By Jake Fischer
Noah K. Murray/Associated Press
Even with limited-capacity seating, Madison Square Garden is buzzing following a nine-game winning streak, which has the 34-27 Knicks sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference, very much eying home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Such a revitalization has naturally sparked conversation on whether James Dolan’s franchise can finally attract star players.
To be sure, they already have the attention of several players, including LeBron James and Zion Williamson:
“I mean, New York is the Mecca of basketball,” Williamson told reporters last Sunday following the Pelicans’ 122-112 loss to the Knicks. “I love playing here. I played here in college. This is my first time playing in the pros. I mean, this atmosphere, whether they’re cheering for you, whether booing for you, it’s amazing. Honestly, I think—outside of New Orleans, obviously—I think this might be my favorite place to play.”
This is not to start the clock on Williamson’s tenure with the Pelicans. But back in 2019, most league personnel polled believed both he and fellow Duke product RJ Barrett preferred to land in New York.
A new front office—spearheaded by noted former player agent Leon Rose—has since executed patient transactions, mixed with a successful hiring of Tom Thibodeau. It’s only fair to wonder what that combination can produce this offseason when roughly $50 million in cap space becomes available, even accounting for Julius Randle’s $19.8 million option.
How the Knicks will operate still appears undetermined. New York has found this level of progress largely by hitting singles instead of swinging for home runs.
The Knicks were never significantly involved in Russell Westbrook trade talks with Houston, sources said. Ditto for any Fred VanVleet contract discussions, despite the rampant speculation revolving around both guards.
New York could have chased a big name like DeMar DeRozan, Victor Oladipo or Lonzo Ball ahead of the trade deadline. Instead, executives chose to operate as a third team in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia’s swap of George Hill, essentially acquiring two second-round picks for Austin Rivers.
Yet there is some cohort of Knicks decision-makers who are eager to build on this ensuing playoff appearance, sources said, and will push to add more impactful talent for next year’s postseason run. “Now the goal posts have been moved,” one person with knowledge of the situation said. “Thibs isn’t going to want to rebuild. He has a lot of power, and there’s some momentum.”
A middle ground does exist. The Knicks will surely pick up Randle’s option. They could then bring back Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel on one-year deals and find a hefty single-season agreement with a true floor general such as Kyle Lowry. Word among league personnel suggests Lowry is looking for a longer contract this summer, but the All-Star point guard does have a recent history of accepting big-money one-year offers, as he did with Toronto before the 2020-21 campaign ($31 million).
No matter the outcome, it appears New York’s maneuvering will stem from the team’s ultimate evaluation of Randle. The Knicks, at least briefly, did consider the notion of moving Randle at the deadline, sources said, when the first-time All-Star’s trade value may have reached its peak. If a 30-year-old Nikola Vucevic netted two first-round picks and more for Orlando, what would some interested suitor have paid for a 26-year-old forward just approaching his prime?
There is some skepticism around the league about Randle’s improved outside shooting. His three-point shooting percentages spiked 27.7 to 41.6 year over year, one of the greatest jumps in NBA history. Clearly it’s something to celebrate, but will that number be repeatable?
Randle has thrived under Thibodeau after a summer in which multiple Knicks staffers highlighted Randle’s increased work ethic and skill development. By all accounts, he has fully embraced the role of New York’s leader by example, especially within Thibodeau’s blue-collar culture. He’s even excelled as a distributor, averaging 5.8 assists per 36 minutes this season. And it seems he may receive numerous accolades along with it.
“Everyone knew Randle was a good player, but nobody thought he could be the best player on a playoff team,” one assistant general manager said. “Now I’d vote for him second-team All-NBA, and there’s no question he should be Most Improved.”
Thibodeau is all but destined for a top-three finish in Coach of the Year as well. After his demanding style wore out its welcome in Chicago and Minnesota, he has focused more on teaching his brand of dogged defense in New York rather than barking the instructions, sources said. The Knicks in turn have ranked top five in defensive efficiency for much of the season and currently stand fourth overall, according to NBA.com.
Mixing in the player development prowess of former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne has added a perfect counterbalance to Thibodeau’s approach, sources said. Thibodeau has placed a greater emphasis on putting players in more advantageous positions rather than simply plugging them into his scheme. Randle, for example, hardly ever gets dragged into pick-and-roll situations, where he was often burned as a Pelican and Laker.
All the above has certainly caught the eye of onlooking agents. “If you wanted to be part of a good organization and win, you couldn’t possibly send anyone there [before this year]. And that’s changed with Thibs and Kenny,” one player representative said. “Even in the draft, if we had someone who wanted to go there and was maybe an immature kid and needed good people around them to grow them as a pro, you couldn’t send him there.”
If New York decides to aggressively pitch a premier free agent this offseason, DeRozan would seem to fit the mold of a player receptive to Thibodeau’s culture. The Spurs’ swingman is believed to have an interest in returning to the Eastern Conference, sources said, and there is plenty of scoring opportunity open in the Knicks’ rotation.
Thibodeau also covets Trail Blazers swingman Norman Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option in 2021-22, sources said. And there are many Lonzo Ball supporters within the Knicks’ front office who will likely lobby to sign New Orleans’ point guard to an offer sheet.
There’s also a wild card to keep an eye on. “It’s hard to ignore the Leon-Chris Paul connection,” another player agent said. While Paul has helped guide the Suns to the upper echelon of the West, the All-Star has a $44.2 million player option for next season. Before he was moved to Phoenix, Paul was said to have considered being traded to New York from Oklahoma City, although the ongoing pandemic purportedly derailed that possibility from becoming a reality.
“He was saying the Knicks were an option, but, you know, if he was going to New York, he wanted the full Knick experience,” former player Matt Barnes told Sirius XM in November. “Meaning he wanted the fans, he wanted the essence, he wanted the ambiance of that Madison Square Garden crowd. And going there now, we don’t know if that crowd will ever be back.”
Paul also joined a ready-made contender in Phoenix, slotting alongside Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and the Suns’ slew of two-way wings. League personnel are not nearly as bullish on this current Knicks core, even with all of New York’s success.
Mitchell Robinson will assuredly seek a lucrative new contract when he reaches free agency after the 2021-22 season, although his injury history is expected to cloud any extension conversations with the Knicks. Robinson’s most recent issue—a fractured foot in March—pushed New York to make an increased effort to bring in Andre Drummond, sources said, before the center chose the Lakers on the buyout market.
For all of Barrett’s success this season, there remains doubt among NBA talent evaluators about the ceiling for both his shooting and playmaking. Immanuel Quickley has won his share of supporters around Manhattan, although some league personnel believe he’ll top out as a good reserve guard. “He’s Lou Williams,” one Eastern Conference official said.
And then there’s Obi Toppin, the rookie forward from Dayton who has seen only 11.1 minutes per game this season. The Knicks were long considered Toppin’s likely landing spot at No. 8 in the 2020 draft, largely credited by many around the league to yet another CAA-New York connection. But the combination of Randle’s star turn plus Thibodeau’s allergy to playing rookies bigger minutes has left Toppin with limited opportunities to develop this season. His own struggles with injury have also played a notable factor.
How New York handles Toppin this summer may reveal the Knicks’ newest line of roster construction. “They’re gonna have to trade Obi this summer,” the assistant GM said. “You can’t really play him and Randle together. There’s no runway for him to be successful there.”
If the Knicks move their two first-rounders and Toppin to jump up in the draft, that would signal a continuation of this recently measured approach. Perhaps they’ll continue adding placeholder one-year salaries while waiting for the star-rich 2022 free agency class.
But if New York does move on from Toppin in a different fashion? “Obviously his value’s been down,” the assistant GM said. “But maybe you package Obi and their two late firsts for a Thibs player…”
Then, we’ll know just how far the Knicks’ goal posts have actually shifted.