The Knicks went into the offseason with plenty of uncertainty and emerged with little to no answers. Free agency was a miss, too, and they rolled over another year with short-term contracts. What exactly is the plan?
To understand the frustration with the New York Knicks’ 2020 offseason is to start here: there was no “winning” the offseason for the Knicks. New York was only attempting to survive this offseason without making any bad moves, with an eye on the 2021 offseason, where several stars are expected to be up for grabs in free agency. From that standpoint, the Knicks “won” the offseason, as they are in a prime position to strike with cap space and young pieces, ready to work around them.
However, there is a sliver of frustration there. The Knicks did it at the expense of the 2020 offseason and the upcoming 2020–21 season. New York entered this offseason with upward of $40 million in space and three draft picks within the top 40 picks of the 2020 NBA Draft. As of writing, the Knicks have added Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley via the draft, re-signed Elfrid Payton after waiving him, and acquired Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, Omari Spellman, Jacob Evans, and four second-round picks.
While I don’t believe the New York Knicks failed the 2020 offseason, they revealed a failure of decision making that may hamper them for the immediate future.
Using your draft picks
It started with the 2020 NBA Draft, where the Knicks made a good move, trading back from the 23rd pick to acquire pick nos. 25 and 33. Then, the mistake came. They traded the 33rd pick in the draft for a 2023 second-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was a confusing practice for a team bereft of talent.
It was a prime position to take someone, say Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe, Duke’s Cassius Stanley, or Washington State’s C.J. Ellerby. Give them a two-year contract and see what you have moving forward. It’s cheap wing depth in a league where wings run the world. Also, take a look at recent picks made from picks 30-40.
There’s talent there. Even if the goal is to add two superstar players in 2021 free agency, those assets, if used correctly, could be valued as cheap players under the cap to supplant max contracts; or, players who could be re-signed for a higher value and used as salary for trades. Think Jae Crowder, who went from a second-round pick, to signing a five-year contract worth $40 million. He then turned into a key piece Boston used to acquire Kyrie Irving from Cleveland.
The free agency sprint and the fear of multi-year contracts
From there, the Knicks went into the offseason with a chance to remodel the roster. Removing the likes of Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton, and Wayne Ellington off the books was a start. However, the lack of commitment to salary created an odd situation for New York: they failed to leverage their cap space for a second straight season while also struggling to assist their younger players for the upcoming season.
The offseason haul, as currently constructed, is fine. Nerlens Noel is an excellent backup center, while Alec Burks is a great wing option for cheap. Austin Rivers is solid guard to drift between on and off the ball, while the late additions of Omari Spellman (a floor-spacing big) and Jacob Evans (former first-round pick) are fine adds. The second-round picks are good shots in the dark moving forward.
However, completing eschewing free agency for a second straight season to preserve cap space is limiting. Even with the return of Payton, the point guard position is still a quagmire, and the spacing from the projected starting rotation still lags behind a modern NBA offense. Instead of complaining, here are some names, with their contracts signed this offseason, that New York should’ve considered.
Again, it’s not the end of the world that New York missed these guys. However, I reject the premise that the Knicks should’ve avoided using cap space in future seasons, because it resulted in them missing out on better players. Augustin is at the top of the list because of his ability to be a stable pick-and-roll point guard. Even at 33, he’s a quality option for New York, and something in the neighborhood of $20 million over two years would’ve worked out.
De’Anthony Melton is Frank Ntilkina–like sub-defensively, flashing better shooting. JaMychal Green is an older power forward who can bang among centers, space the floor, and cover for a potential Julius Randle trade if Obi Toppin isn’t ready. Jevon Carter and Bryn Forbes are two undersized ball-handlers who knocked down a ton of threes (38.8% on 381 attempts for Forbes, 42.5% on 146 attempts for Carter) and could’ve been quality bench shooting for under $6 million.
Burks and Rivers are fine adds, but for a pinch more, and maybe another year of control, you could’ve added better players—maybe even a starter. For a team devoid of talent, that would’ve been a quality add this offseason.
But what about the kids?
Much was made about not trading Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett. Both were deemed as cornerstones for this rebuild, and would be valued as such. New York then added Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley in the first round of the 2020 draft, and then retained, as of now, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Ignas Brazdeikis, and Jared Harper.
The Knicks need to do a consolidation trade or outright dump of these players. For now, all of them are on the roster. Let’s focus on their top two: Robinson and Barrett. Robinson is entering year three of a four-year contract, and the Knicks continue to lack proper spacing and point guard play alongside the defensive stalwart. Spellman provides intrigue as a shooter, but is no guarantee to make the rotation, while eighth overall pick Obi Toppin flashed good shooting on low attempts in his two seasons at Dayton. Nerlens Noel and Julius Randle provide no spacing on the floor.
“Ok, he can dunk. But can @obitoppin1 SHOOT???”
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 24, 2020
For Barrett, there are some improvement in his positioning. The arrival of Rivers and Burks gives New York a four-man wing rotation where three of the four have had success spacing the floor in the past. There will be times where Barrett could play with both Rivers and Burks in a three-man backcourt, which would allow value to Barrett’s ability to attack the basket.
The connecting issue here is the point guard position that went largely untouched. Payton returns after getting waived earlier in the offseason. Smith Jr. is back for his second full season for the Knicks, while Ntilikina is on his fourth. Both players enter this season with something to prove as restricted free agency looms in the offseason.
Even though he played just 14% of his minutes at point guard last season, I’m throwing Rivers into this contest. As you can see, none of the previous three offer the scoring at the rim—or beyond the arc—that could help the Knicks. Even with Payton’s vision and creation, the Knicks struggle to thrive in the halfcourt because their point guard lacks any pop. Rivers, however, does have some pop as a driver, even if he struggles to finish, while shooting well from three. He may not start at point, but snagging some minutes for Rivers as a lead guard may be important moving forward.
The second concern is that New York is back in familiar territory: veterans above the young players. After the Knicks acquired several veteran free agents last offseason to play above the young kids, New York did it again, with the difference being that some of the players can shoot.
Look at it this way: Spellman and his shooting would serve purpose in this rotation, but with Robinson, Randle, Noel, and Toppin ahead of him, his minutes are in question. The same goes for rookie Quickley. Point guard minutes would do him well, but with Payton, Smith, Ntilkina, and Rivers vying for minutes, wherein does the rookie settle?
The Knicks don’t have to be beholden to their young players, especially after poor seasons. However, at some point, how much value do they have sitting on the bench?
Kevin Knox, a top-10 pick (and an unfair punching bag among fans) makes no sense on this roster as a poor defensive fit, a below-average shooter, and sitting behind Burks, Barrett, Rivers, and Reggie Bullock on a hypothetical depth chart. How do the Knicks find a way to rehabilitate his trade value or continue proper development to get him on the floor?
Just another angle of concern from an offseason that didn’t inspire much confidence.
2021 and moving forward
The offseason isn’t over, but outside of a hypothetical Randle trade, the Knicks seem to be slowing down. Rumors of a Russell Westbrook trade have dissipated. Victor Oladipo has created some division amongst the front office, but President Leon Rose is rumored to be against it. With fewer than 30 days before the start of the 2020–21 NBA regular season, the Knicks appear to be done with major moves.
And the Knicks have improved some. The ability to surround Barrett with three shooters is a plus. If Toppin can offer a bit more stretch alongside Robinson, that’s a plus. If Robinson, thanks to the tutelage from head coach Tom Thibodeau and new assistant coach Darren Erman, can cut down his fouls and remain on the floor, you’d have a starting center who would be deemed worthy of his next contract.
However, the Knicks get a ‘D’ grade from me, because even though they didn’t mess up, they left better talent on the floor. The big man group is still cluttered with players who can’t shoot and profile as rim-runners. The point guard situation is still a mess that could hamper the rest of the roster. The biggest issue is the roster is still very cluttered.
The goal is to acquire two stars going into 2021. History suggests the Knicks are either going to strike out or get two stars to team up to come to New York. The old “create space and someone will come” thinking is gone. Let’s take a look at recent superstar movement: the players who moved, how they moved, and the players they joined.
The only players who left and went to teams that didn’t have a top-25 player already waiting are LeBron James to Los Angeles, Jimmy Butler, twice, to Minnesota and then to Miami, and Kyrie Irving to Boston. In the case of Butler to Miami, he arrived and Bam Adebayo instantly became a top-25 player. Ditto for Irving, who saw Jayson Tatum blossom quickly within his arrival. Both players became All-Stars and signed max-level contracts this summer.
The hope for New York is that two stars team up here. Kawhi Leonard went to Los Angeles but pushed the Clippers front office for a star, which led to the Paul George trade hours later. Irving and Kevin Durant joined the Brooklyn Nets last summer as a team.
The old adage of selling New York to superstars is a cooked idea. Players value success, a strong front office, and foresight. If the Knicks want to get a 2021 free agent, they’ll have to plan with the intention of getting two, whether both in free agency or one via trade.
The New York Knicks enter the 2020–21 season with the same look as last season and with the same goals as the previous offseason: entice and acquire a superstar player or two to kickstart a successful era of Knicks basketball. Last time the Knicks made this attempt, it failed. I’m not exactly sure what New York did to avoid the same fate next summer.
I don’t think they failed the offseason, but I’m not a believer in the practices they undertook. Selling a top-35 draft pick and kicking the can down the road another three years when the team needs talent now is bad practice, even when you consider how bloated the Knicks roster already is.
And again, I’m not the biggest fan of completely pushing all the cap space into the 2021 offseason. Even Burks is a small gripe. Why not pay a bit more for the second season, making him a bit more valuable in the trade market? If Burks shoots well from three, he’s more valuable with that second year of control. Or, he’s a cost-controlled piece when you go big-game hunting in 2021.
Based on the overall return of the offseason, the Knicks are in a fine position. Several second-round picks added, a top-10 pick added in the draft, and a nice upside find in Quickley. New York could enter next offseason with a top-five pick, cap space, and the ability to offer free agents a chance to come in and compete right away. It’s a desirable position.
However, the process this offseason is what gave me pause. The Knicks front office is still new, Rose is managing his first offseason, and something tells me New York will have a new general manager, someone a bit more experienced than Scott Perry, next summer. Still, the thinking behind this offseason left me with some concerns.