With the front office additions officially announced this week and already working, Knicks president Leon Rose can turn his attention to a number of steps that will really be the first test of his tenure leading the franchise.
The allure of bringing Rose on to head up the latest incarnation of the Knicks was his connections throughout the league. And maybe that played a part in luring Walt Perrin to leave the stability of the Utah Jazz after 19 years with a model franchise or Brock Aller to leave his place alongside Dan Gilbert with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Frank Zanin to bolt the Oklahoma City Thunder. Or maybe it was just the Knicks' willingness to pay.
Either way, Rose got a trio of well-respected executives to join him, and now he has a more visible and more telling series of tasks ahead of him. Here are the top five jobs for Rose and his front office cohorts to get through next.
1. Decide on a coach.
In his place as a co-director of the basketball division at CAA, Rose had connections with a long list of elite coaches and many of them are on the market right now. So he knows them from the side of trying to find them jobs and now has to decide which of them to convince to take this, what has been a thankless job for decades. At the top of that list might be Tom Thibodeau, with a pedigree as a longtime Knicks assistant and two head coaching jobs where he brought his teams to the playoffs and created a defense-first mindset. With less than supportive front offices he wore out players and wore out his welcome, but a hard-nosed defensive mindset sure sounds like a good starting point for a team without star power on the court.
But there are other CAA clients who are likely to be pursued, including John Calipari and Kenny Atkinson. With a roster that seems bound to struggle next season unless Rose somehow pulls off roster-restructuring magic, a coach with a developmental background like Atkinson might be the best choice, although a low-cost one-year extension for Mike Miller might be the best fit - allowing the team to have another season to rebuild the roster and leaving the chase for a big name coach to next summer. And they may have no choice because those top coaching candidates are likely to be pursued by more alluring teams.
2. Get the draft right.
The biggest acquisition so far might be Perrin, who arrives with a stellar record of helping head up the Jazz’s drafts for decades. With the college season shut down ahead of the tournaments and an inability to hold workouts with players - if that remains the case with the draft date uncertain still - having a solid executive atop the draft process is a huge plus. The Knicks still have their own scouts in place from the prior regime. No one has been let go yet with contracts set to expire on most of the previous front office’s deals in August.
The Knicks currently have the sixth-worst record in the NBA and if the season is sent straight to the playoffs, a lottery would leave them with a 9% chance at the top pick and a 37.2% shot at moving up to a top-four pick. What do they need? Well, just about everything. But atop the list is a point guard who can provide an offensive threat, helping open things up for RJ Barrett. An explosive shooting guard wouldn’t be bad, either. But what they really need is talent - all-star talent. In a draft that is regarded as devoid of those elite prospects this time around, at least getting a solid starter is a must for Rose and his crew.
3. Who stays?
The Knicks have team options with limited or no guarantees on five players when this season is over - Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson - and restricted free agents in Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier. With a 21-45 record, it’s worth wondering if any of them come back.
The easiest decision on whom to keep might be Bullock, thanks to the low-cost second-year option on his contract. While he didn’t exactly open eyes at Madison Square Garden, he’s a professional shooter with a $4 million deal. If the Knicks can land a point guard in the lottery it could mean the departure of Payton with Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. under contract for another year. The easiest decision on the option not to pick up is Portis. Nice guy, good scoring touch and way too expensive.
4. The other players
Just because they are under contract doesn’t mean they’ll be sticking. This new front office has no ties to the decisions of the previous regime (unless you are thinking that one-year deal that kept Scott Perry in place as general manager provides him with some great power).
Atop the decisions will be whether to keep Julius Randle or move him with one fully guaranteed year left on his deal. Randle puts up numbers but dominates the ball to the detriment of many of the younger players the Knicks are trying to develop. If Rose wants to make an impact immediately, then keeping Randle might make sense for now, but if you’re thinking long term then considering if he gets in the way of Barrett is worth thinking about. Randle has talent but is more suited to be a secondary player rather than the star.
Moe Harkless is a free agent and almost certainly will end up elsewhere as his skills are more helpful to a contending team. The Knicks have one more year on the Ntilikina and Smith Jr. deals and the new front office could mean they will be shopped, even more than they were under the previous leadership.
5. The Kevin Knox conundrum.
When Knox arrived as one of the youngest players in his draft class, Calipari predicted that it would take about three years for him to grow into the player he could be. Two years are gone and he has done little to convince anyone he’s going to be a star. But still, with a fourth-year rookie contract extension of just $5.8 million, it’s hard to imagine the Knicks won’t pick up that option.
Knox is still one of the youngest players in the league with two years in and while he seemed to regress this season playing behind Marcus Morris and then Harkless, he did show some nudges forward in advanced stats. Mostly, it was hard to tell what he could do as the ball was taken out of his hands. It’s hard to imagine the Knicks won’t take that flier on the fourth year to find out what he does this coming season.