When the New York Knicks secured a No. 4 seed in the playoffs, the world was shocked. It was enough for Tom Thibodeau to win Coach of the Year because of how shocked the NBA world was. The Knicks hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013. Years of poor choices in free agency, and the draft, led to many years of dismal play.
Last year, the Knicks employed a starting lineup that employed Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson. The team brought into the defensive concept of Thibodeau and made the playoffs. The Knicks owned $50 million, the most in the NBA, and were ready to build off the momentum.
The offseason has been successful as three of last year’s starters return, with two major additions that can be seen as massive upgrades. With this new look Knicks starting lineup, the team could be ready for a deeper playoff run.
Point Guard - Kemba Walker
The Knicks used a combination of Payton and Immanuel Quickley last season. Walker will be an immediate upgrade for the Knicks in the scoring department. Despite a down year, Walker averaged 19.3 points per game, which was ranked 12th in the league among point guards. Last year, neither Payton nor Quickley was even close in the upper tier. It was Derrick Rose that led the Knicks point guard group with 14.7 per game, which ranked 27th.
Payton ranked 39th among all point guards. Players like Monte Morris and Jalen Brunson ranked higher, both backup point guards. The Knicks have a true starting point guard, that is a former All-Star when healthy. It was just two years ago that Walker averaged 25.6 points for the Hornets. If Walker can put the last two seasons of Boston behind him and provide even a scratch of his former self in Charlotte, the Knicks are in great shape.
Shooting Guard - Evan Fournier
The Knicks continued to build off the riches of the Celtics. Fournier, acquired by the Celtics at the trade deadline last year, saw a drop of scoring from 19.7 in Orlando to 13.0 in Boston in 16 games. With that said, Fournier’s three-point shooting jumped a whole 8%, shooting 46% from deep.
The Knicks built off a strength that they had from last season. The team was the third-best shooting team from three-point land (39.2%). The team was tied with the Brooklyn Nets, meaning that last year’s squad was just as good shooting outside as the likes of Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. Adding Fournier to the mix could help New York be close to the top.
Small Forward - RJ Barrett
Most prospects break out in their third season. In the past, Bam Adebayo made his first All-Star appearance his first year. De’Aaron Fox and John Collins each had their best overall season. Last year, we saw Deandre Ayton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Collin Sexton take off as well.
Barrett enters his third season after a terrific sophomore campaign. He averaged 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He shot 44.1% from the field and 40.1% from three-point lanes. Assuming that Barrett can develop his game further, it will make the team better. Not to mention, this will be the first time that Barrett has played with two former All-Stars. Who knows how much his game can take off now?
Power Forward - Julius Randle
Randle is the reigning Most Improved Player after making his first All-Star appearance in a season where he averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists. That included a 45.6% field goal percentage, while also shooting 41.1% from the field. With Fournier and Barrett on the team, that makes three legit outside shooters that shot over 40% from three-point range.
The fit with Thibs and Randle was unbelievably clear last year. The most defensive win shares Randle ever owned was 2.6, while with the Lakers. This past year, Randle finished with 4.8 defensive win shares, which tripled compared to his first year in New York. Randle was the team MVP last year, but now he has helped.
Center - Mitchell Robinson
For similar reasons to Barrett, we could see another climb to Robinson in his fourth year in the league. Robinson shot 74% from the field his rookie season. Then, despite an injury-prone season, Robinson shot 65.3% from the field, while averaging 8.3 points and 8.1 rebounds. When healthy, Robinson was the team’s primary rim protector.
Robinson should be considered the most interesting player to watch next year for the Knicks. Robinson, like Randle, is a clear fit with the regime. If Robinson can make a small jump to averaging a double-double, then the Knicks will be a scary team on both ends of the floor.
Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin, Nerlens Noel, Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox, Taj Gibson, Elfird Payton, Quentin Grimes, Frank Ntilikina, Jericho Sims
Last season, Payton was the team’s starting point guard. Now, he is the fourth-stringer. While that is not a ding on Payton, that is how much better the Knicks got with their roster. By the end of the season, Derrick Rose was the team’s best point guard. In the playoffs, he was the team’s best offensive player when Randle struggled. Now, Rose could be a contender for Sixth Man of the Year after seeing him buy into his role coming off the bench.
The Knicks also appear to be trying to run a replica of the Jazz with Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles. Alec Burks averaged 12.7 points and shot 41.5% from the three-point range. The combination of Rose and Burks makes the Knicks’ second unit stronger offensively. Also, you can’t forget about Quickley, who was an All-Rookie Second Team selection.
Bringing back Nerlens Noel was essential. The Knicks’ defensive unit didn’t skip a beat when Robinson was out for the season. Noel provides rim protection, which means that defensively, this team can keep pace with the first unit. Maybe asking for development from Kevin Knox is asking too much, but with Taj Gibson back in uniform, this team is potentially 10 players deep.
Are the Knicks a championship contender? It’s too premature to say that the Knicks are better than the Bucks, Nets, and 76ers. However, they didn’t get worse and the team made the playoffs as a No. 4 seed. With the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics getting better, not to mention the Hawks, who are coming off a Conference Finals appearance, the Knicks had to keep the pace.
The Knicks are a top-6 team and should figure to be in the playoffs. More importantly, basketball is fun in New York again. When was the last time fans were this excited before a season? The Eastern Conference is not the lesser conference by a wide margin anymore. The Knicks are competitive and should focus on winning a playoff series this year.
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