It’s over. I really hope I’m wrong here, and the New York Basketball Knickerbockers have one more unexpected run in them, beginning with Game 5 back at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
But let’s face it everybody — it’s over.
This year’s Knicks team has been a fun one to watch and root for. And I do think they’ll pull together and win one more for us in New York before heading for the offseason soon after that. And as we’ve said repeatedly over the course of their 41-31 regular season, it’s been a fun and highly enjoyable ride.
However, the Knicks’ inability to keep pace with the Hawks (who are in no way one of the NBA’s elite) in Round 1 is going to leave Knicks fans with a sour taste in their mouths, and Knicks President Leon Rose facing a critical offseason.
The Hawks series has been an eye opener, as most (or at least I) expected the Knicks to advance relatively easily. Now with four games in the books to reframe what our expectations perhaps should have been, a few things have become abundantly clear:
- The NBA is a star-driven league, and Trae Young is a star who gives the Hawks an insurmountable talent edge every minute he’s on the floor. The Knicks don’t have such a star.
- Julius Randle is not an A-lister. That’s not to take anything away from Randle’s stellar season and the feel-good story of his commitment to improving his game. But he’s not someone that’s going to win a game all by himself (and neither is RJ Barrett, while we’re at it) or ever be a franchise cornerstone.
- Tom Thibodeau is a terrific coach and we all gratefully applaud the culture of excellence and professionalism he brought back to our Knickerbockers, but he alone can’t win a playoff series (especially when his opposing coach is every bit as good as he is — hats off to Nate McMillan for winning the coaching battle in this series).
- The 41-31 regular season crafted by Coach Thibs and this overachieving roster is likely hitting its ceiling, and without major change in the offseason, New York runs the risk of sliding back significantly in 2021-22.
So, if you are Leon Rose assessing the myriad needs that sit below the surface of this unexpectedly successful 2020-21 campaign, you have to be thinking about making bold moves this summer. The Knicks are loaded with draft picks over the next three years and appear to have found their coach for the long-term.
Thibodeau has put in place the culture that most inspires the Madison Square Garden hoops faithful — a defense-first, gritty, selfless group of ballers that play together without egos, creating a whole far superior to the sum of its parts. The Knicks head into the offseason with ample cap space and numerous young pieces that have trade value around the league.
In other words, the time is now. It’s time to go get the difference maker that can turn this franchise into a 50-win title contender. It’s time to go get Damian Lillard.
The first question, of course, is can the Knicks even get him? Good question. Thus for starters, if the idea of seeing Dame in blue and orange (by the way — can we please ditch those shitty black uniforms next year) is as appealing to you as it is to us, make the Denver Nuggets your favorite team for the duration of the playoffs (or at least the first round).
Because another early playoff flameout by the Blazers this year may finally be enough for Portland to pull the plug and begin a massive rebuild. You know the theory — we can’t get to the next level with Dame, so let’s start the rebuild and try again without him.
Lillard signed a $140 million, five-year deal heading into this season, a deal so big that it will limit other moves Portland might make in an effort to improve their roster. That fact can’t be lost on Lillard. And one of the few trade partners out there with enough cap space to take on a contract of Lillard’s size is…yup, our New York Knickerbockers. Couple another early playoff exit with the weight of $40 million per, and maybe, just maybe, Portland starts listening to offers.
So we need a first-round Blazers loss to Denver to push the Portland front office into at least considering what a good return for their superstar might look like. An ouster at the hands of the Nuggets may also push Dame to the boiling point, where he realizes that the clock is ticking on the prime of his career, and he’s unlikely to ever sniff a visit to the finals if he remains loyal to the Rose City.
The Nuggets-Blazers series is currently knotted at 2-2, with Game 5 in Denver Tuesday night. Get on the Nuggets bandwagon, Knicks fans, because if we can’t get Lillard, there isn’t an A-lister in sight that would fit Thibs system, and be able to instantly take us to the next-level promised land of title contender.
Think about it. Do you really believe Bradley Beal is the answer? Beal doesn’t play defense or make the players around him better, so it’s hard to imagine Thibodeau embracing Beal as his new franchise star. Paul George? Puh-lease — winners only need apply for the role of Knicks savior, and George is not that guy. Kawhi Leonard is that kind of guy, but has shown zero interest in New York in the past. Hard to imagine him changing coasts at this point.
No, Damian Lillard is the only answer. So if you are Leon Rose, blessed with draft picks, cap space, and the roster depth that could appeal to a rebuilding club, what do you offer the Blazers for their face of the franchise superstar?
What gets it done? If we were to start with two number ones, a number two, Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox, how would Portland respond? Yes, we can hear the laughter all the way from Oregon already, but hey, you have to start somewhere.
To get Lillard, it will take a lot more. Picks, players, maybe both. Ntilikina and Knox are both young, former lottery picks that many around the league see as serviceable role players in the right system. So we leave them in.
For picks, the Knicks have their own number one, plus Dallas’ this summer. Both picks will be in the teens. They have their own in 2022. And in 2023 they have another of Dallas’ in addition to their own. So five number ones (not to mention six second-rounders) over the next three drafts. Is three first-rounders, two seconds, Ntilikina/Knox and one more piece — a starter to help the Blazers save face during their rebuild — enough to pry Dame away from the PacNorthwest? Maybe, maybe not, but there is only one way to find out.
Or is such a package giving up too much? Mortgaging the future? That’s the riddle we are counting on Rose to solve, and in short order.
Who would be the right Knicks starter to include in such a package to get this deal over the top? Because in reality, I don’t think three number ones, two number twos, and two scrubs get it done. Would adding Mitchell Robinson to such a package be enough?
Portland would undoubtedly ask for RJ Barrett. And if I’m Rose, I don’t make Barrett available. What we are shooting for here is a Knicks team that can be in the conversation for a title next year. For that to happen, we need another year of maturation and improvement out of Barrett similar to what we’ve witnessed in 2020-21.
I can also envision our two number ones from a year ago — Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin — being major contributors to a winning Knicks squad next year. Both are uber athletic with high ceilings. Try to hold onto them, too. That leaves the high-flying Robinson, who would be painful to let go of. But this is Lillard we’re talking about. You have to give to get.
When we think of the 2021-22 Knicks, how does the following sound: a starting five built around Lillard, but also including Reggie Bullock, an improved Barrett, Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel (resign him, Leon). With Toppin, Quickley, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson forming the second unit alongside some three-and-D wing we pick up as a free agent.
Does that team beat the Nets and their Big Three in the 2022 conference finals? Brooklyn will be a handful for all comers next year, assuming they stay healthy, but a Knicks team that looks something like the above, led by Damian Lillard certainly would go into such a series with a legitimate shot.
Okay, one last thought. What if Portland feels Robinson is damaged goods, or just not enough of a sure thing to put this deal over the top? How would you feel about including Randle in his place? Maybe take back one of the number one picks, add another two?
I have to say, as much as I like Randle and envision him as an extremely effective co-star at Lillard’s side, I’d still include him if that was what it took to seal the deal. We’d need to bank on Toppin, Quickley, and especially Barrett to improve markedly over the summer months, but all three youngsters appear to have that kind of upside.
Plus, this version of the trade would leave enough cap space (after shedding Randle’s salary) to go out and sign a free agent starter that can score. Yes, do it Leon, if you must.
Bottom line here is this year’s Knicks and their surprise success has whet our appetites for more, Leon Rose. We can’t afford to take a step back after finally returning to the playoffs. And one more time — I hope I’m wrong — but this dud of a playoff effort against Atlanta has just raised the stakes on our offseason to an off the charts level.
Get us Damian Lillard, Leon Rose — at any cost, the Knicks need a superstar.