As I write this article, I can only lament on how late in the year I’m writing this. Regardless of the fact the season started one month later because of the pandemic, no one could have expected the New York Knicks would be playing post-season basketball. The Knicks had a remarkable year and rode their first above .500 season into their first playoff berth in 8 years as a 4 seed. The had a MVP candidate in Julius Randle and Coach of the Year candidate in Tom Thibodeau. Thibs restored order on the court with hard nosed defense and selfless team play. Leon Rose and Steve Perry have made all the moves in the front office to remove the stench of losing, poor ownership and horrid personnel moves to make this a place where you'd want to play. The Knicks are officially ahead of schedule and had succeeded in changing the culture in the Garden.
With all that being said, this season still came to a crushing end as they lost to the Atlanta Hawks in 5 games in the first round. There is a lot of work to be done to continue building this franchise that has been awful for 8 years into a championship contender. There’s no ‘Process’ in New York as we don’t have top 3 lottery picks. This is a team in the playoffs with pieces and holes to fill. Heading into this off-season, there are questions to answer.
What to do with Julius Randle?
Julius Randle had his best season of his career, posting a stat line of 24 pts / 10 rebs / 6 asts and 40% 3-point shooting on his way to his first All-Star appearance and NBA Most Improved Player Award. However, in the playoffs Randle was easily defensed and controlled by Atlanta Hawks. Randle averaged only 15 pts on 30% shooting. Randle has a team option for one more season then will be a free agent. If the season ended at the end of the regular season, I would be writing this article saying the Knicks must extend Randle and possibly for the max. He had a breakout year and should be rewarded for the awesome season he had. But after his playoff performance against Atlanta, it’s clear that Randle is not a super max player or the team's number one option on offense. He maybe a max player but not a super max. I would pick up his option and then say, “prove that we should pay you the max”. He needs to work on his complete game to get better: driving to his right, shooting consistently, decision making, leadership, etc. He is a leader, no question about it, but there's levels to the star power and he needs to lead with his play on the court also.
Are the tandem of Randle / Barrett your #1 / #2 options?
Randle had a great season as highlighted, but let’s not forget the improvement that RJ Barrett made this season. Barrett improved his numbers (17 pts from 14 pts) and 3-point shooting (40% from 32%) in his second season out of Duke. But the playoffs are a different animal were stars need to be stars. Randle and Barrett just weren’t up to the challenge like Trae Young and Clint Capella were for the Hawks. Randle is just not a #1 superstar and Barrett isn’t a #2 star. There’s nothing wrong with that, now you have to find the right start that wants to come to NYC like Carmelo Anthony did years ago to be the guy. Randle is a very good #2 option and an elite #3 option on a team. Barrett is a good #3 and an elite #4 option. As long as they know their roles, this team can start to build correctly.
What pending free agents on the roster should we bring back?
Derrick Rose, Mitch Robinson, Alec Burks, Reggie Bullock, Nerlens Noel, Taj Gibson and Elfrid Payton all contributed and wanted to be on a Knicks team that no one wanted to be a part of. They either signed team friendly deals, came via trade, or were drafted. But the playoffs showed while the collection of players were fun to watch and led to one of the leagues best defense, we are lacking stars and scorers.
Rose is the logical person on this list to bring back. He was the point guard we needed, and he wants to be here. He played great for the Knicks as they were 24-11 in the regular season with him on the court. But the heavy playoff minutes added up on him, and he slowed down near the end of the Hawks series. If he can come back as a backup/closer, you must bring his leadership back. Payton is not an option at point guard, he can play in this league but not for the Knicks. His fall from grace was like watching paint dry and he was finally benched in the playoffs.
Mitch Robinson is a restricted free agent and was a gamble in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft. He is a defensive beast as he controls the boards and is an elite rim protector. His injuries history is almost as impressive. He needs to stay healthy; I would bring him back on a solid deal. If someone offers him big money, let him walk.
Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock are both solid wing players who are 3 and D player you need. However, outside of one game, the playoffs exposed their weakness of lack of offensive firepower. I would consider only bringing back one of these players in favor of going after an elite wing scorer.
Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson both filed in for Robinson after his foot injury at center. However, they both come with their drawbacks as they aren’t the scoring punch we need. As backups, I would bring Gibson back. Noel might be too pricy to bring back as he might flip his play into a better deal.
Stay the course or go all in on free agents?
The Knicks are in a rare position when looking to the off-season. Not only do the Knicks have at least $60M in cap space to sign 2 big free agents, they also have 2 first round draft pick (the #19 and #21 picks). The Knicks could flip those picks of a higher pick or bring in 2 quality players. But free agency is where the Knicks need to look to build up their rosters. They were passive at the trade deadline, and it cost them in the playoffs. It is time to put the chips in the middle and be aggressive in improving the roster.
When looking at the free agent class of 2021, there is not the big names like 2 years with Durant and Irving. The free agent class a few years ago looked loaded. Giannis Antetokounmpo opted into a super max, so he won’t be available. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Paul George, Jrue Holiday were veteran stars who signed extensions with their teams, taking themselves off the market. Several up-and-coming stars who would have been restricted free agents in 2021 also signed extensions with their teams. Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo would’ve been hot free agent options for the Knicks. There are a few names to be had but not the #1 option we are looking for. \
Kawhi Leonard is the #1 free agent, if he opts out of his current deal. He would be a #1 option that the Knicks have coveted. However, his run with the Los Angeles Clippers has brought up questions of his star quality. Can he lead a team to the promise land? I think if you bring in a quality point guard that can feed Leonard, he’s an option. Chris Paul can also opt out, but why would he. He’s apart of something special in Phoenix, they might have the talent to make a serious run. Mike Conley also fits that bill, but he wouldn’t leave the #1 seeded Utah Jazz.
The only names worth going after are also restricted free agents, Lonzo Ball, John Collins and Jarret Allen. Ball is the most logical, as he’s big point guard we need with the court vision we can pair with Randle / Barrett to get them easy shots. Collins was impressive this season as he turned down a 4 year / $90M extension to bet on himself. He looks like he won that bet and will command a big contract. But he’s not a #1 that you would pay over Randle. Jarret Allen is an incredibly good player but I’m not paying him big money.
DeMar DeRozen, Dennis Schröder, Victor Oladipo and Kyle Lowry are nice players and a combination of them with another top star is interesting. However, DeRozen is not in Tom Thibodeau style of play as he’s a poor defender and he struggles from 3. Lowry is tough as they come and a winner, but he’s getting older. Schroder is looking for $100M this off-season, the Knicks would be crazy to entertain that contract. I know he had COVID this year but his play for the Lakers down the stretch has made him a player you want to stay away from. Oladipo had season ending surgery on his knee and was largely ineffective this season for the Rockets and Heat. He would have been a nice option to pair with this off-season. The Knicks even kicked the tires on trading for him. If they can get him cheap, he's an option but not a clear #1 star we really need.
However the Knicks must do whatever to upgrade their roster, and they need to do it this off season to build off of this season's momentum. Don't count out the sign and trade market, getting a disgruntled star on a big contract with our cap space might be the way to go. The free agent market isn't as potent as it was looking a few years ago. A star looking to win but not in the market where they are currently in (Damian Lillard, Zack Lavine or Anthony Davis) it's on the table. Lillard is a box office talent and the missing piece on a lot of teams. He is wasted on Portland with no help and a back court mate in CJ McCollum who doesn't get them over the hump. Imagine "Dame Time" in the Garden, that would be a great fit. The combination of draft picks and cap space make the sign and trade market more viable than straight free agency.
The Knicks have a lot of decisions to make this off-season. Who to bring back and who you go after in free agency? Do we spend like crazy, or do we continue to build through the draft? One thing is for sure, the organization is in better shape than a year ago and we have a future. Now it’s time to keep progressing and not set ourselves up to take a step backwards.