For the first time in decades, the New York Knicks seem like they’re finally not in a rush.
This might actually be the quickest way to bring this historic team back into relevance. Every modicum of success from the Knicks since their days of contention in the 1990s has been hastily followed up with impatient and overeager moves that have hurt their long-term progress. This is the same New York club that doled out over-priced contracts to big men Jerome James, Eddy Curry, and Joakim Noah who in exchange gave them next to nothing while in a Knicks jersey.
The Knicks are also the architects behind the short-lived backcourt pairing of two diminutive, ball-dominant guards in Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis that played a grand total of zero playoff appearances together. They also traded away multiple key pieces for Carmelo Anthony in a mid-year trade a decade ago, even if he had already indicated that New York was his preferred destination when he would hit free agency after that season.
It is understandable then that their fanbase were anxious coming into this offseason in the wake of last season’s surprise 41-31 record that earned them the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Though the Knicks were eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in five games, this past campaign was still a success by all means as they blew past all preseason expectations.
Julius Randle finally broke out as an NBA All-Star in his seventh year in the league, averaging career-highs with 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and six assists. His three-point shooting also took an astronomical leap, going from 27.7% in the prior year to 41.1% on over five attempts, though it remains to be seen whether or not this was just an aberration.
His status on the team quickly went from uncertain, as they even drafted Obi Toppin last year as a possible replacement, to franchise cornerstone after last year’s impressive showing. New York put their commitment to him in stone with a four-year, $117 million extension that he signed earlier this month.
RJ Barrett, still just 21 years old, also made strides in his sophomore year and looked more confident, putting up 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and three assists per game. The Canadian guard’s shooting numbers improved significantly, though there is still much room for growth in that area of his game.
Last year’s rookies, Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, also showed promise in their limited minutes in ‘20-’21 and also had strong showings at the recently concluded NBA Summer League at Las Vegas. The 22-year-old Quickley looked particularly exciting at the Summer League, flashing the potential to become a deadly NBA-level scorer for many years to come and further enhancing the Knicks’ youthful foundation.
Shot-blocking specialist Mitchell Robinson will also look to bounce back from an injury-riddled season and it is easy to forget that he is only 23 years old.
The Knicks of old would have overreacted to last year’s success by trying to acquire a superstar by any means. They could have offered a package of their young players, most likely bannered by Barrett, and future draft picks for Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, or Ben Simmons like what they did to snag Anthony in 2011. Though these players are bona fide stars in the NBA, a big trade would have left their roster practically bare.
Using all of their cap space on a marquee free agent such as DeMar DeRozan could have also been an option, but things are different now with Leon Rose at the helm. One of his first moves upon joining the team last year was the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, who has been known to milk the best out of younger teams.
True enough, the Knicks responded to Thibodeau well and claimed their first playoff berth since 2013, giving Rose a small win in his first full season as their president. He is no stranger to constructing a winning team, as he was instrumental in bringing together the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in 2010 while he was still an agent with CAA. Rose hopes to be the third former agent, following the Golden State Warriors’ Bob Myers and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Rob Pelinka, to form an NBA title winner as a team executive.
He is off to a good start, showing restraint and patience with the Knicks’ transactions this offseason, choosing to build on last year’s success instead of chasing immediate results. They brought back their veteran role players–Nerlens Noel, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Taj Gibson–on relatively inexpensive deals after they played vital roles in last year’s run. Rose and Gibson had career renaissance seasons with their third Thibodeau-led team and have continued to be effective in their roles despite their injury history and age.
New York also added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in free agency via team friendly deals that will keep them financially flexible moving forward. Both guards ended last season with the Boston Celtics and will immediately address their need for additional playmaking and shot creation, something that they sorely lacked in the Atlanta series.
What makes these two players even more attractive to New York is that they have shown a willingness to take on a secondary role while with the Celtics. They will be expected to do the same with the Knicks, taking a backseat to Randle and Barrett while still providing a consistent offensive threat.
The 31-year-old Walker is a New York native and the bigger name, having earned four All-Star appearances and an All-NBA team nod in his eight seasons with the Charlotte Hornets. However, he struggled with injuries over his two years with the Celtics.
Walker signed a team-friendly two-year contract that will pay him approximately $9 million a season, so this could be one of the best value contracts in the league if he can regain some of the magic that he showed while playing for the Hornets. Returning home to Madison Square Garden, where he hit a buzzer-beater at the Big East Tournament quarterfinals while still in college playing for UConn, may be exactly what he needs for a career renaissance.
Fournier’s four-year, $78 million contract may look like much on paper, but this is fair market value for a wingman of his skillset. At 6’7 and still just 28 years old, he shot 41.8% from three last season and is a reliable secondary playmaker.
He is also coming off a stellar Tokyo Olympic Basketball Tournament where he helped France win a silver medal as their primary scoring option. The Knicks will need him to carry over the momentum from his breakout Olympic games into the regular season as he will likely slot in as a starter from day one.
The addition of Walker and Fournier will only open up the floor for Randle and Barrett, whose growth will be the key to this team’s success. The addition of these veterans to help carry the load and keep defenses honest can only boost their development in the short and long run.
The Knicks’ ever-passionate fanbase hopes that this edition of their team continues to grow together as they have an adequate balance of veterans and youth. Though they might not be contenders yet, they are slowly moving towards it with a more methodical approach than usual.
They are not yet back to their contending days of the 1990s and even farther away from the glory days of the 1970s, but they are finally making steps towards that direction.