The Knicks tip-off their NBA season on Wednesday with a contest against the Grizzlies in Memphis, looking to improve upon their disappointing year last season, when they recorded a 37–45 record and missed out on playoff contention.
Most of New York’s notable players are returning this year, and they’ve added free agent point guard Jalen Brunson in the offseason.
Brunson, they hope, will finally give the Knicks an undisputed number-one option at the point guard position, which they’ve been missing for several years.
Meanwhile, RJ Barrett, the former third-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, signed a four-year contract extension worth up to $120 million — so the fan-favorite forward will be back for the foreseeable future.
After considering several blockbuster trades (most notably for former-Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell), the team opted to avoid sending out a large package of draft picks and young players.
That means the young group of Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Quinten Grimes and more will also be back on the bench at Madison Square Garden.
Now, let’s look at some of the biggest questions and most important concerns the Knicks have as they look to return to playoff contention from two seasons ago.
Integrating Jalen Brunson
Perhaps the biggest factor that will determine the Knicks’ success this season is whether Jalen Brunson will fit with the rest of the roster, and grow into the All-Star caliber player that his talent level suggests he can be.
The Knicks scooped-up Brunson after he spent his first four NBA years with the Dallas Mavericks, and signed a four-year, $104 million contract to head to MSG.
In the playoffs last season, Brunson recorded a solid 21.6 points, 3.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game in 18 matchups — and looked like he was finally checking-off all the boxes he needed to in order to become a true number-one option.
The Knicks seem like a logical place for him to land — his dad, Rick Brunson, is an assistant coach on the team; he has a lifelong relationship with head coach Tom Thibedeau; and team president Leon Rose was previously Brunson’s agent. That should make Brunson feel right at home.
Last year, the Knicks relied heavily on Julius Randle to be a ball distributor (which is not his greatest strength), and they lacked a pass-first point guard. Now, Brunson steps into that role, and has the potential to become an All-Star in his first year wearing blue and orange.
If he can unlock his natural abilities, and hone his skill set, Brunson should make a major impact for the team right away. If not, the team could be facing another year of disappointing mediocrity.
RJ Barret’s growth
Heading into his fourth season in the NBA, RJ Barrett finds himself at a pivotal place in his young career.
The 22-year-old, who stands at 6’6” and weighs 214 pounds, looked dominant in the preseason, having clearly worked on his strength and conditioning. With up-and-coming stars usually seeing a big boost in their fourth year, fans should be keeping an eye on him.
Barrett has improved in most statistical categories every year — ending last year with 20 points, 2.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game.
“Every year I’ve been getting better,” he said earlier in the offseason. “There’s no better time than now.”
His career 41.8% field goal rate, and 35.7% from three, needs work, but if he can bump those numbers up further, an get closer to 25 points per contest, he has the chance to be a true All-NBA player, and potentially the leader of the Knicks franchise for years to come.
Which Julius Randle shows up?
Power forward Julius Randle has been the moral leader of the team, and brings constant intensity to the lineup each night. Yet, last year saw his on-court production decline from a breakout season the previous year, when he led the Knicks to their first playoff series in several years.
He declined from 24.1 to 20.1 points, 6 to 5.1 assists, and 10.2 to 9.2 rebounds year-over-year over the past two seasons, while seeing his field goal percentage decline from 45.6% to 41.1%. Randle also took less three pointers, while seeing them go in the basket at a lesser rate.
Most troublingly, he simply did not look as explosive in any aspect of his game last season.
Fans constantly debate whether his 2020-21 season was an outlier, or if he simply had a down year in 2021-22. Answering that question will be a huge determining factor in the coming season.
Behind 27-year-old Randle on the depth chart, Obi Toppin has a similar frame and overlapping skillsets, while being three years younger. If Randle’s play declined even further, there will certainly be a push among observers to give some of his minutes over to Toppin.
Thibedeau is committed to Randle to begin the season, but how long of a leash he will have remains an open question.
The logjam at shooting guard
With Brunson slated to take the starting point guard role, and Barrett a shoe-in at small forward, that leaves just one opening in the starting backcourt, with several different possibilities to fill it.
Thibedeau played veteran three-point specialist Evan Fournier at starting shooting guard during the preseason, but still seems poised to give significant minutes to guards Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes.
This remains the biggest and most important question about the distribution of minutes at any position on the floor for the Knicks this upcoming season.
Many fans would like to see the younger two of that group, 23-year-old Quickly and 22-year-old Grimes get minutes, but Thibedeau has a tendency to play his veterans (in this case, Rose and Fournier) more than the young guns.
Fournier brings the best shooting, while Quickley is likely the best defender. Rose and Grimes, meanwhile, bring stellar ball handling — so Thibedeau may proceed on an as-needed basis. But it is certainly something to watch going forward.
Probable depth chart
- PG: Jalen Brunson/Derrick Rose
- SG: Evan Fournier/Immanuel Quickley/Quintin Grimes
- SF: RJ Barrett/Cam Reddish
- PF: Julius Randle/Obi Toppin
- C: Mitchell Robinson/Isaiah Hartenstein