Photo Credit: nbaanalysis.net
Last Year: 41-31 record, 4th in the Eastern Conference, First Round Lost to Atlanta Hawks
Key Additions: Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, Quentin Grimes
Key Departures: Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton
The New York Knicks open their 2021-2022 season against the Boston Celtics this Wednesday night. The game is televised on ESPN and is the network's first televised game of the regular season. I want that to sink in for all Knicks fans and haters alike. The fact that the New York Knicks are televised, opening the season, and are relevant is a Knicks fan's dream. The Knicks enjoyed their best season in years last year finishing 41-31 and the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. But the season of good feelings ended soon thereafter with the 1st round exit in 5 games to the surprising Atlanta Hawks. Despite the disappointing playoff exit, the Knicks are ahead of schedule and that comes with pressure of doing more this season. The Knicks open the new season with new faces, higher expectations, and a tougher road to get back to the 4th seed or higher.
The Knicks were led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle and NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau. The Knicks were led by the emergence of Randle into an All-Star caliber player. Coach Thibs installed an aggressive style of defense and excellent 3-point shooting to catch the league by surprise. But the playoffs showed their main weakness, their inability to space the floor and create offense. Enter Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier into the Garden. Two players who are great scorers, but are lacking on defense. They're shooting, floor spacing and shot creation should help Randle and RJ Barrett grow into even better players.
Photo Credit: Newsday.com
Gone are Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock to make way for Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Kemba Walker agreed to a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder and signed a 2 year 18 million dollar deal to come home to the New York Knicks. The Brooklyn native is looking to bounce back from an up and down year with the Boston Celtics. The UConn product is a career 19.9 PPG / 5.4 AST point guard that the Knicks desperately needed. Kemba is a point guard that can create his own shot and electrify the crowd. He's the best point guard the Knicks have had arguably since Raymond Felton. Walker is 2 years removed from his best year as a pro, averaging 25.4 PPG and 5.9 AST for the Hornets.
But knee injuries have slowed him down for the past few years. Walker spent two years of a four-year max contract with the Celtics plagued by injuries after leaving the Hornets. He was traded in June to the Oklahoma City Thunder and bought out in August, opening the door to let him come to New York. If he can bounce back or when be 80% of what he was, the Knicks have a steal on their hands and a guaranteed playoff team.
Evan Fournier is a career 40% three-point shooter who the Knicks have coveted for quite some time. While he's not an elite defender. His offense and shot making ability is what the next desperately needed. The Knicks needed easy baskets and easy offense to go with their ferocious defense.
Derrick Rose is back for the next after cashing in on a resurgent season last year for the Pistons and the Knicks. The next brought him back for 3 years and $43 million to serve as the backup point guard. The Knicks were 24-11 with Derrick Rose in the lineup after the mid-season trade with the Pistons. Rose brought stability and offensive firepower to the second unit. He also helped rookie Immanuel Quickley settle into a scoring role off the bench. His shooting and play making ability was huge for the Knicks and provided the Knicks with a lift. Knicks fans always love an electrifying rookie, and the Kentucky product was quick to fill that role. New first round draft pick Quinten Grimes will look to come off the bench and contribute right away. Grimes is a classic 3 and D player who can guard both guard positions and provides defensive toughness on the perimeter.
The Knicks undeniable leader is Julius Randle, coming off of his best season in his young NBA career. Randle posted a career high 24.1 PPG / 10.2 REB / 6.0 AST on his way to most improved player of the year and a serious MVP contender. Randle had been one of the signings that Nick's fans consistently complained about when he signed a 3-year 62 million deal. Injuries turnovers and inconsistent play played him his first year. The next drafted forward Obi Toppin to seemingly replace Randle once his contract ran out. But his dedication, reporting to camp in great shape and Thibs fingerprints on his playmaking ability made him an MVP level player. The Knicks rewarded him with the 4 year / $117 million contract extension. It was a discount in the modern era, but the team friendly deal secures Randle's place in Knicks fan's hearts and secures the Knicks financial future in attracting new free agents. The key will be if he can continue improving as a player. The playoffs exposed limitations in his offensive game. Bringing in Walker should help him get easier baskets, I expect big things from him this year.
Another player who took a major step forward from the previous year was second year forward RJ Barrett. After an up and down rookie year (14.3 PPG on 40% shooting and 32% from three), Barrett started to develop and posted 17.6 PPG on 44% shooting and 44% from three. Barrett improves all aspects of this game from shooting, efficiency, defense and free throws. The Duke product was picked third overall and not thought of in the same light as Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. But Barrett showed that he can play in this league and should continue the develop as he settles into the small forward position.
The Knicks decided to bring back centers Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel after they had very surprising campaigns last season. They provided defense, leadership and minutes as Mitchell Robinson went down again with another injury. Gibson in particular is turning back the hands of time as a 36 year old veteran who keeps getting better with age. Robinson's defense is off the charts and his offense is slowly starting to come around. But keeping him on the court is where the next will try to maximize his potential. Limited minutes in favor of the veterans will save his legs and keep them available. His defense was clearly a missing spot last year in the playoffs against the Hawks as point guard Tre Young was able to get into the paint at will. Robinson will be able to protect the rim and allow guards and forwards to play aggressively on the perimeter.
Second year forward Obi Toppin benefited from Summer League and a full offseason. He struggled at times last year and even fell out of the rotation at points in the season. He showed flashes in the playoffs and carried that over into the summer league and preseason. Toppin looks like the number one draft pick that most teams coveted and looks to improve alongside Rose in the second unit.
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More can you say about coach Tom Thibodeau. He is a coach that Knick fans of long crave for and have missed out on for the last 10 years. Thibodaux wanted to be a Knicks coach for the longest, but the Stars never aligned. When he finally got the job, he brought a new attitude in a new era to Knicks basketball, harkening back to the good old days of the 1990s. Tibbs transformed a team with limited scoring and no defense into a top 10 defense in a terrific three-point shooting team. This turnaround earned him his second Coach of the Year award.
His work will be cut out for him this year as he adjusts to new faces Walker and Fournier. What they bring on the offensive side is a plus, but that comes with the limitations of their defense. It's the logical trade-off, but Thibs will have to adjust to cover up their perimeter defense. If anyone can figure out how to get the most out of them on the defensive end, it's coach tips. Barrett was a poor defender his rookie season, and one year under Thibodeau you can see the improvement. Thibs will have to navigate a deep lineup, which is not one of his strong suits. Tibbs likes to use eight players Max, but the Knicks have are 10 players deep. Also limiting the minutes of rows and Walker will be a chess match for Thibs, keeping their legs fresh, and ready to make a playoff push later in the season.
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Sky's the limit for this next team. The Eastern conference is much improved and making the fourth seed will be no easy chore this season. The Bucks, Nets, and Sixers will patrol the top three spots of the league. But the Heat, hawks, Bulls, Celtics are all improved and will challenge the Knicks. At worse the Knicks could be fighting to get into a Play-In game. But I expect the next to be a top six seed in the playoffs, a 44 to 47 win team, and improve on their good fortune from last year. If Kemba stays healthy and the Knicks stars continue to improve, this team will be a tough out for anyone in the playoffs. It's exciting to have the Knicks back, the juice in the garden and meaningful basketball for Knicks fans