Let's all go back in time for a moment, shall we?
Before the world started eating itself alive and we all began shuddering in fear over which biblical plague would be unleashed the following month, the 2019-20 New York Knicks entered their season with moderately high hopes.
Playoffs? Playoffs? No, not playoffs. But development, consistency, and most of all, competence.
This was supposed to be a campaign where the organization as a whole took a not-insignificant step forward. The dream would have been to resemble the Nets or Clippers of the previous season, but even the 2018-19 Hawks would have been acceptable. They went 23-30 after a 6-23 start and were led mostly by their young players, but also got key contributions from veterans like Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon and Vince Carter.
That Atlanta team was viewed as one headed in the right direction, and stood as an example of how to properly execute a rebuild (misgivings about the Luka trade aside). They won at a 43 percent clip over those final 53 games. After winning 17 of their final 42, this season's Knicks were at an even 40 percent for a stretch that encompassed more than half of a normal season. RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson showed progress. Squint and the two situations were not terribly dissimilar.
But the devil is in the details when discussing the NBA, and Barrett, for all his promise, is not Trae Young. The veterans New York signed also rose above the level of helpful contributors and instead did far too much heavy lifting. In trying to be like the Hawks, the Knicks just came off like a comedian doing another guy's stand up routine. Not only did it bomb, but it made everyone in the room highly uncomfortable.
Because things went so sideways and the franchise engaged in its usual share of off-court tomfoolery, no one has spent much time analyzing whether this season was a success. That answer is obvious.
But that doesn't mean it was a waste of time.
Going into the year, if you had to rank the top priorities for the 2019-20 campaign, my guess is that it would be these three, in some order:
1. Develop an on-court identity.
2. See progress from the young players.
3. Acquire additional assets for the future.
On the first point: a more staggering failure, I cannot imagine. That it was so bad as to result in the likely hiring of a head coach who can successfully imbue them with an identity on at least one end of the court is a small consolation, but even that rings hollow.
On the second point, we got what can generously described as a mixed bag.
RJ Barrett had an inefficient and inconsistent year. He showed enough promise to warrant his selection as a top-three pick, but since the night of the draft, the gap between him and Zion & Ja has only widened. No one thinks of him as a future All-NBA level player.
But his struggles evince a harsh reality that may come to benefit him in the long run. There is a good chance that Barrett will never play in less ideal circumstances than he did this season. The spacing necessary for wider driving lanes can't possibly get worse, and it's hard to imagine he'll ever play with fewer teammates who reward his natural inclination to be unselfish rather than penalize it. Most of all, Barrett now has firsthand knowledge of the skills he needs to focus on in order to be succeed at this level. His season may have been a nightmare, but it was anything but a waste.
The opposite is arguably true of Mitchell Robinson. His year was an unquestioned success, with a plethora of highlights en route to the likely record for field goal percentage in a single season. He also became a more sound defender and established himself as an elite offensive rebounder.
Even so, too many areas of Robinson's game remain left to the imagination. We can count the number of plays he made on the short roll on one hand and the number of jump shot he took on the other. We saw glimpses of what he could be, but they were so few and far between that it felt frustrating not to get more.
Perhaps Frank Ntilikina, in his own odd way, grew the most. He may have found his role in the league as a second-unit point guard who can competently direct an offense. His numbers off the bench - a 17.8 usage rate, 26.2 assist percentage and 12.6 points and 6.2 dimes per 36 minutes - show why the Knicks were only outscored by 0.8 points per 100 possessions during his minutes in games he didn't start. Scoring 20 in a game also couldn't have hurt his confidence.
Even Kevin Knox, while disastrous to the naked eye, made strides as a defender and settled less for his jumper than he did as a rookie. Still, it's hard not to view the positive development from Knox or any of the other young players as inhibited, rather than enhanced, by the Knicks' prime free agent acquisition, Julius Randle. Randle now sits as a player who some fans would happily dump for nothing.
And then there are the inarguable failures. Dennis Smith Jr. may not even be seen as a neutral asset anymore considering his $5.7 million salary for next season. Damyean Dotson and Alonzo Trier played 836 and 291 minutes, respectively, or 115 fewer in total than the combination of Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington. Looking back, it's hard to view those proportions as justified. Iggy Brazdeikis was an afterthought, but it's too early to judge whether or not his G-League experience was time well spent.
Finally, in regards to acquiring assets, the return for Marcus Morris is a solid one, but just like imagining how much more growth could have happened without Randle on the roster, it's hard not to wonder what better use Bobby Portis' salary slot could have been put to.
All in all, while this year doesn't go down as a complete waste, it was, at the very least, a cavalcade of missed opportunities. Then again, maybe this was the proverbial step back that precedes two steps forward, as the failures of 2019-20 did accomplish perhaps the most important thing of all: getting an (almost) entirely new front office in the door, and providing them with outstanding template of precisely what not to do.