Knicks

Draft Will Hint at Knicks’ Plan to Leave Purgatory

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Just when things started looking up for the Knicks, basketball disappointment returned to New York.

Last year, the Knicks finished 41-31 during the pandemic-shortened season. The team rallied behind new coach Tom Thibodeau, All-NBA breakout Julius Randle, and the third-best defense in the league.

It was their best winning season since 2013.

New York clinched the No. 4 seed in the East before Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks eliminated them in a gentleman’s sweep. But after a near decade of mediocrity, the Knicks were hoping to build more momentum this past season. 

Instead, New York crashed back down to Earth.

They went just 37-45 on the year, taking a major step back on defense without much improvement on offense.

New York Knicks Offensive and Defensive Ratings

  • 2020-21 Offensive Rating: 110.6 (23rd in the league)
  • 2021-22 Offensive Rating: 110.4 (22nd in the league)
  • 2020-21 Defensive Rating: 108.2 (3rd in the league)
  • 2021-22 Defensive Rating: 110.5 (11th in the league)

Since New York’s 2013 Conference Semifinals appearance, the team has been in absolute free fall. The Knicks have had seven-different coaches in nine seasons and just one playoff appearance. 

They can still return to the playoffs next year despite a disappointing 2022 season, however. 

A crucial year for the Knicks’ offseason begins next week with the 2022 NBA Draft. Their decisions there will hint at how the franchise plans to move forward.

Knicks’ Needs

New York desperately needs some help on the offensive end of the court. The team finished in the bottom-five in the league in field goals made, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and assists this past season.

The Knicks don’t have a point guard who can run the offense or fit well next to Randle or youngster R.J. Barrett offensively. Randle (5.1 APG) was the only player to finish with at least five assists per game. The rest of the Knicks’ guards need the ball in their hands to be effective but are mainly score-first options that struggle defensively.

In the draft, there are not so many options available to patch up some of the team’s offensive woes. The Knicks have selection No. 11.

Per The Lead’s 2022 Mock Draft, New York is expected to take guard Ochai Agbaji out of Kansas.

Agbaji shot nearly 41% from three while showcasing potential as a switchable defender. He is an older prospect that could be a win-now player for a team looking to return to the postseason.

The Knicks could also draft G-League Ignite’s Dyson Daniels. Daniels averaged 4.4 assists and demonstrated his ability to play on and off the ball. Daniels could fit in coach Thibodeau’s defensive scheme. He shot under 26% from three, however, and could be more of a long-term development project for the team.

New York could also select combo-wing Malaki Branham out of Ohio State. Branham shot nearly 42% from three and could easily fit next to Randle and Barrett. Like Daniels, Branham is young and needs time to develop.

They could also use some help on defense, however. Starting center Mitchell Robinson could hit unrestricted free agency this summer.

Meanwhile, Nerlens Noel played just 25 games this past season, and third-string center Taj Gibson will turn 37 the day after the draft.

New York could take Duke’s Mark Williams as Robinson insurance if he walks. Williams could excel as a rebounder, shot-blocker and post-defender. Thibodeau typically plays another center next to Randle to cover up for him on defense.

Memphis’ Jalen Duren also fits the mold as a defensive-minded rim-roller that could easily slide into Thibodeau’s scheme.

The Knicks can either double down on what worked in 2021 or focus more on offense at the expense of defense.

Regardless, there are plenty of options to improve the team with the 11th pick in this year’s draft.

How New York’s Free Agency Situation Impacts Team’s Draft Plan

The Knicks don’t have much to do in free agency, but there are some decisions still to be made.

Several teams are reportedly interested in Robinson. New York has the ability to go over the cap to re-sign him. Until June 30th, they could extend Robinson for up to four years and $48 million but could theoretically give him more money once free agency begins, too.

Robinson is an unrestricted free agent, however, so it isn’t a guarantee he’ll be back on the team next year. Gibson’s contract is the only non-guaranteed deal the Knicks have. Their only major avenue for improvement in free agency is the $10.3 million midlevel exception.

Unless the Knicks make a blockbuster trade, their roster is already nearly set for next season.

If both Robinson and Gibson are gone, New York could use more help at the center spot, but they also have a predicament over some of their key players already under contract.

2020 first-round pick Obi Toppin quietly flashed tremendous upside towards the end of last season.

Toppin’s scoring and efficiency shot up, especially once he started for the Knicks.

  • Obi Toppin’s 2021-2022 stats (season): 9.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 53% FG, 31% three-point percentage
  • Obi Toppin’s 2021-2022 stats (starter): 20.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 57% FG, 44% three-point percentage

Could Toppin fit next to Randle and Barrett next season? If so, would New York be willing to pay nearly $50 million for a center that bogs down the team’s offense? 

Randle’s play is also a sticking point for the Knicks’ draft and free-agency decisions. He had an abnormal year on offense in 2021.

But this past season, Randle struggled with inefficiency and inconsistent play.

  • Randle’s 2020-21 season: 24.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 6.0 APG, 46% FG, 41% three-point percentage, 81% free-throw percentage
  • Randle’s 2021-22 season: 20.1 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 5,1 APG, 41% FG, 31% three-point percentage, 76% free-throw percentage

Randle’s shooting — particularly from three — was a major outlier in 2021. Can Randle be the main hub of New York’s offense? The Knicks have ranked 28th, 23rd and 22nd in offensive rating since Randle joined the team in 2020.

Randle also struggled in New York’s postseason matchup versus Atlanta last season.

Randle is under contract until 2025, with a player option for 2026. Unless New York can fetch anything for Randle through a trade, he is likely stuck on the team for the foreseeable future.

If that’s the case, the Knicks need to maximize on a bounceback Randle season and construct a roster that fits around him and Barrett.

To date, Barrett is New York’s main building block for the franchise’s future. Barrett has similar offensive traits to Randle: an isolation scorer that can create but needs optimal spacing around him.

Barrett is eligible for a contract extension heading into the last year of his rookie deal. The real question is if the Knicks want to lock themselves into both him and Randle down the road.

Knicks’ Offseason Stuck in Purgatory

The Knicks are stuck in the NBA’s no-man’s land.

The Knicks are in a familiar predicament between balancing out the team’s short-term need to make the playoffs and their long-term desire to build a great long-term future.

Much of New York’s 2022 roster will still be under contract heading into next season. The team is a cluttered mess filled with young guys who need larger roles and overpaid veterans who still deserve minutes.

They will have the cap space in 2023 to go after a big-time player, but Knicks fans have been down this road before.

New York is rumored to be interested in Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell could be the big-time scorer and lead ball-handler the Knicks need to put themselves in the playoff hunt in 2022-2023. But the franchise has struck out on landing stars in free agency countless times before.

Let’s also look around the East heading into next season. Barring catastrophe, the Bucks, Nets, Celtics, Heat and Sixers will be in the playoff picture. The Raptors and Bulls seem to be a near-lock for the postseason. The Pacers could have a bounceback year.

At best, the Knicks are fighting for a lower-end playoff seed, most likely needing to get through the play-in tournament.

New York has the assets to make a push for a superstar-like player. They have the 11th pick in this year’s draft, all their picks moving forward, and Dallas’ first-rounder in 2023. They are also sitting on over $30 million in movable contracts, plus Evan Fournier’s team-friendly deal.

But how far are they willing to invest in next season at the expense of their long-term future?

If they keep their pick this year, expect a longer-term approach for the team to improve. But if they trade it, the team is banking on short-term success to make the team a free-agency destination in 2023.

A week from today will tell the team’s fans everything they need to know about the franchise’s direction.

About Dominic Chiappone

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