While a rash of player injuries and the NBA's health and safety protocols have kept general managers focused on the daily task of filling an eight-man lineup, the league's trade deadline is fast approaching. And there may be no front office facing a more fascinating crossroads ahead of the Feb. 10 buzzer than that of the New York Knicks.
The Madison Square Garden crowd is still echoing from last spring's run to the playoffs. Yet hosting a first-round series in the first year under head coach Tom Thibodeau has only accelerated the expectations of this current Knicks' timeline, and far beyond the organization's original intentions for the beginning of this Thibodeau era.
That's not to say the coach or New York's leadership suddenly faces existential pressure to improve. But Knicks figures openly acknowledge the elephant in the room and their team's current predicament at just 18-20, presently outside the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, all under an owner known as more than eager to reach the postseason.
"Overperforming last season was the worst thing that could have happened," said one veteran executive. "You can't take a step back in New York. Once you've set expectations, you have to fulfill them."
The trade deadline now presents team president Leon Rose's front office with a potential pivot point. They've so far stewarded the Knicks with patience, intending to maintain as much future draft ammo and cap flexibility as possible.
New York never pursued Russell Westbrook back in 2020 when he requested a trade away from the Rockets. At last year's trade deadline, the front office later discussed acquiring Victor Oladipo and signing Andre Drummond to a multi-year deal following his buyout from Cleveland, but the Knicks instead opted to keep their books clean yet again. Their front office didn't approach Fred VanVleet in free agency either, sources said.
Rumblings about New York's inevitable pursuits of All-Stars, and particular All-Stars who are represented by CAA, were always louder than talk of any Knicks short-term upgrade. Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker enter free agency in 2024. Utah and New Orleans officials know all too well of New York's looming presence surrounding the futures of Donovan Mitchell and Zion Williamson.
Then New York powered its way to the Eastern Conference four-seed. They rewarded Julius Randle for his All-Star campaign with a four-year, $117 million contract this summer, a massive number likely on their books until 2025-26.
A whiff of winning, in such a competitive business, naturally creates a hunger for more. A faction of the Knicks front office even lobbied for an aggressive pursuit of Damian Lillard this past offseason, league sources told B/R, just as Philadelphia and other suitors helicoptered his status in Portland.
There are clear signs that blind patience may be waning. Rival executives are quick to point to New York's number of mid-range contracts that can be easily stacked to match a star player's salary.
The Knicks have internally discussed pathways to landing Ben Simmons, but New York has never phoned Sixers brass regarding any potential deal structure, league sources told B/R. It is difficult to imagine a direct scenario where the Knicks could meet Philadelphia's lofty asking price of a top-tier player without including a third team.
New York appears more likely to tinker around the edges than swing for such a difference-maker. Other than Simmons, there are only a few big names circulating on the trade rumor mill: Jerami Grant, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. There are simply far more buyers than sellers at this current stage of the trade market.
Moving a precious first-rounder that could theoretically net Lillard or another one-day star may only be worth it when it comes to upgrading at the point guard position, especially with Derrick Rose sidelined because of a right ankle surgery. The former MVP had been the lifeblood of New York's second unit and the team's steadiest player in an uncertain season.
While Kemba Walker was once banished from Thibodeau's rotation and considered available for trade, he sprung into action starting Dec. 18 to start six straight games. Walker's strong play before a knee flare-up, which shouldn't cause him to miss much time, helped power a 4-2 Knicks stretch.
Without Rose, New York now needs Walker to help steady this ship in the direction of the postseason. Thibodeau had started Miles McBride in Walker's recent absence to promote his defensive chops and keep Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks fresh for the Rose-less bench minutes. It seems Thibodeau will continue experimenting at the position.
Kevin Knox has been available for trade dating back to last season's deadline. Perhaps New York could send Knox and two second-round picks to a rebuilding team like Houston or Orlando, who are known to be gauging interest for both Eric Gordon and Terrence Ross, respectively. The Knicks owe zero future draft picks, and are stocked with at least eight second-round picks between now and 2024.
New York jumping into the Cavaliers-Lakers trade that sent Rajon Rondo to Cleveland opened a roster spot. Maybe that's another chance to take back salary and net a future draft pick. Maybe it's wiggle room to make a more significant move.
Combining some of those seconds with one of the Knicks' strong contributing players could help reshuffle their deck. A team without cap space interested in pursuing Mitchell Robinson during free agency, for example, may send a ball-handler in return to acquire Robinson's Bird rights. Nerlens Noel's $8.8 million salary also presents a cleaner path to netting a veteran rotation piece if the Knicks wish to retain Robinson.
Whatever direction New York chooses, Thibodeau will have his share of influence on personnel. He was a driving factor behind signing Evan Fournier, sources said, and has been credited with handpicking several Knicks draft selections during his tenure in New York.
But as the Knicks are presently constructed, a rebound in performance from Randle will likely need to be the main ingredient for New York to return to the postseason. Analytics gurus across the league pointed to indicators that Randle's shooting last season may have been an outlier. His efficiency numbers are down across the board, most notably a plummeting three-point percentage: 41.1 last season to just 32.8 percent this season. The same goes for RJ Barrett, who is down from 40.1 percent to just 32.7 percent from distance this year.
If Randle and Barrett can reclaim a semblance of their strokes from a season ago, and the Knicks can find minor upgrades along their rotation, New York only stands a half-game out of the 10-seed. They're only three games from the No. 6 spot, escaping the play-in altogether.