Leon Rose has had a quiet first offseason with the Knicks, but all signs point to him leading a significant cultural change in New York.
It’s the exact opposite of what long-suffering Knicks fans expected. Out was Steve Mills and in was Rose, the former CAA agent who once counted the great LeBron James as one of his clients. Together with his longtime associate, William “Worldwide” Wesley, Rose was finally the sign of a turning tide. New York basketball was back after two decades of struggles.
Early moves implied Rose meant business. Former NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau signed a five-year deal to take over the reins. Months later, Rose cleared $40 million in cap space ahead of the NBA Draft. Surely, this meant a big move was coming.
And with all of that money, Leon Rose made his big New York Knicks free agency splash with…Alec Burks. Alright, not bad for depth, but surely the big move was coming?
A Nerlens Noel and Austin Rivers later, chances are Knicks fans were feeling a bit underwhelmed again after free agency.
Worry not, New York fans. These moves may seem disappointing on paper but are just one phase of Leon Rose’s master plan.
He isn’t looking to build a winning team in 2020-21, but rather change the Knicks’ entire culture.
Analyzing the moves
Let’s take a look at each of the three signings above. Rivers inked a three-year deal worth $10 million and spent last season with the Houston Rockets. He averaged 8.8 points per game and shot 35.6% from three-point range. He hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of being a top-10 draft pick, but has carved out a niche for himself as a respectable three-point specialist.
It also helps that Rivers’ father and former coach Doc Rivers briefly played for the Knicks, so he knows what to expect. In an emergency, he can also play point guard.
Burks and Noel immediately improve New York’s depth. Burks has averaged 16.1 points per 36 minutes for his career and has solid range, while Noel has always been a strong defensive player. On one-year deals following strong seasons, they’re practically a bargain.
Now, think of who Rivers, Noel, and Burks are replacing in the locker room. Gone are Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, and the aging Taj Gibson, players who were either past their prime or too streaky. In are players who may not stuff the stat sheet, but whose general experience is what the young Knicks need.
Look at it this way. In the last five years, Rivers has played for two strong Western Conference contenders in the Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. He knows what makes a winning team and can impart that knowledge to youngsters like RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and rookie Obi Toppin. The same goes for Noel, who spent last year playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder alongside a great leader in Chris Paul.
The oft-injured Burks, meanwhile, can be effective both as a starter and off the bench. His work ethic knows no bounds. He’s in New York to help set that example for the future.
What it all means
Anyway, now that we just went on a tangent that rivals the Yellow Brick Road in length, let’s get back to the man behind it all, Leon Rose. Between him, general manager Scott Perry, and the coaching staff, everyone knows the New York Knicks need a change. The fans probably know it best, with New York’s last postseason appearance being all the way back in 2013. Everyone is impatient, and rightfully so.
Except, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Much like the heralded empire, the new-look Knicks will take time to create. I even wrote last year that going all-in on free agency might not be the best approach. This offseason was no exception.
Leon Rose’s job right now is not to build a winning team. Rather, he is changing the tone in the Knicks’ locker room to include people who play hard and know how to win. We all know how much Thibodeau expects of his teams. Win or lose, anything less than maximum effort is unacceptable.
On a young Knicks team that needs to work extra hard to attract star free agents, that Leon Rose has subtly put his focus on this is borderline incredible, maybe even genius.
If any Knicks fans reading this are still skeptical about Leon Rose, I understand. He has no front office experience. Handing him the keys to the kingdom is little more than trying what the Golden State Warriors did in hiring Bob Myers and hoping the results are the same.
It may not seem obvious, but fans have plenty of reason to be excited about Rose’s brief tenure. Thibodeau is the top-of-the-line coach a young team like New York needs. In a weak NBA Draft class, Rose managed to land a dynamic talent in Toppin and a potentially deadly shooter in Immanuel Quickley. The free agency signings aren’t the sexiest, but all have a purpose as Rose works his magic.
Barring a blockbuster trade, the New York Knicks will not make the playoffs in 2021. In fact, the 2020-21 season could be hard to watch at times because of players adjusting to Thibodeau’s rigorous system. PointsBet Sportsbook has New York’s over-under on wins set to 22.5. Even if Barrett, Robinson, and Toppin prove to be the real deal, the Knicks will probably be lucky to win 30 games.
But with all the moves Leon Rose has made this year, there is one certainty about the 2020-21 New York Knicks.
With the culture Rose and his team are building, they’ll sure be a lot of fun to watch.