Season Preview: Knicks Primed to Take a Step Forward
By: JOSEPH SIMILE / STAFF WRITER
After an exciting preseason in which we saw the New York Knicks post a perfect 4-0 record, we are preparing for the Knicks’ 2021-2022 NBA season.
Team President Leon Rose certainly got busy during the offseason, making key additions in former all-star point guard Kemba Walker and his new backcourt mate Evan Fournier. The Knicks appear to have drafted some hidden gems as well, with Quentin Grimes (25th pick), Miles McBride (36th pick) and Jericho Sims (58th pick).
The team was also able to extend their All-NBA centerpiece Julius Randle to a team-friendly deal and bring back key contributors Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel. The team’s younger core pieces were all retained (R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox II), and just before the season begins, the Knicks signed former 1st-round pick Luka Samanic to a two-way deal.
But, how will this team perform? What obstacles will they face this upcoming season? Will they be able to repeat the success of last season?
The Starting Lineup
Let’s start with how the lineups will shake out. It’s more than likely we will see the team's starting lineup being Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.
However, given Robinson’s health, it is unclear if he will be included in the starting lineup on opening night. Robinson played in his first game since March during the October 15th preseason game. While he was able to corral nine rebounds and had some nice plays, fans noted Robinson appeared to struggle physically, getting winded rather quickly. However, that is expected after a seven-month hiatus. Endurance takes time to build up, and Robinson will be in typical game shape soon enough.
Nerlens Noel is currently struggling with an injury of his own, and did not see any time in the preseason.
While it is unclear whether or not Robinson will start opening night, the Knicks will have some quality options to lean back on: veteran Taj Gibson was incredible in the preseason, averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds in just 22 minutes, while Jericho Sims was also a pleasant surprise, averaging 5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in just 19 minutes.
It is also important to note that head coach Tom Thibodeau was a big fan of the lineup he used to close the Knicks last preseason game against the Wizards, featuring Derrick Rose, Quentin Grimes, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle and Obi Toppin.
While Small-ball isn’t exactly coach Thibodeau’s forte, the possibility of putting an extra wing out and sliding Randle to center or starting both Randle and Toppin together in the front-court does exist.
I expect the center position to be fluid for the Knicks, especially in terms of the bench. I believe we’ll see quite a lot of minutes from both Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel, and I expect some Small-ball minutes from Randle and Toppin, as well as some stints from Sims during garbage time or when the Knicks are struggling with injuries or fouls.
On top of the previously mentioned starters, expect major minutes from a bench unit composed of Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. All four of these players will see significant minutes from the bench, and each will provide an offensive spark when needed.
As for McBride and Grimes, both are incredibly talented players who are deserving of minutes; however, given Thibodeau’s track record with rookies, as well as this teams incredible depth, it’s unlikely that they’ll have regular roles — we’ll see stretches of both of them, but barring major injury, they won’t be playing as many minutes as the guys mentioned above.
Regarding Kevin Knox, while he shot exceptionally well in preseason, he still struggled tremendously on the defensive end and will likely be grouped into the same category as Grimes and McBride, minutes wise.
As for Wayne Selden, despite Thibodeau raving about his practicing, I expect him to be more of injury insurance than a serious contender for minutes on this roster, similar to Theo Pinson of last season’s Knicks (the bench mob misses you already Theo).
When it comes to the teams playstyle, we know as always with Thibodeau, it will be defense first.
This team will be playing hard for 48 minutes every single night, rotating and closing out like maniacs. While the Knicks had, arguably, some defensive downgrades going from Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, I don’t believe it’s as big of a discrepancy as mainstream NBA media makes it out to be, if there will even be one at all.
Many fans, myself included, found Payton’s defensive effort to be lackluster at best, and while Bullock certainly had a satisfactory defensive showing, he isn’t an All-Defensive candidate. It’s possible Fournier could be comparable, even if he won’t be taking the same, tough assignments Bullock was given.
Despite what the Knicks may potentially have lost defensively, they have gained tons more on offense.
Kemba Walker’s ability to break down the defense and create advantages was something the Knicks were sorely lacking last season outside of Randle and Rose, and his shooting gravity opposed to Elfrid Payton’s negative gravity will open up the offense immensely for the other players on the floor.
While Bullock was a fantastic shooter, Fournier also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and has solid secondary playmaking abilities. This will add some further gravity to the Knicks offense, and will become especially prevalent in the playoffs.
Much of the Knicks’ previous success defensively, came from scheme and effort, as opposed to defensive ability or physical tools — something that we can expect from the new defensive additions.
Looking at this upcoming season, the biggest questions surrounding this team are as follows: How will Julius Randle play in the playoffs? Will the Knicks opponents start shooting better from the three-point line? Has this team improved enough to keep up with the rest of the east?
Regarding Julius Randle at playoff time, the additions of Fournier and Walker will be lifesavers for Randle in the postseason. Adding two creators next to him, while Barrett and Quickley both continue to improve their creation abilities, further supplements an incredibly dynamic offense, and opens up many possibilities for play calling and potential lineups to match up with. The Knicks will be able to truly have a layered, modern offense this season.
As for the Knick’s opponent three-point percentage, although it regressed last season, it was quickly overshadowed as their offense regressed at the same time. I believe the opponent's three-point percentage will still be low this season — mostly due to the Knicks’ defensive scheme.
When it comes to whether the team improved enough, there has been a lot of talk about the Bulls’ improvements and other teams becoming healthier, while the Knicks new backcourt seems to have flown a bit under the radar. I think it’s fair to be confident that the Knicks will finish with a better record than teams such as the Bulls, the Hornets, the Pacers, and potentially even the Celtics. It’s likely we’ll see a competitive mix between these five teams, however it’s entirely realistic the Knicks could be the best of the pack.
Conversely, it is also possible that the Knicks could be the worst of the bunch. However, given the Knicks incredible depth, paired with the starting lineup they hope to trot out, I think it’ll be hard for many teams to match their production and defense night-in and night-out.
Overall, I think we’re in for an incredibly fun Knicks season. This group of guys are going to work and play hard, and I predict they’ll fall around the 5th or 6th seed. It is likely that this team can win 50 games, however these predictions shouldn’t be taken as fact. A lot can happen in an NBA season; injuries happen, guys sit, and as we now well know, sometimes outside variables can affect basketball. The Knicks and their fans are in for a great season, and many more to come.