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Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Knicks’ low-risk offseason is a smart long-term strategy


Kemba Walker is headed to the Big Apple.

Kemba Walker is headed to the Big Apple.
Illustration: Shutterstock (AP)

Is it a coincidence that The LOX and Dipset had a classic Verzuz at MSG Theater less than 12 hours before Kemba Walker agreed to a deal with the New York Knicks? Probably not.

Reportedly, the Walker deal could be worth about $8 million annually. Regardless, even if it’s for two years, it’ll be a short-term, low-risk option for the Knicks to fill out their point guard vacancy.

Through the first 40 games of the 2019-20 season, Walker’s first in Boston, he had been averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 assists, and 4.0 rebounds on 45/40/88 shooting splits, and was an All-Star starter representing the Eastern Conference two weeks later. It was around that time that Walker’s knee became an issue that has devalued him ever since.

Following the All-Star Game itself, which was played on February 16 — and in which Walker played 29 minutes — he averaged 14.4 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.8 rebounds on 40/34/85 splits, including six regular-season Bubble games. In the playoffs last year, he elevated to 19.6 points, five assists, and four rebounds on 44/31/85 in the Celtics’ 17 postseason games before they were eliminated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. This season, Walker was limited to 43 games, in which he averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 assists, and 4 rebounds on 42/36/90 splits.

Whether Walker starts or comes off the bench for Derrick Rose, it’s a good shot for the Knicks to take in an otherwise low-risk offseason. The red flag is that Oklahoma City has gotten picks in damn near every deal they’ve done of late, including that same Walker deal from Boston in June. If OKC is buying out Walker instead of trying to rebuild his value before shipping him, it may know that his knee is so jacked up that a trade wouldn’t land much of anything. The Thunder have his medicals, after all. Ultimately, we’ll see how the experiment goes in New York, but it’ll be an emotional one for many nonetheless.

As for the rest, it ain’t sexy, but it’ll do.

The Knicks are making shrewd moves in free agency instead of using the taste they had of the playoffs to make a potentially ill-advised bid at going for too much too soon. The Knicks entered with over $50 million cap space, more than anyone in the NBA, and, be it from missed opportunities at bigger swings or exercising a contingency plan, the bulk of it went to keeping their own.

Sixth-man Rose will return for three years and $43 million. Seventh-man Alec Burks comes back for three years and $30 million. Eighth-man-turned-starting-center Nerlens Noel will be back for three years and $32 million. And their big addition has been nine-year guard Evan Fournier, who has spent most of his career with the Orlando Magic and the final 16 games of last season with the Boston Celtics. Fournier is on board for four years and $78 million, including an option.

After being acquired for Dennis Smith, Jr. and a second-round draft choice, Rose embarked on a run that saw him finish third in Sixth-Man-of-the-Year voting last season. Burks was a reliable role player who saw 25 minutes per game and shot 41.5 percent from three on five attempts per game. And Noel was statistically one of the NBA’s best bigs last regular season. Fournier, who turns 29 in October, has averaged 16.7 points on 45/38/82 shooting since becoming a full-time starter in the 2015-16 season, his fourth in the NBA. Last year he dropped a career-best 19.7 points per contest on 46/39/80 splits with the Magic before being traded to Boston before the deadline, where he was limited to 13.0 points per game, but he shot 45/46/71, all while playing with Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart.

With the Knicks, he’ll see an increase in usage and return to something closer to those Orlando numbers. Stylistically, he makes sense starting next to R.J. Barrett on the wing, ideally as a reliable three-point option who could move without the ball and create when needed. The Knicks’ starting lineup projects to be Rose or Walker-Barrett-Fournier-Julius Randle-Mitchell Robinson or Noel, as of now. They likely won’t finish fourth in the Eastern Conference again and only did so because they were healthier than most teams around them who had more COVID/injury issues, like the Celtics and Miami Heat, among others. But still, the Knicks deserve credit for their surprising 2020-21 campaign, which they should focus on building off of this coming year, even if it means dropping a couple of spots in the playoff race as others get more aggressive.

The Knicks have done two good things: First, they’re remaining with open options amid these medium-length deals. In the NBA, you trade contracts as much as you trade players. What the Knicks have is contractual currency that could be utilized in the relatively near future, so long as the team remains respectable. The key here is winning, and if the Knicks could do just enough of that, as in, returning to the playoffs, they’ll remain in position to acquire a pissed-off star via trade, and in this league, the next one is always around the corner.

The New York market obviously helps, but the Brooklyn Nets probably don’t have the Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving offseason of 2019 had they not gone to the playoffs thanks to D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert months prior. The Knicks had the league’s worst record that season, 17-65. Now, if the Knicks have a solid, playoff-worthy 2021-22, they could package some of these same contracts along with a couple of prospects and draft picks they own to acquire a star between this coming February and next summer and potentially beyond if the right opportunity isn’t available by then. It’s just not their time to try and lap the league’s true contenders, and that’s OK.

Lastly, it keeps the franchise in the hands of Randle and Barrett, but let’s focus on the latter, in particular. Barrett is entering his third year in the league and is ostensibly playing for a max contract. If he makes a significant leap, one akin to rising stars who usually arrive in year three, he could be facing a max contract extension next summer. If you’re the Knicks or a Knicks fan, what you want is Randle to repeat at least 80 percent of what he did in his Most Improved Player awarded season last year, but you want Barrett to develop into The Guy along the way. Barrett rising a level is what will primarily put you in the conversation for future contendership. Does it have to be an All-Star bid? Not necessarily, but it should be in the conversation at least. Then you could re-evaluate where you are along the way and position yourself to bring in reinforcements to aid Barrett and Randle in true contendership. It’s more complicated than it sounds and ultimately requires the players to produce, but it’s the option the Knicks have curated with this non-splashy offseason thus far. Frankly, it’s a good one to have for now.

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