The 2020 NBA season saw the rebirth of one of the marquee teams in the National Basketball Association- the New York Knicks. After seven long years without a playoff appearance, the emergence of Julius Randle coupled with Derrick Rose turning the clock back on his career had the Knicks at 4th in the Eastern Conference and headed back to the playoffs. Madison Square Garden was hosting games in April again (well, May due to the Covid-19 pandemic delay) and everything was bright in the Big Apple.
Although they lost in the first round to another upstart team, the Atlanta Hawks led by their young star Trae Young, the Knicks showed a lot to build on in 2020. With that, this 2021 off-season was crucial for the team to navigate well if they expected to continue that success. The best online sportsbooks put the win total for the Knicks at 41.5, a reflection I think of the stellar moves this front office has made so far this off-season. Here are their best moves and why I believe they will be key in getting New York to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since the 2011-2013 seasons.
EXTENDING JULIUS RANDLE
This one may seem like a no brainer but this is the Knicks we’re talking about here. Julius Randle’s Comeback Player of the Year season is the majority of the reason the Knicks were relevant in the East. After being drafted seventh overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014, Randle broke his tibia after just 14 minutes of playing time in his first regular season game. He could never quite put it back together after the injury and was on his way to looking like another NBA bust.
That is, until he started playing for Tom Thibodeau. In his first year in New York, Randle set career highs in minutes played per game(38), 3-point percentage(41%), free throw percentage(81%), assists per game(.6), steals per game(.9), and most importantly, points per game(24). Sometimes a player just needs the right coach. The Knicks smartly recognized the special connection they had between their coach and star player and resigned Randle to a four year, $117 million dollar contract, a modest and team friendly deal by current NBA standards.
At 26 years old, the Knicks lock up a player potentially breaking out into perennial All-Star caliber. At the same time, with an extensive injury history like Randle’s, a four year deal gives New York freedom to get out from under the deal in the event that things take a turn for the worst without destroying their salary cap situation. A great move by the organization.
BRINGING IN KEMBA WALKER
While the Randle extension was a no-brainer, bringing in Kemba Walker was a stroke of genius.
The main issue that held the Knicks back at times last year was the droughts their offense would go on. This problem reared its ugly head in the playoffs as the Atlanta Hawks effectively held Randle in check, and Derrick Rose- while playing well- is past the point of being able to carry a team as the number two guy. Enter Kemba Walker.
While injuries led to a down year for Kemba last year, there’s no denying that he’s one of the most well-rounded scorers in the league. Walker has always been a good free throw shooter but really stepped his game up in that area last year before going down to injury, shooting at 90%.
Derrick Rose was a great story last year but the Knicks were wise to not expect similar play and instead get aggressive in getting this team scoring depth. Two years ago before injury, Walker was averaging 25 points per game and if he can get back to that form, he’s going to be a menace next to Randle and fellow new addition Evan Fournier. And with a two year, $18 million dollar deal the Knicks got one of the biggest steals of free agency, by far.
To top it all off, Kemba is from the New York area, growing up in the Bronx and a Knicks fan to boot. In college, he had some of his best games playing in the Carrier Dome against the Syracuse Orangemen, and had by far his best college game right inside Madison Square Garden when his University of Connecticut Huskies knocked off the Orangemen in the first round of the Big East Tournament en route to an NCAA Tournament Championship. Kemba had 33 points and 12 rebounds in that game.
All of it adds up to surprisingly deft front office decisions by the New York Knicks this offseason. They’ve got the right coach, three All-Star players- one of whom is thrilled to finally be playing in his hometown for his favorite team growing up- and a deep, talented roster with playoff experience in their belt, none of whom are particularly breaking the bank. This sets up to be a very good year for the Knicks with another playoff appearance down the line.