At the moment, the NBA’s two signature franchises located in the country’s two most populated cities and two largest media markets are taking demonstrably different approaches to becoming relevant on the court.
Sunday, LeBron James did what so many pundits long expected and agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, the announcement caused a seismic shift in the world of basketball. The contract is for four years and roughly $154 million.
The Knicks also were active but conversely their move was akin to a tree falling in the forest. They quietly committed to acquiring Mario Hezonja, a former Orlando Magic lottery pick, on a one-year deal valued at $6.5 million. The 23-year-old, 6-foot-8 forward from Croatia, selected No. 5 overall in 2015, excitedly channeled his inner Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra, depending on whose version of the song “New York, New York” you prefer, posting a message on Twitter that read, “Start spreading the news…I want to be a part of it, New York, New York! Very excited to be joining the Knicks and play for coach Fizdale! A dream come true!!”
Perhaps someday in the near future, a similar social media post will be made by Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, all who can or will be free agents next summer, regarding joining the Knicks. Maybe it will be by Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns in the summer of 2020. They are all players who can dramatically alter the trajectory of a franchise.
The Lakers are being much more expedient in their efforts to construct a championship team. Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ president, and general manager Rob Pelinka are in win now mode, acutely understanding that at 33, LeBron James’ window of absolute dominance as an individual talent is three to five years. Burdened by an illustrious history of winning titles, the Lakers have not made the playoffs in five seasons.
So acquiring another top-five player next summer or before next season’s February trade deadline is imperative to competing for a title. It became even more pressing Monday night when All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins agreed to a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors, placing them as a heavy favorite to win their third straight championship.
Meanwhile, Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry acknowledge their team is a longer build. It starts with getting forward Kristaps Porzingis, who will turn 23 on Aug. 2, healthy after he suffered a torn ACL this past February.
Next is developing 2017 first-round pick Frank Ntilikina, this year’s first round-pick, Kevin Knox, and second- round pick Mitchell Robinson. A seven-footer with superior athleticism, Robinson was considered a top 10 player in the class of 2017 by many high school basketball analysts and a potential lottery pick before he decided to forgo playing college basketball to focus on preparing for an NBA career.
Under the direction of Craig Robinson, the Knicks’ vice president for player and organizational development, the franchise has shown promising acumen in assessing and improving the skills of young players as evidenced by the advancement of point guard Trey Burke. New head coach David Fizdale also has a strong reputation for compelling players to reach their potential. Maybe the Hezonja signing will yield surprising fruit.
As Mills has pointed out, establishing a core of rising youth, which will include another high draft pick next season, will be crucial to attracting a proven top 10 player via free agency next summer. An apt metaphor for the Knicks and Lakers over the next few seasons is the former is the tortoise and the latter the hare.