Kevin Knox, David Fizdale, RJ Barrett
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

The New York Knicks will be better in 2019-20, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean there should be playoff expectations in Madison Square Garden.

Danny Small

The New York Knicks improved by leaps and bounds in the summer. That’s not a significant accomplishment in itself. The Knicks were the worst team in the NBA in 2018-19 and tied a franchise-worst record of 17-65.

They were almost unwatchable for large swaths of the season, but the promise of young players like Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, and Allonzo Trier was the best reason to stay tuned to MSG.

Next year, the prospect of actually winning games should keep the attention of viewers. The young players like Robinson, Knox, and Trier should all take a step forward in year two. Add in a handful of veteran signings—namely Julius Randle and Marcus Morris—and the Knicks should at least be competitive next season.

However, the offseason is a breeding ground for unreasonable expectations and talk about making the playoffs. Dennis Smith Jr. was the first Knick of the offseason to utter the “P” word.

“I think we can hit the playoffs. Everybody do a lot of talking and things like that,” Smith said, via the New York Daily News. “I’ve never really been one to feed into it on social media and things like that. But I think we have a really good team, and especially with the way I’ve been working this summer, I think I’m going to take my game to the next level and it’s going to put us in the playoffs.”

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Smith for making this statement. He may be wrong about the Knicks making the playoffs, but he’s not wrong for believing in his team and his own development.

Of course, securing a playoff spot will be far easier said than done for the Knicks. Even by conservative estimates, the Knicks would need to improve their win total by at least 20 to have a remote chance at the playoffs. The largest jump in wins from 2017-18 to 2018-19 was 17 by the Orlando Magic.

The biggest jump in the year prior was made the Philadelphia 76ers. They improved their win total by 24 and went from one of the worst teams in the East to the third seed in the playoffs. Ben Simmons‘ Rookie of the Year campaign and a healthy Joel Embiid were the biggest reasons for Philly’s emergence as a power in the East.

New York Knicks

Truthfully, the scenario Smith describes is the only realistic way for the Knicks to even sniff the playoffs. They’ll need someone unexpected to take a monumental step forward. Smith could be a great candidate for that role, much like D’Angelo Russell was for the Brooklyn Nets last season.

That being said, Brooklyn’s surprise run to the playoffs last season was about much more than one player’s rise to stardom. It was the culmination of a long process that the Knicks are still far from reaching.

In head coach Kenny Atkinson‘s first year in Brooklyn, the Nets finished with a 20-62 record. The following season, they improved by eight and finished with a seemingly forgettable record of 28-54. It wasn’t until the following season that the Nets were able to ride Russell’s meteoric rise to a 42-40 record and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

A two-year plan for the Knicks to return to the playoffs might be a little aggressive, but that should be the expectation right now. In his first season, Fizdale guided his team to a 17-win season. His second should be about making sure the Knicks can reach somewhere in the high 20s or low 30s for wins next season.

The following season should be the year where playoff expectations become a reality. A big jump in year three for Fizdale would have the Knicks poised to attract a marquee free agent in 2021. As frustrating as it might have been for the Knicks to kick the can down the road, they have to focus on what they can control.

For the Knicks to have a successful season in 2019-20, they need to show tangible improvement on the court next season. A run to the playoffs is unrealistic, but flirting with 30 wins is the kind of improvement that can help lay the groundwork for a legitimate contender in the future.

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