Don’t look now, but it appears the Knicks are finally building the right way

Yahoo Sports
(From left) <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/nyk" data-ylk="slk:Knicks">Knicks</a> president Steve Mills, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5465/" data-ylk="slk:Mario Hezonja">Mario Hezonja</a>, coach David Fizdale and general manager Scott Perry are trying to turn the Knicks into winners. (Getty)
(From left) Knicks president Steve Mills, Mario Hezonja, coach David Fizdale and general manager Scott Perry are trying to turn the Knicks into winners. (Getty)

LAS VEGAS – They gathered in an empty ballroom, the Knicks brass, president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry, and head coach David Fizdale to introduce a free-agent signing, and if you knew nothing more there’s a good chance you would shudder. From Amar’e Stoudemire to Jerome James, from Carmelo Anthony to Joakim Noah, New York doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to offseason spending. For nearly two decades the Knicks have searched for a silver bullet, eschewing an organic rebuilding approach for cap-gobbling contracts on big-name stars. The result: One playoff series win since 2000, with hundreds of millions senselessly burned.

Yet this was different. The Knicks introduced Mario Hezonja this week. “The big one for us this summer,” Perry said of Hezonja, the fifth pick in the 2015 draft who showed so much promise in his first three seasons Orlando eagerly showed him the door. What Hezonja has is a natural talent — Perry was part of the Magic front office that drafted him — and a willingness to take a one-year deal.

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“We are in a talent-acquisition phase,” Perry said.

Added Mills, “Our goal is to put together a group of guys who can build a Knicks team that can be competitive long term.”

It’s strange, really, to see the Knicks exercise patience, like watching a bull refuse to charge when a matador waves a cape in front of it. For years, the Knicks believed free spending in free agency was the only way to build a winner, and they cycled through coaches and front-office execs accordingly.

Fiscal responsibility? That was for small markets that didn’t have the gravitas of New York.

Knicks rookie <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/6020/" data-ylk="slk:Kevin Knox">Kevin Knox</a> has been impressive in summer league. (Getty)
Knicks rookie Kevin Knox has been impressive in summer league. (Getty)

Times are a-changin’, at least if Mills and Perry are to be believed. The Knicks had some flexibility to lock up players to long-term deals this summer but passed, opting to protect the cap space for next summer, when many high-profile free agents will hit the market. And while summer-league play is far from a measuring stick for NBA success, a pair of Knicks draft picks — Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson — have generated considerable buzz in Las Vegas.

“You have to measure summer league a little bit,” Perry said. “The excitement and the disappointment. It is what it is. Do we see some encouraging things from some young guys? Yes. But the guys they are playing against are not the guys they are going to see in the fall. We have got to go through training camp, we have got to come together before we are going to have any idea what this team can do from a wins-and-loss perspective.”

An ex-Pistons executive during Detroit’s heyday in the mid-2000s, Perry wants to mold the Knicks in Detroit’s image. His boss then, Joe Dumars, was the head of a stable organization that mined underappreciated talent — Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and other cornerstones of the Pistons’ 2004 title team played for multiple teams before they settled in with Detroit — on the road to success.

“What I’ve talked about since coming here is developing a culture that’s sustainable for winning,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “I was fortunate for a number of years to work in Detroit, which I thought had one of the best cultures in the NBA. I know what that looks like, I know what that feels like. I understand what went into that. It wasn’t about individual agendas, it was about winning championships. Not that we’re going to try and recreate everything that was done there, but it’s a good base of knowledge to bring here and add to the uniqueness of New York. I feel real comfortable that we’re going to be able to do that.”

The Knicks refuse to put any expectations on next season, and that’s a good thing. Kristaps Porzingis will miss the start of the season while continuing to rehab the ACL he tore last season, and the retreads the Knicks have brought in (Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Burke are all former lottery picks) have much to prove. Knox — who has showcased breathtaking athleticism in summer league — joins an interesting group of young players, but asking them to compete for a playoff spot feels like a stretch.

The Knicks appear OK with that. The changes the Knicks have made over the last year have resonated with agents, Perry said. “There is a lot of interest in the Knicks,” Perry said. “We got a lot of, ‘Seems like you guys are headed in the right direction.’ We have a plan and we’re disciplined. We have to stay disciplined. Things that we say, we’ll try to live up to.”

Next summer will be a test. The Knicks intend to be players next summer — Kyrie Irving, a New Jersey native, will be a target, league sources told Yahoo Sports — but if they fail to land someone that fits the way they play, will they lavish a long-term contract on a big name that doesn’t?

Perry says no. Incremental progress is OK.

“I think it has to be,” Perry told Yahoo Sports. “It’s hard to become a winner in this league. The notion of swinging for the fences all the time and skipping steps, that was one of the critiques about [the Knicks] in the past. It’s like building a house. If you are going to build a house that is going to last a hundred years, it starts with the foundation that you lay. And you can’t quickly pour the foundation and start putting all the beautiful things on top.”

Those beautiful things will come, too. New York is still New York, and a Manhattan address and the lifestyle that comes with it remains appealing to 20-somethings on the free-agent market. But a functional franchise has to come with it. Patience isn’t something the Knicks have been known for. But it may be the only path to sustained success.

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