The only thing worse than being abysmal is being abysmal without a plausible path to improvement. In the summer of 2019, that’s exactly where the Knicks appeared to be: coming off a 17-win campaign—the worst record in the NBA that season and tied for the worst in franchise history—with their fever dreams of a superstar-filled summer haul splintering into the nightmarish reality of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, and Zion Williamson all winding up elsewhere.
Another trip to the plate in free agency ended with another strikeout and another aimless roster, replete with bridge-loan power forwards. It set the table for another sub-.500 season, and left New York fans wondering when something resembling a real road map to relevance might come into view. Things can change fast in the NBA, though. Two summers later, a Knicks regime led by new president of basketball operations Leon Rose looks to have sketched out what had eluded James Dolan’s club for most of the previous two decades: an honest-to-goodness plan.
New York took step one last season, with hard-charging head coach Tom Thibodeau and out-of-the-blue All-Star Julius Randle leading the Knicks on a shocking rise to the East’s no. 4 seed. An unceremonious five-game exit at the hands of the Hawks still stings, but didn’t erase the good vibes of the organization’s first playoff appearance in eight years, the on-court progress that produced it, or the hope for greater gains for a club that owned a pair of first-round picks in the 2021 NBA draft and some $50 million in salary cap space to spend in free agency.
Step two, though, came when Rose and Co. zagged, slow-played the summer, and proceeded with patience. After years of chasing quick fixes and salivating over a series of would-be saviors, the Knicks continued to go about the basic, boring, big-picture business of building their roster—and, in the process, putting themselves in position to get better in both the short and long term.
In the early hours of free agency, New York’s moves mostly floated somewhere between underwhelming and concerning. Three years and $30 million for Alec Burks seemed fine; when healthy, he was one of the few 2020-21 Knicks capable of creating shots off the dribble and knocking down 3-pointers. Three years and $32 million for Nerlens Noel? Hmm: Seems like a lot for a guy who might not be your starting center if Mitchell Robinson is healthy, but New York soared last season thanks to 48 minutes of elite rim protection, Noel was a season-saving presence after Robinson went down, and he’s still only 27. OK, sure, I get it.
Three years and $43 million for Derrick Rose? Hoo boy. Yes, Rose was a godsend for the offense-starved Knicks after his acquisition—New York scored 4.4 more points per 100 possessions with the former league MVP on the court than off it, according to Cleaning the Glass, scoring like a top-10 offense during his minutes and like a bottom-five unit when he sat—and he was by far the team’s most reliable shot-creating option against Atlanta in the playoffs. But more than $14 million a year for an about-to-turn-33-year-old sixth man who misses significant time every season? That seems a bit st—wait a second, four years and $78 million for Evan Fournier??? OK. Wow. Sure, he was a pretty good secondary scorer and playmaker in Orlando, but … I mean … nearly $20 million a year for a complementary non-All-Star whose top accolade is “a pretty good secondary scorer and playmaker in Orlando”? That’s the big splash?
At first glance, it looked like the Knicks had eagerly fit themselves for a straitjacket. Not only had they agreed to deals that would vaporize their cap space for the next three seasons; they did so by overpaying players who had outperformed low-money contracts. They did so without bringing in an upgrade for free-agent point guard Elfrid Payton, whom Thibodeau trusted as a steady hand and solid defensive stopper, but who proved more often than not to be a millstone; the Knicks’ other four starters (Randle, Noel, RJ Barrett, and Reggie Bullock) were outscored when they shared the floor with Payton, but blew opponents’ doors off when Rose, Burks, or rookie Immanuel Quickley were on the ball in Payton’s place. And they did so without maintaining the financial flexibility to continue to add more talent next summer.
As the reporting evolved, though, so too did our understanding of how tightly New York might be constricted, and what sorts of escape routes Rose had left himself. As it turns out, Noel, Burks, Rose, and Fournier all have team options for the final seasons of their deals, giving the Knicks multiple avenues to gain meaningful cap relief sooner should the need arise.
And as it turns out, there was an answer to the point guard problem. The Knicks were able to scoop up Kemba Walker the second he reached a buyout agreement with Oklahoma City, importing the Bronx native and Rice High School legend, who is just two seasons removed from an All-NBA selection and one away from an All-Star nod, for the reported bargain rate of about $8 million per year over two seasons.
Banking on the 31-year-old Walker fully returning to All-Star form is a bit dicey, thanks to persistent left-knee issues that cost him 45 games over his two years in Boston. Even the limited version of Walker that suited up for the Celtics in 2020-21, though—the one that averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists in 31.8 minutes per game, and shot 36 percent from 3-point land on 8.2 attempts a night—would represent a dramatic offensive improvement over Payton. Combine that with the addition of Fournier—who’s neither as good a perimeter defender nor quite as dependable a catch-and-shoot marksman as the outgoing Bullock, but has way more shake to his game—and New York’s new backcourt boasts a significantly higher level of off-the-bounce firepower.
Both Walker and Fournier will demand much more respect from defenses than Payton or Bullock did with a live dribble. They should both provide high-level partners in the screen game for dive-threat bigs like Robinson, Noel, and 2020 no. 8 pick Obi Toppin: Walker finished in the 90th percentile or better in points produced per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler in three of the past four seasons, according to Synergy Sports’ tracking, and Fournier has landed in the 70th percentile or higher in three of the past five. They’re also both legitimate threats to pull up from deep—Kemba made more pull-up 3s (82) than any member of the Knicks did last season, and Fournier (52) would’ve ranked second behind Quickley—or to put the ball on the deck and drive to the rim to create opportunities for themselves or their teammates. (Fournier registered nearly seven times as many drives per game last season as the dribble-averse Bullock.)
Any defensive attention they draw necessarily reduces the burden on Randle, who flourished as a top scorer and facilitator in Thibodeau’s system, and Barrett, who made major across-the-board strides as a sophomore. Both stand to benefit greatly from the introduction of two more teammates who can make defenses pay for packing the paint, whose shooting could open up cleaner driving lanes, and whose playmaking acumen could get them some easy buckets they don’t have to create themselves. And when Randle and Barrett initiate the drive-and-kick game themselves, they’ll now be flanked by lethal spot-up targets: Fournier has shot 40 percent or better on catch-and-shoot 3s in four of the past six seasons, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, and Walker has knocked down 40 percent or more in five of the past six.
On top of that: After the Walker signing, news broke that Randle didn’t want to wait until after next season for a new deal. Instead, the All-NBA forward chose to reap the rewards of his remarkable turnaround right now, locking in a four-year contract extension worth up to $117 million—a mammoth deal, to be sure, but one that still comes in well below the five-year, $207 million max he may have been able to command from New York in unrestricted free agency next summer (or the four-year, $153 million max he could’ve sought from another suitor).
It’s possible that the ceiling of this year’s Knicks will still be determined primarily by whether/how much Randle tapers off after his still-bonkers 24-10-6 season, and by whether/how much the young guys—chiefly Barrett, but also Robinson, Quickley, and Toppin, who showed flashes late in the season—improve in their second seasons under Thibodeau. Squaring away Randle’s contract situation through the balance of his prime, revamping the backcourt in a way that should jolt last season’s 24th-ranked offense, and ensuring some continuity—a rare thing at Madison Square Garden this millennium—by returning the core of the stabilizing second unit could help mitigate any slippage, and even improve upon last season’s finish. But there’s absolutely a scenario in which replacing Payton and Bullock with Walker and Fournier will send New York’s defense dipping from top five toward the middle of the pack, and the Knicks fall from last season’s 47ish-win pace to .500 or worse, and wind up scuffling for the play-in rather than fighting for home court.
This probably shouldn’t be seen as a major step back—nobody expected the Knicks to be anywhere near that good last season—but it would be, which is the price of being ahead of schedule. Even so, though, New York should be at worst competent—a major shift from most Knicks teams of recent vintage—and, perhaps more importantly, well positioned to take Step No. 3 in the rebuilding plan: actually landing that coveted signature star, not in free agency, but in trade.
All of the Knicks’ signings came on the kind of priced-to-move deals—ESPN’s Bobby Marks reports that the Knicks now have seven players in line to make between $9 million and $23 million—that are vital if you’re looking to aggregate salary to match the price tag of an incoming star in a trade. Only Randle’s extension added any guaranteed salary beyond 2024, ensuring that the outgoing star’s incumbent team, if it wanted to pivot to a rebuild, wouldn’t have to commit to any long-term financial outlay.
New York also still owns all of its own future draft picks, and still controls two additional first-round selections—the Hornets’ 2022 no. 1 from the draft-night deal that landed Kai Jones in Charlotte, and the Mavericks’ 2023 first, from the Kristaps Porzingis deal—and six extra seconds over the next few seasons. And after a bunch of draft-night maneuvering, New York added three more low-priced prospects—guards Quentin Grimes, Deuce McBride, and Rokas Jakubaitis, and big man Jericho Sims—to join Barrett, Robinson, Quickley, Toppin, and Argentine guard Luca Vildoza in an increasing group of youngsters who could either serve as trade ballast or provide extra depth following a megadeal.
A few weeks ago, it was a virtual certainty that the Knicks couldn’t offer the best trade package for a star on the order of Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal should one of those players want out. Maybe that’s still true. With the sorts of packages they could now present, though—quality present-day NBA players, rookie-scale prospects of varying levels of intrigue, a full complement of future first-rounders—maybe it’s not.
For the time being, New York will just go ahead and try to be as good as possible with a likable young roster that’s more talented than any it has presented in nearly a decade. If an opportunity for a bigger swing arises, though, this iteration of the Knicks now has a demonstrably clearer road map to an all-in superstar trade, and maybe enough ammunition to get it done. It’s the kind of normal, patient, prudent brand of management that Dolan’s franchise has been utterly unable to produce for eons, and now, it seems, it’s finally here. There’s a plausible path—more than one—and a new suite of possibilities. Two summers ago, all Knicks fans had were nightmares. Now, though, the dreaming starts anew.