After 40 years wandering the point guard desert, some Promised Land would be nice.
There’s a scene in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus, played with guts and glory by William Defoe, looks down from the cross and for a split second, imagines a life lived as a mortal man. It is a splinter of doubt, one that changes the entire narrative of mankind’s life of sin. It is a gesture Knick fans can relate to, clinching our collective eyes shut until they are sealed with tears, imagining a fandom lived differently.
We are still paying for the sins of yesteryear. The taint of past front offices are stains on all our consciousness. Jerome James. Steve Francis. Samuel Dalembert. It’s easy to imagine a different way of life. One just needs an imagination the size of a mustard seed. Those with faith see the justice of this summer’s shrewd signing, Kemba Walker. It has been a long time coming. And although Walker is far from perfect, he represents the single best move a Knicks front office has made under James Dolan’s ownership.
If one were to rank the next best four moves made under Dolan, the true picture comes into frame. They would be acquiring Jamal Crawford and Jerome “the Junkyard Dog” Williams for an aging Dikembe Mutombo and spare parts, the initial Julius Randle signing and subsequent value extension, the Derrick Rose/Dennis Smith Jr. swap, and flipping Marcus Morris for the pick which would turn into Immanuel Quickley. The relevance of the Walker signing is it was made by the same guiding hand, current general manager Scott Perry, as many of the other moves on this list. Perry, too, is flawed — Kevin Knox with the ninth pick, the Kristpas Porziņģis trade and a misguided loyalty to Elfrid Payton are evidence enough. However, Walker represents so many overlapping net positives in the way it was orchestrated, it stands as evidence to Perry and current Knicks president Leon Rose’s competence regarding basketball activities.
It’s easy for Knick fans to imagine this whole thing going differently. Under Isiah Thomas or Glen Grunwald the franchise would have seen Walker wasting away in Oklahoma City and cut in line to be fleeced by Sam Presti, perhaps offering one of our young studs like Quickley, a combination of valuable role players to match Walker’s max deal, and even a draft pick for the right to take a risk on Walker for another two years. Patience and intel were never in our wheelhouse. We have always jumped the gun. Overshot and overpaid. Not this time.
Instead, Rose and Knicks executive VP William “World Wide Wes” Wesley used their decades of connections to gain intel on the Walker situation as it was unfolding. They understood the market for Walker’s contract was nil and entered negotiations with his representatives to be first in line if a buyout were to occur. And when it did, they pounced, allowing Rose to fleece Presti, letting the Thunder pay nearly $50M of Walker’s contract with Walker relinquishing the other $20M, only to recoup it with the Knicks’ slim contract of $20M over two years.
The foresight and subsequent ability to glean information did not feel like the same old Knicks. These are signifiers of competence. Since when do we underpay? Since when do free agents sign outright with us instead of lengthy meetings that inevitably go nowhere? Is this a temptation by Satan? A mirage at the end of the line? A chance to come down off the cross and live life as a winner? Nay, it is reality. And in this reality the Knicks make shrewd moves, led by intelligence gathered from a front office filled with connected vets. This led to the Knicks executing a free-agent signing with the perfect balance of upside and risk.
Kemba Walker is not what he used to be. And that’s okay. The ankle-breaking dynamo who regularly torched opponents has simmered since repeated knee injuries. But the Knicks don’t need that Kemba. Even at 75% of what he was in Charlotte, he is better than every single point guard the team has employed since Walt Clyde Frazier. This includes the mercurial Stephon Marbury, who could never put his scoring prowess and facilitating instincts together in a single game. Even at three-quarters power, Walker brings leadership, scoring ability and a consistent three-point shot in the clutch. This is more than enough to man the position for 20+ minutes — just enough time to let backup Derrick Rose come in and pick right where Walker left off. That’s a full four quarters of condensed All-Star level scoring the team has not had since the glory days of championship banners.
The truth is Walker’s Charlotte days are long behind him. This is a factor of age, a decade of high usage and injuries to balky knees. The silver lining is we do not need Charlotte-prime Walker. Even 70% of that output will give the Knicks elite play at the point. If Walker and Rose each average 15 points per game, that’s 30 a night from the point, compared to the 25 from Payton and Rose last year. Kemba’s ability to knock down the three, pull up from mid-range, and drive to the hoop in measured minutes spaces the floor for additional playmaking and interior drives from Randle, RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier.
The Knicks have a history of signing name players way past their prime to man the point. Carmelo Anthony was saddled with broken-down versions of Mike Bibby, Chauncey Billups, Baron Davis, Jose Calderon and, to an extent, Jason Kidd. Kemba arrives in Madison Square Garden an enigma. What more does he have left? While the others were clearly defined as past their prime, there are unknowns with Walker’s game. He’s only 31. And if Thibs can continue to evolve as a coach, minute mitigation could extend Walker’s abilities well into the playoffs.
Since arriving in 2017, Perry has kept contracts short and in favor of team options. He could have easily locked Kemba up with a long-term deal. Instead he opted for poise, inking him to a convenient two-year deal, where Walker comes off the team’s salary cap the same time options activate for Rose, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks. Ostensibly this would give the Knicks more than enough cap space to pair a free-agent superstar with Randle, Barrett, and their young core. Or, if they so choose, use these contracts before they expire to go after a Bradley Beal.
Foresight has never been a strength of any Knicks front-office. But, it’s a paramount part of how this current regime operates. Walker will spend the last two years of his prime with the Knicks. Once his contract expires, Leon Rose and company can re-sign him as a bench option and go after a bigger fish. Until then, he’ll provide the Knicks with the best all-around game at the position in 40 years.
There’s still cause for anxiety for what awaits around the corner. Another knee injury. Thibodeau grinding cartilage into dust. Yet Knick fans are nothing if not resilient. This front office and coaching staff has shown a hint at something greater than sentimentality or nostalgia. The Walker signing is a cog in Thibodeau’s offensive machine, not bringing in a messiah to save the organization. Two years at $8M per has the presence of competence. We don’t need Walker to be our savior. We just need him to be himself. Flaws and all. Against a cold, cruel universe, that’s enough cause for hope.