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Knicks Make Measured Moves in Path Back to Relevance

New York signed Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, but did the team do enough to climb the Eastern Conference rankings?

A familiar feeling crept over Knicks fans in the opening hours of free agency Monday evening.

After approaching August with hopes of landing a marquee free agent—namely a point guard—the Knicks quickly ran up a bill totaling $186 million in total salary. But New York’s spending spree didn’t bring Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard or Lonzo Ball to the Big Apple. Instead, the Knicks made Evan Fournier their marquee move, paid relatively handsomely for Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel, and committed to largely the same roster in 2021–22 as last year’s overachieving group. New York’s moves in free agency signaled a return to previous eras of mismanagement, with a familiar refrain emanating across basketball Twitter: same old Knicks.

Landing Fournier and bringing back a middle core of veterans wasn’t exactly New York’s first plan at the outset of the summer. Leon Rose and the Knicks’ front office likely would have used as much of its $53 million in cap space as necessary to land Paul, but Phoenix bit the bullet and paid $120 million for its aging floor general. Kyle Lowry received a hearty $90 million from the Heat. Mike Conley returned to the Jazz on a $72 million deal. The top of the point-guard market settled quickly, forcing New York to pursue alternate options. You can’t criticize the Knicks for exiting Monday night without a proven All-Star. Questioning their moves from there is the more appropriate exercise.

It’s easy to understand the qualms regarding New York’s moves Monday night, especially the deal for Fournier. The Knicks will pay more than $18 million to Fournier over each of the next three years—with a team option for the fourth season—and, in return, they’ll receive a zero-time All-Star whose career résumé to date consists of solid scoring seasons with the Magic that carry more than a whiff of empty calories. Fournier is a middling defender. He’s not the most inventive passer. There is some scoring upside here, but does anything in Fournier’s career suggest he’s the one to take a franchise to the next level? New York’s biggest splash in free agency isn’t exactly going to inspire dreams of the Finals at Madison Square Garden.

The addition of Fournier got summarily thrashed through various corners of the internet, though it does look more sensible upon further reflection. The French guard is a player who can fill various gaps on the Knicks’ roster, and while he’s unlikely to deliver any playoff series wins, he’s a sensible fit next to New York’s current core. Fournier adds a dose of playmaking and verve off the bounce, and he can handle lead ballhandling duties in a pinch. His 6'​​ 7" frame allows him to upsize and guard larger wings if New York wants to play Julius Randle at the five, and pick-and-roll possessions between Fournier and Randle should score at a healthy clip. The Knicks were in a use-it-or-lose-it situation with their cap space. Acquiring albatross deals for first-round picks no longer helps a team trying to compete for the postseason. Considering those circumstances, signing Fournier is less of a blunder than an understandable expenditure.

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New York made a similar gamble in its acquisition of Kemba Walker on Wednesday morning. The Knicks will receive the four-time All-Star after a buyout from the Thunder, and while added backcourt firepower is a legitimate bonus, we should not equate the Walker addition with the signings of Paul, Lowry and Conley. Walker looked to have lost major burst in his second season with the Celtics, the result of nagging knee injuries that marred his two seasons in Boston. There’s not as much separation in Walker’s step-back compared to his early career, and his diminutive frame makes for easy eating for larger guards. Walker still has value as a lead playmaker and floor spacer. There will be a night or two this season where Walker lights up MSG, providing flashbacks to his magical run in the 2011 Big East tournament. Yet don’t expect Walker to suddenly channel his prime on a consistent basis. He’s now a nice complementary scorer, one who should mesh will with Fournier and Rose. New York should feel better about its postseason chances with Walker in ’22 even if the Finals is a pipe dream.

It’s hard to imagine Fournier or Walker playing on the next great Knicks team. Such a scenario would require either an unforeseen leap from RJ Barrett or a blockbuster addition in free agency, neither of which are likely in the coming seasons. But Fournier could be the bridge to the next great Knicks team. Understanding such a distinction is critical for New York as it operates in the coming seasons. Let’s elaborate further.

James Dolan’s franchise spun its wheels through much of the last two decades facing a difficult conundrum. The Knicks failed to acquire elite talent through the draft, and without any homegrown talent, the path to relevance seemed clear. New York would clear hordes of cap space, recruit superstar duos and trios, and hope that lightning would strike and the championship would be attainable with a flash. A Lucy-and-the-football scenario quickly unfolded. LeBron James gave the Knicks a polite “no thanks” in 2010. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving provided a proverbial stiff arm in ’19. The failed superstar pursuit left New York licking its wounds, potentially set to undergo the same cycle once again. Its pivot has proved prudent thus far.

The Knicks didn’t spring back into the parade of tankers after missing out on Durant and Irving, potentially costing them Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green or Evan Mobley in the 2021 draft. Yet long-term, New York’s decision to sign Randle and field a competitive roster was the healthiest move for the franchise. The extended string of losing was drawing increasing ire on the Dolan regime, and the organization looked to be at a legitimate crisis point following a 17-win campaign in ’18–19. Signing Randle and mounting a playoff run finally brought some joy back to MSG. With the addition of Fournier and Walker, back-to-back postseason appearances are certainly in play.

New York’s across-borough neighbor may ultimately be providing the blueprint for what the Knicks can pull off with the additions of Randle, Fournier and others in recent years. The Nets rose from the ashes of the Paul Pierce–Kevin Garnett trade to field a respectable outlet late in the 2010s, creating an organization renowned for its professionalism and player development. Brooklyn’s market certainly helped matters, though there’s little chance Durant and Irving would’ve committed to the Nets if they were the mockery of the league in 2019. Building a winner overnight from scratch is no longer an option in the NBA. Laying a quality foundation is a prerequisite for recruiting superstars. And, in adding Fournier and Walker, the Knicks are doing just that. Perhaps Monday’s signing can be the prelude to Damian Lillard, Zion Williamson or another star landing in New York at some point in the coming seasons.

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