The Knicks head into the offseason after their finale on Sunday with a meager 37–45 record, leaving deflated fans yet-again bemoaning their beloved franchise.
“I feel as though it’s been a disappointing season from the standpoint of wins and losses,’’ said Knicks team President Leon Rose, in his first public comments since the season began.
The lackluster year came on the heels of a surprisingly good 2020-21 season, when the Knicks went 41–31, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They ultimately lost to the Atlanta Hawks in 5 games in the first round, but the regular season success, shepherded by first-year Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, gave a glimmer of hope for the team’s future, and set high expectations for this year.
But Thibodeau’s team fell flat in the coach’s second season, and the Knicks will once more only see postseason action through their television screens.
Julius Randle’s decline
Fans have shoveled much blame for the decline towards veteran power forward Julius Randle, who had a breakout year last season, before seeing significant declines in nearly every major statistical category.
The 27-year-old had recorded 24.1 points per game on 45.6% shooting last year, while dropping to just 20.1 points while going 41.1% from the field this year. He also saw notable year-over-year drops in 3-point percentage, rebounds, assists and free throw attempts.
“Last year everything went right. This year, things didn’t go right,” Rose told MSG Network. “It was just [him] not being comfortable. He gave it his best effort. The 3-point shot just didn’t go like last year, and you had teams keying on him more this year.”
Randle was the subject of much speculation at the trade deadline this year, with many NBA insiders speculating that he could be moved. Ultimately, the team kept their roster mostly in-tact.
Now, though, with a long offseason ahead, it’s possible that the team could look to move on from Randle, who will account for around $30 million each year through the 2025-26 season (the last year of his deal includes a player option).
The Thibodeau question
Despite the decline in the wins category, it appears that Thibodeau’s job is safe, and he will return to the Knicks bench as head coach next season.
The 64-year-old has been coaching in different positions in the NBA since 1989, and served as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, before securing the Knicks top job in the 2020 offseason.
Known league-wide as a defensive savant, the coach has garnered a reputation for pushing his players in games and in practice, while emphasizing a meticulous attention to every detail that has helped ingrain good tendencies in his younger players.
That has manifested itself in the increasingly solid play of the Knicks’ youthful core of players.
The young guns of MSG
While fans will be disappointed in the results of this season, there is room for some optimism in the performance of a handful of up-and-comers — namely RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, and Immanuel Quickley.
Barrett, 21, came to the Knicks as the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and almost-immediately became a fan favorite. The 6’6” wing from Duke University averaged 20 points per game this season, and continues to grow as a versatile offensive threat, while recording an impressive 5.8 rebounds each game.
“I watched a lot of films from his rookie year,” Thibodeau said last month. “He’s made great strides and I think he’ll continue to make great strides because of who he is and how he approaches it.’’
There are some notable places where Barrett needs to improve — particularly keeping his man in front of him while playing on-ball defense, and eliminating some of the more porous shots he’s been prone to take.
Still, at just 21, Barrett has much basketball ahead of him, and time to iron out the kinks in his game.
“We know the season didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we’re going to be working all summer and come back better next year,” Barrett told the crowd pregame at the Knicks’ Sunday night season finale.
Meanwhile, Toppin, who came to the team with much hype as the 8th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, showed flashes of what he could become down the stretch.
As a 6’9” power forward with many of the same skills as Randle, Toppin struggled to find enough playtime to develop his game properly enough. That changed, however, when a Randle injury forced the veteran to miss the team’s final 5 games, which gave Toppin a solid starting opportunity — and he delivered.
In that stretch with Randle gone, Toppin scored 27.2 points per game on 55.1% shooting, while securing 6.2 rebounds and getting to the line 4.4 times each contest.
The 24-year-old from the University of Dayton credited the starting-spot security for his “relaxed” play and stellar stretch of games.
“I definitely feel a little bit more relaxed now, knowing that I’m not coming out if I make a mistake,” Toppin said after scoring 35 points on April 8. “Having that opportunity is helping me a lot.”
In the team’s finale, Toppin scored a career-high 42 points, and secured 10 rebounds in the team’s win over the Toronto Raptors.
That same contest, Quickley also outperformed expectations — recording a 34-point triple-double, with 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
[READ ALSO: Toppin, Quickley explode to win Knicks finale]
Quickley, the 22-year-old point guard from the University of Kentucky, has been a big surprise for the Knicks, as he fell to 25th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, and came into his rookie year with limited expectations.
Since then, however, he’s shown that he can compete at a high level, and has consistently improved his game. The final 10 games of the season saw Quickley average 17.5 points, along with 6.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds.
The late-season explosion from Toppin and Quickley has dramatically altered the outlook for the Knicks’ coming offseason, and may make the team more willing to go all in on their young core.
That trio, combined with fellow youngsters Mitchell Robinson and Cam Reddish, not only give the team young depth, but also an arsenal of trade assets to wield going forward.
One more ray of hope for fans is the coming NBA Draft lottery, which determines the order of the draft. The Knicks, who had the 12th worst record this year, boast a 7.1% of securing a top-4 pick, and a 1.5% chance of receiving the #1 overall selection, when the ping-pong balls drop next month. In any case, the team will be selecting in the top-12, which could add even more youthful talent to the roster.
In the veteran market, meanwhile, the Knicks are almost always linked to any big-name player looking for a new team — though trades and free agency signings of marquee talent often fails to materialize for the franchise (see: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, etc.).
Still, NBA insiders continue to speculate, with names like Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, and Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans being tossed around in Knicks trade speculation.
Beal, an All-Star shooting guard known for high-powered offense, would be a perfect fit with Barrett, Toppin, Quickley and Robinson — though the team would likely have to part with at least 2 of them for the Wizards to seriously consider trading their star player.
Similarly, any trade for Mitchell or Williamson (or another player of their caliber) would force the team to break-up their roster and send significant assets to their trade partner, which, given the young guns’ recent success, they may be less inclined to do.
Still, the most likely Knick starter to exit the team this offseason figures to be Randle, though his declining play and high-dollar contract would almost-certainly not fetch a marquee player in return.
“We have to build one block at a time, be patient. We feel like we’re set up, you know, really well,” Rose said. “With regard to opportunities that may come along, we’re very flexible. We want to show patience, we want to show prudence in making those decisions and continuing to develop what we have.”