Leon Rose has revamped the Knicks’ roster this offseason. How well will it fare against its Eastern Conference counterparts?

The New York Knicks’ offseason can be described with an iconic scene from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. As Luke Skywalker approaches the opening that’ll allow him to destroy the Death Star, he’s being tailed closely by Darth Vader and two Imperial TIE fighters. The Knicks’ offseason echoed similar feelings—at moments in both the draft and free agency, it seemed like they had run out of time and room to make something meaningful happen and were destined to…well, not die like in Skywalker’s case, but destined to have uninspiring roster upgrades for next season.

At the 2021 draft, after trading out of the draft with one pick and down four spots with the other, it seemed like the Knicks were going home with fewer prospects than they could’ve had. In free agency, New York brought back three of their key veterans from last season’s squad and replaced another with Evan Fournier, an upgrade who came at a very steep price. It looked like New York was just running back roughly the same team from last year. In both moments, I felt like the Knicks had exhausted their resources to the fullest extent and that they were in a situation where they were trapped like Skywalker—no way out, no way to make the situation better.

Then, Leon Rose proved me wrong. Like Han Solo riding in on the Millenium Falcon and shooting away the Imperial forces trailing Skywalker, he provided reinforcements that made the Knicks come out of the offseason looking like a truly improved team.

On draft night, the Knicks came away with two rookies whose defensive chops and shooting abilities could earn them big roles right away, while adding a draft-and-stash player and future picks to boot. And after keeping (mostly) the same core intact at the beginning of free agency, he snagged Kemba Walker, who can provide a huge offensive boost if he maintains his health.

Leon Rose’s style of building the 2021–22 Knicks probably wasn’t intentionally mirroring Solo’s element of surprise. Regardless, he provided New York with upgrades at spots they badly needed while keeping together a tight-knit group that surpassed expectations last season. With the expectations raised, the ‘Bockers are positioned to improve.

But so have their Eastern Conference opponents. A lot of teams close to New York in last season’s standings made improvements to their rosters. As the dust begins to settle in free agency, with only a few notable names left on the market, let’s check out the teams that could cause New York to fall lower than the fourth seed this season.

The teams not worth talking about

Not every team is worth discussing at length here, as many are positioned well above or below New York. Let’s start with the teams that should clearly be better than the Knicks. The world champion Milwaukee Bucks are positioned to run it back with roughly the same supporting cast alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, so they should almost certainly be better than the Knicks. The same goes for the star-studded Brooklyn Nets and the Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers, with or without Ben Simmons.

There are also many teams who aren’t yet ready for playoff contention. The Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, and Toronto Raptors are rebuilding, with their efforts being highlighted by top-five draftees from the 2021 draft. None of these four teams should make the playoffs after failing to do so last season. Their time is not here yet.

With seven teams (likely) out of the picture, seven teams remain in it. These squads revamped their roster to various degrees this offseason. Some made big splashes while others just made a few tweaks. In a season that’s hopefully less COVID-riddled than last year, the competition for New York to remain in the playoff picture is more compact. In order of the standings from last season, let’s look at the teams that the Knicks could be jockeying with for postseason admittance.

Atlanta Hawks

After an impressive run to the conference finals, the Hawks didn’t make a big splash in either the draft or free agency. They’re running it back with almost the same exact squad. Still, they have the potential to post a much better record this upcoming season.

For one, they’ll be under the guidance of Nate McMillan for an entire offseason and coming into the regular season. McMillan took over a team that had a bottom 10 record midway through the 2020–21 campaign. In his stint as interim head coach, the Hawks tied for the third-best record in the league. That record difference isn’t totally due to the return of Bogdan Bogdanovic, who missed a time with injury. Atlanta was a different beast under McMillan.

In free agency, the Hawks retained their guys, inking deals with John Collins, Lou Williams, and Solomon Hill. Their only new addition was Gorgui Dieng, who will take on the backup center spot while Onyeka Okungwu recovers from shoulder labrum surgery. In the draft, the Hawks picked Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper. Johnson should slide in as a backup forward with strong defense and playmaking abilities. Cooper was signed to a two-way contract, so he may not play right away, but he has the quickness and playmaking to be a quality reserve behind Trae Young.

Young, Collins and co. handled the Knicks easily in the postseason. Adding Walker and Fournier should offer enough offense for New York to not look totally lost on that side of the ball come postseason time. The Hawks could be better now that McMillan has more time to nurture the team and if Johnson and/or Cooper adjust to the NBA quickly. Still, the Knicks are better suited to improve more than they are.

Miami Heat

The 2020–21 season was a total mess for the then-reigning conference champs. A season full of injuries and inconsistent play was euthanized with a sweep at the hands of the Bucks. Their whole season was a sign that they needed to seriously retool in order to compete at a high level. They did just that.

Miami reeled in the best free agent to change teams this offseason by acquiring Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade, sending Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa to Toronto. The Heat retained free agents Duncan Robinson, Victor Oladipo, and Dewayne Dedmon, lost free agents Andre Iguodala (to the Warriors) and Trevor Ariza (to the Lakers) but made up for those losses by signing P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris.

The addition of Lowry makes a new star Big 3 in South Beach with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. If Butler didn’t battle injuries last season, Miami likely surpasses the Knicks in the standings. He just had one of the best seasons of his career at age 31. Adebayo also made a sizable improvement last season. Better luck with health should allow the Heat to compete at a higher level again, though they’ll have to be cautious with Lowry, who has missed at least 15 games in each of the past three seasons.

Remember that the Heat beat the Knicks in all three of their matchups last season. They had to play games with only eight players early in the season, missed their best player for a while, and only fell one game behind the Knicks’ record. The Heat may not blow super far past the Knicks in the standings with full health, but they’ll likely be an improved team to keep an eye on.

Boston Celtics

The Knicks take some responsibility for the Celtics depletion this offseason, signing Fournier at a price they didn’t want to match and signing Walker, their starter for the prior two seasons. However, Walker was made available by the Thunder, who bought him out. The Celtics had shipped Walker to Oklahoma City for Al Horford, a steady option at center.

Besides that deal, Boston’s additions this offseason include point guards Dennis Schröder and Kris Dunn, wing Josh Richardson, big men Enes Kanter and Bruno Fernando, and head coach Ime Udoka. None of the new additions make the Celtics that much better, if at all. But Boston still has enough talent to be a solid team.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combine to be one of the best wing duos in the league. Marcus Smart is still one of the league’s best defenders. Horford, a multi-faceted veteran, and Robert Williams, a young, explosive athlete, offer a promising center rotation. Payton Pritchard displayed promising shooting abilities in his rookie year and is a pesky defender.

Last season, the Celtics limped their way to a seventh-place finish. Nothing they did this offseason suggests they’ll substantially improve unless they get another sizaable improvement from Tatum or Brown. Their whole offense is predicated on the two All-Stars at the moment. Both are very good but not so much that they can carry the entire shot creation load on their own. Boston has yet to put a respectable third option behind them. Barring a big trade, they will probably end up behind the Knicks in the standings again.

Washington Wizards

Washington made one of the biggest moves of this offseason when it dealt Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. Of course, the trade was so massive because Los Angeles created a new Big 3 out of it. Washington received some pieces that add to its depth and acquired one of the bigger names in free agency, Spencer Dinwiddie. The former Brooklyn Net has played at a star level in the past but is coming off an ACL tear.

Aside from Dinwiddie, none of the new Wizards will offer more than ancillary support for him and franchise centerpiece Bradley Beal. Their new blood includes former Lakers Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell, rookies Corey Kispert and Isaiah Todd, and trade acquisition Aaron Holiday. The Wizards also ditched head coach Scott Brooks and hired Wes Unseld Jr.

Despite the rehashing of the roster, it only makes the Wizards a marginally improved team. And much of their improvement depends on Dinwiddie’s return to form. Youngsters Deni Avdija or Rui Hachimura making a big leap would offset Dinwiddie’s injury concerns or limitations as he works his way back but suggesting that would happen is a pretty hot take. Washington has promising depth; it’s just not enough to make any serious noise.

Unless Unseld Jr. is a master tactician, the Wizards aren’t a serious threat. They’d be fortunate to be a top-eight seed. Here, I’m obligated to mention how wrong I’ve been in the past as a way to set up plausible deniability in case Washington becomes a very good team this season.

Indiana Pacers

For Indiana, the best move they made this offseason was signing head coach Rick Carlisle. Not only did they ditch a coach who flamed out after one season, but they also added one of the better coaches in the league. The Pacers will also get back T.J. Warren, who missed all but four games of last season due to injury.

Their offseason roster moves don’t inspire much confidence that Indiana will be back to contending for the playoffs. The Pacers drafted Chris Duarte and acquired Isaiah Jackson’s draft rights by sending away Aaron Holiday. Both players should be able to contribute right away but most likely not at a level that raises the Pacers’ ceiling. They re-signed T.J. McConnell and inked Torrey Craig to a contract while failing to re-sign Doug McDermott.

The Pacers were the conference’s fourth seed in the 2020 playoffs and still have roughly the same supporting cast, so perhaps they could become a truly good team again now that its head coaching situation is solved. Or, they could continue to meddle in the middle of the conference standings and find themselves in the play-in again.

Indiana has the roster to be a good team at full health. But Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and co. will need to show that they can still be a good team and that the reason for last season’s ninth-place finish was the fault of a terrible coach. They should likely be a playoff contender and could give the Knicks some trouble if Carlisle can utilize the roster effectively.

Charlotte Hornets

LaMelo Ball showed just how special he could be in his rookie year. Although they let Malik Monk go after his most promising year in the league and dealt away Devonte’ Graham, a high-quality shooter, and playmaker, they added other reinforcements to surround Ball.

Charlotte exited draft night with James Bouknight, Kai Jones, and JT Thor, acquired Mason Plumlee in a trade, and signed free agents Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ish Smith. The new talent joins an impressive collection of young players headlined by Ball and featuring Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, and Terry Rozier. Charlotte improving on last season will likely be the cause of internal improvement. But even if they do, it may not be a big enough step to challenge the Knicks.

Although Charlotte has all the pieces to be an offensive juggernaut, head coach James Borrego needs to figure out a way to make it click. The Hornets ranked 22nd in Offensive Rating last season. Their additions didn’t include anyone who can instantly improve them to a high degree—Bouknight may be able to in the future, but almost certainly not as a rookie. They were better defensively but still below average. The player who could best improve their defense is a rookie (Jones).

The Hornets are well-coached and have enough star-level players and supporting pieces to be a better team next season. It’s impossible to point to the exact point when a young team will put it all together, but having such a strong collection of young talent makes Charlotte a team to look out for. We won’t really know how dangerous they’ll be until the regular season rolls around. There is a possibility that they could be pretty good. But right now it’s only a possibility.

Chicago Bulls

Although the Bulls finished 10 games below New York in the standings, they should be considered as a threat. There are reasons to believe they could be one of the most improved teams next season.

For one, they’ll get more time to experiment with the Zach LaVine–Nikola Vucevic tandem. Because of an injury to Lavine, they only played 15 games together last season. Adding Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan should make their offense lethal while Ball, Alex Caruso, and Ayo Dosunmu provide stout defense. The outlook on the Bulls’ defense overall is pretty grim. But their outlook on offense inspires a lot of confidence.

Chicago has a mix of players that provide rim pressure, perimeter shooting, or both. They also have a nice trio of guards that can make plays for others. The Knicks may have trouble containing the Bulls’ offense. With Vucevic stationed away from the hoop, it places more pressure on their wings and guards to clamp up. Some of them are built for the challenge. Others aren’t. If second-year forward Patrick Williams becomes a reliable scorer, the Bulls offense could be built to stampede just about any defense.

Going from 11th place to the playoff picture would be a sizable jump. Chicago has seemingly equipped itself to make the leap by surrounding its in-house stars with more offensive creators. Their defensive weaknesses may be holes too big to patch, though. There is a chance that the Knicks-Bulls rivalry is reignited. However, there is also the chance that the Bulls still need more to snap their playoff streak.

 

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