The 2020-21 NBA season was a huge success for the New York Knicks as a franchise, surpassing analysts’ expectations by making the playoffs as a No. 4 seed in the East while proving that they can display a sense of stability they haven’t shown in a very long while.
This upcoming campaign for the Knicks, however, will be about proving whether or not they’ve got another level in them, one that would take them from being merely a solid playoff team to becoming a potential contender in the Eastern Conference.
Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Knicks campaign.
Returning: Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Mitchell Robinson, Taj Gibson, Luca Vildoza, Obi Toppin and Kevin Knox
Additions: Evan Fournier (Boston), Kemba Walker (Boston), Dwayne Bacon (Orlando), Quentin Grimes (Houston), Miles McBride (West Virginia), MJ Walker (Florida State), Aamir Simms (Clemson), Jericho Sims (Texas)
Departures: Frank Ntilikina (Dallas), Elfrid Payton (Phoenix), Reggie Bullock (Dallas), Norvel Pelle, Theo Pinson and Jared Harper (Birmingham Squadron)
* They will be a very tough defensive team yet again… In their first year with defensive guru Tom Thibodeau as head coach, the Knicks vaulted from the NBA’s 23rd-ranked defense (112.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) to giving up just 107.8 points per 100 possessions for the fourth-stingiest mark in the Association. And with the three-headed frontcourt monster of Nerlens Noel, Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson patrolling the paint, that number will likely remain just as strong next season.
* They have a head coach who gets the most out of them… Speaking of Thibodeau, the 63-year-old head coach is known for getting the most out of the talent he has available, as evidenced by his multiple deep playoff runs with the Chicago Bulls despite talent disadvantages, especially when Derrick Rose would get injured, and by the fact that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ lone postseason appearance in the last 17 seasons came with him at the helm. Thibodeau’s tenure with New York is seemingly following the same path, so those who believe the Knicks might see some significant win percentage drop-off in 2021-22 could to be in for a surprise.
* Their offseason pickups could give their middling offense a needed boost… Calling the Knicks’ offense in 2020-21 middling might even be kind, as the team ranked 26th in points per game (107.0) last season and 22nd in points scored per 100 possessions (110.2). So New York was savvy enough to address those concerns this offseason with the additions of French swingman Evan Fournier (17.1 points per game in 2020-21, 41.3 percent from three) and hometown hero Kemba Walker (19.3 points, 4.9 assists) at point guard. There are injury concerns surrounding Walker, but he’s just one campaign removed from his last All-Star nod while Fournier has proven to be an underrated wing scorer for years now, so the former Celtic duo could provide a much-needed boost to New York’s offense.
* They boast a deep perimeter rotation with a good mix of young players and proven pieces… New York’s backcourt is a solid blend of proven players – Fournier, Walker, Burks and Rose – and up-and-comers with great upside – Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett. It would be surprising if the Knicks’ offense, led mostly by its backcourt pieces, didn’t see a solid uptick in production in 2021-22.
*Though lacking in superstars, they have a lot of good, hard-working players… Led by a talented high-effort All-Star in Julius Randle and all the way down the lineup, the Knicks have a roster full of hard-workers who will help the team win games on nights opponents don’t feel like giving 100 percent effort from the tip.
*They have good playmakers outside of the point-guard spot… Fournier is underrated in his playmaking abilities, as although he’s a scorer first and foremost, he’s got solid court vision, boasting an assist rate of 18.6 percent last season. Randle, too, has blossomed into an impressive passer, especially for his position, posting an assist rate of 27.2 percent last year, the highest mark of his career.
*Have we already seen Randle’s peak? Without question, Randle had a spectacular 2020-21 season, averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.3 three-pointers over 71 games and ranking Top 10 league-wide in Value Over Replacement Player. He received his first All-Star nod and first 2nd Team All-NBA for his efforts. The question is: Will he be able to build upon that or is that Randle’s peak? If the answer is the latter (though that’s far from guaranteed considering how much he’s improved in recent seasons), that could be a problem for a Knicks team hoping to get past the first round next season.
*Health concerns surrounding Walker… New York’s biggest offseason pickup was undoubtedly acquiring Walker from the Celtics, who will likely slot in as the team’s starter at point guard… when healthy. Walker missed 29 games last season due to lingering knee troubles, and though that could be attributed to the quick turnaround between the last two seasons, there’s no question Walker did not look like himself in 2020-21. And for a Knicks team led by Thibodeau, who’s known for running his players somewhat ragged (Randle led the league in nightly minutes last year at 37.6), that could be an issue.
* Not much in terms of star power… The Knicks and Randle proved to be a perfect fit last season, with the former Kentucky standout becoming a legitimate star-level player in 2020-21. And Walker has made four All-Star teams himself. But if the former can’t maintain that awesome level of play next season or if the latter isn’t able to improve the health of his knees, that could leave New York seriously lacking in the star-power department. As is, even with Randle and Walker, the Knicks have fewer stars than a lot of their foes in the Eastern Conference, and it’s hard to envision them having the best player on the court in any playoff series, as evidenced last season by the defeats against the Atlanta Hawks in the postseason.
* Even with added pieces, they likely still won’t be an offensive juggernaut… Fournier and Walker are proven offensive weapons, but will the duo provide enough firepower to take a poor Knicks offense and turn it into even an average one? We have our doubts about that. Especially because even despite shooting 39.2 percent from three last season, the third-best mark in the league (albeit on the fourth-fewest nightly attempts), New York’s offense still ranked 22nd in efficiency. And the loss of sharpshooting Reggie Bullock won’t help matters, either.
* The Knicks roster should remain in place for the time being, especially since none of their six highest earners can be traded right now. With that said, there is a good chance the Knicks keep their nucleus intact throughout the entire season. Of course, if an All-Star becomes available they could get involved if they’re considered a serious suitor. Most of their roster becomes trade-eligible starting in December, so they will be ready to make an offer soon enough. The Knicks have $72 million in tradeable salaries this season between their eight highest-paid players not named Randle.
* In the short term, the only decisions they have left to make other than exercising next year’s team options on Barrett, Quickley and Obi Toppin, is whether or not to guarantee Vildoza for this season. His $3.3 million salary becomes fully guaranteed on opening night, and after a very limited showing in summer league, that decision may come after getting a look at him in training camp. They also still have a two-way slot to fill, which could come from one of their players on Exhibit 10 deals.
* Robinson is currently eligible for an extension worth up to $55.6 million over four years. Since the Knicks exercised his team option for this season, he will become an unrestricted free agent in 2022. This could incentivize them to extend him before the end of the season. A two-year deal that aligns his contract with the rest of the core could make sense. The Knicks won’t be losing any cap space since they’re capped out until at least 2023. They also must decide whether or not to extend Kevin Knox before the start of the regular season.
– Yossi Gozlan
4th in the Atlantic Division, 7th in the Eastern Conference