The Knicks finished off a disappointing season Sunday night with a 37-45 record. They headed off to exit interviews and parts unknown while 20 teams are preparing for the playoffs or play-in games, leaving them with a far different assortment of questions to address this summer:
1. Will Julius Randle return to form — and if so, will it be in New York?
In team president Leon Rose’s interview with MSG Network, he admitted that Randle “was just not comfortable at times.” Randle’s play regressed from his second-team All-NBA season a year ago, and while his numbers weren’t terrible, they were a lot like what he has done for most of his career. That makes it worth asking if this is what he is and will be.
Based on his history, it might be safe to assume that the 2020-21 season was the outlier. So although he says he wants to be a part of the Knicks, a point that Rose said also was expressed to him, they have shopped him in the past. Will they look to move him now? It would make little sense to do it at a low value because he still has value to the team, even if he’s the player he was this season. Being happier on the floor certainly would be a necessary start to a revival.
2. Is RJ Barrett the face of the franchise — and worth a max extension now?
Even if the Knicks believe in Barrett, the decision to move on Randle’s extension last summer could be floating in the minds of the front office. They don’t have to extend Barrett now, but he’s expressed his desire to be a part of this franchise and took a huge leap in performance this season — and, notably, willingly stepped forward to be the daily voice for the team off the court.
That may be a small part of it, but it matters when considering what happened with Randle. Barrett is a worker in the mold that Tom Thibodeau embraces and never has been subject to the mood swings and ups and downs of outside voices. He still has much growth needed in his game to justify a $181 million extension, but his work ethic is not a question and he’s only 21 years old.
3. Should Mitchell Robinson be the man in the middle?
A more difficult question — and one not totally in the Knicks’ hands — is what to do with the unrestricted free agent. A defensive force and an anchor as the type of rim protector that Thibodeau prefers, Robinson still has advanced little on offense, limited to the length of his arms as his range. The Knicks also have a pair of poor man’s versions of Robinson on the roster in Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims.
So do the Knicks bid on Robinson? League executives put his value at about a four-year, $50 million deal, with Detroit and Dallas expected to inquire. Could the Knicks swing a sign-and-trade and get some value back, and invest at the same time in a center who offers something different as a three-point shooter who would clear out lane space for Randle and Barrett?
4. Was the late rise by Obi Toppin real?
What to make of Obi Toppin’s offensive production in the final week? He scored 20, 20, 19, 35 and 42 points in the final five games. With Randle sidelined, he got 37.5 minutes per game and shot 55.1% overall and 46.3% from three-point range, averaging 27.2 points. Peruse the numbers from closing day of the NBA schedule and there are a lot of role players suddenly arriving with career performances, so was that 42 points on Sunday a mirage?
It matters because it will help the team decide what to do with Randle, too. It’s been hard to play the two of them together (only 101 minutes this season), with Thibodeau unwilling to sacrifice defense with them on the floor as a four-five combo. Toppin still is lacking defensively and doesn’t draw double-teams or orchestrate the offense like Randle. It’s worth asking, too, if the Knicks are best served with the ball in Randle’s hands rather than a true point guard.
5. What’s next?
Last summer’s free-agent signings of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier didn’t lift the team and Walker isn’t expected to play for the Knicks again. So how do they get back to the postseason?
They spoiled their lottery odds with another late-season run of meaningless wins. Thibodeau and the team considered those wins important as building blocks, but so might a top-four pick, and the Knicks’ odds of landing one are now 7.2% — and just 1.5% of getting the top pick. They have, as Rose noted, all of their draft picks, as well as four additional second-rounders in the next two drafts and a protected first-rounder in 2023 from Dallas (1 through 10).
With a very young core (eight players 24 or younger, with Toppin the oldest), the goal this summer likely focuses on the trade market. They can use movable contracts such as Alec Burks, Noel and maybe even Walker’s expiring deal while shopping Randle’s or Fournier’s bigger deals and sprinkling in picks.