What Perry's Return Means for the Knicks

Although they haven't said anything directly, Scott Perry's retention as GM by Leon Rose may speak volumes if we read between the lines.
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With this week's news that Scott Perry's contract option as general manager was picked up by the Knicks for the 2020-21 season, we're left to guess what, if anything, it means for the immediate fate of the franchise.

The popular answer has been "nothing much," as in, "We're in the middle of a pandemic, and a first-time President of Basketball Operations is simply craving as much stability and support as he can get his hands on."

This could very well be the answer, and it's worth noting that Perry didn't get his contract extended. The Knicks simply didn't fire him from a pact that was originally intended to run through next season anyway.

That said, a little more than a week ago we learned that New York will be retaining the services of Cleveland's Brock Aller to be Leon Rose's right hand man. This is proof that, yes, a basketball team in the middle of a league-wide shutdown can still make a significant hire. Furthermore, we have to assume that Rose's previous life as an agent saw him cross paths with every up-and-coming front office executive throughout the NBA.

Translation: Perry is here because Leon Rose wants him here.

So what do we do with that? As tough as it is to parse out which of the Knicks' moves over the last three years were the result of the recently ousted Steve Mills and which ones go on Perry's ledger, there are a few assumptions we can safely make:

Elfrid Payton will be back

Perry's longtime fascination with Payton is well documented. He was part of the Orlando front office that gave up a future first round pick to draft Payton in 2014, he nearly traded for him at the deadline in 2018 when he was in his first year as GM of the Knicks, and of course he helped bring Payton to New York last summer.

Then before the season, Marc Berman of the NY Post reported that Payton was "all but promised he would be the starter" when he signed his two-year pact. This seemed a bit absurd at the time, as the Knicks had two young point guards that the organization seemingly had an interest in vetting further.

Low and behold, Payton started 36 of the 45 games he appeared in, including every one he was active for following Steve Mills' ouster in early February. Payton averaged 30 minutes a night during that stretch at the end of the season despite the fact that the team was at the bottom of the standings.

All this being said, it's not like there won't be justification for Payton's return. The Knicks were 17-28 in games he played and 14-22 in games he started. 

The on/off stats back up the record, as New York was outscored by 3.0 points per 100 possessions when Payton played but 8.5 points per 100 when he sat. In particular, the team's effective field goal percentage plummeted from a middling but barely respectable 51.6 when he was in the game to 49.1 when he wasn't - a number which would have ranked dead last in the league.

While the numbers may warrant picking up Payton's $8.0 million team option, his complete lack of a jump shot - he made just 14 3-pointers this year - likely means he'd return as a backup to an upgrade at the starting point guard spot. If three is a crowd, then four is most definitely a crowd, so...

One of Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith Jr. (or both) will be gone

It seemed all but guaranteed that both players wouldn't be coming back regardless of whether Perry returned or not.

In DSJ's case, I was told more than a month before the deadline that he had been given an assurance by Steve Mills that he would be traded. Ian Begley's report last week seemed to confirm as much. The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov, appearing on the Knicks Film School Podcast on Friday, mentioned that in speaking with talent evaluators around the league, it seems like Smith Jr. could still fetch a second round pick. He seems to be as good as gone.

Frank's case is a bit tougher. Marc Berman wrote recently that Perry "has never been a fan of Ntilikina," but also added that Leon Rose sees potential in Ntilikina. So let's call this one 50/50.

The Knicks will try to win games

This one gets the Obvious Award, but remember: it was only a year ago that Scott Perry presided over what was seemingly one of the most blatant tanks in NBA history - one which saw New York go 17-65 ahead of the Zion lottery.

With the 2021 draft class looking stacked at the top, it's not out of the question that the Knicks would be wise to take this route again, especially with Rose having the currency of this being his first year on the job.

Except that this would go against every bit of evidence Perry has given us throughout his time as general manager. Going all the way back to 2017 when the Knicks were 12-12 and KP was rolling, Perry had this to say about the notion of tanking:

“I just believe it’s important to compete hard, do the very best you can, let the amount of wins organically happen vs. trying to put your team in position not to win,” Perry said. “I don’t think that’s healthy for any culture. I think if you try to institutionalize losing, that’s hard to get out of your building. You may never get that out of your building.” - courtesy of Marc Berman, NY Post 

One year later, it seemed like the team did an about face, and that losing as many games as possible was always the plan. 

Maybe, maybe not. A source told me during that 17-win campaign that the Knicks thought they would be something closer to a plucky, 30-win outfit, a'la that season's Atlanta Hawks. The visible evidence also wasn't far off from this notion:

Which brings us to last season. Over the summer, we again heard that Perry was against the idea of "institutionalized losing," something only confirmed by Ian Begley's report that a playoff mandate was handed down before games ever started.

Fast forward to Mills' ouster and the subsequent Marcus Morris trade which brought back the expiring contract of Moe Harkless. The Knicks were 15-36 at the time and Harkless seemed like a safe bet to bought out. Instead, he wound up starting the last 10 games the Knicks played, including the final win versus Atlanta in which he played 40 minutes.

Kevin Knox played 16 minutes in the same game, which was right in line with the 15.7 minutes he averaged in the final 15 games of the season, as Mike Vorkunov recently noted in his excellent breakdown of Knox's sophomore year.

Despite their record, the Knicks never increased the minutes of any of their young players even after Mills was fired, didn't buy out any of their veterans, and never called up promising young players like Kenny Wooten or Lamar Peters (who they would have needed to sign to an NBA contract) from their Westchester G-League outfit.

Lest this all go on Mike Miller's shoulders, he was adamant throughout the end of the season that he spoke to Perry daily about the team's rotations. This was all very much by design, even with Leon Rose officially in office.

This is all to say that anyone expecting the Knicks to ramp up Knox's minutes or avoid signing or trading for older veterans or hand the reigns to a rookie point guard in 2020-21 may be sorely mistaken. 

And that's if the Knicks even keep their pick. Remember, Perry was part of the Orlando front office that dealt away Victor Oladipo and the 11th selection in the 2016 draft - the one that became Domantas Sabonis, who was an All-Star in 2020 - for a declining Serge Ibaka. Such a move would be a tough sell in New York, but then again, that hasn't exactly stopped this front office from making controversial decisions before.

The evidence is plain as day. And evidently, Leon Rose liked what he saw.