Knicks Poised to Take Further Step Forward

Season Preview: Knicks Poised to Take Further Step Forward this Season

After ending their long playoff drought last season, the New York Knicks go into this new season with renewed optimism. New York’s front office had a strong offseason, particularly in Free Agency. Focusing on surrounding All-Star forward Julius Randle with scoring help and playmaking as a priority. By adding Evan Fournier, and acquiring 4-time All-star point guard Kemba Walker, they have added scoring and shot-making. President Leon Rose and GM Scott Perry have so far shown a proclivity to being prudent and aggressive without being reckless in their rebuilding efforts. They are also following a clear plan of building around Thibodeau’s system. With these additions, the Knicks appear poised to take a further step forward this season. We’ll preview the season ahead, and look at their strengths, question marks, and a season prediction for the year.

Strengths

Offensively New York ranked 22nd in overall offense last season. Carried almost solely offensively by Julius Randle’s¬†All-NBA year to help them to the playoffs. His incredible season gained recognition to the point he won Most Improved Player honors. However, their lack of offense came to haunt them against the Atlanta Hawks where Randle crumbled upon Atlanta’s defensive focus on him, and the lack of options around him. While Derrick Rose did his best to keep them alive in the series, it was not sustainable to avoid a series defeat in five games.

Thus, the focus this offseason was to get better help around Randle while maintaining continuity. They appear to have done this with some astute additions. Namely Evan Fournier, and Kemba Walker.

Evan Fournier

Fournier adds a sniper-like ability from range at the wing spot. He shot 46% from 3 in his short stint at the Boston Celtics last season. His biggest improvement over the departing Reggie Bullock is Fournier’s ability to create his own shot. He can create off the dribble, can score from range unassisted. He is also an underrated ball-handler, averaging 3.7 assists last season. Riding high after his silver medal for France at the Olympics, he put up 18 points per game to carry France at the Olympics. Fournier is a smart addition as a wing upgrade.

Kemba Walker

Poised for a big year (health permitting), Bronx native Walker, is a 4-time all-star with Charlotte and Boston. He grew up a Knicks fan and is beloved in his home city where he was a star at High School in Harlem, going to college at UConn. Drafted by Charlotte, he became one of the best point guards in the NBA earning the name ‘Cardiac Kemba’ with his ability to destroy defenses off the dribble and score.

Kemba looks a perfect fit for the Knicks, on a huge discount. Bought out by OKC after Boston traded him due to fears over his left knee, New York got him for around $9-million annually for two years. He’s looked healthy and effective overall in early pre-season wins for the Knicks.

Having been Fournier’s teammate in Boston, they should fit seamlessly together in the starting lineup. He can create off the pick and roll for Julius Randle and provide open looks for promising rising star RJ Barrett. With Rose coming back on a 3-year deal, the Knicks appear to have their deepest point guard rotation in a number of years. With these additions, the Knicks appear poised to take a further step forward towards another playoff spot. Kemba is a comeback candidate in the NBA this year.

Strength: Continuity and Work-Rate

One of the key aspects to the Knicks’ surprise success last season was their chemistry and work-rate under coach Tom Thibodeau. They simply outworked their opponents, especially on the defensive end. They forged real chemistry, endearing them to their home fans. With this in mind, New York’s front office focused again on maintaining that continuity this offseason. By bringing back Alec Burks, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and Nerlens Noel, they brought back much of the core from last season’s team.

Due to the injury struggles of Mitchell Robinson, Thibodeau leaned heavily on Gibson and Noel at the center position. Both players impressing with their smarts and leadership on the defensive end.

Rose also brought valuable mentorship last year and Burks bringing versatility and leadership. As for the rest of the roster, RJ Barrett is a true workhorse. He was among the lead leaders in minutes and works hard at his game, an attribute that coach Thibodeau really values. Immanuel Quickley is another gym rat along with draftees Grimes and McBride, who are also high-character guys. Julius Randle is a true leader in every respect and a tireless worker.

Notice a trend here? New York has built a team of workers, and guys known for being leaders on and off the court. This will continue to be one of their strengths if the Knicks truly are poised to take a further step forward.

Strength: Coach Thibodeau and his Focus on Defense and Development

He’s a coach who demands a lot, but with that intensity, more often than not garners special results from his team. Much of the Knicks’ successes last season can be attributed to him. He improved the team markedly almost overnight to a playoff team winning him Coach of the Year honors.

He along with his assistants, most notably Johnnie Bryant and Kenny Payne have done sterling work developing a number of players on the team. Bryant, a former mentor for Damian Lillard, and Payne are respected around the league in terms of player development.

Thibodeau’s trademark is his defensive system. In 2019/20 the Knicks were ranked a dismal 23rd on defense. After Thibodeau took over, he propelled them to 4th overall on defense, also leading the league in several defensive categories. This should continue to be a staple for the team moving forward.

Reggie Bullock leaving may affect their defense somewhat, as Fournier and Walker aren’t the best defenders. However, retaining the anchor of their defense Nerlens Noel should help maintain a strong defense on the floor on most nights.

Strength: Depth at Key Spots

New York has to feel really good about the depth in this team going into the year. Especially in the backcourt. With the draft selections of Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride, the Knicks got perfect fits for Thibodeau’s style. Gritty, hard-nosed defenders who both shot over 40% from 3-point range. McBride was particularly impressive in Summer League. One or both should see a spot in the rotation through the year.
Another Summer League standout Obi Toppin is a strong backup for Julius Randle, his game improved markedly towards the end of last season, despite limited minutes due to Randle’s heavy usage.

Burks is likely to back up RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier at the wing, and Rose will be backing up Kemba Walker at the point. Health permitting, New York will have two rim-protectors rotating in Robinson and Noel. Thibodeau has plenty of solid role players for the season ahead.

Question: Can They Stay Healthy?

Much of the Knicks’ successes is predicated on health first and foremost. Especially in the case of Kemba. When healthy, there is little doubt he is an elite guard in this league, but with a knee problem such as his, it remains a major question mark. Especially as it was this reason which primarily forced Boston to cut ties with him.

Derrick Rose at age 33, also has a troublesome knee. New York is relying on the two to carry them both over the age of 30 and to play major minutes at the game’s most important position. The Knicks front office must feel it’s a risk worth taking considering their talent. Rose stayed mostly healthy last season, and as long as stays in the 20-25 minute range he should remain as effective as he was last season.

As for Kemba, the initial signs in pre-season look positive for a breakout year. If the Knicks wish to take the next step, they will need him to remain healthy for much of the year.

Mitchell Robinson continues to be a large question mark. When healthy he’s the young rim-protector and defensive lynchpin the Knicks need. However, he’s so far been unable to stay on the court due to several injuries. Playing just 31 games last year, missing their entire stretch run due to a broken foot. He’s not been on the court as yet in the preseason, but reports suggest he is progressing towards a return. Eligible for an extension at the end of this season, this is his prove-it season. No doubt the Noel signing was the Knicks insurance policy.

 Question: Regular Season or Post-Season Randle?

Few around the league foresaw Randle propelling himself into one of the very best players in the entire NBA last season. After a difficult first year in Orange and Blue, he followed it up by setting franchise records this past year. There were few players in the league who meant more to their franchise than Randle did for the Knicks.

However, as mentioned earlier, he struggled in the playoffs badly. He may have felt the weight of expectations on his shoulders or tried to force things for his team. Either way, he didn’t look himself. Much of it may be attributed to Atlanta keying in on him and forcing him into tough shots or pass out of double teams. Even so, the question remains whether the regular season is the real Randle, or was the playoff struggles a concern to watch for?

It may be too early to rush to judgments in a short sample size like a playoff series. He’s earned the trust that a larger sample size was more representative. Plus, with an improvement in talent and shooting around him, there will be less of a load to carry which will be beneficial for him. Randle signed an extremely reasonable 4 year $117 million extension, a discount to allow the Knicks the flexibility to build around him and continue to upgrade the roster. With better talent around him, the Knicks should be poised to take a further step forward.

Season Prediction: 6th in Eastern Conference, Automatic Playoff Spot

Despite finishing 4th in the Eastern Conference last year, it would still be viewed as a step forward if they are to maintain a top 6 spot, avoiding a play-in tournament. This is due to the increased competition around them.

Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia are extremely strong. Miami particularly had a strong offseason. The Milwaukee Bucks are coming off an NBA title, and the Brooklyn Nets remain formidable. Even despite the daily issues surrounding Kyrie Irving. Chicago and the Celtics will also be in the latter playoff spot contention. This will be an extremely competitive conference.

For the Knicks, if they can be dominant on their home floor and garner a healthy year from Rose and Walker, they should feel positive. The Knicks are also big-game hunters. They remain in the market for a disgruntled superstar if one becomes available. Even without a trade, fans have to feel excited about their team this year. Early signs suggest the Knicks are poised to take a further step forward this season. Perhaps even a large step.

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