NEW YORK — Give Leon Rose credit for this aspect of his roster construction: if the Knicks play well and exceed expectations, they’re in good position to add difference-makers. Real difference-makers. All those first-round draft picks — 11 over the next seven years — are awaiting a trade partner more eager to accept them than Danny Ainge.
The Knicks love to remind us of all their picks.
“We are flush with draft capital,” Rose boasted to the team’s in-house cable station, MSG Network, which is owned by James Dolan.
Of course, Rose was in a similar situation a year ago and bungled free agency. The deals given to Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and Julius Randle turned into negative assets, leaving Rose to quickly accept those as failures by unloading most of them with attached draft picks.
Now Rose enters Year 3 of his regime without the same hopes of contention from last season, but with a few other reasons for optimism: his team has real depth, his team has a new point guard, his team has plenty of assets to pivot from any situation and his team doesn’t have to live up to high expectations.
The bar is low enough to easily clear.
“It goes back to our overall goal — our goal is to improve,” Rose said. “And there’s different ways to improve.”
Which brings us to the start of training camp Tuesday and the five most important questions. These won’t be answered conclusively by the end of camp in mid-October, but they will define the upcoming season and determine how the Knicks proceed beyond this gap year.
Who is the real Julius Randle?
It’s reasonable to assume that the real Randle is neither as bad as last season nor as good as two seasons ago. There’s a middle ground. And while it’s difficult to predict shooting efficiency, there are some issues inside Randle’s control that can go a long way toward determining his impact on an improved team. As we witnessed last season, Randle is passionate, proud and highly sensitive. He doesn’t respond well to negativity, demotion or disappointment, which became a bear of an issue with fans at Madison Square Garden.
“Julius is a passionate player. I see that as a positive,” Rose said. “Did he have some rough patches last year? Yes. We all learn from things. And Julius has learned from that and he’s ready to go.
“I think Julius is going to have a great year.”
Accepting a lesser role next to Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett is imperative to the Knicks’ growth. Not that he can’t be their best player on any given night, just that he shouldn’t expect to dominate the ball with the same frequency. Word is that Randle worked himself this summer into elite condition and we’ll get a good look at those conditioning gains in training camp. It’s an important part of Randle’s game that fell off a tad last season.
Who will start at shooting guard?
Evan Fournier is the incumbent starter and he set the franchise record for 3-pointers made in a season. Still, the lineup would benefit from a better perimeter defender next to Brunson, which is why Quentin Grimes, the second-year two-way threat, could supplant Fournier. It was telling that Fournier averaged only six minutes in fourth quarters last season.
Thibodeau had more trust in Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and Derrick Rose during crunch time.
How much will Brunson boost the pick-and-roll?
Death, taxes and the Knicks need a point guard. One of these will lose its inevitability if Brunson lives up to his nine-figure deal. He brings proficiency as the ballhandler in pick-and-rolls, which is significant after last season’s disappointments.
With Alec Burks, Kemba Walker and Immanuel Quickley as the point guards, the Knicks tried hard to be a pick-and-roll team (they were seventh in league in attempts) but too often failed. They ranked 29th in field-goal percentage at a putrid 37.7% off pick-and-rolls. It was a huge hole in their offense. Brunson can fill it. The other question is whether tampering to sign Brunson will cost the Knicks a draft pick.
Rose denied any wrongdoing but the league has yet to conclude its investigation. Players are not interviewed in these investigations, according to a source, but the league confiscated the cell phone of at least one Knicks employee.
“Hopefully they’ll be wrapped up in the next few weeks,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
Does RJ Barrett continue his ascension?
By cobbling together cumulative statistics by RJ Barrett’s age, Leon Rose made a wonky comparison to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Kevin Durant. Let’s take it easy, team president. Rose dangled Barrett in trade negotiations for Donovan Mitchell and waited till September to give him a contract extension that was well short of the max. Now Rose is putting him in categories with James? Where was that sentiment during contract negotiations?
Barrett deserved better than how the Knicks handled his summer. The announcement of his extension was sloppy — it was transparently tweeted out right after Mitchell was traded to the Cavs — and they couldn’t even muster a press conference for his huge signing because of James Dolan’s media policies.
But Barrett has overcome much more in his three NBA seasons. He was labeled a bust after a disappointing first campaign and left off both All-Rookie teams. Then he improved and improved more. There will be a bigger microscope this season because another leap is expected playing next to Brunson, who should help create better looks for Barrett. It’s not unrealistic to aspire for a push to the All-Star game.
How safe is Tom Thibodeau?
Leon Rose and his top deputy William Wesley are former agents with no experience running an NBA franchise. When their first team belied expectations and went to the playoffs, it was on the backs of a team largely constructed by the previous regime. Rose made two impactful moves that first year — hiring Tom Thibodeau and trading for Derrick Rose (which was pushed by Thibodeau).
Yet, it was the coach under fire during much of last season’s struggles. Part of it was a perception that he was holding back the development of younger players, especially Obi Toppin. Part of it was the construction of a coaching staff with two prominent assistants — Kenny Payne and Johnnie Bryant — having been thrust on Thibodeau’s bench by the front office.
And the other aspect is just the natural order of survival in the NBA. The coach typically goes before the front office. Rose steadfastly backed his coach recently on the Knicks TV station. It was the right move before the season begins. But what if things go sour for a second straight year?