Basketball Insiders’ “Now What” series examines teams on the precipice of success. Some will succeed in their attempt to join the elite, while others will squander an opportunity or are simply out of time. Today, we’ll dissect the New York Knicks, their 2020-21 season and where they go from here.
The New York Knicks had a miraculous season relative to preseason expectations. They secured the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference after winning 56.9 percent of their regular season games, ended the season with the league’s third-best defensive rating and proudly sent a representative to the All-Star game for the first time since 2017-18. The Knicks also possess the league’s 13th youngest roster with four of their key players younger than 22 years old (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Mitchell Robinson).
Ultimately, the future looks bring in New York. But while this season was a nice change-of-pace story for a franchise that’s had little (to no) positive news mentions of late, there’s plenty of work to do to go from the first round of the playoffs to perennial title contender. So, now what for the Knicks?
Coaching staff and defense: The Knicks exited the 2019-20 season among the worst defensive teams in the NBA – but that didn’t last long. Much of their defensive improvements can be attributed to first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau inherited a hodgepodge of defenders, but his strategies and philosophy got maximum production from the group. As mentioned above, the Knicks were the third-best defensive team in the league according to defensive rating, with the Knicks giving up 108.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a significant improvement from 2019-20, when they were the 23rd best defense (113.0).
And while they are unlikely to receive any All-Defense nods, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson proved to be incredibly valuable signings in replacing Robinson after he suffered a fractured hand and a fractured foot.
But it wasn’t just production from the center position. The team’s coaching staff got maximum production out of Julius Randle and Barrett, both of whom were previously seen as defensive liabilities.
And just in case there was any doubt in Thibodeau’s impact, he was named Coach of the Year last week.
Shooting and efficiency: While improvements were evident on defense, no one worries about a Thibodeau team on the defensive end of the floor. The offense appeared to be a problem early on, though, and it was partially due to the team’s subpar three-point shooting. The Knicks shot just 35 percent on their three-point attempts through December and January.
But the Knicks had a surprise in store for everyone, shooting 40.6 percent from downtown in 51 games between February and May. A lot of that progress had to do with Randle and Barrett, both of whom struggled mightily with the long ball last season. Randle, whose shooting came apart in this post-season, shot a career-best 41 percent on three-point attempts over the entire season. And Barrett shot an incredible 40 percent from downtown, hitting on 48.2 percent on his three-point attempts in April and 45.5 percent in May.
Bullock, Burks, Rose and Quickley all shot the ball incredibly well, too.
Randle and Barrett: Ultimately, though, Randle is the team’s biggest strength entering the offseason. In addition to powering the team from a scoring standpoint, he also operated as its primary facilitator, averaging a career-best 6 assists per game and tallying 6 triple-doubles through the year. He secured his first All-Star selection, establishing himself as an unquestionable star and (possibly) putting New York back on the map as a free agent destination.
Barrett isn’t far behind Randle in terms of aspects of the team about which we should be enthusiastic. After a disappointing rookie season, Randle clearly made changes. He improved his overall shooting (40.2 percent to 44.1 percent) and three-point shooting (32 percent to 40.2 percent). He also boosted his overall scoring (14.3 to 17.6 points per game), while cutting his turnovers (2.2 to 1.9) and increasing his assists (2.6 assists per game to 3.0) and rebounding (5.0 rebounds per game to 5.8).
Barrett still has to improve his finishing around the rim, as well as his jump shot off-the-bounce. But Barrett just turned 22 and is entering only his second off-season as a pro. He showed more than enough to make the Knicks comfortable in his future.
Guard play: The Knicks entered this season with holes in their guard rotation – and at the heart of it is Elfrid Payton. Payton was a major offensive liability, and that’s supported by virtually every metric imaginable. He ended the year with a -9.4 on/off per 100 possessions, he posted a measly 11.7 PER and he finished with a -.5 VORP (volume over replacement player).
The arrival of the 32-year-old Rose buoyed their backcourt a bit, but it wasn’t enough.
Still, coach Thibodeau stuck with Payton as their starter through the entirety of the regular season, finally caving and inserting Rose in game three of the first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Knicks must finally address the elephant in the room and bring in a starting-caliber point guard – and had they known they’d be competitive this season, they probably would have done so last year.
Shooting volume: Despite the improvements in shooting listed above, shooting issues remain. And just one juxtaposition is needed to demonstrate it: New York shot the third-best three-point percentage in the league while attempting the fourth-least three-pointers for the season. That’s a problem.
But some of the problem is roster construction, and a lot of that has to do with, again, the team outperforming expectations. The bottom line is the Knicks probably didn’t think they would need more shooters.
Bullock, Randle, Burks, Quickley and Barrett were their only players to average more than 4.0 three-point attempts per game. All five never share the floor (obviously), and the team’s most seven most commonly utilized lineups, accounting for 43 percent of the team’s total minutes this season, feature three of them or fewer.
As the team looks to re-sign (and replace) players this offseason, they’ll probably look to add a point guard and another wing, both of whom will hopefully be upgrades or additions from a shooting standpoint.
Draft picks: The Knicks are in a position of power from a draft standpoint. They own four draft picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, three of which are meaningful – 19, 21 (Dallas’ first-rounder) and Detroit’s 2nd rounder.
What the Knicks ultimately decide to do with their picks is anyone’s guess – and they’ll probably keep their cards close to the vest – but one thing’s for sure, they do not need to add three or four more young players to their rotation.
Assuming they can find a trade partner, packaging some combination of 19, 21 and Detroit’s 2nd should net them at least a late-lottery pick, like the Warriors second-lottery pick (14th overall), if not higher.
Ultimately, there are still lots of holes on the Knicks roster exiting this season, and there could be even more if they renounce a number of their own free agents in pursuit of an upgrade. On the bright side, roster holes means they won’t have to draft for position.
Depending on what the Knicks do with their free agents, they could free up as much as $70 million in cap space. Only four Knicks have fully guaranteed contracts for next season — Barrett, Toppin, Quickley and Kevin Knox II. Randle has a partial guarantee on his $19.8 million salary, and there is a team option for Robinson ($1.8 million). Further, Luca Vildoza and Norvel Pelle have non-guaranteed contracts, and Frank Ntilikina is due a qualifying offer, enabling him to enter restricted free agency.
The rest of their roster will be unrestricted free agents. There will be varying degrees of interest in bringing back Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Reggie Bullock, but there is virtually no chance of a reunion with former Magic-lottery pick, Elfrid Payton.
Ultimately though, the Knicks have two major decisions to make – what to do with Randle and who they can add to help them get to the next level. The former is mostly out of their hands. The Knicks will offer him as much as they can (4 years/$106 million). He will decline in hopes of securing a 5 year/$201 million contract next offseason. And no one can really blame him for it.
The latter point, though, is crucial. Ultimately, the biggest need is at point guard. And there will be free agent point guards available including Chris Paul (player option), Kyle Lowry (unrestricted free agent) and Lonzo Ball (restricted free agent).
Paul is currently 36 years old and Lowry is 35 – so neither is a long-term solution. As far as Ball is concerned, he will have several serious suitors, including the Bulls and Pelicans, as well as the Knicks.
If none of the above work out, the Knicks can also set their sights on younger options like restricted free agents 26-year-old Devonte’ Graham or 25-year-old Kendrick Nunn.
One thing is for sure, though: the Knicks need to upgrade the point guard position – and one of the aforementioned five players could be the answer.
The Knicks are in control of their important pieces, but there is still one major threat looming…
Regression: After a wildly successful season, the Knicks were escorted out of the playoffs in a gentlemen’s sweep by the Atlanta Hawks. Now, credit the Hawks, who played insanely well. But the Knicks, and mostly Randle, came up very short.
Randle, after posting a career year across the board, short an ice-cold 29.7 percent from the field, while looking lost amidst the defensive schemes concocted by Hawks’ coach Nate McMillian. Could next season’s iteration of Randle look more like the guy who averaged just 18 points per game in his five playoff games? Or will he look more like the player we saw throughout the regular season?
Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure – Randle is a worker. He got in the lab and improved in a way that surprised virtually everyone even remotely connected to the league, this writer included. Expecting a similar jump would be crazy, but he will probably work tirelessly to diagnose and solve whatever malfunctioned. Additionally, with a hopefully improved Barrett and a new co-star to be named later, Randle could look even better without improving – and betting on no strides in Randle’s game would amount to a bad wager.
Burn out: Coach Thibodeau has been criticized for overplaying his stars for the entirety of his coaching career (and I assessed the idea of player burnout and how it might impact Randle earlier this season here). But beyond the physical toll taken by heavy minutes on star players is the idea Thibodeau’s intense presence results in an immediate pump, which is ultimately an overinflated result. Could his voice weaken in year two with the Knicks simply because it’s no longer fresh?
Let’s get to the bottom of this by examining Thibodeau’s past. Thibodeau’s first two seasons in Chicago ended with him winning 75.6 percent of all games. Then, he won just 55 percent, 58.5 percent and 61 percent of his games in his next three seasons, respectively.
In Minnesota, he won 37.8 percent in his first season. Then, the Timberwolves took a hyperbolic jump to a 57.3 winning percentage in year two, and then back down to 47.5 percent.
Does that provide any conclusive evidence in favor of the idea that Thibodeau loses his locker rooms? NO.
Thibodeau and the Knicks are a match made in heaven. Thibodeau will be fine. The Knicks will prosper under his guidance. Relax, New York. Nothing to see here.
Ultimately, the Knicks had an incredible season that was muddied by its ending, but it’s always tough to see the forest through the trees. Try to remember that the Knicks won 41 (of their 72) games this season. It took more than the previous two seasons combined to come up with that many wins. Are they championship contenders yet? No. But they skipped right past the mediocre step of the rebuilding process – and that is something.
NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit
Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.
It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.
Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.
Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.
Cade Cunningham on his impressions of the city of Detroit pic.twitter.com/jIXItQYGx7
— Rod Beard (@detnewsRodBeard) July 23, 2021
Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.
Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.
Cade Cunningham projects as a mid-post killer due to his size, footwork & touch inside of 15 feet. Really effective with his face-up shimmy, can get to jump hooks with either hand and has the makings of a turnaround game. More on Cunningham's go-to moves. https://t.co/dptqk6czxG pic.twitter.com/uiK7LQyNlo
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) July 24, 2021
Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.
Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.
As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.
The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.
Cade Cunningham is the most complete basketball player that I can remember coming into the draft. pic.twitter.com/lZpkwsbimk
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) July 28, 2021
As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.
The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.
Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.
There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.
Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.
While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.
Team Argentina vs. Spain – Preview, Prediction, & Betting Picks
On Thursday, July 29th at 8:00 a.m. (EST), Argentina will take on Spain in this Group C preliminary round matchup. The Spaniards will enter this game as the selected favorites, while the Argentinians embrace their underdog role, as they lost their opening game 118-100 against Mavericks’ guard Luka Doncic and the Slovenian team. The last time Spain won the gold medal for the men’s team was at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, where they defeated Argentina 95-75.
Date & Time: Thursday, July 29th at 8:00 a.m. (EST)
Location: Saitama Super Arena; Saitama, Japan
Availability: Peacock (live) & NBC Sports Network (delayed)
Spread: Spain -8.5 (+100) (per DraftKings Sportsbook)
Best Moneyline: Spain -400, Argentina +300
- Table odds retrieved from DraftKings
Argentina vs. Spain Preview
Team Argentina’s starting lineup in Thursday morning’s game consists of Facundo Campazzo, Luca Vildoza, Patricio Garino, Luis Scola, and Marcos Delia. In the team’s 118-100 defeat versus Slovenia, in 27 minutes played, forward Scola led the team on the stat sheet, accumulating 23 points, four rebounds, one assist, and one block. Guard Campazzo also earned 21 points, six rebounds, four assists, and three steals. According to Bovada’s Olympic futures odds, the Argentinians have the eighth best odds to win the gold medal, with +8000 futures odds. Argentina has the third best odds (+2000) of winning Group C.Argentina vs. Spain Preview
Moreover, the starting lineup for Spain consists of Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Hernangomez, Victor Claver, and Marc Gasol. Their bench also includes two-time NBA champion center Pau Gasol. In the Spaniards’ 88-77 victory over Japan, Rubio led the team all across the board, leading the team with 20 points, two rebounds, and nine assists. Forward Claver finished his performance with 13 points, nine rebounds, and one steal. Additionally, with +1000 futures odds, Spain has the fifth best odds of winning the gold. Spain has the second best odds (EVEN) of winning Group C.
Prediction: Spain wins by 8 points
Team Spain are the more trustworthy, superior bet in this matchup. Pau Gasol, the seven-foot-one six-time NBA All-Star, is 41-years-old. Marc, his brother, is also 36. Leading into the Tokyo Olympic Games, basketball experts and bettors were wondering if age would be a significant factor for the Spaniards. However, thus far, it has been quite the contrary. Ricky Rubio has also proven to be an important piece for helping the team to become legitimate title contenders. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Rubio averaged 8.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 6.4 assists.
As for Argentina, Scola and Campazzo are carrying the team right now. In their 18-point loss to Slovenia, the Argentinians shot 5-for-31 (16.1 percent) from beyond the arc. To add insult to injury, the team was out-rebounded 59 to 32 overall. This cannot happen against the top contenders, such as versus Slovenia, France, Spain, or the USA. Sooner or later, the wheels on the wagon will eventually fall off. There are bettors giving Spain a -12.5 point spread in this matchup, but it might be best to stick with the -8.5 spread, first provided by DraftKings. In this game, some bettors are anticipating a 20-point blowout repeat of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Final.
NBA releases schedule for Summer League 2021
On Wednesday, the NBA announced the broadcast schedule for the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA had to cancel the Las Vegas Summer League last year in 2020. Fast forward to today, the 17th annual NBA Summer League will air live this year in Las Vegas, Nevada from August 8-17. During the 10-day tournament, the 75 total games will be broadcasted on these network channels: NBA TV, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPNews.
Plus, the games can be watched live with the ESPN app. WatchESPN is free, but according to ESPN.com, the user must be a subscriber of a major cable service, such as AT&T U-Verse, BendBroadband, or Xfinity. Anyways, through the NBA.com website, tickets can be bought via the NBA Events section of the site. Each of the 30 NBA teams will play a total of five games over the course of the short, competitive tournament.
The Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion stadiums will host six to eight games per day. According to the 2021 schedule, for games 17-22 on Tuesday, August 10th, only six games will be played this day. The 75th game of the competition, the final matchup, will be the championship game. The 28 teams that fail to qualify for the championship game will play their fifth and final game on either August 16th or 17th. The title game is scheduled for Tuesday, August 17th at 9:00 p.m. (EST) on ESPN.
The Summer League 2021 tips off with a matchup between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks at the Cox Pavilion. This game is scheduled for Sunday, August 8th at 1:00 p.m. (EST) on NBA TV. The first four teams selecting in the 2021 NBA Draft will also be playing on this day: Detroit Pistons (No. 1 pick), Houston Rockets (No. 2 pick), Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 3 pick), and the Toronto Raptors (No. 4 pick). At the Thomas & Mack Center, the Raptors vs. Knicks game is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. (EST) on ESPN2. Then, the Trail Blazers will face the Hornet at 6:00 p.m. (EST) on NBA TV.
For the opening game on the second day, the Pelicans will play the Bulls at 3:00 p.m. (EST) on ESPN2, followed by the Mavericks versus 76ers at 4:00 p.m. (EST) on NBA TV. There are several different games viewers can choose to watch over this 10-day span. Brandon Clarke was the most recent player to win the Las Vegas MVP award, in the Summer League of 2019. Clarke was drafted 21st overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2019 NBA Draft.
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