Early on in this year’s free-agency period, alarm bells were going off near Madison Square Garden. It appeared as though the Knicks’ front office, inspired by the team’s surprising surge to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, wanted to double down on a roster that was no match for the Hawks in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Three-year deals for Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose? A four-year contract for Evan Fournier? What was next? How about getting Tom Thibodeau’s old Bulls gang back together by throwing offers to Luol Deng and Joakim Noah?
The knee-jerk reaction: Here we go again.
Yes, it was easy to take shots at Knicks president Leon Rose and general manager Scott Perry and assume they had fallen into the same bad habits as previous regimes. New York missed out on star free agents, leaving leadership under James Dolan to spend for the sake of, well, spending. All of that future cap space had not only disappeared, but was also tied to role players who may never be as effective as they were last season. “Same old Knicks!”
However, when the dust finally settled, those moves required re-evaluation.
Additional reporting indicated that the deals for Burks, Noel and Rose all included team options in the final years. Fournier’s contract followed that same structure with the $19 million in 2024-25 falling under a team option. That’s a reasonable rate for a wing who has consistently posted 15-20 points per game on efficient shooting percentages.
The Knicks then snagged Kemba Walker on a bargain-bin contract (two years, $18 million) after the four-time All-Star reached a buyout agreement with the Thunder. Injuries limited Walker in recent years, but he still averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists per game last season with the Celtics. If nothing else, he will be a significant offensive upgrade over Elfrid Payton.
To put a bow on the offseason, New York agreed to a four-year, $117 million contract extension with Julius Randle, who was coming off a campaign in which he won the Most Improved Player award and earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. Although he struggled mightily in the aforementioned postseason loss to the Hawks, that deal may ultimately be a huge win for the Knicks, as Randle could have commanded even more money next year in free agency. The 26-year-old should benefit from playing alongside legitimate offensive threats.
That last note also applies to RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin. All are under the age of 24 and should continue to refine their skill sets in an environment that fosters development. They will participate in meaningful games, an element that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Do these transactions guarantee a top-four seed and home-court advantage for a franchise that has made five playoff appearances in the last 20 seasons? No, but Knicks fans should be optimistic about how Rose and Perry are operating because it could pay off both in the short term and long term.
New York will be expected to contend for a playoff berth (or, at the very least, a play-in spot) once again in 2021-22 with Thibodeau at the helm. It was obvious how much the MSG faithful appreciated mere competence and enjoyed the refreshing product. This is how a front office builds off goodwill.
And NBA stars must have noticed the difference, too. This version of the Knicks is looking far more appealing to soon-to-be free agents or anyone considering a trade request. One other benefit of New York’s offseason, aside from adding and retaining solid players, is possessing a variety of contracts for salary-matching purposes. If Disgruntled All-Star X suddenly becomes available, the Knicks are in the conversation. That wasn’t the case when the Knicks spent the better part of two decades consumed with wishful thinking rather than actual roster building.
This feels different than the summer of 2019, when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the Nets instead of the Knicks. New York had just finished up a miserable 17-65 campaign, while Brooklyn had gone 42-40 with a nice blend of youngsters and veterans.
“If I was leaving the Warriors, it was always going to be for the Nets,” Durant told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports at the time. “They got the pieces and a creative front office. I just like what they were building.”
For once, the Knicks are practicing patience and borrowing straight from the Brooklyn playbook. Rather than crossing their fingers, prioritizing cap space over wins and dangling free agents in front of a fan base starving to root for a real team, they are banking that the Nets model can produce a similar effect for stars hungry to play in New York City.
The Knicks new mantra? “If you build it, they will come.”