New York Knicks basketball is back! Well, maybe not championship-winning basketball, but after seven years of missing the postseason entirely, you can understand the excitement that surrounded the team last season after finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference. So what if the Knicks lost in the first round? Just getting to the playoffs was deserving of raising a banner for a franchise that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way for so many years.
But things are changing for the Knicks. This summer, they signed hometown hero Kemba Walker at a steep discount, brought in Evan Fournier fresh off an Olympic silver medal with France, extended Julius Randle after elevating his game to an All-Star level last season and brought back a key reserve in Derrick Rose to lead the second unit. Those moves earned the Knicks an “A” for their summer vacation.
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Looking ahead to the 2021-22 campaign, New York now has to prove that last season was no fluke, while also fighting off the rest of the suddenly deep Eastern Conference. The Knicks may look like a team headed for another first-round exit, but here are three reasons why they could actually surprise everyone this season.
New York Knicks roster
Guards: Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose, Evan Fournier, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Quentin GrimesForwards: RJ Barrett, Dwayne Bacon, Kevin Knox, Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, Taj Gibson, Aamir SimmsCenters: Mitchell Robinson, Nerlens Noel, Jericho Sims
1. Walker primed for a bounce back season
Knee injuries plagued Walker last season with the Boston Celtics, limiting him to just 43 games in the regular season, and missing the final two games of Boston’s first-round series loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Even when he was on the floor, he looked like a shell of the player we were used to seeing back in Charlotte who garnered the nickname “Cardiac Kemba” for his ability to terrorize opposing defenses.
It wasn’t that he had a bad season, as he still put up near his career average numbers, but it was clear that the trio of him, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown wasn’t operating at the level that many had hoped it would. As a result, Walker’s efficiency took a dive, especially from his bread and butter mid-range shots where he made just 35 percent of his attempts a season ago. In his last season in Charlotte, he was sinking those at a 47 percent clip.
But after first being traded by the Celtics to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then being bought out of the remainder of his contract by OKC, Walker found himself in a position to sign with his hometown team in the Knicks in a very “the stars are aligning” moment for both sides. The Knicks needed a playmaking point guard to bring some versatility and scoring to the starting lineup. Walker needed an environment that had similar shadings to what his role was like in Charlotte.
With the Knicks, Walker will be able to run the offense entirely, using his ability to create off the dribble to get good looks for himself, as well as put his teammates like Fournier, Randle and Barrett in a position to get easier shots. The offense will run through Walker, unlike in Boston where the Celtics had three incredibly capable playmakers in Walker, Tatum and Brown which forced them all to split their touches.
Now in New York, Walker’s usage should creep up again as we saw in Charlotte where he regularly ranked in the 90th percentile in that category, compared to ranking in the 70th percentile with the Celtics. His assist percentage should also see a bump after a two-year decline in Boston, and we should see a more comfortable Walker playing within a system that should highlight his strengths.
Of course, this is all predicated on his health. However, in the Knicks’ first preseason game, Walker was moving rather well in a performance where he put up an efficient 12 points, four assists and three rebounds on 5-for-10 from the field. Granted, it is the preseason, but given the last time we saw Walker he put up just six points while shooting 21 percent from the field and going 0-for-7 from deep, it’s an encouraging sight to see.
2. Improved offense around Randle
One of the biggest issues that plagued the Knicks in the regular season and in the playoffs last year was their offense. Despite having the fourth-ranked defense in the league, the Knicks offense ranked 22nd, which was painfully obvious against the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
That resulted in a subpar postseason performance from Randle, who received tons of defensive attention, as he couldn’t carry the entire weight of New York’s offense on his own. That forced head coach Tom Thibodeau to rely heavily upon backup guard Derrick Rose to get the offense going, as the only quality playmaker on the roster. Though Rose managed to keep the Knicks afloat for a portion of the series, it wasn’t sustainable, especially against an Atlanta squad that had offensive firepower in excess.
As a response, the Knicks got Walker, who is the ideal playmaking guard to run the show for New York. But they also added shooting depth to surround Randle and Walker with the addition of Fournier and bringing back Alec Burks.
Though Fournier underperformed for the Celtics after being traded to Boston from the Orlando Magic last season, he’s joining the Knicks off an inspired Olympic run with France where he showed that the stint with the Celtics isn’t indicative of who he is as a player. Over the course of the Olympics, Fournier averaged 18.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists, while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. His 20-point performance against Slovenia to advance to the gold medal game was a key reason why France won.
Fournier is an ideal wing player to have on the floor alongside Walker and Randle because he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to excel. Though his raw numbers weren’t up to par with what many have come to expect from him when he was traded to Boston, during that 16-game stint he shot the ball incredibly well from deep (46.3 percent). He also ranked in the 98th percentile for spot-up shooters during that span, generating 1.375 points per possession. With Walker feeding him the ball — again — Fournier should benefit from those looks either coming off screens or pulling up from the corner.
On top of adding Fournier, the Knicks brought back Burks, who shot 41.5 percent from deep last season with New York. After losing Reggie Bullock to the Mavericks, bringing back Burks was a necessity for the Knicks, and in doing so they’ll have some shooting depth coming off the bench.
With the decision to prioritize making the offense better, Randle won’t feel as much pressure when the defense tightens up on him. He’ll also have adequate players to rely upon when he can’t find his shot, in addition to having an All-Star guard feeding him quality looks every trip down the floor.
3. Depth up and down the roster
Fournier and Burks are just the tip of the iceberg for the Knicks’ depth this season. On top of those two reliable shooters, the Knicks will also be getting back big man Mitchell Robinson after he was limited last season with a foot injury. Prior to the injury, Robinson was beginning to establish himself as a rim-running, shot-blocking big man, and at just 22 years old he’s barely scratched the surface of his potential.
Between him and Nerlens Noel, the latter of whom averaged 2.2 blocks a game last season, New York has a frontcourt that’s going to cause problems for teams trying to drive in the paint. There’s also second-year forward Obi Toppin, who despite having a limited role in his rookie campaign, showed flashes of potential in the postseason when he was given playing time.
As far as the backcourt goes, behind Walker, there’s Rose who can fill whatever role is asked of him. When the Knicks needed a playmaker midway through the playoffs last season, Rose responded by dropping 30 points in Game 3 after Thibodeau gave him the start. He’s instant offense either as a starter or as a reserve, and he’s also a little bit of insurance if Walker has to sit out at any point during the season.
Aside from Rose’s contributions to the backcourt, there’s Immanuel Quickley, who impressed everyone in his rookie season a year ago. Despite never breaking into the starting lineup, Quickley managed to average 29 points per 100 possessions, the most of any rookie in his class, and the Knicks scored 4.3 more points per 100 possessions on offense when he was on the floor. His measured, calm approach to the game garnered him respect from a hard-nosed coach like Thibodeau, and he proved he’s deserving of a bigger role. If he builds upon the success from last season, then he could see his role increase, which is a positive for the Knicks.
Depth is something the Knicks didn’t have in abundance last season, but they’ll be heading into the 2021-22 campaign with more weapons at their disposal. Mix that with the addition of Walker and more shooters, and on paper New York already looks like a better team than a year ago, which should be concerning for other teams in the East.
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