The Knicks only face the Toronto Raptors one time in the first half of this season and it’s an “away” game, meaning they’ll essentially be at a neutral stadium in Tampa Bay.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations, has long been linked to the New York Knicks’ lead decision-making job, with owner James Dolan considering him the “dream candidate” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

It’s understandable that a guy who built a championship team in Toronto, consistently hits the 50-win mark, and has plenty of cap space heading into next offseason wouldn’t want to leave.

But maybe the Knicks can show off their young nucleus in their one opportunity this season?

What happened to the Raptors this offseason?

Maybe it’s because they’re playing in Tampa Bay for the season due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it seemed like the team’s two biggest free agents, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, took lesser roles to play elsewhere.

Both Raptors big men ended up in Los Angeles, Gasol to the Lakers on a two-year, “wink wink, we know you’re going to retire next season but you’ll be able to collect the check” deal, and Ibaka to the Clippers on a two-year, $19 million deal.

They replaced the two with Aron Baynes, via The Athletic’s Shams Charania (and the Aron Baynes Fan Club), and re-signing Chris Boucher, via Wojnarowski, hoping he can grow into a larger role.

Baynes, who was secretly one of the Phoenix Suns’ best players in the first few months of the season, can replace the production of Ibaka. But Ibaka had one of his best seasons at age 30, putting up a career-high in points (15.4) and usage (24%).

Boucher will probably never reach the defensive heights of Gasol—not many players ever will—but entering his age-28 season, he’s not a young big man who makes a lot of mistakes despite his limited time in the league.

The Raptors also re-signed Fred VanVleet to a four-year, $85 million deal according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps.

VanVleet was one of the names people threw out there as a potential Knicks target. If this were the Knicks of old, they might have thrown the bag at him. Luckily, they didn’t. It’s not that VanVleet is a bad player—quite the opposite. But if Knicks fans have learnt anything in recent history, it’s how important it is to build slowly.

The final notable free agent is Alex Len, who’s coming over one a one-year deal. The team also drafted Malachi Flynn 29th overall, and Jalen Harris 59th.

How will the Knicks match up?

The Raptors losing two of the best interior defenders will be great for the Knicks, who don’t boast elite shooters. We’ll likely see R.J. Barrett and Obi Toppin get easier shots in the paint.

Judging by how Knicks Twitter reacts to Julius Randle even thinking about taking a bad shot, it’s safe to assume not many people are looking forward to Randle trying to post up Boucher or Baynes.

It’s also safe to assume the roster will be largely what it is now. With the first matchup taking place before the March trade deadline on December 31st, Tom Thibodeau will still be figuring out his rotation, the team will be wondering if there’s a point guard of the future on the roster, and hopefully Toppin will lead the way for all rookies by averaging 32 points per contest.

The second matchup—which, based off the NBA’s released schedule thus far, will be after March 4th—will see a more established rotation. We’ll know how the roster shakes out by then. 

If last season is any indicator, New York might be taking a look at some end-of-the-bench players while Toronto jostles for playoff positioning. Depending on whether it’s a two-game season series or three, the Knicks should be circling the first matchup on New Year’s Eve as the one to win.

The best-case scenario

Obviously, the best-case scenario is a win. But with the Knicks likely one of the bottom teams in the East, and a number of highly touted draftees in the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft, a loss is not the end of the world.

These are the kinds of games that boost the confidence of younger players: ones against elite teams on important calendar dates. With the first matchup on New Year’s Eve, there’s going to be a few more eyeballs on screens.

In the best-case scenario, a Rookie of the Year–level Obi Toppin and Most Improved Player candidate Barrett scorch the Raptors in Tampa Bay, attract some more national attention, and jump into the conversation as the next young core in the league. A rejuvenated fourth-year Frank Ntilikina puts on his best Clamps from Futurama impression and locks up the newly minted Fred VanVleet.

For all the reasons a New Year’s Eve matchup could be a positive for this team, it could also backfire. If the team doesn’t show off an exciting young core, then we’re looking at another night of NBA Twitter berating the Knicks.

With a new front office, new coach, and no overpaid superstar, there’s reason to hold out hope that the upstart Knicks can surprise a few of the league’s elite.

Hell, maybe even Masai Ujiri thinks about how great the Knicks’ young core looks while celebrating the new year?


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