The New York Knicks are a better team on paper than they were last season when they shocked the basketball world and clinched the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference by going 41-31 in the regular season.
Granted, questions remain of exactly what time of team we saw in 2020-21. A high-intensity, defensively-stout team under Tom Thibodeau was a menace in the regular season — yet that intensity was matched and eclipsed by the Atlanta Hawks, who disposed of the Knicks in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
So, what kind of Knicks team will we see in a full season where they are no longer sneaking up on anyone?
Julius Randle, coming off a career season that included an All-Star Game selection, is still the centerpiece of this team. But he has much more help.
Team president Leon Rose might have very well, finally, found the Knicks’ franchise point guard that they had been so desperately searching for over the last two decades, signing Kemba Walker to a two-year deal.
The 31-year-old Bronx native might be on the downward slope of his prime years, but he’s the best point guard the Knicks have had since Stephon Marbury while offering an immense upgrade from Elfrid Payton. Walker has averaged 22.2 points and 5.4 assists per game over the past six seasons and he’ll be backed up by the veteran Derrick Rose — who continues his career renaissance in the Big Apple.
But the Knicks further boosted their backcourt by bringing on a veteran shooting guard to further stretch the offense in Evan Fournier, who is coming off a year in which he posted a career-best 41.3% clip from three-point range.
New York’s two big pickups suddenly provide much more depth along the roster. Veteran Alec Burks can rotate in behind Fournier while rookie Immanuel Quickley will be able to continue his development at the NBA level while not having high-pressure minutes saddled upon his shoulders.
This is going to be a big year for RJ Barrett as the Knicks’ small forward continues making strides to be the marquee player the organization hoped for when they drafted him third overall in 2019.
The 21-year-old showed an abundance of promise last season as an improved transition game and further-developing tenacity saw Barrett make considerable leaps in his second professional season, averaging 17.6 points per game while shooting 44.1% from the floor and 40.1% from three-point range.
Should he take that next step, the Knicks suddenly have an imposing trio amongst its ranks with Walker and Randle, who is the franchise’s power forward of the future.
It’s not often you see a player put it all together in his seventh season, but Randle did just that under Thibodeau — suggesting that the right environment was all the 26-year-old needed to flourish. Expectations are he’ll continue posting similar statlines to the one he put up last year, boasting career-bests with 24.1 points per game, along with 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per night. But there will be plenty of intrigue on his backup as second-year man Obi Toppin brings a high-flying alternative that could allow the Knicks to rest Randle after he led the league in minutes played last season.
All the while, the Knicks will be looking to get a full, healthy season out of center Mitchell Robinson, who could be one of the more threatening presences under the basket in the entire league. For a player who has only averaged 22.1 minutes per game over his first three seasons, his 2.1 blocks and 7.0 rebounds per game provide a promising base for monster interior numbers should he experience an increased workload.
Meanwhile, the Knicks will continue to try and unlock his offensive game, which would provide the promise of a devastating two-way player who is just 23 years old.
The Knicks did well to retain his support system as Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson will see plenty of time coming off the bench.
The Knicks are improved from last season, but others in the Eastern Conference got stronger. While the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are on an island all on their own, the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat are on that next tier beneath them. In a full season and with higher expectations, the Knicks aren’t going to be viewed as the same pushovers as they were perceived to be last season.
That doesn’t mean they’ll miss the playoffs, but it will be a rock fight to get there.
Eastern Conference predictions (after play-in tournament)
- Milwaukee Bucks (57-24)
- Brooklyn Nets (53-29)
- Philadelphia 76ers (51-31)
- Atlanta Hawks (49-33)
- Boston Celtics (47-35)
- Miami Heat (44-38)
- New York Knicks (43-39)
- Indiana Pacers (42-40)
Eastern Conference 1st Round
- Nets defeat Knicks