How the Knicks can follow up on last season’s unexpected success

After overachieving last season, the Knicks are looking to further improve and make a deep playoff run this season. Here are some key points the team should focus on to reach that goal.

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Manasa Gudavalli

The New York Knicks surprised fans last season with their early success. Still, there are a number of steps that they could take in order to improve further this season. (Staff Illustration by Manasa Gudavalli)

By Ethan Hourizadeh, Staff Writer

The early success of the Knicks last season came as a surprise. Led by breakout star Julius Randle, an improving RJ Barrett, a rejuvenated Derrick Rose and one of the deepest benches in the league, the Knicks were able to secure the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed, though they eventually lost in the first round of the playoffs to Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks. 

While the core of the Knicks team is the same, they have made some roster changes to improve the team. They upgraded at starting point guard by signing veteran Kemba Walker and inked sharpshooter Evan Fournier to a four-year, $73 million deal. The Knicks were also able to re-sign important role players like Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks. While this team is still probably a superstar away from really competing for a championship, they have more potential than last season. They’re more than capable of pulling off an upset against a top seed in a seven-game series.

On opening night on Oct. 20, the Knicks defeated the Celtics in a double-overtime thriller. The addition of Evan Fournier, who scored 32 points in that game, proved to be crucial. The Madison Square Garden crowd seemed like it was watching a playoff game, with everyone standing on their feet all night. While this was only the first game of 82, fans hope that it is a sign of this team’s resilience and a display of their clutch potential, which the team will need to keep up further into the season. Here are some of the main goals the Knicks and their players must meet in order to find success.

1. Start with Kemba, finish with Rose

Signing Kemba Walker was a surprise last-minute move in free agency from the Knicks, but it was necessary; Walker will be a significant upgrade from the recently departed Elfrid Payton. Walker’s ability to shoot from deep as well as playmake will add a dimension to the offense that the Knicks did not have with Payton on the floor. However, one player the Knicks should repeat from last year is point guard Derrick Rose, who can come off the bench to close out close games. Rose seems to have built strong chemistry with both Randle and the Knicks’ young core, and I believe having him in to close out games will help the team as a whole.

2. RJ Barrett should be the second scoring option and compete for an All-Star spot

RJ Barrett added something to his game last year that not many thought he would in his entire NBA career: a lethal 3-point shot. Barrett shot over 40% from 3-point range in the 2020-21 season and has shown no signs of regressing. While making the All-Star game this year may be a stretch, I believe Barrett will earn a spot in the conversation. The team may have more scoring options than last year, but that may work in Barrett’s favor — more floor spacing will lead to more open looks for him.

3. Trade for assets at the deadline and give those minutes to younger players

As I mentioned earlier, the Knicks re-signed both Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel in the offseason. While I wouldn’t trade these integral players for just anything, it would be wise for the Knicks to entertain offers from championship contenders that need Burks’ additional bench scoring or Noel’s interior defense. If the Knicks are able to secure valuable draft picks for these players, they could potentially throw these draft picks into a trade for a disgruntled star next offseason. Additionally, freeing up Burks’ minutes will give more playing time to Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes, both of whom have a lot to contribute to this team. 

4. Let Julius Randle cook!

Julius Randle won over New York City last year. Yes, his playoff performance was extremely disappointing, but I can’t really get mad at him — it was his first time seeing those double-teams, and not many players besides Derrick Rose were able to relieve the burden of the scoring load. Having proficient 3-point marksmen like Fournier and Barrett on the wings and shooters like Walker and Quickley who can score from the logo will add spacing for Randle. If opponents throw double-teams at him this year, I believe Randle will show his ability to kick it out to the open man, discouraging teams from leaving Knicks shooters open. Once that happens, Randle could elevate his game to the superstar level.

A version of this story appeared in the Oct. 25, 2021, e-print edition. Contact Ethan Hourizadeh at [email protected]