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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks' active offseason looks like a success

Celtics guard Kemba Walker dribbles the ball during

Celtics guard Kemba Walker dribbles the ball during the second half of an NBA game on March 16 in Boston. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

The Knicks finished their free-agent shopping with just the sort of pieces that they had dreamed about, adding more offensive skill and a point guard who can relieve the pressure on Julius Randle and ease the nerves of coach Tom Thibodeau.

While Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker may not be the equivalent of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, for the Knicks — who have struggled through shopping trips like a dad sent to the supermarket without a list forgetting to get everything — it was a coup. Add in the decision by Randle to sign on for a contract extension and it just seems perfect.

So all good, right? I mean, this is what Knicks fans have been waiting for — the NBA Coach of the Year in place and Randle returning as the NBA’s Most Improved Player. Add in a four-time All-Star at point guard in Walker and a player like Fournier who can swing between multiple positions and has been one of the most effective scorers in the Olympics, and what’s to complain about?

In these giddy moments, it might seem as if the biggest concern is plotting out whether to have the parade end in Central Park or at City Hall. But the best-case scenario might be to start making reservations for a few years from now.

There are some risks, some issues that can’t be ignored. The Knicks didn’t win a bidding war for Walker. As nice of a feel-good story as his arrival is at Madison Square Garden — where he’s turned heads since his days at Rice High School — Walker was traded from Boston in a move that the Oklahoma City Thunder executed to pick up draft picks.

The wait on the official announcement of his signing with the Knicks couldn’t come on Friday because he first had to clear waivers as the Thunder opted to buy out the remaining two years and $74 million of his contract.

That’s not exactly the path you expect to see a four-time All-Star take, but as talented as Walker is and as positive a locker room and leadership force as he has been, there are reasons and risks for his movement through a series of teams.

There were reports out of Boston that in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic shut down all contact between teams and players, Walker was given a series of exercises to do to rehabilitate his surgically repaired knee, but when the team reunited for the bubble restart, he was in the same condition.

[/DROPCAP]Before the start of last season, Walker was given a stem-cell injection to attempt to promote healing in his left knee, but he still played in only 43 of the 72 games.

A healthy Walker is a huge upgrade for the Knicks. But if his availability continues to decline, just where does that leave them?

And is Fournier the player who helped France to the gold medal game in the Olympics or the guy who has been on only three teams with winning records in his career?

With the signings of their own free agents, Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks, the Knicks have depth they haven’t had before — as well as a potential starting lineup as potent as they’ve had in years.

But they also have to consider whether the success they showed last season in compiling a 41-31 record and earning the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference is the baseline for them or if the one-sided loss to Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs is the reality.

Thibodeau guided the Knicks beyond expectations last season in what was a near-perfect handling of a very difficult COVID-ravaged season. The Knicks lost two players for extended absences — Rose and Burks — but never had to shut down practices and had only one game rescheduled. And to their credit, the Knicks treated every game as if it were a playoff game — which worked until they actually got to the playoffs and the opposition prepared that way, too.

This coming season will be harder. The East has gotten better with the Nets, Bucks, 76ers and Heat all legitimate contenders for a title.

It will be hard just to get back to the sort of success the Knicks had with less talent last season.

Does this sound grim? It shouldn’t. Even if Walker is limited, the Knicks are stocked with Rose, Burks, Immanuel Quickley and rookie Miles McBride, so the complaints about Elfrid Payton starting are a thing of the past. Thibodeau should be able to form a defense even if the pieces don’t scream All-Defensive team.

The point is that respectability has come to the Knicks. Now comes the hard part, getting out of the middle. The Knicks were good enough to attract Fournier and Walker. So when this team puts it together on the floor this season, what is next for them, and maybe more important, who is next?

Vildoza joins Knicks

Luca Vildoza arrived in Las Vegas on Friday night and joined the Knicks in practice Saturday. While he admittedly was jet-lagged from traveling from Tokyo, where he was played with Argentina’s national team, he said he hopes to play in Sunday’s Summer League opener.

"Yeah, I will try," Vildoza said on a Zoom call. "I will be there, so let’s see if I get the opportunity to be on the court. I know I can make mistakes every time because I’ve never been with my teammates until now. So I’ll be trying to be helpful.

" . . . The jet lag was very tough. But I’m OK today. I’m very happy to be here. That’s the only thing that matters.''

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