"New York, WE HERE!" Words uttered by the NBA 2020-21 Most Improved Player of the Year, Julius Randle of the New York Knicks, following the finish of an immensely successful regular season in which the Knicks finished as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. 41 wins, a team seemingly filled with hunger and young talent, and a feeling of a truly changed culture. Last season, the New York Knicks ended up being the biggest overachievers in the NBA as a franchise that has been known for historically underachieving. The regular season served as what seems to be a complete trajectory change for the Knicks who a little over a year ago, were looked at as one of the worst teams in the league. Unfortunately, the 2021 postseason was a completely different story. The Knicks blowout losses to Trae Young’s Hawks in the first round ended up being quite the sour ending to a Knicks season that seemed to be bringing lots of hope for success in the franchise’s near future. Four and a half months later, the Knicks are entering a new season with loads of questions surrounding them. Was last season a fluke success that was exposed in the playoffs? Is the current core really what the Knicks will build around for the long-term future? The 2021-22 season for the New York Knicks will be a critical year for forecasting the long-term future of the franchise, so what direction will they go? With the season now underway, let's examine how it could shake out for the Knicks.
The moves that the Knicks made this offseason could be described as sufficient, but not flashy. The first major event to take place this offseason was the draft on July 21. Of all of the offseason activities, the draft was probably the most underwhelming for Knicks fans. Coming into the draft, the Knicks had picks 19 & 21 in the first round. Players like James Bouknight and Tre Mann were attracting a lot of attention from Knicks fans, and many believed that the Knicks could potentially package their picks to move up a few spots to obtain one of them. Instead, the Knicks did the opposite, they traded both 19 & 21 away, 19 for a future first, and 21 for the 25 and a future second-rounder. With the 25th pick, the Knicks selected Houston guard Quentin Grimes. This was not a bad pick, as Grimes was one of the best pure three-point shooters in the draft. This could be an important addition, as shooting was one lacking aspect of last year’s Knicks that got exposed in the playoffs. The second round saw the selections of Rokas Jokubaitis, Miles McBride, and Jericho Sims. None are particularly bad picks, but the fans had hoped for some flashier names.
Free agency saw the Knicks take a middle-ground approach. Entering free agency, the Knicks had the most cap space in the league, so there was potential to sign nearly anyone available. However, this free agency class did not feature many elite-tier players. Players like Kawhi Leonard, Lonzo Ball, and Demar Derozan were some of the most noteworthy available names, but the Knicks opted to stay away from any of them. Instead, the Knicks’ two biggest adds were two former Celtics in Guard Kemba Walker and Wing Evan Fournier. Both signings offer alternative scoring options and relief to Julius Randle, who single-handedly carried the Knicks’ offense last year. Fournier averages around 15 points per game, which can provide consistency to the offense that previously lacked much, if any, consistency. Fournier has maintained a three-point percentage of around 40% for his entire 10-year career thus far. Kemba Walker adds a dynamic scoring element to the Knicks’ backcourt, as he is effective at all three levels. Last year, Julius Randle was the only Knick that was seen consistently being able to score on all three levels. Walker was the Knicks’ biggest addition of the offseason. Signing him immediately after a buyout with the Thunder for a salary of only $8.9 million was looked at around the league as one of the biggest steals in free agency. The biggest concern right now for Kemba Walker is his availability, as injuries plagued his disappointing tenure in Boston. Beyond these signings, the Knicks other moves focused on retention, as they were able to re-sign cornerstones of last year, Julius Randle and Derrick Rose, while also keeping important role players around in Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel.
Overall, the Knicks’ moves in the offseason saw an immense focus on offense, which was what the fanbase wanted to see after their offense completely fell short in the 2021 playoffs. Following their moves in free agency, the Knicks lineup looks like it will feature a starting five of Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, with an ideal bench lineup of Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, and Nerlens Noel. Also expect to see Quentin Grimes, Kevin Knox, and Taj Gibson getting playing time here and there, either through rotations or injuries.
Last season saw many major jumps taken in the progression of key Knicks players. The most obvious being Julius Randle, who won the season’s Most Improved Player of the NBA, transcending from a sufficient starter to an All-Star and an All-NBA level player. Julius Randle improved in pretty much every statistical category that he could. Some of the biggest improvements came in doubling his assists per game and having his three-point percentage shoot up from 27% to 41% while simultaneously increasing his volume of threes taken. Randle put up all-NBA numbers last year and while this was great, I do not expect him to repeat this performance this season. His prior inconsistency and the potential for a decrease in minutes, as Randle led the league in minutes last year by a significant margin, could lead to a drop-off in production. That being said, with more scoring options on offense and potentially fewer double teams from opposing defenses, Randle should still be the star of the Knicks. I think that a realistic expectation is that Randle will continue to score 20+ points per game allowing him to be an all-star reserve once again. Another player that made massive strides last season was R.J Barrett, who became a much more consistent scorer, averaging 17.6 points per game and shooting 40% from three. R.J Barrett is the Knicks’ cornerstone building block that they seem to be building around for the future. This season, a realistic expectation for R.J’s continued growth would be to see him score off of his own dribble, as he was very reliant on catch and shoot last year. He also needs to improve his ability to finish at the rim. aI wouldn’t expect his scoring to go up much given the additional scorers that will be joining R.J in the starting lineup. The Knicks also saw their rookies flash during last season. Immanuel Quickley surprised many with his ability, as many felt that the Knicks reached when they selected him 24th overall. Quickley was an electric scorer off the bench last year, bringing much-needed energy to the court. Obi Toppin, on the other hand, was a fairly big disappointment, often looking lost or having no court presence for most of the season. However, he showed flashes of dominance through his athleticism. He was also able to produce in limited minutes during the postseason run. Toppin needs to display more aggressiveness this season and can hopefully do so if he is given more playing time. As for Quickley, I think that maintaining his early success will be very important, as he will no longer be an unknown wildcard and defenses may gameplan more towards him during the bench rotation.
I expect to see a lot of progression in the Knicks offense. Last season, the Knicks ranked 27th in points per game. With the combination of their offseason acquisitions and progression of existing players, I expect to see a more cohesive and better scoring offense. The Knicks’ defense will hopefully maintain their strong performance from last season. Led by Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, who puts a strong emphasis on defense, the Knicks allowed the fewest points per game in the entire league. This year I would like to see the Knicks continue to emphasize defense. However, they may take a slight step backward, as Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier are not as strong defensively as their predecessors, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock. Maintaining last year’s defense is a tough task, but I think that Thibodeau is the coach to do it.
Outlook in the East
With all of these changes and high expectations, where do the Knicks stand compared to the rest of their Eastern Conference counterparts? Last season the Knicks finished as the fourth seed in the conference with 41 wins. A four-seed position in a conference sounds very good, but only takes a few moments of looking at the final records across the league to see that there was a big disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences. In fact, 41 wins last year would have only earned the eighth in the Western Conference. The Knicks also happened to get hot while other teams in the east were slumping last season. This year the east will likely be far more competitive. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are two teams that significantly underachieved last season and should bounce back, likely outplaying the Knicks in the process, who will regress from last year’s overachieving performance. The defending champion Bucks lost none of their core pieces and look to be among the leaders of the conference once again. The Nets are arguably still championship favorites, so it is only right to predict them to be at the top of the conference. The 76ers have had their issues with Guard Ben Simmons, however, even without him, they still have one of the best rosters in the league. The Hawks, who defeated the Knicks in last year’s postseason, were nothing but hot after the halfway point of the last season, so they will once again be in the eastern conference playoff mix as well. Teams like the Hornets and Pacers both have tons of young talent and could potentially make the jump to the playoffs. The Raptors, back in Toronto after a year in Tampa, may also look to bounce back. The Bulls are a team that was arguably the most aggressive in free agency, signing Lonzo Ball, Demar Derozan, and Alex Caruso, so their now-loaded roster will certainly be in the mix as well. Overall, the conference as a whole has improved this year and the Knicks were somewhat lucky getting hot at the right time to get a four seed last season. The Knicks made significant roster upgrades this offseason. These acquisitions, combined with the progression of young players already on the roster, will help to make the Knicks better this season. Unfortunately, the Eastern conference improved as a whole more than the Knicks did as a team.
Final Season Prediction: Knicks finish with a record for 45-37 and the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference.