Knicks Players Who Need to Boost Free-Agency Value in 2021 PlayoffsMay 13, 2021
Knicks Players Who Need to Boost Free-Agency Value in 2021 Playoffs
The drought is over.
The New York Knicks are headed to the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2013, and the plot lines are abundant around the long-awaited return.
The comeback alone is a massive story given the organization's history and market size. Then when you start discussing Julius Randle's All-Star ascension, Tom Thibodeau's early impact, RJ Barrett's growth, Derrick Rose's return to the spotlight and Immanuel Quickley's rapid rise, there is no shortage of interesting angles to track.
One that could slip under the radar, though, is the money New York's upcoming free agents could win or lose during the postseason trip. The following three players in particular could shape their offseason outlook based on how they perform under basketball's brightest lights.
Alec Burks (Unrestricted)
If there were a Most Improved Player of the First Three Games award, Alec Burks might have strolled to the podium. The veteran spark plug steamrolled into this season with 62 points on 53.1 percent shooting and 11 assists over his first three outings—and he exited the third game early with an ankle injury.
He went through lukewarm and kinda-cold stretches after that before erupting again in March with a nine-game stretch in which he averaged 19.1 points on 45.1/41.5/88.2 shooting. But he is back to playing inconsistent ball—or rather, he was before a knee injury knocked him off the floor.
With all eyes on New York's playoff return, Burks could do himself a lot of favors with another of these torrid runs.
He has the game to do it. His three-ball is falling at a 40.5 percent clip, he can get downhill off of the dribble and he sees the floor well enough to be a complementary playmaker. He just needs to do all of that more consistently, and if he discovers how to do that during the postseason, his bank account will thank him later.
Frank Ntilikina (Restricted)
Given Frank Ntilikina's defense-first (and, at times, defense-only) game, you would think he would be a favorite of first-year Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. It doesn't speak particularly well for Ntilikina's future earnings, then, when he has struggled to lock down a full-time rotation role.
But New York hasn't moved off of Ntilikina as aggressively as it did with Kevin Knox II, who hasn't played double-digit minutes in a game since late March. The Knicks seem to have more hope with Ntilikina.
"I do know that there were opportunities earlier in the season to move him, but there were people in the organization opposed to making deals at that time," SNY's Ian Begley reported. "... I do know that Tom Thibodeau, throughout, has seen Ntilikina as a player."
Ntilikina, the eighth overall pick in 2017, is a hyper-versatile defender with good length and a great motor. If he can show any signs of life on offense—he's a career 36.5/32.7/74.9 shooter—he could convince someone (quite possibly the Knicks) he's worth a not-insignificant sum this offseason.
Elfrid Payton (Unrestricted)
Timing can be everything for a free agent.
That's most easily seen (and most significant) when someone enjoys a career year right before hitting the open market. But even partial-season successes or swoons can have an outsized impact on their open-market reception.
For all the data available to today's decision-makers, they are still human and therefore prone to recency bias. That could be bad news for Elfrid Payton, who is backing into the postseason. His playing time has dropped each month since January, and based on how he has looked in May, it might just evaporate if he can't turn things around.
In six outings in May, he's putting up just 5.3 points and 2.0 assists in 15.9 minutes per game. He's also shooting an anemic 38.9 percent from the field and a worse 25.0 percent from distance. He has yet to post a positive plus/minus in May, and he has twice registered marks of minus-17 or worse.
If Payton can't snap out of this quickly, free agency could be a brutal experience.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.