To Change Their Destiny, The Knicks Must Add A Star: Here’s How They Do It

Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Drowning in the middle of an ocean, the Knicks find themselves with just a paddle board to find their way back to land. Amongst a robust Atlantic Division filled with talent, New York is led by Julius Randle and a minute supporting cast. Yesterday, the Brooklyn Nets acquired one of the best scorers to ever live, James Harden, teaming him up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. This could very well be, the most talented three players to ever share a uniform. Looking outside of the five boroughs, Boston owns two rising stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who play alongside 4x All-Star, Kemba Walker. The 76ers are led by Joel Embiid who is off to a MVP caliber start, along with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. Currently the worst team in the division at 2-8 is the Toronto Raptors. Toronto will most definitely get their act together as they’re just too talented to not be near .500 at the end of the season (Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, and OG Anunoby). To compete and make a significant step on the basketball court, the Knicks must upgrade their talent tremendously. Although their competitors shouldn’t force the Knicks into putting all of their eggs into one basket, whether it be mortgaging the future to acquire a top-tier player now or tanking for another top draft pick; the Knicks must sell out to acquire a star. There are three clear ways to add a star in today’s NBA. Here I display the Knicks options to finding their future core.

The Draft

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The first opportunity to acquiring a star is going homegrown through the draft. The most appetizing option to a struggling team with oodles of draft capital, the Knicks would love to find their gem in the 2021 Draft. However, easier said than done. New York has had 8 1st Round Picks in the previous decade, most of which being top 10 picks. New York still finds themselves in a hole as their best selection of the decade, Kristaps Porzingis, was flipped for cap space and a bag of balls. To be fair, Porzingis has been injured for the majority of his tenure with the Mavericks and the deal offered the Knicks phenomenal financial flexibility. Outside of Porzingis, the jury is still out on R.J. Barrett and Obi Toppin. Other selections such as Kevin Knox (9th) and Frank Ntilikina (8th), have been disappointments. All four of these recent draft picks have shown potential, but it remains unlikely any of them will develop into a #1 option for the Knicks. Barrett has All-Star upside, but his woeful shooting to start the season (37.2% from the floor, 18.5% from three) doesn’t exactly help his case. Toppin should be a very solid NBA player, although there’s been little action to critique or admire from him, due to his calf strain. Perhaps he could turn into an All-Star someday, but buried behind the NBA’s 4th highest player in minutes played (Julius Randle), making significant strides could be difficult.

The Knicks do own their 2021 1st Round pick, amongst many other picks in the upcoming drafts. Another high draft pick could finally present the Knicks’ answer at Point Guard or be a future All-Star. I wouldn’t put money on that though, considering the Knicks long history of drafting and the newly structured lottery system. The Knicks will need some luck from ping pong balls along with hitting on a draft pick outside of Kentucky if they’re going to add a premier player in the 2021 NBA Draft. The upcoming draft class offers several players with high upside such as Jalen Suggs (PG from Gonzaga), Cade Cunningham (PG from Oklahoma State), Jalen Green (SG from G League Ignite), Jonathan Kuminga (SF from G League Ignite), and Evan Mobley (C from USC). As the Knicks learned from falling to #3 in the 2019 NBA Draft, landing a top pick is extremely difficult- landing an All-Star is even tougher. If the Knicks are going to find their star in the upcoming draft, Leon Rose will likely need to trade up to acquire them.

Free Agency

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Offering the easiest opportunity to acquire a star is signing one to a huge offer sheet in the offseason. The Knicks currently hold the smallest team payroll in the NBA and 6 of their top 7 paid players are on expiring contracts (R.J. Barrett is the outlier). Taking a look at the upcoming free agent class, their is some talent, but does anyone make sense for the Knicks? After Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his huge extension to stay in Milwaukee, the 2021 class is highlighted by Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul. Both players own player options and may elect to push their free agency to 2022. Chris Paul is set to make over a staggering $41M next season and likely will enjoy another year with the Suns. Leonard however could elect to opt out as he’s due roughly $34M and could make more on the open market or through negotiating an extension. Leonard’s decision to stay with the Clippers likely depends on how he visions their future and co-star, Paul George, after this season. The Clippers are currently 8-4 and arguably the only team given a real chance to knockoff the former champions (Los Angeles Lakers) and make it out of the Western Conference. Barring anything drastic occurring, I couldn’t see Leonard opting to join the Knicks in free agency as he is clearly ring chasing at this point in his career.

After Leonard and Paul, there is a significant drop in the talent pool. Victor Oladipo and Blake Griffin are both set to be available, but neither is considered the players they once were prior to major injuries. Griffin is clearly a shell of himself and Oladipo was recently acquired as a main piece for the Rockets in the Harden deal. It would be surprising if Houston doesn’t resign Oladipo. The Knicks are as always, still desperate for a Point Guard. Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry will certainly be targets for the Knicks, but unlikely signings. Holiday will be on a player option and regardless of his upcoming contractual decision, I’m sure he would like to stay in Milwaukee in efforts of winning an NBA Championship. Lowry will be 35 years old next year and that makes him a good decade off the Knicks timeline. The only studs left in the class are John Collins (restricted free agent) and Andre Drummond. Although both are special players, the Knicks currently posses Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, and Mitchell Robinson. Adding to the front court isn’t exactly a necessity for the Knicks. However, there have been rumors swirling that John Collins is unhappy with the Hawks offense led by Trae Young. This brings me to the Knicks likeliest path to acquiring a star, via a trade. Here I discuss the top candidates for the Knicks to acquire if they elect to make a splash before the trade deadline.

Trade

John Collins

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A trade could become plausible between the Knicks and Hawks if Julius Randle agrees to sign an extension with Atlanta along with multiple assets heading to the Hawks, resulting in the Knicks adding John Collins. To make the money work, Atlanta would likely throw in Tony Snell, who’s on an expiring contract ($12M). Collins is only 23 years old and a much stronger interior defender than Julius Randle (Randle has averaged 0.3 blocks per game in both the current season and last season). Trading away the hands down best player on the Knicks could either be a bonehead move, or just selling high at the right time. As I alluded to earlier, Randle is on an expiring contract. Yes, he is only 26 years old and appears to be destined to be a 2021 All-Star. However, it has become pretty obvious that him and Toppin can’t share the floor for extended action. If Leon Rose truly loves Obi Toppin the way it’s been rumored, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t see Randle as a longterm answer for the Knicks. Adding Collins would add versatility and shooting to the Knicks as he can play at Power Forward in the starting lineup next to Mitchell Robinson, while playing plenty of minutes at Center alongside Obi Toppin. Collins currently does this while playing Power Forward next to Clint Capela and then plays minutes at Center when Capela is off the floor. Collins is currently averaging 16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks per game (less than half of his 1.6 blocks per game last season). He is shooting an impressive 54.8% from the floor and 39.4% from three. Picking up Collins would be a major addition for the Knicks, but it would bring some uncertainty to their future front court as one of Collins/Toppin/Robinson would be responsible for anchoring the 2nd unit and likely traded for a guard in the future. I will admit, although I am a huge John Collins fan, calling him a star is a bit unwarranted and another Power Forward?? He’s not the ideal pickup for the Knicks, but his shooting, talent, and versatility would certainly be welcomed by the floundering Knicks.

Bradley Beal

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Russell Westbrook was a candidate for the Knicks to add prior to him being dealt to Washington, teaming back up with his old coach, Scott Brooks. Westbrook and the Wizards are off to a troubling 3-8 start, despite Bradley Beal leading the NBA in points per game (34.9). The Wizards inexplicably found a way to waste Beal’s career high, 60 points, in a 141-136 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers a little over a week ago. After losing their next game 116-107 Friday to the Boston Celtics, Beal claimed, “we can’t guard a parked car.” Prior to the season starting, Beal spoke out about wanting to be a Wizard. Perhaps their recent struggles are starting to make him feel differently. Beal is on the books for another three years, set to make just under $29M this season, just north of $34.5M the following season, and a little over $37M the year after that. He does own a player option for that final year. Adding a 27 year old star who’s under contract for several years, won’t come cheap. James Harden just hauled the Rockets 4 1sts, Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, and 4 1st Round pick swaps. Any deal involving the Knicks acquiring Bradley Beal would likely have to start with the Knicks offering R.J. Barrett and multiple 1sts. As they say, “you have to give a little to get a little.” Bradley Beal is the real deal, averaging 34.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. Beal averaged over 30 points and 6 assists per game last season and has proven to be one of the best shooters in the NBA (has shot over 35% from three in all 9 seasons of his career). Barrett, the prized possession of the Knicks would be tough to give up, but watching Bradley Beal scorch the Garden night in and night out doesn’t sound too bad either. A core of Bradley Beal, Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, and Mitchell Robinson wouldn’t be too shabby. Given, Randle or Robinson could be involved in the deal too if it were to happen. Perhaps the likeliest offer for both sides to agree upon would be R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, Dennis Smith Jr., 2-3 1sts, and 2 2nds. That package would be tough to swallow for Knick fans as it would mortgage a chunk of the future. The upside to the deal is the Knicks would finally have their star, several young pieces to grow with him (Toppin, Robinson, Quickley, Knox, Ntilikina), and plenty of cap space to work with. As of now, the Knicks aren’t exactly a sexy destination for free agents. Perhaps Bradley Beal could change that? Or, perhaps it would set the Knicks back another five years? The answer to that relies on which you have more faith in- Bradley Beal, Obi Toppin, and cap space or R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, Obi Toppin off the bench, a high 2021 draft pick, and cap space.

Karl-Anthony Towns

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Lil Yachty said it best, “You need to stay up out them streets if you can’t take the heat / Cause it get cold like Minnesota, cold like Minnesota.” I like to think he was talking about the Timberwolves, rather than the weather. The Timberwolves are currently 3-8 and dating back to the 2005-06 season, they’ve had a record over .500 just one time! Queue the applause, that one season was in 2017-18 when Minnesota was being coached by Tom Thibodeau (Thibodeau was also their President of Basketball Operations). Karl-Anthony Towns is in his 6th NBA season and has only made the playoffs once. During that 2017-18 season with Thibodeau, Towns posted careers bests in FG% (54.5%), 3P% (42.1%), DREB (9.4), TOV (1.9), and Double-Doubles (68). He is one of the most prolific bigs in the league, averaging at least 18 points and 10 rebounds per game in every season he’s been in the NBA. Towns is especially great because of his ability to space the floor on offense while commanding the paint defensively. He shot 41.2% from three in 7.9 attempts per game last season, while averaging 1.2 blocks per game. In his first four games this season, Towns is averaging 22 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.8 blocks per game. He’s also shooting a slash of 46%/37.5%/96% (FG%/3P%/FT%). Towns is without question a top five Center in the league. He is also a former Kentucky Wildcat. The Timberwolves may be forced into blowing it up and looking to build around their 1st Overall Pick, Anthony Edwards. The Knicks could offer a strong package of Mitchell Robinson, their 2021 1st Round Pick, and other pieces such as Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox and more draft compensation. Mitchell Robinson is one of my favorites, but a core of Barrett, Toppin, Randle, and Towns could be too good to pass up on. Towns’ ability to shoot from three at a high clip would only open up space and enhance the play of Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett.

Zach LaVine

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The Chicago Bulls may own the 4th leading scorer in the NBA, Zach LaVine, but it isn’t making much of a difference. Through the first eleven games of the season, the Chicago Bulls are 4-7 despite LaVine averaging 27.7 points per game. Chicago clearly lacks talent, owning a core of LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr., and Patrick Williams. The Bulls certainly don’t posses the worst team in basketball, but they are stuck in the worst place… mediocrity. Otto Porter Jr. and his $28M come off the books this summer, but they will have to distribute his cap space in an extension to keep Lauri Markkanen. Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. have both shown to be solid pieces, but they aren’t players who move the needle for Chicago. Patrick Williams appears to have been a bit of a reach at #4, as he is only averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, despite playing 26.5 minutes a night. Williams is an all-around player with upside, but again, he doesn’t move the needle. Chicago needs to retool and deal LaVine if they ever want to be more than a 6-8 seed in the East. Chicago hasn’t won 28 games in each of the last three seasons. Continuing to add to their draft capital and young core appears to be the smart play for them. LaVine who is 25 years old and has two years left on his deal at a team-friendly $19.5M, could haul them a serious package. Over the past two seasons and this season, LaVine has been more than a prolific scorer. He has averaged over 23 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal per game. Not only has LaVine showed he can score at will playing on or off the ball, he’s done it during the biggest moments. LaVine is 2nd in the NBA, scoring 71 4th Quarter points this season, just one point shy of the leader, Gordon Hayward. This isn’t a fluke as LaVine was 8th in the NBA last year, scoring 411 points in the 4th Quarter (in just 59 games). New York has been in dire need of a closer ever since Carmelo Anthony left the squad back in 2017. The Knicks would likely have to offer R.J. Barrett or their 2021 1st Round Pick in any offer to acquire Zach LaVine. Chicago is last in the NBA in turnovers per game (17.8) and 29th in the NBA in Defensive Rating (115.9). I’d imagine the services of Frank Ntilikina would be of interest to the Bulls. If the Knicks were lucky, they could push a package of their 2021 1st Round Pick, Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, 2 future 1sts (possibly utilizing the Mavericks’ picks they own), and a couple 2nd rounders for LaVine. More likely, the Knicks would need to offer R.J. Barrett, Frank Ntilikina, and 2 future 1sts. LaVine’s low salary would allow for the Knicks to resign Randle and still have money to spend on the open market, this offseason. Is he worth the price tag though?

What Do I Think?

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Personally, I think the easy choice is sticking to your guns. Grow the youth, resign Randle for three years (trade him if/when Toppin is ready to take his spot), and hope to hit in the 2021 Draft. Yet, I don’t believe this is the answer. Time and time again the Knicks haven’t found their star through the draft. The Knicks youngsters have shown flashes, but if we’re being honest, it’s likely none of them can be a #1 option on a high caliber basketball team (including Julius Randle). Like most Knick fans, I adore Mitchell Robinson and still have faith Barrett will find his jumper, but are they of the same planet of value in adding a player such as Bradley Beal/Zach LaVine/Karl-Anthony Towns? Of course not. I’m not giving up on the youngsters, nor have I lost faith in Leon Rose and Co. to find gems in the rough through the draft. I am simply trying to allow for my Knicks bias to take a backseat and evaluate New York’s players on the same scale as the rest of the league’s. The Knicks need a star if they’re ever going to get over this hump of being a couple players away. I hate to say it, but if dealing the 2021 1st Round Pick + R.J. Barrett or Mitchell Robinson lands them the right star, the Knicks have to do it. Let me emphasize, the right star. Rose can ill afford to swing and miss on a big trade. Rose also can ill afford to not swing the bat at all. Like always, it will be very telling and interesting to see how the Knicks attack upgrading their talent and finding their future core. Who’s my guess at who they try to pry away? Of course, the former Wildcat and New Jersey product, Karl-Anthony Towns.

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