Now comes the truly challenging part, when Knicks president Leon Rose earns his paycheck.
The Knicks were one of the NBA’s big surprises this past season, an unexpected playoff team that pulled off a first-round upset.
They were projected, back in October, to make the play-in tournament, but they wound up as one of the final seven teams standing before they lost to the Heat in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Building off that won’t be easy.
The previous two times the Knicks reached the postseason, in 2012-13 and 2020-21, they responded by winning just 35 games in the following seasons.
The Knicks’ rotation includes just one impending free agent, midseason acquisition Josh Hart, they don’t have any draft picks, they have limited salary-cap space (the $12.2 nontaxpayer midlevel exception and the $4.5 million biannual exception) to use in free agency, and they have a long way to go to become a true title contender.
The Knicks do own a number of assets.
They have young players with upside, such as RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes, and they own 10 first-round picks in the next seven years.
There isn’t a single player making $30 million or above, rare for a playoff team.
In Jalen Brunson, the Knicks have one of the best lead guards in the game, they just need to surround him with the proper talent.
“I’ve said all along that they’re in a better spot than in 2021 when they lost in the first round,” ESPN NBA insider and former Nets executive Bobby Marks said on a conference call from the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this past week. “With these new collective-bargaining rules that are going to come [into play] this summer, they’re in a terrific spot. … There’s always going to be that next disgruntled All-Star that becomes available. We don’t know when it happens, but they’re in a really good position, probably better than they were last offseason when they went through everything with [trying to bring] Donovan Mitchell here. I think their foundation is really good.”
Shooting for the stars
The question isn’t when, it’s who.
It has become the nature of the player-empowered NBA that superstars become available after coaching changes or down years or merely because they feel restless.
Those players control everything.
Just look at last year at this time.
Nobody knew Mitchell would get traded, or that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would become available.
The Knicks, as Marks noted, have the assets to make a major move and have begun to build a winning culture that will appeal to such players.
Right now, it’s uncertain what major difference-makers will be attainable.
The most whispers surround Joel Embiid, the MVP who was once repped by Rose.
There have been rumors for months that James Harden will return to Houston, and The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Friday he is expected to do so.
The 76ers are also in search of a new coach after parting ways with Doc Rivers following another early playoff exit, further creating questions about the franchise.
Embiid may want a change.
There has been noise about another MVP, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee fired coach Mike Budenholzer days after it was sent packing in the first round by the surprising Heat.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the Knicks are monitoring the situation.
Antetokounmpo only has two years left before he can opt out of his deal and will be focused on how Milwaukee handles impending free agents Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton.
There may be other intriguing names out there.
The Celtics’ two-time Celtics All-Star wing and All-NBA second team selection, Jaylen Brown, has just one year left on his contract.
Is Boston comfortable paying two players, Brown and Jayson Tatum, on super-max contracts, which is what it would take to keep both around long-term?
Prior to his breakout season as an All-NBA first team selection, there was some thought that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be on the move.
The Thunder were still in rebuilding mode.
And though that process remains ongoing, it’s hard to see general manager Sam Presti trading the 24-year-old budding superstar, unless Gilgeous-Alexander wants to win now and has grown tired of the glacial pace at which things are still moving in Oklahoma City.
This feels like the most likely avenue for the Knicks to improve their roster this summer.
It’s not sexy, but it could be productive.
Just look at what a difference Hart made after coming over at the trade deadline: The Knicks went 17-8 to close out the regular season after his arrival.
There is expected to be a lot of movement with good, but not great, players, the attainable kind who may not be in the league’s top tier, but overall would improve a team.
Someone such as DeMar DeRozan of the Bulls, or Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby of the Raptors, or Bojan Bogdanovic of the Pistons.
They are established, battle-tested and aren’t owed big money for more than a year or two.
They wouldn’t require as huge of a package as the truly elite players would cost, though it would require the Knicks to at least make a dent into their treasure trove of assets.
They wouldn’t take the Knicks out of the running the next time one of the aforementioned superstars becomes available.
But they would make them better.
The Knicks thought they had depth until the playoffs arrived, and they were in need of another shotmaker, particularly after Immanuel Quickley sprained his left ankle during Game 3 against the Heat.
The Knicks have been linked to three big names, either in the past or present, who may become available: Zach LaVine of the Bulls, Karl-Anthony Towns of the Timberwolves and Bradley Beal of the Wizards.
They all would come with hefty price tags.
They all have warts.
None of them have won.
But there are connections to the Knicks involving the first two players, and they do have eight All-Star Game appearances between them.
Towns is a Piscataway, N.J., native, was once represented by Rose and played for Kentucky — which has basically become a Knicks subsidiary.
LaVine played for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau with the Timberwolves, though the coach did trade him for Jimmy Butler.
Those two and Beal are gifted offensive players who would improve the Knicks’ shaky 3-point shooting.
But none of them are known for their defense and wouldn’t make the same difference as one of the superstar players listed above.
Towns really doesn’t make sense, unless the Knicks plan to move the shot-blocking, offensive-rebounding dynamo Robinson.
Towns’ defensive issues also would seem to preclude him as the Knicks’ starting center.
LaVine or Beal could work alongside Brunson on offense, but the Knicks would be giving up a lot on defense in such alignments.
Pick a path
There are options and possibilities for Rose and the Knicks, difficult choices that may have to be made.
The last time the Knicks were in this situation, two years ago, they mostly ran it back with a similar team, and the result was a dismal season.
Rose did well to reverse those mistakes, leading to a strong 2022-23 season.
“We always look at what happened in Game 6 in Miami with doom and gloom, but I think if you take a backseat [and consider they] won 10 more games and you get to a conference semifinals for the first time in 10 years, that’s a positive way to go into the offseason,” Marks said.
Now the hope is Rose and company can build on that momentum and transform the Knicks into legitimate contenders.