Knicks 2021-2022 Season Preview: Depth and Flexibility can Coexist with "Win Now"

The Knicks are rapidly changing fans' perception of what the franchise represents. New York was notorious for going all in on aging superstars without any supporting cast in a desperate attempt to “win now”. The new regime of Leon Rose, World Wide Wes and Scott Perry are building this Knicks team in a very interesting way. 

They are technically in “win now” mode, but with a certain amount of flexibility that I have never seen before in this franchise. The Knicks are doubling down on their successful season last year, re-signing Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and Taj Gibson. They also signed Bronx native Kemba Walker as well as Evan Fournier, adding much needed offense to a team that got embarrassed by Trae Young and the Hawks in the playoffs. 

Retaining talent and signing some much needed offensive firepower comes with a cost. Without any tweaks to this roster, the Knicks will not have a max slot available next free agency. This is where things might get a bit confusing. The Knicks are clearly a competitive team that should fight for a playoff position, but it is also clear that they are not title contenders.

It may seem like a bad idea to be a middle of the pack team without enough room to sign a superstar. However, exceeding the salary cap does not equate to a lack of roster flexibility. Every contract on this team has been meticulously crafted to be short term and more importantly, moveable. 

The Knicks will be included in trade rumors for every disgruntled superstar. I’m not using this publication to make random predictions on trades, but it is worth noting that the Knicks have nothing but tradable assets from draft picks to players. 

Let’s break down the roster.

Kemba Walker

Ask any Celtics fan how they feel about Kemba, I promise you they will say only negative things. I can’t necessarily blame them. Kemba signed a 4-year $140 million contract with the Celtics, and severely underperformed. Although his underperformance can be attributed to his knee issues resulting in many missed games, the fact remains that he did not live up to expectations. 

He was traded to OKC where he gave up $20 million to get bought out, and signed with the Knicks for 2 years, $18 million. OKC had no intentions of winning now and are rebuilding, so the fit did not make sense. 

Did Kemba give up $20 million for his love for New York? Sorry fans, he did it for the money. It’s clear Kemba is betting on himself. He is only 31 years old and the four time all-star believes he has good years ahead of him. 

Kemba has the potential to be the best point guard the Knicks have seen this millennium (I know, that’s not saying much). If he puts together a vintage season, Scott Perry will be forced to offer Kemba a hefty contract extension. All we can do as fans is hope his knee issues are a thing of the past. This is a low risk high reward situation. 

Evan Fournier

Funny enough, the Knicks stole the Celtics' starting backcourt. Evan Fournier is a trigger happy shooting guard who will help space the floor for Kemba, RJ and Randle. Expect him to play mostly with the starting lineup. 

The Knicks signed Fournier to a four-year, $78 million deal which may seem like a slight overpay, but I don’t mind it. He will fill in for the Reggie Bullock role as a floor spacer, but the main difference between Fournier and Bullock is that Fournier can create his own shot. 

The best part about the Knicks’ starting lineup is that Kemba, Fournier, RJ and Randle can all dribble, pass and shoot. Expect way less isolations for Randle this season. There are a lot of weapons. 

RJ Barrett

After a tough rookie season, RJ Barrett hit the gym and improved his efficiency. Believe it or not, RJ Barrett is a good shooter. He went from shooting 32% from three his rookie season to 40% last season. 

The 21 year old looks more muscular this offseason and will continue to rely on his physical playstyle to get to the rim. The beauty of how he’s evolving his game is the fact that he has become a threat without the ball. 

I’m curious to see how he performs this season on the defensive end. In my opinion he has the tools and physicality to become an all defensive player, but it remains to be seen. 

Julius Randle

Public Service Announcement: I was wrong. I owe any Randle supporter an apology. I initially wanted the Knicks to trade Randle for draft picks when he started to improve his game last season. The Knicks went the complete opposite direction and that is the reason why Scott Perry is a professional and I’m just a stupid blog boy. 

Randle is the leader of this squad, and brings the Knicks a true identity. I’m excited that this season he won’t have to hold as much of the facilitating burden due to the additions to the backcourt. This will allow Randle to focus a lot more on scoring and defense. 

Can you win a championship with Randle as your number one guy? Probably not, it’s clear there’s still a gap between him and dudes like Giannis, Lebron, Durant, Kawhi etc. But can you win with Randle as your number 2? I’m starting to believe so. He underperformed in the playoffs, so the jury is still out. 

Mitchell Robinson

I’ve praised this guy enough so I’ll keep it short. Mitchell Robinson has enough talent to join an all defensive team one day. He has the mobility of a guard combined with one of the longest frames in the league. Robinson covers so much ground that he consistently blocks guards on the perimeter who think they have an open shot, almost like a lion stalking its prey.

He has yet to prove that he can play a full season due to injuries, and when he does play he’s always a threat to foul out due to his inability to read fakes. With some consistent reps, Robinson should become an anchor on the defensive end.

He also looks enormous this season. 

Immanuel Quickley

Quickley became a fan favorite instantly last season, providing the Knicks with some flashy scoring off the bench. His game is modeled after his idol, Lou Williams, and you can truly see it in his game. 

Everyone is a fan of his floater, but I’ve been a fan of how fearless he is pulling up from three in transition. His irrational confidence was comical during summer league this year. The dude was pulling up from Curry range, and although he is nowhere near as efficient, the confidence is something the Knicks need after an ice cold offense in the playoffs last year. 

One thing Thibs needs to figure out this season is if Quickley has the tools to be a legitimate point guard. It’s clear he has a score first mindset, like practically every other point guard in the NBA, but can he run a NBA offense? It’s clear Kemba and Rose will need nights off, let’s see if the precocious neophyte can fill the void. 

Derrick Rose

Another PSA: I was not a fan initially when the Knicks traded for Rose mid-season. I deeply apologize. My initial reaction was that Rose was going to take minutes away from Quickley, stunting his growth. Thibs decided to play them side by side, allowing Rose to take on point guard duties and let Quickley take over at the wing. 

It was like clockwork last season, the starting lineup was getting nothing done with Elfrid Payton running the show, only for Rose to sub in and get the bench squad on a run. If he plays enough games (health is always a concern), Rose will be a likely candidate for sixth man of the year. His herky-jerky moves allow him to get to the rim at will, and he can open up so much for the rest of the bench unit.

Nerlens Noel

Noel had the best season of his career last year and is only 27 years-old. A 3-year, $28 million contract may seem way overpriced for a backup center. But with the health of Mitch up in the air combined with a team option the final year of the contract, it really seems a lot more reasonable up front. 

Noel is an excellent help defender; the room for improvement comes from guarding post threats. At 6 foot 11 he only weighs 220 pounds, allowing for monsters like Embiid to feast on him. If he can improve his on ball defense, then that may be bad news for Mitch if he is looking for a big pay day on his next contract. 

Alec Burks

Burks has become a legitimate iso threat and can produce in many different types of roles for this team. He had some injuries last season but was one of the few bright spots in the playoffs last year for New York scoring 27 points in game one against Atlanta. 

Burks is a heat check player; if you get him in at the right time, he can carry the offense. Although he’s not someone to rely on from a night to night basis, it’s not a bad situation when he’s arguably the 9th best player on the team.

Obi Toppin

The slogan “ain’t no stoppin’ Obi Toppin” ended very quickly, as there was a lot stopping Obi Toppin last season. The main thing stopping him was that he didn’t seem to be very good at anything related to the game of basketball. He had a very underwhelming first season, but I also think it’s difficult to have much success when the best player on your team shares the same position as you and led the league in minutes last year. 

I think Toppin has a shot at cracking the rotation if he can develop a solid rim running role. His athleticism is off the charts and is arguably the most athletic player on the team, but the jury remains out regarding his role on this Knicks team. 

Taj Gibson

It is not common to get excited about an aging third string center, but Gibson saw plenty of minutes last year during the playoffs thanks to injuries to the front court. He's way past his prime, but he is a solid veteran who can still hold his own against bench units. 

Gibson and Rose were on the successful Thibs-led Bulls teams in the early 2010's. He brings that "culture" so to speak. He is definitely not someone you want to rely on as a starter though, Capela won that matchup handily during the playoffs. 

Kevin Knox

The Knicks could have drafted Mikal Bridges, who by the way would be starting on this Knicks team as the top perimeter defender who can knock down threes. That stings.

This is Knox’s final year on his contract before the qualifying offer. Since he is barely getting minutes in preseason, his only hope to have a future with the Knicks is for him to fill in for an injured player and immediately make an impact. It’s also tough when the two rookie guards the Knicks drafted this season might already be better than Knox. I don’t like his chances to return once his contract is up. 

Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride

These are two 3 and D candidates that looked great in the Summer League. It is unlikely that they will earn a spot in the rotation this season, but if the Knicks staff can continue to develop these two young studs, they might prove to be solid role players. 

Where will the Knicks end up this season? 

It’s an interesting year, because although I think the Knicks improved from last season, I don’t think they will gain a top four seed like the year prior. This is due to the fact that the East simply got better. I would put the Bucks, Nets, Heat and Hawks definitely above the Knicks. With the Sixers (Simmons drama) and Celtics (lack of depth) probably above the Knicks. That leaves two spots open for the Knicks, Bulls, Pacers, Raptors, and maybe Hornets. 

I am expecting the Knicks to be a playoff team, but let’s not pretend it’s set in stone. They are going to have to stay true to their Thibs identity and earn it. The Knicks finally managed to get themselves in a position where they can be an above-average team while maintaining flexibility to grow. They have the tools to compete, so it should be one of the most fun seasons in a very long time. 

If a superstar wants to force his way here for 50 cents on the dollar, I'm not opposed either. 

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