New York’s offseason is when it puts its money where its mouth is. The Knicks have many questions to answer in June and July—how do they right the ship?
This is the most important offseason in the history of the New York Knicks.
After trading Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, and Tim Hardaway Jr. to Dallas this past February, New York effectively cleaned the roster of bad contracts, recouped some assets for the future, and more importantly, gave themselves the opportunity to add two max-level free agents this summer.
That means New York could add Kevin Durant, the top-rated free agent, and team him up with the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler.
And if the ping-pong balls fall correctly, New York could also add Duke’s Zion Williamson, who appears to be a star player in the making as well. By finishing with a record of 17-65, New York has a 14% chance in acquiring Williamson. At the very least, the Knicks will have a top-five pick in this year’s draft with a chance to add another young, talented player to their core.
However, before the Knicks’ front office envisions bringing Durant to New York, several questions could shape their offseason overtures. From roster construction, players’ futures, and what to do if the Knicks have to fall back on “Plan B,” New York will have to be prepared for anything—whether it’s a home run or a strikeout.
Here are six questions that will shape New York’s planning this offseason.
1. What does the future hold for Dennis Smith Jr.?
Between the possibility of New York drafting Murray State guard Ja Morant or pursuing the likes of Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker, it almost feels like walking into the 2019–20 season with Dennis Smith Jr. as the starting point guard would be a disappointment.
It’s not Smith’s fault the Knicks are highly linked to the potential upgrade at point guard—Irving was already rumored to New York before Smith’s arrival, Walker is born in New York, and the entire front office top brass traveled down to watch Morant play during the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. There’s a desire there to make an upgrade if the opportunity arises.
But what does that mean for the 21-year-old guard?
In 21 games for the Knicks, Smith struggled, but positive traits were still visible. Smith finished with 41% shooting, including a disastrous 28% from three-point range. Still, Smith got to the rim with ease and made several great looks, including alley-oops to both DeAndre Jordan and Mitchell Robinson.
He even looked good on the defensive end. Smith wasn’t touted as a great defender before, but looked adept in the passing lanes, averaging 1.3 steals per game. His 0.9 D-PIPM was higher than fellow point guards Patrick Beverley, Ricky Rubio, and De’Aaron Fox. As his offense plummeted, Smith Jr. picked it up on the defensive end.
So what should the Knicks do, if anything, with Smith this summer?
In a perfect world, you add a starting point guard and use Smith as a backup guard who can change the game with his speed and ability to attack the rim. Retain Kadeem Allen and the Knicks would have three fine guards with two who flashed solid defensive abilities. In turn, that would allow Smith Jr. to play well in a smaller role and figure it out the following summer.
But with New York needing one more move to free the cap space necessary to sign two max-level free agents, could Smith be the casualty to achieve that goal? In a league where perimeter defenders are hard to find, could the Knicks use Smith in a trade to acquire another wing player? What if a team offers you a first-round pick for Smith?
Before even considering whether Smith Jr. wants to be a backup or not, the Knicks will have to make a decision on his role in their future.
2. Should New York invest in Mitchell Robinson as its starting center?
The decision of playing Mitchell Robinson at starting center largely revolves around one question: Do you want to spend another asset on the least valuable position in basketball?
It’s a harsh assessment of the center position, but as the game continues to thrive with small-ball, pace and space, and “big wings” taking over for power forwards, the need for an elite center is becoming smaller. Gone are the days where you needed an elite offensive center to have a chance of winning a championship.
So with Robinson on the roster, do the Knicks really want to spend another asset—cap space in a worst-case scenario, the room exception in a “best-case” scenario—to retain DeAndre Jordan?
Robinson shined as a rookie, averaging 7.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in 66 total games. In a way, Robinson looked a lot like Jordan in his rookie season with his shot-blocking prowess and ability to catch and finish above the rim. Robinson is a legitimate threat to average upwards of three blocks one day, with his ability to catch both shots at the rim and jump shots.
Not to mention Robinson is exactly the kind of building block the Knicks need if they’re looking to build the roster around high-level players. Robinson signed a four-year deal worth $6.5 million, meaning he is slated to make under $2 million for at least the next two seasons.
New York will have to figure out whether or not they want to keep Jordan in effort to land Durant—and whether or not that matters. The best direction, however, might be giving Robinson the keys to the car, adding another inexpensive center and saving the asset.
3. Can the Knicks fix their defense?
All the additions in the world won’t matter if the Knicks can’t improve on the defensive end.
New York finished 26th in defensive efficiency, 25th in defensive rebounding percentage, and 17th in opponent three-point attempts per game. The Knicks will have to, at the very least, jump into the top half of the league as they look to pivot from a rebuilding team to a contender.
Part of the improvement will be David Fizdale’s scheme and adjustments, but the biggest part will come from an upgrade in defensive talent.
There should be a slight uptick regardless defensively for the Knicks. Enes Kanter and Tim Hardaway Jr., two terrible defenders, are no longer on the roster. Kevin Knox, by moving into a reserve role, would allow New York to control the minutes of one of the worst defensive players in the league.
Still, there’s a need for the Knicks to find impact defenders who could also spread multiple positions. New York has one good perimeter defender in Damyean Dotson. Everyone else is spotty or lacks the length to defend up. If Frank Ntilikina stays, his defensive abilities would give the Knicks a wing who could defend from positions one through three.
The foundations—Dotson, Robinson, and maybe Ntilikina—are there if the Knicks want them. Guys like Luke Kornet can also assist in the team’s defensive turnaround, albeit in smaller doses. Can the Knicks find the other defensive pieces who could help them improve on that end?
Whether big-name additions (Jimmy Butler), defensive draftees (Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter or Washington’s Matisse Thybulle) or veteran defensive specialists (Luc Mbah a Moute), the Knicks should consider all routes in trying to improve the defense.
4. Can the Knicks find the necessary shooters to help their point guards?
Today’s NBA is effectively finishing at the basket and finishing from three. The Knicks were 21st in the league in three-point attempts after the All-Star break and 19th in the league in three-point frequency.
Not terrible—but New York already sent Hardaway Jr. away, and the likes of Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh, and Mario Hezonja are all pending free agents. The Knicks will have to replenish their shooting on the roster between the draft and free agency.
Kevin Knox and Damyean Dotson, the top two players on the Knicks in terms of three-point attempts, will help quell some of those issues.
After that? Not much there. Retaining Kornet would give the Knicks a “unicorn” of sorts, thanks to his ability to defend the rim and space the floor. However, even with Kornet, Dotson, and Knox, they still need another shooter—maybe even two volume shooters.
5. Which players are prepared to take a step forward?
You can’t count on free agency and the draft alone to take you to the next level. The Knicks are selling top-tier free agents on their young talent and future, but which players are poised to take a step forward next season?
Excluding Robinson, Dotson is the first name that comes to mind. In the second half of the season, Dotson flashed excellent off-ball skills, solid passing, and decent three-point shooting. You could see him as a solid low-level starter who thrives with better players around him.
Staying in the backcourt, Allonzo Trier can improve entering his second season. Coming out of Arizona, Trier flashed a polished offensive game. The defense, however, was another story. Trier improving as a defender would go well with his offensive game in a bench role and could make him a lead reserve to help buoy the offense.
In New York’s pending group of free agents, Noah Vonleh stands out.
Only 23 years old, Vonleh came in strong as a rebounder, but also showed some switchability, averaged 2.7 assists per 36 minutes, and knocked down 33% from three-point range this season. He tailed off massively at the end of the season, but as a low-end starter who can absorb a bulk of the power forward minutes, he’s someone worth the room exception.
New York should expect improvement from all of its young players, but Robinson and Dotson have a true chance, as starters, to get the minutes to show off improvements from the previous season.
6. What if the New York Knicks fail to land the desired star players?
What if everything we were sold during the season was a lie? What if the Knicks come away from this offseason with no Zion, no Durant, and no second star player?
It’ll be tough to sell, but it’s in the Knicks’ best interest to continue to the course, build through the draft, and prepare for the next great free-agent chase by acquiring draft picks and assets for the future.
New York should be calling every team in the league looking to acquire future first-round picks by taking on bad contracts. Portland has Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard, Orlando has Timofey Mozgov, and Washington has Ian Mahinmi.
The Knicks already seven first-round draft picks in the next five years, giving New York a chance to add cheap talent to its roster. Adding more would not only give the Knicks more shots at a superstar through the draft, but it also gives them assets with which to acquire a star player if and when the moment arrives.
The alternative of New York missing out on free agents would be a disappointing one, especially considering the 2020 free agency class is significantly weaker. Still, the Knicks would have their first-round pick this year, a clean sheet cap-wise, and draft picks to plot their next move.
The Knicks have a chance to take a step forward in the league, and even emerge as a potential contender within the next few seasons. Believe or not, there’s palpable buzz throughout the league that the Knicks will land a big-name free agent, maybe two.
However, one slight misstep could damper that. It would be in New York’s best interest to reevaluate everything—from the coaching staff, to the current roster, to its future plans—before entering this offseason.