In the NBA, the goal of every team at the outset of the season is typically the same: make the playoffs. Teams with title aspirations are obviously fighting for a chance to make a run at the Finals. Even if a team is a collection of neophytes still wet behind the ears and with no chance of beating the league's top dogs in a seven-game series, playoff experience remains essential to the construction of a future contender. For many of the teams that don't make the playoffs, there is the luxury of a top draft pick—a chance to add a young player with the potential to transform a franchise. The New York Knicks, however, somehow seem to manage to avoid both the postseason and coveted draft slots.
The Knicks have struggled, to say the least, since the Jeff Van Gundy era. Over the past 17 seasons, New York has posted a winning record just three times (one of which came during a lockout-shortened season and another when they were just two games above .500). Their best season over that span came in 2012-13, when Carmelo Anthony led them to a 54-28 record, but they still managed to lose a second-round playoff series in six games to the Indiana Pacers despite being the better seed.
Typically, when teams are bad for as long as the Knicks have been, it allows the franchise to stockpile young talent and turn the franchise around. Teams that have done this effectively include the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden) and Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons). Teams selecting players at the top of the draft certainly have their share of misses, but ultimately, when a team is bad for long enough, they're bound to hit on a few of their picks.
The Knicks, however, haven't had many opportunities to draft elite prospects.
With the exception of 22-year-old All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (fourth overall, 2015), the Knicks haven't drafted in the top five since 1986, when they drafted Kenny Walker fifth overall. While great players can be found closer to the middle of the first round (Kawhi Leonard and C.J. McCollum are some recent names that come to mind), there are typically somewhere between one and three prospects per draft who are considered transcendental talents. Despite all of their struggles over the better part of the past two decades, the Knicks have not had the opportunity to draft one of those supposed can't-miss prospects.
This happens largely due to the front office's unwillingness to let the roster hit rock bottom—something the 76ers became famous for in recent years. Over the past 17 seasons, the Knicks have tended to do all they can to improve their roster in the short term, trading away draft picks and adding veteran players who won't necessarily be around for an extended time. As a result, the team adds a handful of wins to its record each season but fails to build a contender or high-upside roster. Rather, the team flails in no man's land, better than the bottom-barrel teams but not good enough to realistically compete for a playoff berth. This leads them to miss out on not only the postseason but top prospects, as well. (We all remember how badly the team wanted Stephen Curry in 2009, but with the eighth overall pick, New York ended up with Jordan Hill.)
As the 2017-18 season winds down, it looks like more of the same for one of the NBA's most frustrating franchises. The Knicks are 12.5 games out of a playoff spot and haven't seemed like a potential postseason contender since the tree was up in Rockefeller Center, but there are also eight teams with worse records. Unless the lottery balls bounce in the Knicks' favor, the team will probably have the ninth overall pick in June's draft, once again putting the front office in a position to draft a player who will hopefully contribute but likely won't change the tide for the organization.
If he can return to form after tearing his ACL, Porzingis seems to have the makings of a franchise cornerstone. But players can't win on their own in the NBA, and Porzingis is no lock to sign a long-term extension with the Knicks—he is eligible for restricted free agency in 2019 and can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 if he so chooses.
If the Knicks can't surround Porzingis with some decent talent, they could risk losing him and be forced to start from square one. At the moment, New York is not a particularly desirable destination for free agents, so the team will likely be forced to turn their losing ways around via the draft. Hopefully, 2017 eighth overall pick Frank Ntilikina can capitalize on his intriguing potential and the Knicks can land some talent with a low-end top-10 pick this summer. But if the team continues to post losing records without giving itself a shot at elite college prospects at the top of the draft, the Knicks will remain in limbo and struggle to elevate themselves to prominence.