2021 Offseason Primer
I lay out what awaits the Knicks over the next several months. Plus, some final thoughts on the season from Kris Pursiainen.
Good Morning! Can you smell that? The sweet aroma of unsubstantiated rumors, fake trades and unlimitted hopes & dreams. That’s right, it’s the offseason.
Today is June 7, which means two months from now, the draft will have taken place (July 29) and with it, the usual array of draft-night trades, plus teams will have begun negotiating in free agency (August 2) and actually have signed players (August 6). So yes, we have a lot to get to.
My goal, as always, will be to fully prepare you for everything that’s on the way, which means:
Draft prospect deep dives. Count on 8-10 at least, plus snapshots on a bunch more.
Free Agent pitch meetings. For once, we can be a little choosy. How nice.
Trade possibilities. If someone’s name comes up, you’ll find out everything there is to know about them here.
To kick everything off, today I’m laying everything out in one place so you have a general idea of what to look forward to. Plus, KFS intern-turned-CEO Kris Pursiainen has some final thoughts on the 2020-21 season, which we’ll close with.
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Let’s get started:
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 There were a few coaching ousters over the weekend, with Steve Clifford parting ways with the Magic, and potentially more important for the Knicks, Terry Stotts moving on from Portland.
The early word is that Damian Lillard will have a major role in selecting the next head coach, who he reportedly wants to be Jason Kidd, but could also be Chauncey Billups. This would seem to go against the possibility that Lillard marches into Neil Olshay’s office and demands a trade, but who knows.
Ian Begley had previously reported that the Knicks were monitoring Lillard’s situation, with people around the star wanting to see him in a bigger market, and then Stephen A. Smith reported that the Knicks were among several teams to call Portland recently about Lillard’s availability, along with the Clippers and Heat.
I’d heard similar rumblings a few months ago, although I have no clue as to whether Lillard has any designs on pushing his way out. If he does, you can bet that everything and everyone will be on the table in a trade. More on that in a bit.
🏀 Marc Berman reported that Thibs gave the team two weeks off before completing the traditional year-end exit meetings. Also according to Berman, new Knick PG Luca Vildoza has met with members of the front office and his new teammates.
🏀 In Sunday’s playoff action, the Hawks showed that maybe we should all be a little easier on the Knicks for their first round flameout, as Atlanta defeated Philly on the road in Game 1. The beating was far sounder than the final score indicated, with the Sixers making a late run that caused a few tense moments in the A.
Then in Game 7 of Mavs Clippers, Luka Doncic could only carry the 7’3” stooge for so long, as his 46 points weren’t enough to complete the upset. Kawhi Leonard was again brilliant, and the dreams of him leaving sunny LA for MSG were dashed as the Clippers advanced to the second round.
IG Post of the Weekend
2021 Offseason Primer
With the offseason here and both the draft and free agency around the corner, this is typically around the time where you’d get a “Top X Questions Facing the Knicks This Summer” column.
And there are questions, certainly enough to fill a newsletter or two. I’ll touch on the basics below.
In truth though, with one exception, the organization is in a fairly stable place. The lower-level uncertainties that do exist won’t have monumental consequences on the franchise moving forward, and most of the big stuff seems to be taken care of. The front office is returning in full. Thibs isn’t going anywhere. Neither is Julius Randle, whose playoff issues and subsequently raised contract issues I’ll be exploring tomorrow.
I know what some of you are thinking, but the notion that we’ll see a Randle-for-Star-Player-X trade this summer has always been a bit of a silly proposition to me. As I’ll get to shortly, if the Blazers or Clippers or whomever decided they wanted to blow it up, they’re not going to half-ass it and get only a little worse in the process.
On the Knicks side, while replacing Randle with whatever star might become available could maybe get them into the contender’s circle with several other major offseason alterations, it’s a hell of a lot easier to add that player to Randle, especially with New York’s bevy of cap space, young players and picks to offer instead.
Most importantly, Rose, Wes & Co. have purportedly established this organization as something more closely resembling a family than a business. Trading your CAA/UK MVP candidate doesn’t exactly jive.
So Randle will be back. But as was just rudely confirmed for us, he is not fit to carry a team on his shoulders in the postseason. No shame in that. Few are. No, the only major uncertainty, as is the case for most NBA teams, is how to add another star - a true star - to the mix.
That’s no slight on Randle. All you need to do is watch five minutes of the Nets or Nuggets or Mavs or Warriors or a few other teams that employ the NBA’s cream of the crop to see that there is a difference between the very, very, very good and the truly great. Even with Randle’s playoff struggles, he firmly established himself this season as a player that a Capital S Star can win with. Of that much we can be pretty sure.
What’s less certain, and is sure to cause some dissent among the fan base, is the perfect time to go out and get that star player.
The reality, of course, is that the team doesn’t get to choose the time; the time chooses you. When a star tabs you as his preferred destination, it’s like a supermodel slipping you her phone number. You may have all manner of reservations about what you’re about to get yourself into, but those are all things you’ll live to regret after you make the call and take the thing as far as it will go.
If you need proof, let’s recognize the fact that the only Head of Basketball Ops to turn down a trade for a superstar in the last decade just lost his job last week. Danny Ainge famously had opportunities to land Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and said “thanks but no thanks” to all of them, biding his time (and his picks) and keeping the faith that he could have his cake and eat it too.
Whether he was correct or not is up for debate, but what can’t be denied is that he was the exception, not the rule. Ever since LeBron changed the game in 2010, the Heat, Nets, Clippers, Lakers, Cavaliers, Raptors, Bucks, Rockets and yes, the Knicks have all made some version of an “all in” move at the price of young players and/or picks, and the Sixers (in putting Ben Simmons on the table for Harden) would love to have been added to the list.
Of all the gambling teams I mentioned, only New York never made a conference finals (with the Bucks and Nets currently battling for that right this season, and the Clippers maybe being added to the list depending on how the next round turns out). It’s why the notion of dealing young talent and a bevy of draft assets for an in-his-prime star has a bad rep in these parts.
It’s OK if that’s your stance. After all, the guy we’re talking about here - Damian Lillard, who in the irony of ironies would probably bring Melo with him, and maybe Kanter too- doesn’t guarantee a blessed thing. On paper, a core of Lillard, Randle and whatever else is left or can be signed with the left over cap space doesn’t put New York ahead of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee, to say nothing of several teams out West.
Even with that being the case, Leon Rose would crawl to Portland, balancing Obi, Quickley, Mitch and all the picks and swaps in New York’s possession atop his balding head, if it meant being able to get Lillard.
RJ is a slightly different animal. He has firmly established himself as a pillar of this franchise in just two years, as much because of his demeanor off the court as anything he’s done on it (and the on court stuff hasn’t been too shabby either). Dealing him for Lillard would not only mean sacrificing the best internal hope of a legit third banana, but also upending the possibility that #KnicksCulture is more than a one-season fad.
And if you don’t think Rose puts him into the deal in a heartbeat, you’re nuts. If everything breaks right, maybe Barrett elevates himself to the level of a Brandon Ingram or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, two players who were summarily shipped off in recent years as the LA teams built themselves into superpowers.
Swapping Dame for all the kids wouldn’t vault the Knicks vault into contention by itself, but they’d be a realistic move or two away. Maybe they’re able to keep Quickley out of the deal. Maybe they sign a DeRozan or a Dinwiddie or a Ball in free agency. Maybe they wait to make their final addition next summer. They’d deal first and figure out the rest later.
In all likelihood though, such a deal won’t be on the table, and barring Kawhi Leonard shocking the world , there is no feasible scenario where New York enters next season as part of the NBA’s inner circle.
Which is fine. That was never supposed to be the goal for next season, so soon after a new regime took over, and getting to 4th in the East shouldn’t change that. Marginal upgrades have real value.
But winning brings inherent pressures that can lead to poor decisions. Whereas a bevy of one-year contracts was seen as defensible and even wise in 2020, it would be seen as something of a failure now. The most difficult balancing act in the NBA involves maintaining momentum after a surprising season while also resisting the urge to skip steps.
That means Leon Rose needs to get out his pole and walk the tightrope. There may be moves available, such as committing significant years and dollars to older point guards like Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, or dealing a pick here and a young player there to bring in a sub-Lillard level upgrade. All of them carry significant risk. Making the wrong trade or signing the wrong player can have drastic ramifications, even after such a great season.
But they will take chances. That’s the thing about winning: you want to keep it up. So far, Leon Rose has won more than anyone expected him to, and hasn’t sacrificed anything of real value to make it happen. Now that the bar has been raised, that won’t be as easy to pull off.
Here’s betting he’s up to the task.
Other Offseason Thingamajigs, Ranked in Order of Personal Interest to Me and Me Only
End of the line? The next two Knicks in line to break the Charlie Ward Curse are Frank Ntilikina, who is entering restricted free agency, and Kevin Knox, who is extension eligible. I’d need 10-to-1 odds, at least, to bet that both will be back.
Who comes back (and at what price)? Putting the center spot aside for a moment, Derrick Rose, Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks all played pivotal roles for this team, and it’s hard to imagine all will be gone. But they also won’t all be back either. I’d be shocked if Rose went anywhere. Flip a coin between the other two.
Movin’ on up? Berman reported recently that Brock Aller will look to move up in the draft. How far can they get, and for whom? No one expects the Knicks to bring three rookie into camp with the intention of adding them all to the final roster. That spells trade.
How off-limits is RJ? I was told recently not to be shocked if Barrett’s name appears in rumors this summer, and not just involving Lillard either. The Bradley Beal situation always bears watching, and then there’s this dark horse: what if New Orleans doesn’t thinks Ingram works with Zion long term, and also wants to get something for Lonzo on his way out? I think there’s a 99 percent chance Barrett continues his rise to stardom in New York, but if the NBA has taught us nothing else, its that loyalty only cuts as deep as the nearest upgrade.
Does Randle extend? See Jeremy Cohen’s excellent breakdown of Randle’s options for a full menu of the possibilities, but I’d be mildly shocked if they don’t get something done, even if it is only an extension of a couple years with some sort of player option.
What happens at center? I don’t see Mitch going anywhere unless its in a package for a significant talent upgrade at another position, in which case Noel would be back. Otherwise, my guess is they let Nerlens walk and roll with Robinson, Taj and Pelle.
Who’s the starting point guard? You could tell me that any one of Lonzo Ball, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose, Collin Sexton, Dennis Schroeder, TJ McConnell, Kendrick Nunn or Devonte Graham would be the opening night starter next season and I would not be shocked.
by Kris Pursiainen
After spending all season being continually amazed by a team that couldn’t stop defying expectations, it was indeed difficult to not feel whelmed with disappointment due to having an up-close view of their downfall. The Big 15, for the fourth time in five games, was not able to overcome Atlanta’s exhausting offensive barrage. Once a team qualifies for the playoffs, the main focus becomes trying to win four times before their opponent can. It becomes hard to remember that they were once projected by Las Vegas to win just 21.5 games. Our expectations for Julius Randle shifted from hoping he wasn’t detrimental to our team on both ends of the court to being heartbroken when he didn’t look like a star. This makes it even harder to remember that one of the most important questions facing the team and its front office since their hirings was how long it would take them to acquire an All-Star caliber player, as opposed to the current debate amongst fans of whether or not the one on the roster is worthy of a max contract.
For the first time in the nine games that I attended this season, I watched fans leave Madison Square Garden early - presumably to beat the rush of traffic that was to ensue once the final buzzer sounded. As a fan who will always believe in watching games until their potentially upsetting ending, even when the team’s leading scorer was someone such as Emmanuel Mudiay, this upset me as it is unreasonable to use this series and its result as reason to be any less excited about the incredible steps this team took throughout this season in their journey from the very bottom of the league to contending for its title sometime in the future.
Madison Square Garden, from the moment that those fans began ditching their seats to the moment I stood outside simply taking in the atmosphere for one last time this season, was beautifully deflated. The bright lights that were such a joy to be blinded by throughout the year weren’t even on my mind until I forced myself to realize that I would be back for many more playoff games over the course of the next few years. As I exited the building with my friends, the awkwardly dejected silence that had replaced the raucous chanting after Game 2 was surprisingly upsetting. Aside from the always lively Big Knick Energy crew, many groups filing out of The Garden weren’t even conversing among themselves. However, there seemed to me to be an understanding among most of those who had remained behind to watch the team in their final futile moments that - although the final chapter was disappointing, strange, and exhausting - they were getting to reading the end to one of the most fun stories they’ve been a part of in years. The overall message of Leon Rose, William Wesley, and Tom Thibodeau’s first novel was that things are going to be alright. To have a season full of so much vitality end on such a flat note was disheartening and will certainly still take me time to fully process. However, when I took a second to look up from my sneakers as they battled the walk to the train home, I found discomfort in how calm I was. The soothingly bright lights of the midtown streets reminded me that I was at Madison Square Garden in New York City to watch the Knicks compete in the playoffs. My friend, occasional seatmate, and fellow Knicks content creator Marco - also known as Clique - has made it a point to highlight the significant difference in age up and down the roster from this team to the last one to make it to the playoffs, and for good reason! The fact that the 2020-2021 New York Knicks were not only able to make it to the postseason, but to host a first round series, should be received by rival fanbases and teams as evidence that this organization is building something not just worth keeping an eye on, but worth worrying about due to the appeal among free agents of playing for a competitive basketball team in the greatest city in the world. It would seem to me from how the year intended to lay a foundation went that there are going to be good times ahead for this franchise, its fans, and its city.
Of course I’m disappointed with the result of this series against Atlanta - not just because I believed the Knicks would win the series, but because it took Atlanta only five games to take down the team I was ready to run through a wall for each of the 81 times I sat down in a seat somewhere to watch them play. It is important to zoom out and realize that the team with the lowest payroll in the league, a surprise All-Star whose resilience, hard work, and determination might just embody the spirit of New York basketball, a former #3 overall pick who has risen to every challenge thrown his way thus far, two rookies who positively impacted the team’s playoff efforts, an athletic freak of a defensive anchor who barely got the chance to play this season, a Coach of the Year candidate, and the front office who pulled the strings that made this season possible, is going to end up being just fine. I, by all means, invite you to join me in my disappointment that we couldn’t overcome Atlanta. Just don’t forget to take a second to look up toward the future.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
I kid, I kid.
Andrea Bargnani says hi.