On this day last year, the New York Knicks officially announced the hiring of Leon Rose as team president, replacing Steve Mills.
While there were reservations of his hiring with some quarters hoped that the Knicks could have waited for Masai Ujiri—the architect of the Denver Nuggets’ emergence in the West and Toronto Raptors’ first NBA championship—to become available, Rose has exceeded expectations on his first year on the job.
Since his hiring, Rose has made himself scarce and let the Knicks’ front office moves and play on the court do the talking.
In just one year, Rose has accomplished what Phil Jackson and Mills have failed to do — turn the league’s laughingstock into a rising stock.
The Knicks have the lowest payroll in the league, yet they are in the thick of the fight for a playoff spot. They made savvy moves in the offseason, picking up more draft capital and resisted the temptation to chase after stars on a decline and taking a nosedive on a shallow free agency pool. They unearthed a gem in rookie Immanuel Quickley while the jury is still out on their lottery pick Obi Toppin who can’t carve out significant minutes with Julius Randle emerging as an All-Star this season.
Rose’s biggest acquisition — Tom Thibodeau — has made the Knicks believe that they can win every game. They enter tonight’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, an organization that the Knicks wanted to emulate in terms of stability and respectability, just a 1.5 underdog riding high on a three-game winning streak and the fourth-best record in the East.
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The Knicks have put the league on notice.
The national media, who were laughing at the Knicks’ series of misfortunes, are now pivoting and giving their roses to Rose.
“Here’s the thing. They have one of the top former agents in the league running the organization in Leon Rose. Their no.2 in their team [William Wesley] — his specialty is relationship-building, and he’s known for working in the shadows. They’re playing in New York City. They have an abundance of draft picks, young assets, and cap space. The only sort of flaw in here is I’m not sure that every player wants to play for Thibs. But there are some who like him. I say that within the next 12 months, a star or a superstar player will demand a trade to New York,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on his podcast The Hoop Collective.
Could the Knicks finally land a star?
Windhorst restrained himself from dropping names, but he hinted that executives around the league have their guesses.
Who could that be?
Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, Rose’s biggest client before he jumped on the Knicks’ job, has long been rumored to be a Knicks’ target.
Stefan Bondy of the Daily News added fuel to the fire when he hinted that Thibodeau is open to a reunion with Towns, who reportedly didn’t see eye to eye with his former coach during their brief partnership in Minnesota.
“I don’t know if Minnesota would ever make Karl-Anthony Towns available. But as bad as things ended for Thibodeau in Minnesota, I’ve heard that he’d be open to Karl-Anthony Towns again because Thibodeau just wants to win, and he thinks Karl-Anthony Towns will help him do that. And so I know that Karl-Anthony Towns is somebody that’s actually been reported before that the Knicks are monitoring as well,” Bondy said on SNY’s Putback last week.
Cornerstone or Trade Chip?
Bondy’s response came after Newsday’s Steve Popper posited that Randle could be a valuable trade piece down the line.
“Because of his contract and the way he’s producing, he’s a hugely viable asset around the league. He’s not overpaid. He’s got an out after next year if you want to pick his option next year. It’s not a long-term deal right now. Could I see him as a piece, maybe pair with another young asset, another young player, or a pick for Karl-Anthony Towns if Thibodeau wanted to go there? You could absolutely see something like that,” Popper said on SNY’s Putback. “And I think that’s a reasonable offer for Minnesota.”
Windhorst also shares the same view about the 26-year old Randle, who is in the midst of a career-year.
“I say by next year’s trade deadline, a star or a superstar player will force his way there, and they’re gonna be in a position to do that type of trade, and maybe that’s where Julius Randle comes in and does his greatest service for the Knicks especially if he continues to play this way because he could be a part of that trade,” Windhorst said on his podcast.
Knicks still Kings of New York
Meanwhile, First Take’s Max Kellerman, a former Knicks fan and a staunch critic of the team, has admitted that he’s recently watched a Knicks game — from beginning to end — in a long while.
“This is something new. They’re a young and exciting team. The culture seems healthy. It looks like [James] Dolan has finally got out of the way,” Kellerman said.
“My hats off to this young team. They’re a game over .500. They’re in fourth place in the conference. But to say ‘Are the Knicks back?’ No, this is something new. Look, they’re called the Knicks, the laughingstock of the league. This is new,” he added.
Kellerman went on to say that even if the Brooklyn Nets are the bigger story with the trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, the Knicks remain the kings of New York.
“What’s crazy to me is nationally the Nets are the story. People outside New York don’t care about the Knicks. They care about the Nets. But inside New York, in terms of locally, the Knicks still got it. People get more excited.
When they have a team that they can get behind when New York does because of effort especially and intensity when you know these young guys are working hard and laying it all out there, New York respects that in a different way,” Kellerman explained.
Attracting marquee free agents
With Rose effectively changing the Knicks’ image around the league, the once-moribund franchise is in a prime position to land a star finally.
For a team that has long been tied to dysfunction and incompetence, it’s a whiff of fresh air to have the national media talking about the Knicks in a positive light.
The Knicks may regress with a brutal second-half schedule–considered the third-hardest in the league–ahead of them. They may or may not be in the playoffs, but this season is already considered a victory for Rose and the Knicks in the big picture.
“Let me say this. You know why I was laughing at you guys when you’re thinking you’re gonna get KD (Kevin Durant) because players don’t go to bad cultures. The reason the Nets got those guys is because the culture was good. This Knicks team, if they keep doing this, the message they’re gonna send to potential free agents is it’s a good place to play, and then New York sells itself,” Kellerman said. “This could be the first time ever really that a top-flight free agent eventually signs with the Knicks.”
Will that be Victor Oladipo?
Oladipo, who recently rejected a two-year deal from Houston Rockets, is set to become a free agent. Even if Oladipo is not traded to the Knicks in the next two weeks, he will be a prime target in the free agency. If the Knicks keep on winning, they may give the Miami Heat a run for their money in the Oladipo sweepstakes this summer.
The Knicks may or may not land Oladipo.
But what Rose’s shrewd leadership has shown is important to their long-suffering fan base. He made the Knicks relevant again without being extravagant.
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