WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: RJ Barrett #9 of the New York Knicks reacts against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Capital One Arena on March 10, 2020 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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For 30-plus years, the New York Knicks have been missing this vital role on a championship team. RJ Barrett could finally be the answer.

Danny Small

The talk around New York Knicks rookie RJ Barrett almost always leads back to one question: Is he good enough to bring a championship to New York? It’s a valid question and one Knicks fans wonder about every day.

It’s impossible to win an NBA title without having that alpha dog to lead the way. Every championship team needs its Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. Is Barrett going to be that guy for the Knicks? Maybe. Maybe not.

But every Michael Jordan needs a Scottie Pippen. Similarly, the Raptors never would have won a title without Kyle Lowry as the Robin to Kawhi Leonard’s Batman.

Pippen is one of the greatest players to ever live, so perhaps he’s an unfair comparison, but the question remains. Is Barrett capable of developing into that Lowry-type who can be the No. 2 on a championship-winning team? That seems like a much more realistic outcome for the Knicks, who may have just missed out on those alpha dogs (Zion Williamson and Ja Morant) in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Don’t worry Knicks fans, this might actually be a *good* thing. Sure, drafting a superstar is always going to be better than drafting a “second star.” But in this odd case study of the Knicks, Barrett could actually be the real missing piece in New York.

No second stars here

Let’s take a look at Knicks rosters over the last 30-plus years. First, let’s travel back in time to the 1987-88 season, the first in which the team made the playoffs with Patrick Ewing. New York had some nice players on that roster. Gerald Wilkins, Kenny Walker, and Bill Cartwright just to name a few.

A rookie from St. John’s—Mark Jackson—was Ewing’s second-in-command on that roster. Don’t get me wrong, Jackson was a tough player and had his best two years in his first two seasons with the Knicks, but he’s not the kind of No. 2 that wins championships. That would be a consistent theme for the next 30 years.

“Second star” during Ewing era

1987-88 — Mark Jackson — Lost first round
1988-89 — Mark Jackson — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1989-90 — Charles Oakley — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1990-91 — Charles Oakley — Lost first round
1991-92 — John Starks — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1992-93 — John Starks — Lost E. Conf. Finals
1993-94 — John Starks — Lost NBA Finals
1994-95 — John Starks — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1995-96 — Anthony Mason — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1996-97 — Allan Houston — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1997-98  — Allan Houston — Lost E. Conf. Semis
1998-99 — Latrell Sprewell — Los NBA Finals

Some of those years are up for debate in terms of the “second star” and the 1999 NBA Finals were a bit different because it was really Houston and Sprewell’s team by that point.

However, the underlying point remains: Ewing never had a true No. 2 to rely on when he needed it most. If you replace the guys on that list with Scottie Pippen, how many championships does Ewing win? One would be a certainty. Two definitely seems possible. Is three crazy? Four? More!?

The Knicks made the playoffs three times in between the Ewing era and Carmelo Anthony’s arrival in New York. Although Melo never had the consistent regular-season success that Ewing enjoyed in New York, much like Pat, Melo never had a credible co-star.

The closest he came to one was J.R. Smith in the 2013 playoffs, but Smith wilted in the Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Indiana Pacers. After winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and playing the best basketball of his career, Smith folded like a cheap table.

That was the last time the orange and blue made the playoffs. Yet again, the Knicks failed to add enough talent around their star.

“Second star” during Melo era

2010-11 — Amar’e Stoudemire — Lost first round
2011-12 — Amar’e Stoudemire — Lost first round
2012-13 — J.R. Smith — Lost E. Conf. Semis

Stoudemire started his Knicks career like a man on fire, but quickly cooled after the Knicks traded for Melo. Can part of that regression be attributed to Anthony? Probably, but Stoudemire’s worst enemy was his own body. Injuries slowed him down more than anything.

The Knicks drafted future All-Star Kristaps Porzingis during Melo’s tenure, but they never made the playoffs together.

Where does Barrett fit in?

So where does RJ Barrett fit into the current Knicks equation? Maybe, just maybe, Barrett is finally going to be the necessary second fiddle on a championship squad. Obviously, it’s better for the franchise if he develops into a future Hall of Famer like Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.

But if he turns into the next Kyle Lowry, that’s a monumental victory for the franchise.

The Knicks have a war chest of draft picks and some decent young talent on the roster—Julius Randle, Frank Ntilikina, Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox. They are clearly set up to make a play for the next disgruntled star to hit the trade block.

The Knicks have never had a proper No. 2, but the young Barrett could be the perfect man for the job.

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