Horrific on offense. Terrific on defense. So the New York Knicks
are halfway there, but what we learned about them in the first
round is that they are a long, long way from being a legitimate
contender in the Eastern Conference.
To say the Knicks surrendered meekly would be a misstatement,
because they were as physical in Game 5 as they were throughout the
entire first round. But it was telling that when they made their
last final burst early in the fourth quarter, Immanuel Quickley and
Obi Toppin were leading the charge while Julius Randle was watching
from the bench.
This was the first year of the Leon Rose/Tom Thibodeau era, and
it will go down as a success simply because of the fact that the
Knicks made the postseason for the first time in eight years and
actually won a playoff game. Madison Square Garden came back to
life with unbridled passion following a 14-month virtual lockdown
in New York that decimated the city’s economy, and the Knicks were
by far the most talked about team in the metropolitan area for a
full week, Brooklyn’s disassembly of Boston notwithstanding.
But the offseason has arrived on this particular Thursday, and a
team that the Knicks swept in the regular season – the Atlanta
Hawks – is advancing to play the Philadelphia 76ers in what could
be a more competitive matchup than many would anticipate if Joel
Embiid remains injured and Ben Simmons remains a liability at the
The blame for New York’s failure must be placed squarely on the
broad shoulders of the NBA's Most Improved Player Award winner,
Randle, who shot 8-for-21 (38.1 percent) Wednesday night in what
turned out to be his most proficient game of the series. He was
6-for-23 in Game 1, 5-for-16 in Game 2, 2-for-15 in Game 3 and
7-for-19 in Game 4.
After averaging 6.0 assists in the regular season, that number
dropped to 4.0 in the playoffs. In addition, he did not block one
Some soul searching is in order for the Knicks today, and in the
weeks ahead. It would be easy for them to blame the absence of
Mitchell Robinson at center and the slow development of Toppin in
his first year, but that is somewhat disingenuous. Robinson is not
exactly the second coming of Embiid (whose team also won without
him last night), and Toppin was kept on a short leash, as was
Quickley, because Thibodeau treats rookies differently and gets a
pass on it because that is just how he rolls.
But coaches must evolve, and Thibs has not. He remains a
basketball lifer whose players are extremely loyal and dedicated
and actually follow his game plans, which is a credit to his
effectiveness as a coach. He got the most out of Taj Gibson and
midseason acquisition Derrick Rose, who were known commodities in
his mind because of their shared histories.
Thibodeau also stuck with Elfrid Payton as the starter when
Payton was clearly a lost cause, and he never established a
consistent secondary-scorer role for Alec Burks in the playoffs
despite the fact that Burks was clearly stoked for this
opportunity. Some of that is on Burks, too, because after a
27-point Game 1, he shot 5-for-19 from three-point range. Rose was
their best three-point shooter at 47.1%, but he made only eight of
them all series.
RJ Barrett was okay, but okay is not what you expect from the
No. 3 pick in the draft after showing such discernible improvement
in the reglar season. The Knicks shot just 39.8% overall in the
series, second-last to Miami (who got swept by Milwaukee) by
fourth-tenths of a percentage point.
The Knicks had more personal fouls (99) than assists (93), and
their talent pool was vastly inferior to Atlanta’s. Randle, an
All-Star, had eight turnovers and three assists in Game 5. For the
series, he had 23 turnovers, and the Knicks brain trust now must
question whether he is still worth the four-year, $106 million
extension offer he was expecting to receive. A better idea may be
picking up Randle’s $19.8 team option and making him earn those
bigger bucks. The last thing the Knicks need is dead money on their
cap. They still have that with Joakim Noah.
“I thought Atlanta added some good pieces to compliment Trae
[Young] and I think that helped them,” Thibodeau said when asked
about the Knicks’ personnel priorities last offseason.
New York is desperate for shooting and size.
Rose, Burks, Payton, Gibson, Nerlens Noel, Reggie Bullock and
Frank Ntilikina (team option via a qualifying offer) will all be
free agents. Depending on who they choose to keep and who they
choose to let leave, the Knicks will have somewhere in the area of
$40 million in salary cap space to spend in a free agency pool that
will include guards Lonzo Ball (restricted), Kyle Lowry, Mike
Conley, Spencer Dinwiddie (payer option), Bruce Brown (restricted),
Devonte' Graham (restricted), J.J. Redick, Kelly Oubre Jr., T.J.
McConnell, Alex Caruso, Kendrick Nunn (restricted), Bryn Forbes
(player option), Chris Paul (player option), DeMar DeRozan, Patty
Mills, Gary Trent Jr., Raul Neto and Ish Smith.
The two best unrestricted free agents among big men are Richaun
Holmes of Sacramento and Kelly Olynyk of Houston, who likely played
himself into a massive contract after getting dealt to the Rockets
in the Victor Oladipo deal and averaging 19.0 points and 8.4
rebounds per game in 27 games.
So Leon Rose, William Wesley, Scott Perry and Thibs will have
options. If they can make the right free agent pickups, and if
Thibs loosens the reins on Quickley and Toppin, next year can be
better. Knicks fans were happy with the fourth-place finish and the
lone postseason victory, but they are not thrilled. New York had
the perfect first round matchup, or so it seemed, yet the franchise
is now dormant again until draft night, when they will select at
Nos. 19, 21, 32 and 58.
By this time a year from now, we shall know whether they made
the proper next steps or regressed to their norm. For now, there is
no hiding the fact that although this was a better season, it was
still a disappointment.
Once again for Knicks fans, it is time to look to next season
for hope instead of this season.