As the clock ticked toward the start of the 2021 NBA Draft, the Knicks were in the center of a number of trade rumors, searching for a way to move out of their spots in the draft and move up into position for an immediate difference-making player.
They came into the night with the No. 19 and 21 picks in the first round as well as the No. 32 and the No. 58 picks. But after all the talk for years about accumulating picks and stockpiling assets, the Knicks found it unappealing on this night.
Concerted efforts to move up in the draft failed as they chased a spot where they could grab Oregon’s Chris Duarte, who eventually was taken by Indiana at No. 13. Other players they had interest in — Corey Kispert, Trey Murphy — went off the board, too. So when their pick at No. 19 came, Kai Jones of Texas was selected but the Knicks sent the pick to the Hornets in a deal for a heavily-protected future first-round pick. The pick is protected for the top 18 spots next summer, then 1 through 16 in 2023, 1 through 14 in 2024 and 2025 and would finally convert to a pair of future secon- round picks if not conveyed by that time.
Two picks later when it was time for the 21st pick and Keon Johnson of Tennessee was being introduced as a Knicks pick, he already was on his way to the Clippers. The Knicks got back the No. 25 pick from the Clippers as well as a 2024 second-rounder that the Clippers got from the Pistons.
Finally, they added a body when they picked Quentin Grimes, a 6-4 shooting guard from Houston at No. 25. Grimes shot 40.3% from three, a necessity for a team intent on adding shooting, and impressed the staff at the Draft Combine and in workouts. Grimes began his career at Kansas before returning to his hometown and helping lead Houston to the Final Four.
The Knicks, as they did in Leon Rose’s first season atop the franchise, kept shuffling pieces, trading the No. 32 pick to Oklahoma City for the No. 34 and 36 picks. They took Rokas Jokubaitis at No. 34, a 20-year-old guard from Lithuania. At 36, they took Miles McBride, a 6-1 guard with a 6-foot-8 wingspan from West Virginia.
The Knicks were searching for a win-now option to help build on the success of last season, whether it was by moving high enough into the first round to find what they believed was the type of player to help Julius Randle and RJ Barrett now or to search out a veteran player who had already proved he could contribute in an NBA game now, or more specifically, a playoff game.
The brutal truth of where their talent base stood last season came in the playoffs when the Hawks knocked them out in five games. Randle struggled as the Hawks defense zeroed in on him. Barrett’s shooting woes resurfaced. And the Knicks couldn’t match the athleticism and skill of the likes of Trae Young, John Collins and Clint Capela.
In retrospect, it was a compliment to the work that Tom Thibodeau and the team had put forth through the 72-game regular season, overachieving and outpacing expectations with a 41-31 record, the No. 4 seed and coach of the year honors for Thibodeau and a Most Improved Player award for Randle. But it also showed that the "Help Wanted" sign needed to be hung up at Madison Square Garden once again.
According to a source the Knicks were inquiring of the availability of Orlando wing Terrance Ross, a 30-year-old who could provide help with uncertainty about their own free agents — Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks and Derrick Rose. Ross, who averaged 15.6 points per game last season for the Magic, has a reasonable two years and $25 million left on his contract. Collin Sexton of Cleveland remains a possibility with the Cavs dealing for Ricky Rubio.
But the Knicks also had conversations with Golden State, who held the No. 7 and 14 picks, as well as Magic’s No. 8 pick, the Spurs (No. 12) and Pacers (No. 13) with two goals — to get in position where they could draft from among a group that included Duarte, Moses Moody of Arkansas, Baylor’s Davion Mitchell or Virginia’s Trey Murphy and to avoid picking twice in the first round as well as selecting at No. 32 and 58.
The Knicks remained, as always since Leon Rose took over as team president, buttoned tightly against leaks, but other league sources indicated that they were very active in talks around the league trying to find a way to package their picks. But as some stars were clearly on the market Thursday with rumors of the Lakers chasing Russell Westbrook from Washington or Buddy Hield from Sacramento, the Knicks still would struggle to find the pieces to add that level of player.
Whether he would succeed or not, in this, his second draft as team president, Rose was certainly facing more pressure this time around. Last year the Knicks held their assets and indications are that they are trying to retain flexibility for next summer when a better free agent class possibly awaits. But last year Rose could maintain a slow build without the pressure to show results immediately. After ending the postseason drought this season, falling backward would not only look bad for the organization, but would not fit well with Thibodeau’s push to win.