RJ Barrett has developed into a true star. The Knicks front office must shift their future plans accordingly.
Adapt or die.
The New York Knicks have died more often than they have adapted. When the NBA went small, the Knicks went big. When the league went fast, the Knicks went slow. When they go all-in on a free agent, they often had no true backup plan.
The team is once again at a crossroads. After completing an offseason in which the main pieces of last season’s roster were brought back, capped off with a Julius Randle extension, expectations were reasonably high for New York. A second straight top-four was ambitious, to say the least. Even with the modest expectations of making the playoffs, this season has been a letdown.
Randle has not replicated the magic of last season. His production is still above average, yet not near the All-Star levels of last season. Toss in a possible beef with the fans, the coaching staff, the front office, or maybe all four, and the future the front office envisioned last season is not nearly as attractive.
That future had Randle smack dab in the middle of a quick turnaround, with RJ Barrett at his side and a core group led by Derrick Rose at his back. Now, it is tough to stomach another 82 games of a melancholy Randle.
There is a silver lining—Rowan Barrett Jr. The third overall pick from 2019 is fulfilling every dream the team and fans could have imagined. Barrett’s play over the last few months has caught the attention of general NBA fans and put the Knicks jokes on brief pause.
At just 21 years old, Barrett has matured into the team’s most important player that looks very comfortable shouldering the burden of being a star player for the Knicks. The “MVP” chants for Randle that echoed through Madison Square Garden so loudly last season have faded. In its place have been raucous “RJ Barrett” chants.
The ascension of Barrett should cause a ripple effect on how the team approaches the coming months. The contention period is not as close as the front office may have thought it was when they threw bags at Evan Fournier and signed Kemba Walker at a relative bargain, thinking it would be enough to cement the Knicks as a playoff team.
Whatever moves are made moving forward should focus on bringing out the best in Barrett.
Too Big to Fail
In many ways, Barrett was the greatest test of the Knicks’ competence.
Barrett’s ambition to be great was well documented coming out of Duke. From a young age, Barrett and his father created a list of goals he would have to hit to become a professional basketball player. His Arya Stark-esque list has served him well thus far along with the resources placed around him.
Having Steve Nash as a godfather is a good foundation to build on, but Barrett was experienced with the burden of expectations well before he donned a Knick jersey. Before becoming the face of the Knicks, he was the face of Canada Basketball. Canada’s rise in the hoops ranks lies on the shoulder of Barrett, whose father is the general manager of the national team.
Since he arrived in New York, Barrett’s work ethic has been as advertised. Each year, his points-per-game output has increased from 14.3 as a rookie, to 17.6 in his second year, and just recently he reached the 20.0 milestone.
Barrett’s 2022, in particular, has gotten off to a stellar start, with a large enough sample size to believe that his production as a top option is sustainable. In 36 games in 2022 Barrett has ascended as the top option, taking 19.8 attempts per game, producing 24.0 points with 41-36-72 shooting splits. He had a single 30-point game in his career coming into this season. This year he has 11 and counting, nine of them in 2022.
🐍 🍁 MAPLE MAMBA SZN 🐍🍁
RJ Barrett returned and dropped a career-high 46 points on the Miami Heat.
Relive the glory ⬇️
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) February 26, 2022
Even more encouraging beyond the raw output is that over his last 17 games, Barrett has not shot well, yet he has managed to average 24.5 points per game, with his lowest point total during that stretch being 18 points.
The greatest leap Barrett has taken, in 2022, has been his leadership. When you tune into games, you see Barrett leading.
“I don’t like the way I started the season,” Barrett told Clyde Frazier and Mike Breen after another impressive outing in a win over the Chicago Bulls. “I wasn’t myself and just through just talking to the team and learning my new teammates, it’s been a fun ride and just been aggressive, and we’ve been playing well together as a team.”
The rest of the team has rallied around him down the stretch, adopting his relentless mentality, most prominently the other neophytes.
Just Play the Kids
Things have not been great most of the season. The team took a step back this season after running it back with the same core more or less. One bit of happiness has shined through the sadness, however. The Knicks’ young guys have been balling out.
Barrett is not the only young Knick enjoying a second-half ascension. A core of young Knicks has enjoyed a fun stretch over the last few weeks.
Immanuel Quickley has risen from his sophomore slumber. Over his last 17 games, Quickley has earned Tom Thibodeau’s trust, averaging 26.3 minutes per game and putting up 15.3 points with 45-40-88 shooting splits over that stretch. He has given the team a legitimate three-level playmaker that can also play strong defense.
The fourth-quarter masterclass led by Quickley in Miami was irrefutable evidence that he is ready for a promotion. Quickley played the full quarter, poured in 20 points, got to the free throw line, locked up on defense to secure a 38-point quarter to complete a shocking comeback.
QUICKLEY TIES IT WITH THE CLUTCH FLOATER😆 pic.twitter.com/TLIUfhYxsn
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 26, 2022
Quickley isn’t the only one worthy of a promotion. Obi Toppin’s progress has been just as promising. While he has had to bide his time more than most, Toppin has made the most of those spot minutes and has shown out during a recent stretch of extended runs.
Toppin is showing that he is more than an in-game highlight waiting to happen. His defense has improved well past the point of being categorized as a liability. His stubbornness to develop an outside has borne some fruit over his last six games, shooting 40.0% from three on 2.9 attempts per game.
Filling in for Randle in the starting lineup against the Charlotte Hornets, Toppin showcased the potential the team hoped he possessed. Toppin scored 18 points, pulled down 11 rebounds, and had a career-high six assists in nearly 40 minutes.
It typically takes Toppin three to four games to reach 40 minutes of court time. The reasons for Toppin and Randle to have such a drastic difference in minutes become more reprehensible each passing game. Randle is the better player, but Toppin is just as good a fit alongside Barrett at a lower cost and a higher motor.
Rookies Jericho Sims and Miles “Deuce” McBride have started to shine down the stretch, too. Sims found himself thrust into the rotation because Nerlens Noel’s body refuses to let him be healthy. The bouncy rookie has put his greatest talent to use, taking flight for dunks but also for rebounds. Sims’ energy and fluidity have made him a perfect match with Quickley, Toppin, and Barrett and should be penciled in as Mitchell Robinson’s backup at the least.
Deuce is still on the spot-minutes regimen, but in the limited time that he and IQ have made the best defensive backcourt the Knicks have had. The defensive chops McBride showed over the summer are still there. If Thibodeau continues to trust the neophyte, particularly down the stretch, he can become the defensive closer.
MCBRIDE WITH THE STEAL AND FINISH! pic.twitter.com/6IBWldukDA
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 26, 2022
Then there is of course the most polished young gun of all: Quentin Grimes. A dislocated knee slowed down his momentum, however, Grimes should have a defined role heading into next season out of the three rookies.
Fournier setting the franchise record for three-pointers made in a single season was an impressive feat that also laid out the blueprint to maximize Grimes. If the team is truly thinking for the future, Grimes should be held out the remaining games and told to study Fournier’s role intently.
Grimes is the ideal 3-and-D wing to play next to Barrett. He does not need the ball in his hands to be effective, with a quick trigger and no shortage of confidence in his jumper. What Grimes also does well—that Fournier does not do so well—is lock up the opposition on defense.
GREAT defense by Quentin Grimes on Bogdanovic pic.twitter.com/h6VMvKZtTD
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 25, 2021
This youthful foundation is not only comprised of good players, it consists of players that complement each other and share the same values. Led by Barrett, this group has had a constant foot-on-the-gas motor. With more time to learn from each other, they can mature together to learn not just to play hard, but smart.
The Julius Randle Conundrum
Does he stay or does he go? The fact that is a legitimate toss-up for Julius Randle tells you all you need to know about his 2021–22 season. Randle is still producing at a strong level, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. The bigger problem with Randle is his demeanor.
There is a good case study to be had for Randle, who was amazing in a season that did not have arenas packed with fans. Not to suggest Randle cannot handle pressure, he may just not like the noise as much as he thought he did.
Randle has become The Hound of the team, a brooding enforcer who does not take joy in the things he is good at. He has eight games where he scored in the single digits after happening just once last season. His three-point shooting came crashing down to reality, falling to 30.8%, more in line with his percentage prior to his career-best 41.1% from last season.
The greatest sin to the fans has not been the regression to the mean, it has been the apathy. There have been far too many instances of Randle being justly questioned for his effort. In the final moments of a win against the Bulls to push the team’s winning streak to four games, Randle chucked the ball and exited through the visitor’s tunnel.
It was a bizarre yet emblematic display of Randle’s current standing with the fan base. The relationship has become fractured in such a short time. Now, a rumor started by a radio host was enough to stoke the flames of a Randle exit.
Depending on what the reason is for Randle’s mood, there should be no haste to move him. If the perfect opportunity arises (i.e. Donovan Mitchell or Zion Williamson blockbuster trades), by all means. If not, and Randle is okay being the 1B to Barrett, there is a shot at redemption.
The first order of business should be to sign Mitchell Robinson to his extension. Robinson’s chemistry with Barrett and role as the anchor of the defense alone should be compelling enough for the front office to get a deal done.
A Robinson extension to break the Charlie Ward Curse should get done. Discussions between New York and Robinson on an extension have been previously reported, and with Barrett taking precedence over Randle, Robinson’s case has only grown stronger.
One center that should not remain with the team is Nerlens Noel. The Noel signing was the biggest mistake from last summer, with Noel appearing in just 25 games and producing Jason Collins numbers. Noel turns into an expiring next season and if the team does one thing this offseason it should be to clear Noel out, give Sims his minutes, and forget this ever happened.
The Knicks should also move on from Alec Burks, who is a good player, just blocking young players. Cam Reddish was starting to hit his groove before his season was cut short. Burks’ presence only blocks minutes that can go to Reddish, Grimes, Quickley, or McBride, and given the team is not close to contention, Burks’ minutes are sadly fruitless in the grand scheme.
A major acquisition should still be on the team’s radar, only the goal should not be to pair that major acquisition with Randle. Instead of looking to ship out draft picks for an aging star, moving up in the draft may be more attractive.
Lastly, and most importantly, the team should look to bring Barrett his money. The steady progression, ridiculously young age should quell any queasiness team brass could possibly have in a max extension.
Barrett and the Knicks felt like a perfect match in theory. A hungry player who wanted the crown and everything that came with it, and a team is desperately searching for a talented player worthy of getting asses in the seats. For once it appears the Knicks have successfully struck gold.
The Knicks and Barrett have each other, and in that sense, the season was not all for nothing.