New Knicks regimes can usually be judged by how quickly it takes them to make a bad decision. Over the past two decades and change, almost every new front office has tried to put its stamp on the team immediately to disastrous results. Scott Layden gave Latrell Sprewell a five-year max contract extension less than three months into his tenure. Isiah Thomas only needed two weeks to trade away his team's future for Stephon Marbury. Steve Mills broke both of their records by torpedoing his tenure before it even began. He signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $72 million deal while David Griffin was en route to New York to interview for the team's presidency, effectively scaring him off of the job and opening the door for Mills to claim it.
Other regimes have started more promisingly but succumbed to the same temptations. Phil Jackson re-signed Carmelo Anthony at his peak and drafted Kristaps Porzingis before showing his true colors by burning his cap space on Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Derrick Rose. Donnie Walsh spent two years meticulously carving out cap space, and the result was the best stretch of Knicks basketball this century: three consecutive playoff berths and a series win. But he resigned, and replacement, Glen Grunwald, immediately wasted his amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups to sign Tyson Chandler when it could have later been used to create the flexibility to add Chris Paul.
The common thread is impatience. Things go wrong in New York when the Knicks hit fast forward, seeking out or retaining big-name players when doing so didn't make sense in the organization's present context. For months, the Leon Rose administration appeared destined to make the same mistakes. The Knicks were linked to Chris Paul ... and Russell Westbrook ... and Victor Oladipo ... and Gordon Hayward. How close they came to connecting on such an ill-advised home run swing is unknowable, but also irrelevant. Even if they were interested, they set a price and stuck to it. Restraint is a step toward patience.
And patience is what the Knicks needed this offseason. That has nothing to do with their previous foibles. In fact, it's the opposite. The Knicks, as presently constructed, are a rebuilding team. The sensible approach to having a rebuilding Knicks team is to act like a rebuilding team instead of acting like the Knicks. The former somewhat consistently yields winning basketball. The latter inevitably leads to disaster.
There was no scenario in which the addition of a Hayward or a Westbrook would have launched the Knicks into short-term championship contention. Given Atlanta's improvements, it probably wouldn't have gotten them into the Eastern Conference's top eight either. But it would have clogged their cap sheet, deprived their youngsters of badly needed developmental touches and artificially created unwarranted expectations. A team led by Westbrook, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson shouldn't make the playoffs, but good luck convincing James Dolan of that.
They are the sort of moves a team makes when it views merely reaching the postseason as a worthwhile goal. Eventually it might become one, but as a stepping stone rather than a destination. The ultimate objective in New York will always be championships, and a playoff pursuit would have proven counterproductive on that front with the loaded 2021 NBA Draft looming. A star in his 30s might be ill-advised for this roster, but a teenaged one is a different story. Atlanta, Charlotte and Detroit all made big win-now splashes. The path to the bottom, save a surprisingly inactive Cleveland team, is unobstructed. The reward for patience is another top young talent.
But the 2020-21 season was all about developing the incumbents. Barrett and Robinson were miscast on a power forward-centric roster last season. This year's roster hasn't exactly been upgraded. Free-agent additions Nerlens Noel and Austin Rivers don't exactly improve New York's spacing. Ball-hog extraordinaire Julius Randle remains in place. The Knicks probably could have made better immediate use of their cap space. But they didn't exactly make life harder on Barrett and Robinson either. Robinson should become a full-time starter for the first time in his career. If Obi Toppin joins him in the frontcourt, the Knicks will at least have a modicum of shooting. Fellow rookie Immanuel Quickley brings some off the bench as well. Spacing is easy enough to find even at this stage of free agency when teams are willing to compromise for it. Defensive sacrifices aren't as painful to teams without immediate ambitions.
Rose's regime appears to be the first in recent Knicks history without them, or at least the will to surrender such fantasies when faced with reality. That will is going to be tested. Slow starts tend to produce calls for fast action. Westbrook and Oladipo rumors aren't going anywhere so long as their situations remain unsettled. Buckle up if any of Rose's former CAA clients become available. There's a long way to go here.
But for the first time in two decades, the Knicks seem at least open to acknowledging that. They aren't acting desperately. They aren't skipping steps. They're acting like any other rebuilding team. They're giving their young players opportunities instead of trying to cherry-pick mercenaries from other teams. They're spending their cap space on assets instead of veterans (three second-round picks just for facilitating an Ed Davis trade!)
They've put off this regime's first great mistake. That mistake will come eventually. Even Pat Riley and Masai Ujiri have misses. But Knicks history is unkind to executives who make those mistakes early. Rose hasn't, and even if most of the hard work still remains, it's a barrier most of his predecessors failed to clear. It's the first step toward eventually turning the Knicks into a real winner.