Adam Hunger is a reporter.
The NBA's health and safety protocols have kept general managers focused on the daily task of filling an eight-man lineup, but the trade deadline is fast approaching. The New York Knicks are facing a crossroads in the days leading up to the buzzer.
The crowd at the Madison Square Garden is similar to last year's run to the playoffs. The expectations of this current Knicks' timeline have been greatly increased by the hosting of a first-round series in the first year under head coach Tom Thibodeau.
That's not to say the coach or New York's leadership suddenly faces pressure to improve. The elephant in the room is that the Knicks are currently outside of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament and under an owner who is more than eager to reach the playoffs.
"Overperforming last season was the worst thing that could have happened," said a veteran executive. You can't go back in time in New York. You have to fulfill your expectations once you have set them.
Leon Rose's front office has a potential pivot point now that the trade deadline has passed. They have so far stewarded the Knicks with patience, intending to maintain as much future draft money and cap flexibility as possible.
When Russell Westbrook requested a trade away from the Astros, New York never pursued him. The front office discussed acquiring Victor Oladipo and signing him to a multi-year deal after his buyout from Cleveland, but the Knicks chose to keep their books clean again. Sources said that the front office did not approach Fred VanVleet in free agency.
What does this season's ambitions look like if the Knicks really do prize Zion?
There were always whispers about New York's inevitable pursuit of All-Stars, and particular All-Stars who are represented by the same agency. Karl- Anthony Towns and Devin Booker will be free agents. Utah and New Orleans officials are aware of New York's presence around the futures of Zion and Donovan Mitchell.
New York made it 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 whiff of winning creates a hunger for more. B/R has learned that a group in the Knicks front office tried to get Damian Lillard in the summer of 2015, just as Philadelphia and other teams tried to get him in Portland.
There are signs that patience may be waning. Rival executives 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 talked to the Philadelphia 76ers about landing Ben Simmons, but they have never contacted the team about a potential deal.
New York is more likely to tinker around the edges. There are a few big names on the trade rumor mill, but not Simmons. There are far more buyers than sellers at the moment.
It's worth it to move a precious first-round pick that could potentially net Damian Lillard or another one-day star, especially with the point guard position being weakened by the absence of Rose. The team's steadiest player in an uncertain season was the formerMVP, who had been the lifeblood of New York's second unit.
Kemba Walker started six straight games after being demoted from the rotation. Walker's strong play before a knee flare-up helped power a 4-2 Knicks stretch.
New York needs Walker to help steady the ship without Rose. In Walker's absence, Thibodeau started Miles McBride to promote his defensive chops and keep other players fresh for the Rose-less bench minutes. The position seems to be being explored by Thibodeau.
Kevin has been available for trade since last season's deadline. The Knicks could possibly send their two second-round picks and a future first-round pick to a rebuilding team like Houston or the Magic, who are rumored to be interested in both Eric Gordon and Terrence Ross. The Knicks have at least eight second-round picks between now and 2024, and no future draft picks.
Would the Knicks part ways with promising assets at the trade deadline with the help of Terrence Ross?
The Knicks jumped into the Lakers trade that sent Rajon Rondo to Cleveland. Maybe that's another chance to take back salary and get a draft pick. Maybe it has wiggle room to make a bigger move.
Combining some of those seconds with one of the Knicks' players could help rearrange their deck. If a team without cap space is interested in pursuing Mitchell Robinson during free agency, they may send a ball-handler in exchange for Robinson's Bird rights. If the Knicks want to retain Robinson, they can get a veteran rotation piece with the $8.6 million salary of Nerlens Noel.
Whatever direction New York chooses, Thibodeau will have a say in personnel. Sources said that he was a driving factor behind the signing of Evan Fournier and that he was credited with handpicking several Knicks draft selections.
As the Knicks are constructed, a rebound in performance from Randle will likely be the main ingredient for New York to return to the playoffs. There are indicators that the shooting of Julius Randle last season may have been an outlier. His efficiency numbers are down across the board, most notably a three-point percentage that is 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465 888-282-0465. The percentage of distance traveled by the duo has gone down this year, from 40.1 percent to 32.7 percent.
If the Knicks can get a semblance of their strokes from a season ago, and if they can find minor upgrades along their rotation, New York will only be a half-game out of the 10-seed. They're only three games away from the play-in.