will be up to starting guards Courtney Lee and rookie Frank Ntilikina to pick up the slack on the perimeter.
Centers of attention
Last year’s brightest revelation in an ugly 31-51 Knicks campaign was Willy Hernangomez. The 6-11 center, a 2015 second-round pick, was selected to the All-Rookie First Team after averaging 8.2 points and seven rebounds over 18.4 minutes. With an expected uptick in minutes and the typical progress of a 23-year-old, he could become a double-double threat on a nightly basis.
The Spaniard’s biggest threat in terms of minutes played is Enes Kanter, the top player acquired for Melo. The 25-year-old Turkish scoring machine ranked 16th last season in scoring rate, albeit while playing 21.3 minutes a night. He’s not one to stretch the floor, but rather scores from the low post like centers of yore. Just don’t expect to like his defense.