Knicks preview: Phil is gone, but New York still banking on decisions he left behind

If it's possible to become better and worse at the same time, the New York Knicks might well be in position to do exactly that this season. We don't need to get into the dysfunction that has surrounded, and really, defined this organization for some time. Let's just say that over the last three years, Phil Jackson was responsible for at least a decent portion of it. He continually scapegoated Carmelo Anthony. He had Knicks fans ready to storm the steps when he found fault with, and ultimately floated the idea of trading, Kristaps Porzingis. He was apparently stunningly unprepared when meeting with prospective free agents. He went through two coaches but never really let them coach, refusing to let go of the Triangle offense.

Finally, Jackson, whose tenure as team president officially added up to a record of 80-166, is out. So is Anthony. You'd like to think at least some of the drama went with them. Off the court, in the front office, just in terms of presenting at least some kind of united front, the Knicks should be better. 

On the court is a different matter. Criticize Anthony's game all you want, but good luck getting buckets without him. Between Anthony and Derrick Rose -- who, of course, is in Cleveland now -- the Knicks have to replace more than 40 points a night, and that's just to be the relatively bad offensive team they were with those guys (19th in scoring at 104.3 ppg, 18th overall with a 107.7 rating last season). Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter, the effective replacements for Rose and Melo, are not going to give you that kind of production. 

This is to say nothing of the defensive end, where if Anthony and Rose were bad, Hardaway and Kanter are probably worse. Kanter can score, and slotting him next to Porzingis, or even Willy Hernangomez in certain lineups, does make for a somewhat intriguing offensive pairing, relatively speaking. But it further weakens a defense that was already 26th in the league last season. 

Hardaway is a conversation unto himself. After being drafted by the Knicks, he went to Atlanta and grew his game. He's a solid offensive player. He won't carry your team by any stretch, but he's solid. On this team, with the shots he's going to get and the freedom that comes with having absolutely zero expectations of making the playoffs, he can score 17 or 18 points per game very reasonably. 

Personally, ever since Hardaway was at Michigan I've seen him as a guy with just a tiny bit of that "it" factor with the ball in his hands. He plays with confidence, even bordering on an effective arrogance. He's athletic and a growing shooter from range. The contract just skews the conversation around him. 

In his first big move as the newly installed team president, Steve Mills signed Hardaway to a four-year, $71 million deal. As USA Today's Sam Amick put it over the summer, that's a contract that "far exceeds anything that most NBA executives anticipated for the 25-year-old." That deal makes it difficult to fully appreciate the things Hardaway can do, and conversely, really easy to harp on his flaws, because it's just so inflated. It feels a lot like Evan Turner's deal in Portland in that way -- even though Hardaway, in reality, is a better player, on a more justifiable contract, than Turner. 

Any way you look at it, that is going to be a tough contract to move, so chances are Hardaway's money is going to be on the Knicks' books for at least the next three years, until it perhaps becomes attractive as an expiring deal. Bottom line: they need Hardaway to be at least passable relative to his contract -- not just because this will go some way toward making the Knicks at least a marginally acceptable NBA team on the court, but perhaps more importantly, because Mills isn't going to look like much of an upgrade from Jackson if the first major deal he cut was a bomb. 

And that's really the hope for the Knicks. Forget the wins and losses this year; fans are desperate to feel like some actual defensible decisions are starting being made. Count me among those who think Melo's greatness wasn't so much invalidated by his largely unsuccessful time in New York as it was wasted, but he still had to go, both for his sake and the organization's. It was an even smarter, and more obvious move to part with Jackson. 

There are, of course, two really major pieces left over from Jackson's tenure: Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina. In his first big roster decision as team president, Jackson, somewhat surprisingly at the time, drafted Porzingis with the No. 4 pick in 2015. In his last major move, he drafted Ntilikina at No. 8 this past summer. As it stands, those are the only two real building blocks this team appears to have. 

With Melo out, everything officially revolves around Porzingis, who has already established himself as a pretty surefire All-Star for years to come. But it's a big leap from All-Star to superstar. If he continues to validate the confidence many have in him as a true franchise player, then this season, no matter the win-loss record, will be a success for the Knicks, as in today's NBA you can't even thinking about winning on any sort of meaningful level until you have at least one game-changing player. 

The smart money is on Porzingis having a breakout year. He averaged almost 20 points a game in Melo's shadow, and with full autonomy over the offense, don't be surprised if that number jumps up near 25 points with something near 40 percent from three. 

Ntilikina is a tougher case. He's just 19 years old, he missed all of Summer League and most of the preseason with injuries, and some believe Jackson took him at No. 8 -- notably ahead of Dennis Smith Jr., who is a popular pick for rookie of the year -- because he thought he fit well in the Triangle as a taller point guard. Well, the Triangle is out, as is the jury on that pick. In a perfect world, Ntilikina would come out of the chute balling, but realistically, the Knicks just need to see enough from him to warrant some real optimism. Because it's the Knicks and there's a tendency to assume the worst, and because we know so little about Ntilikina's game, this feels like one of the real wild-card stories to watch this year.

After that, let's see what Jeff Hornacek can do with this otherwise pretty random roster now that he should have more power to do things his way. Let's see if they can maybe get a nice deal for Courtney Lee, who remains a solid player who could help a lot of teams. If Porzingis and Ntilikina look the part of a future dynamic duo, let's start looking to next year's lottery and, just maybe, a brighter Knicks future on the horizon. 

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