When it was over, their postseason hopes dimmed in a five-game series loss to the Atlanta Hawks, some of the Knicks players weren’t ready yet to consider the big picture, what the season’s highlights and the postseason appearance meant for the franchise.
But Tom Thibodeau had already been dropping hints for days about the talent the Hawks had surrounded their star centerpiece, Trae Young, with and if you chose to read between the lines it gave a blueprint for an active summer in New York.
The 41-31 regular season was an unexpected pleasure, but the Hawks splashed a dose of reality on just how far this roster has to go to compete for a title and that raises a number of questions about what comes next for the Knicks.
1. Is Julius Randle really the centerpiece?
Julius Randle became an All-Star, the NBA’s Most Improved Player and a possible All-NBA choice this season. And then the Hawks poked holes throughout his resume. So, there are two questions within this one: Is Randle the centerpiece the Knicks believed he’d become or do they need a star to shine above him? And what about his contract? The Knicks hold a $23 million option for next season, but can offer Randle a four-year, $106 million extension. If they play out the option season the payday potentially becomes much larger next summer, but he’d also be an unrestricted free agent. So who would be taking the risk right now, the Knicks by offering him the max they can this summer or Randle by passing on it?
2. Wisdom of age
The Knicks' two best players in the disappointing postseason were Derrick Rose, 32, and Taj Gibson, who turns 36 this month, Thibodeau’s long-time allies who have been with him through every stop in his career. Rose carried the struggling offense through the first four games, and became a starter after Game 2, a formality since he was playing the bulk of the minutes. He’s learned how to manage his body, but there is a question whether it was a banged-up knee or simply an empty gas tank in Game 5. Gibson is ageless — not big enough, not high-flying enough, but so smart that finding a place for him on the roster is an easy choice.
3. Youth will be served — as trade bait
The planning for the NBA Draft that has dominated the last seven years in New York, don’t count on that so much this time. While Leon Rose and his front office have said little, consider this: The Knicks hold the No. 19, 21 and 32 picks. The chance of Thibodeau welcoming three rookies onto his roster are, let’s say, not high. So do the Knicks package the picks to attach them in a deal for a disgruntled star — perhaps Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard? Or do they use them to move up into the top five of the draft where scouts have forecast a quintet of franchise-shifting talents?
4. Who’s back?
The Knicks have free agents of their own to concern themselves with, including Rose and Gibson, but also Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina. Don’t forget the team option on Mitchell Robinson and the non-guaranteed deal for Luca Vildoza. Let’s make it easier — the only players with fully guaranteed deals for next season are RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. The playoffs presented a reality check of the talent on the roster. Decisions will have to be made on who was a stopgap and who’s worth the investment. Robinson is the only sure thing among the group but figure that Thibodeau will lobby for Rose and Gibson. Bullock or Burks could return, although probably not both.
5. The reality check
Thibodeau was who we thought he was, creating accountability and a professional work ethic. The roster, too, was exposed in the postseason for the flaws. So now the work turns to the front office. The biggest acquisitions were Thibodeau’s push for Rose and Gibson. The jury is out on lottery pick Toppin, who finished an odd rookie season by showing marked improvement in the playoffs. He passed Quickley, who had played well throughout the regular season. If the playoffs proved anything, it’s that with the possible $60 million in cap space, the three picks in the top 32 and a few young assets, Leon Rose and his crew have to turn that into legitimate All-Star talent. A point guard and reliable shooters are the start.