Questions Knicks Must Answer Before End of Regular Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 3, 2022

Questions Knicks Must Answer Before End of Regular Season

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Put a fork in the 2021-22 New York Knicks.

    They are, for all intents and purposes, done.

    Mathematically they are still alive, and it's a safe bet head coach Tom Thibodeau will have his team hard-charging through the finish line. But what, other than fan loyalty, would lead you to believe this club is capable of turning this around? On Jan. 15, they were 22-21; they are now 25-37. That's the math that matters to New York. This club is an NBA-worst 3-16 over that stretch.

    Wednesday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers tipped off a seven-game road trip against mostly good-to-great opponents. The Knicks could be out of even the play-in race before they return.

    That should shape the franchise's thinking for the final month-plus of the marathon. The biggest questions surrounding this team have nothing to do with the remainder of this season but rather how they can avoid another flop like this.

Is Mitchell Robinson a Keeper?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Mitchell Robinson needs a new contract this offseason—if not before then.

    The Knicks can offer him an extension, and they have reportedly discussed doing just that. But when the club spoke with Robinson's representation recently, the sides were "not close" on an agreement, per SNY's Ian Begley.

    The clock is ticking for New York to figure this out. A new contract could elevate the 23-year-old to building-block status for the 'Bockers. If he gets to the open market, though, the Knicks might suddenly be scrambling for a new starting center.

    In a perfect world, Robinson's play will help answer this question. He flashes defensive dominance and presents a lob threat on offense. But his defense is inconsistent, and his offensive range is nonexistent. He has also struggled with injury issues in the past. He is an interesting player, but those aren't always the easiest to price in contract negotiations.

Are the Prospects Keepers or Trade Chips?

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The sooner the Knicks shift their focus to the future, the better it will be for their young players.

    Other than RJ Barrett, New York's prospects have struggled to find major minutes. That can be par for the course with a Thibodeau-coached team, but it's still frustrating, especially when the veteran-heavy approach isn't leading to wins.

    Do the Knicks know what they want to do with Obi Topping going forward? He is buried behind Julius Randle on the depth chart, but at some point, New York needs to see what it found with the No. 8 pick of the 2020 draft. Toppin hasn't logged 1,600 minutes in his career. The Knicks can't have a great feel for his long-term outlook with this kind of workload.

    What about Cam Reddish, whom the front office sacrificed a first-round pick to get in a January trade? He is struggling to get meaningful minutes, even with New York's perimeter rotation thinning ahead of him. Can Miles McBride and Jericho Sims handle rotation roles sooner rather than later? If the Knicks get those answers, they will have a better idea of what this roster still needs.

What Should Be the Next Step?

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Knicks haven't settled on a direction yet.

    The hope, entering this season at least, was that the veteran core could steer the club back to the postseason while the up-and-comers soaked up enough developmental minutes to foster their growth. Neither itch wound up scratched, making it tough to tell how this group will (or even should) proceed.

    "I don't know that they've constructed a coherent direction," an Eastern Conference executive told ESPN's Tim Bontemps.

    If the Knicks still believe in their vets—they spent big on almost all of them just last summer—they could look to supplement them by making a major move for win-now talent. They have the trade chips to broker a blockbuster should the right star be made available.

    Then again, this campaign was rocky enough that it may have forced the front office to think further down the line. If that's the case, it's time to start clearing out the high-priced elders and let the kids run free. It could take a while to see results, but slow, organic growth could prove the key to long-term, sustainable success.

    No matter what the Knicks decide, the point is there's a decision to make. The next month-plus should help bring the right answer to light.

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