The 2021-22 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
The New York Knicks made their first playoff appearance since 2013 last season, securing the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed before Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks tore them asunder in the first round.
The Knicks kept their overachieving core together, committing a combined $189 million to Julius Randle, Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks over the next three years. They also added a pair of somewhat splashy free-agent signings, securing Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker for another $90.9 million combined.
Looking at that hodgepodge of players reminds us why Tom Thibodeau captured Coach of the Year honors. He squeezed 41 wins in a 72-game regular season out of a team that started Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock at the positions now occupied by Walker and Fournier. Even with sizable upgrades at point guard and on the wing, there is a real chance the Knicks fall into the play-in tournament and out of the playoffs.
The Boston Celtics felt fine letting both Walker and Fournier walk, and they are among a handful of teams hoping to leapfrog the Knicks in the standings. Neither player will help the Knicks repeat as a top-five defensive outfit, which means they better improve an offense that ranked 23rd in efficiency last season.
Walker missed 29 games last season with chronic knee problems that have also severely limited him in each of the past two postseasons. The Celtics packaged draft picks with the two years and $74 million left on Walker's contract to re-acquire Al Horford from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a cost-cutting move. Walker sacrificed $20 million in a buyout with the Thunder, recouping $17.9 million of it from New York.
The Knicks are relying on Walker and Rose — a pair of injury-plagued 30-somethings — along with second-year guard Immanuel Quickley, to run the point this season. The variance there is incredibly wide.
Even wider might be the production of Randle, whose career year last season earned him the NBA's Most Improved Player award. Randle submitted career highs almost across the board last season, taking giant leaps both as a playmaker and 3-point shooter. He nearly doubled his assist rate and transformed from a 30% career 3-point shooter on 1.5 attempts per game to a 41% marksman on 5.5 attempts a night.
Randle's season earned him second-team All-NBA honors and a four-year, $117 million contract extension over the summer, removing financial incentives from his motivation. The odds of Randle ranking as a top-10 player again feels far-fetched, and the Knicks cannot afford him dropping below All-Star-level status again.
They certainly cannot afford for Randle to be the disappointment he was in the playoffs, when he averaged 18 points on 30% shooting and four assists against five turnovers in a lopsided five-game first-round exit.
Randle, Rose, Burks and RJ Barrett all shot better than 40% from distance for the Knicks last season. In 28 previous seasons combined, only Burks had ever shot better than 40% in any campaign. That feels fluky. Likewise, opponents shot a league-worst 33.7% on 35.6 3-point attempts (10th-highest) against the Knicks last season. Any reversion to the mean on either side of the ball will only trim New York's margin for error.
Barrett is New York's wild card. Playmaking from Walker and Fournier might help offset a potential return to Earth for Randle, but Barrett is the one player who is due to make a leap in his third season. The former No. 3 overall pick already showed significant improvement in his sophomore campaign. A rise to stardom would obviously help the Knicks hold onto a home playoff seed, as would incremental improvements from young contributors Quickley, Obi Toppin and Mitchell Robinson (who still remains sidelined following foot surgery).
Even if the Knicks see marginal progression from their under-25 contingent, they could be in danger of falling into the play-in tournament. The Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets are firmly favorites to finish as top-two seeds in the East. The Hawks proved their mettle on a conference finals run. The Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls added talent to teams already boasting multiple All-Stars. The Celtics are looking to bounce back from a miserable season in which their best seven players never saw the court together.
That is seven teams with a realistic chance of finishing ahead of the Knicks in the standings, and we have not even mentioned last season's No. 1 seed, the Philadelphia 76ers, who could be another threat once they resolve Ben Simmons' holdout from training camp. Likewise, the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors will all enter the season with legitimate playoff aspirations.
Eight East teams have a higher over/under for regular-season wins than the Knicks, according to BetMGM.
Even the Cleveland Cavaliers could be in the hunt for a play-in berth. Where that leaves the Knicks remains to be seen, but they enter the season with just as many question marks as any team not based in Brooklyn or Milwaukee, if not more. Can Randle recapture his magic? Are Walker and Fournier enough of an upgrade offensively to offset a defensive drop-off? Will the Knicks survive Thibodeau's grinding style in their encore?
Anything short of an answer in the affirmative to all of those questions is a serious threat to "the Knicks are back" narrative, save for Damian Lillard or some other star requesting a trade to New York. And in an effort to avoid a fully pessimistic outlook, let us not entertain what failure might mean for their long-term future.
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