After a successful season, the Knicks have one goal: not to lose the offseason. Flush with draft picks and cap space, New York has several directions the franchise can go.
Following their best season since the turn of the century, the New York Knicks fumbled their offseason. It was the summer of 2013 when Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks to the second seed in the Eastern Conference and should have reached at least the conference finals. Cruel fate prevented that from happening, but after a 54-win season and a playoff run, it appears that the Knicks were back.
The offseason started off nicely with the draft in which the Knicks selected Tim Hardaway Jr. 24th overall. Then, disaster struck on July 10th, 2013, as the Knicks traded for Andrea Bargnani from the Toronto Raptors, and the window for contention during the Anthony Era was closed for the Knicks.
Losing season after losing season followed the trade and it wasn’t until this year, after several trades and rebuilds, when the Knicks returned to the playoffs. Now, they are in a similar situation to their golden year. Tom Thibodeau came in as the head coach and helped engineer one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NBA history, certainly the greatest in team history, and captured the fourth seed in the East.
Excitement has been restored, the Garden once again belongs to the home team.
The 2020–21 New York Knicks were a resounding success. With the short turnaround caused by COVID-19, the team that essentially ran back a 20-win team and miraculously doubled its win total, which could leave to the belief this season was an outlier akin to the 1980–81 team.
The key differences between the 2013 team and the squad that just lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round are age and assets. Julius Randle is 26 years old, Obi Toppin and Mitchell Robinson are 23, Immanuel Quickley is 21, and R.J. Barrett is 20 years old. New York’s roster had the lowest salaried team in the league and is armed with a surplus of draft picks. It is uncharted territory for the franchise, and it is vital they do not whiff as they whiffed eight years ago.
These are the steps the team could and should take to keep the good times rolling and the team on an upward trajectory.
Handle All Family Business
One thing fans and pundits seem to forget when discussing team-building is keeping the current team together. The Knicks have areas to address, however. It has a solid core of talent and glue guys that should stick around.
Before any outside business is handled, the team must make sure their own are taken care of, starting with Julius Randle. Rough postseason be damned, Randle was the key factor in the team’s turnaround. He also happens to be eligible for a four-year, $106 million contract extension.
The Knicks should reward the 26-year-old All-Star who just completed one of the best single-season turnarounds in NBA history.
After a poor first season in New York, Randle responded with a monstrous second campaign, evolving into a three-level scorer and becoming one of three players to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and 40% shooting from three in a season. At the bare minimum, Randle figures to be the third-best player on a team with attainable championships dreams. Taking care of him now also locks him into a number that feels just about right.
If he or the team decide to hold off until his original deal expires, Randle could be in line for a larger payday and the team could lose him for nothing. If the extension is put off until next summer, Randle becomes eligible for a gargantuan deal—five years in the $201 million range. That could be considered an overpay and make any dip in performance feel much bigger than it actually is.
Another player to take care of is Mitchell Robinson. Robinson’s deal has an interesting dynamic in that his value to the team hasn’t been higher and his stock league-wide has probably never been lower. A rash of injuries cooled off the momentum of his prior season where he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record for highest field-goal percentage in a single season.
What exactly a Robinson extension looks at is difficult to forecast. The Knicks could pick up his option, worth $1.8 million, and hunt after big-name free agents. The best guess is made by my friend and TKW’s own Quentin Haynes who suggested four years, $42 million. It recognizes his value with a tenfold pay increase, while also not jumping the gun on a possible overpay.
Again, if you just look at the Hawks series, you can see the value Robinson provides as a low-maintenance player on offense and All-Defensive potential.
After the core pieces are signed—or at least verbally agreed to, you do not want another Xavier McDaniel-like miscommunication. Team brass should have a conversation with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and Theo Pinson. All provided immense value in their own ways, but all were unquestioned leaders. Rose is the highest priority as he is the one out of the group whose value is mainly on the floor.
Playing in his role that Thibodeau had him in most of the season, leading the second unit as the second guard, Rose is as close to ideal as you get. Rose has already said he would like to come back, and that it was up to the team who had big plans this summer.
Be Patient With the Superstar Swing
The most exciting development of this turnaround season will be the impact towards recruiting upper echelon players. We do not have to touch on the topic of William Wesley being a power broker or the Rolodex he and Knicks President Leon Rose possess. The overarching point is the Knicks will be able to target the big fish with confidence.
Who the big fish are this summer is still unclear, 2022 feels like the next big summer.
The Kawhi Leonard pipe dream left the building once the team won their first-round series over the Mavericks on Sunday; Chris Paul will opt-out, but a reunion with his current team, the Phoenix Suns, seems likely. The most attainable big-name player is Kyle Lowry, who might have his sights set on returning home to Philadelphia or finding another team closer to title contention.
Regardless, the Knicks could get a temperature check on their rep by pursuing Lowry or Paul. The intel could prove useful in 12 months when the 2022 class hits the market. Players around the league conversate and if Rose and Welsey leave a strong impression, it could help them down the road with the 2022 or even 2023 free agency class. As 2019 free agency cruelly taught the Knicks, things can change quickly and get exponentially crazy at a moment’s notice.
The Dame Dilemma
The superstar swing is always enticing, especially when there is a name to attach to it. Damian Lillard would make for a landmark acquisition for Leon Rose’s regime—but it would also cost a lot of the asset chest the team has accumulated the past few years. If the team is indeed already calling about Lillard, they are calling for good reason.
Would Lillard vault the Knicks into a trendy team and national television darling? Certainly. Would he solve the main problem plaguing the current team? He sure would. But if the Portland Trail Blazers are going to move on from their franchise player, it would come at a high cost.
The Knicks are thankfully flush with picks and cash, which is a gift and a curse. It is a gift that they can pay just about any price for any star player; it is a curse that other teams are well aware of this and will look to bleed the team of most of their assets. It is for this reason, a Bradley Beal deal doesn’t feel as appetizing as a potential Lillard deal.
With Lillard, the team would have him locked in through 2025, so there would not be a mad dash to win a title that very first season or pray he stays after a rental year. The determinant for what is “too much” for the second-best point guard in the league is simple: R.J. Barrett. Barrett is 20 years old and proved this year that he should be given every chance to be special.
If the Knicks can forge a big three with Lillard, Barrett, and Randle, there is something there to compete in the present and future. Lillard and Randle are still solid but feel like a team that competes for the next three or four years and starts from square one again.
The Blazers will give the Knicks a good picture of what they are looking for and if that deal includes Barrett, the better option is to move on in addressing the areas that caused them issues when the game slowed down in the playoffs: a point guard who does not allow the defense to sit back and relax on defense, and more wing shooters to space the floor.
There is a smart way for the Knicks to handle a situation that could hang over their offseason as much as it hangs over Portland’s. Set a hard deadline for draft night and, if the Blazers really want to talk, they will have at least given some indicator. But if they are still on the fence, the Knicks should not be held prisoner and afraid to make moves on draft night.
Don’t Be Afraid to Wheel and Deal on Draft Night
The team may have had no luck in defending Trae Young, but they were lucky on some key coin flips. Thanks to luck being on their side, the Knicks own the 19th, 21st, 32nd, and 58th picks. They can opt to stand pat, select four players that can help address their point guard and wing needs and move on.
They could also package picks to move up and take a difference-maker. Should Moses Moody, a 6’6” playmaker from Arkansas, slip towards the edge of the lottery, the Knicks have the picks to swing a move up and add another strong, young piece. Maybe Gonzaga sharpshooter Corey Kispert slides, the same rule would apply for him. Both guys provide the value of a shrewd signing in free agency.
Spend Wisely in Free Agency
Shrewd signings ended up being the difference in the team’s turnaround. The smaller ads of Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks for less than $12 million had to make Billy Beane blush. Now with tons of cash to spend, there is always the threat the front office blows money simply because they have it.
The message of free agency is to spend wisely. The Knicks had the lowest payroll in the league last season, a payroll was so low that Joakim Noah, who was released via the amnesty provision two years ago, was the fourth highest-paid player. With money to blow and hype surrounding the team, it could be enticing to spend big to get the players the front office wants most—which the front office should do their best to refrain from.
A bidding war for New Orleans guard Lonzo Ball now feels shortsighted. Ball is exactly what they need, yet the price he would have to come in at (greater than $20 million per season) could handicap them from a major move. A smarter route could be someone like Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie who might come cheaper coming off an ACL injury.
The same goes for moves made on the wing. Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks are not automatic re-signs, but if it becomes too costly to upgrade or find a long-term solution, reunions with both should not be ruled out.
As to those upgrades and long-term solutions, Portland’s Norman Powell and Toronto’s Gary Trent Jr. are the types of guys to target. Powell in particular should be high on the free-agent list. He can give the starting lineup desperately needed scoring and score at a better clip than Bullock and more consistently. Trent Jr., like Ball, might be tough to pry as a restricted free agent. Malik Monk could be a cheaper restricted free-agent addition, given that he has not provided the Hornets with many reasons to keep him.
The overarching theme here is not to go crazy looking for a star, yet do not be too complacent either. Winning 41 games with no major moves helped accelerate the contention timeline, but the team is still two or three years away from making a meaningful run in the East.
It may not be this summer, but a star move is imminent, and the Knicks must remain ready, only ready has been redefined due to this past season’s success. Ready is now continuing to build a team a star would want to come to, not just having the assets to do it.