If the New York Knicks failed at one thing this season, it was the ability to manage expectations.
The overachieving roster that was projected to win 25 games but soared to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference in 2020-21 entered this season with the belief that their success was set to be duplicated.
However, as this season proved, the 41-win season from a year ago and the revamped backcourt portrayed a false belief that the rebuild started in 2020 by president of basketball operations Leon Rose was complete.
State of the roster
Roster status: Incomplete but with the assets to improve.
The 37-win season has been labeled in the short-term a disappointment. The Knicks went from securing home court in the East playoffs to a place they are all too familiar with — the draft lottery.
The bigger picture reveals the fine line between winning and losing in the NBA.
A year ago, the Knicks ranked ninth with a 20-16 record in games decided by five points or less in the fourth quarter. Fast forward to 2021-22, and New York dropped to 25th with a record of 18-26. The 10-loss increase can change a team’s fortune from appearing in the postseason to counting ping pong balls.
New York also lost eight games when leading by at least 15 points, most in the NBA this season, and four games when leading by at least 20 points, tied for the most by any team in a season over the last 25 years.
A combination of factors could be to blame: youth (five players under 23), a lack of point guard that can control the game, the injury to Derrick Rose, poor shot selection, end of the game lineups, the loss of a defender in Reggie Bullock.
Priority No. 1 for the Knicks’ front office and coaching staff is to address their fourth-quarter woes. Fortunately, the Knicks have the resources to take a step forward and not backward.
“We have to build one block at a time, be patient,” Leon Rose told MSG’s Mike Breen at the end of the season. “We’ve got 13 draft picks over the next three drafts, four first-round picks.
“With regard to opportunities that may come along, we’re very flexible. … We want to show prudence in making those decisions and continuing to develop what we have.”
The Knicks do not have cap space right now — their first time without it since the 2018 offseason — but do have avenues to improve, starting with a lottery pick in June to either keep or use in a trade, eight future firsts, 14 seconds and most importantly, 12 players earning between $18 million to $1.6 million.
For the Knicks to target a player like Dallas Mavericks guard and 2022 free agent Jalen Brunson, it has to come in a sign-and-trade, and that is unlikely — the Mavericks would need to cooperate. The Knicks could create close to $20 million in cap space, but that would require a team with room to take back Kemba Walker and Alec Burks.
They also have the $10.3 million midlevel and $4.1 million biannual exceptions and Bird rights to unrestricted free agent center Mitchell Robinson.
If there is a trade to be made either for an All-NBA type player or something even minor, New York has the right mix of tradable assets.
If there was one player that failed to manage expectations, it was Randle in 2021-22.
After earning All-Star and All-NBA honors, leading New York to the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14 and signing a $106 million extension, Randle was supposed to be the foundation piece around to build the roster.
“Randle was just not comfortable at times,” Rose told Breen. “He gave it his best effort. The 3-point shot just didn’t go like last year, and you had teams keying on him more this year. At the end, he made some adjustments. I was proud of the fact he did fight through it.”
Randle’s 3-point shooting dropped from 41% last season to 31% this year.
Per ESPN Stats and Information research, Randle shot 32.6% on all jump shots in 2021-22, down from 42.2% last season. (That was the only year of his career he cracked 37%.) That 9.6% drop was the fifth-largest among players to attempt 200 jumpers in each season.
“Julius is at his best when he’s running the floor, playing fast or attacking the rim,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters after the season.
“When he does that and we spray the ball and it moves fast, we’re good. I’m hopeful that we’ve learned … from the All-Star break on, I think we’ve played really good basketball and I think the numbers have [borne] that out.”
Despite Randle’s inconsistent play, his $23.8 million salary for 2022-23 ranks outside of the league’s top 50 and remains a tradable contract even with the 15% trade bonus included in his deal.
The unanswered question moving forward is if former lottery pick Obi Toppin has made Randle expendable. If not, is there a path for the two players to be on the court together?
In 10 games as a starter this season, Toppin averaged 20.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, shooting 57.1% and 43.6% from 3. He was 19-40 from deep in the last five games of the season.
Per Cleaning the Glass, both players were on the court for only 209 possessions and were a plus-0.4 points per 100 possessions.
The Barrett extension talks will play a role in how New York builds its roster.
On one hand, the Knicks could take an aggressive approach at the beginning of free agency and extend the 21-year-old forward to a lucrative but non-max contract.
Barrett is coming off a season where he averaged 20 points per game and recorded 11 30-point games, the most by a player at age 21 or younger in 2021-22, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“I love him,” Thibodeau said of Barrett after the season. “He works. Great demeanor, great kid, great teammate. Young, learning, hungry.”
Barrett has a $32.7 million free agent hold in 2023 and a contract that starts at $23 million would actually give the Knicks more cap flexibility next offseason.
If an extension does not get done, it will be for one of two reasons:
Barrett sees himself as a $181 million player, the same contract that the Grizzlies Ja Morant will receive in July. (Per Second Spectrum tracking, 69 players have attempted 800 layups and dunks since Barrett entered the league in 2019-20. He ranks last in field goal percentage on those shots among that group at 49.9%.)
The Knicks might wait, as an extension would take Barrett off the trade market if a deal to acquire an All-NBA type player arises this summer.
We will learn if the Knicks’ decision last offseason not to decline Robinson’s $1.8 million option comes back to haunt them.
Robinson would have been a restricted free agent and the Knicks would have had the right to match on an offer sheet. Because he had a $2 million cap hold, New York would still have had cap space available to use.
Robinson had an injury-plagued 2020-21 season, including a broken right foot that ended his season early. For New York, the risk with a new contract outweighed the center eventually becoming an unrestricted free agent.
This season, Robinson played the most games in his career (72), averaging 8.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 25.7 minutes. He led the league in made field goals off tips and was second in second-chance points.
And Robinson continued to excel on the defensive end. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Robinson held opponents to 45.6% shooting in the paint when contesting. That ranked in the top 10 among players to defend at least 300 shots last season.
From now until June 30, Robinson can be extended for four years, $58 million. That $14.5 million per year average is what the market for Robinson should be this offseason.
Offseason cap breakdown
Resources to build the roster
The draft: lottery pick and a second
Future assets: Eight first-round picks and 14 second-round picks
Bird rights for Mitchell Robinson
Tradable contracts: 12 players earning between $18 to $1.6 million
Exceptions: $10.3 million midlevel and $4.1 million biannual
Cash: $6.3 million to send or receive in a trade
Dates to watch
June 29: The Knicks signed Feron Hunt to a two-way contract at the end of the season and now have until the end of June to tender him to a $50,000 qualifying offer.
There is no guaranteed date on the $5.2 million salary for Taj Gibson.
Julius Randle has a 15% trade bonus in his contract. The bonus is valued at $11.5 million (the Knicks are responsible to pay). If Randle is traded prior to June 30, $2.88 million is added to his salary in the next four years, including his current $19.8 million salary for the current season. However, if Randle is traded after July 6, $3.8 million is applied but now over three years. For example, a Randle trade in July now has the acquiring team taking on a $27.6, $29.4, $31.4 and $29.5 million cap hit.
Taj Gibson has a $5.2 million non-guaranteed salary. Because there is no protection in the contract, the salary counts as zero in a trade. There have been examples in the past where a team will guarantee a portion of the salary to make the money work in a trade.
The Cam Reddish trade in early January was supposed to be an audition on how the forward will fit into the team’s future. Instead, Reddish averaged a career low 14.3 minutes and appeared in only 15 games. He separated his right shoulder in early March and missed the remainder of the season.
The Knicks have eight first-round picks in the next seven drafts, including one in the lottery this June.
Included in those draft assets is a 2023 top-10 protected first from Dallas. The first is also top-10 protected in 2024, 2025 and will turn into a 2025 second if not conveyed in any of the three seasons.
New York also has its own second this year and a total of 13 future seconds (including four in 2023).
Here’s how ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz have New York selecting in June:
No. 11 (own): Bennedict Mathurin | SF | Arizona
Mathurin made a big jump as a sophomore while leading Arizona in scoring. He fits an obvious mold as a strong-framed, 6-foot-6 wing who can space the floor from well beyond the NBA line, shoot running off screens or pulling up off the dribble and finish explosively in the open floor. He also has made strides as a ball handler and passer, while still only being 19 years old. Mathurin’s decision-making in high-leverage moments also will be closely scrutinized. He is at his best when keeping things simple, and he can be prone to huge swings of intensity and productivity on both ends of the floor, depending on the night and how well things are going early in games. The defensive end is where scouts will want to see Mathurin show better focus, especially off the ball, where he can at times be Arizona’s weakest link. — Givony
No. 42 (own): Max Christie | SG | Michigan State
Christie is a 6-foot-6 guard who has the type of footwork to develop into both an on-the-move shooter and sound defender as he continues to grow in the toughness, confidence and experience departments. When Christie’s jumper is falling, it’s easy to see him getting looks in the late first-round, projecting somewhere between Landry Shamet and Primo on his best days. Yet, Christie’s shooting has been all over the place this season, as he’s knocking down just 28.6% from beyond the arc over his past 10 games and has a tendency to play a sped-up style, running from open shots on occasion and not quite exuding the type of self-belief that would suggest he’s ready to make an NBA jump. — Schmitz