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As we inch closer to the start of the 2021-22 NBA season, the Knicks will enter training camp with expectations not seen in close to a decade. Their rebuild seemingly went from indefinite to complete in a flash, but still many questions remain about what comes next.
Here are the five biggest questions for the Knicks entering this season:
What does Damian Lillard do?
Easily the biggest name in trade murmurs, Lillard faces a choice of requesting a deal out of Portland or staying put, and the timing of his decision affects the Knicks as well.
Should Dame want out, prepare for this roster to get blown to bits in pursuit of him. He’s the rare top 10 player who can ascend your team to contention with the right surrounding pieces, and it appears New York is atop his theoretical list.
However, should he request a trade before Dec. 15, the date the Knicks are allowed to trade many of their newly signed free agents, it would effectively knock New York out of the running by limiting their avenues to get him. This question comes first for a reason: Lillard’s decision in the coming months can radically shift the direction of the Knicks, and the league.
How good is Kemba Walker?
Easily their biggest new acquisition, Walker gives the Knicks a chance at pairing Julius Randle with an established All-Star talent, with a caveat. Walker’s dealt with nagging injuries these past two seasons, and is 31 years old with a game strongly dependent on his quickness.
How Walker performs in the regular season and playoffs may decide the ceiling of this roster. If he’s fully healthy, playing as his four-time All-Star self, a postseason series win is in play.
Should Walker continue missing time and can’t play to 100%, it makes the lineup look much closer to last year’s.
How do the young players develop?
Outside of a couple upgrades to the starting lineup, this Knicks roster is largely similar to last year’s. This puts the onus on New York’s youth -- Randle included -- and their development to bolster year-to-year improvement.
Randle’s giant leap in the pandemic-lengthened offseason is a primary reason the Knicks put together a 41-31 season. Whether he keeps up that level of performance, regresses, or takes another step directly impacts not only this year’s chances, but the franchise’s long-term plans.
This applies down the line to RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. The former two are in line to start and the latter played huge minutes as rookies last season, and all fill major roles on this roster.
Big improvements or regressions from even one or two of those names not only affects winning, but trade negotiations. By season’s end Barrett could be a breakout star, elevating the Knicks and rendering himself untouchable in Lillard negotiations, or does he look more expendable after a plateaued year?
The answer is likely to fall in the middle for all of these guys, but it remains a huge factor.
What do the Knicks do with Mitchell Robinson?
One of the bigger short-term decisions the Knicks face is Robinson’s expiring contract. He becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer barring an extension, with all signs pointing to the latter.
Robinson played on a very team-friendly deal thus far and should look to cash out on his potential and defensive impact. A fair assumption would be that the two sides agree on a four-year deal in the range of $40 to $48 million with lots of health- and award-based incentives.
Should the two find themselves far apart on an extension, things get interesting. The Knicks would much prefer dealing Robinson on an expiring contract as opposed to potentially letting him walk for nothing. Still, this is only a hypothetical, with the extension still the likeliest of scenarios.
Can the Knicks win a playoff series?
This should be a natural next step and goal for this season, with last year’s surprise run serving as an appetizer to a more complete team’s entree.
While the Knicks are always on the hunt for the big move, a finish identical (or worse) to last year’s would undoubtedly bring some pressure to push that process along. On the flip side, a second-round trip would validate the work Leon Rose, Tom Thibodeau, Randle and everybody put into this rebuild, and prove the Knicks are truly back on track.
Much of the East remained the same, with some teams improving that were close on New York’s tail last season. It’ll take much of the above going in the Knicks’ direction, but winning a playoff series is in play.
Whether or not this roster can make it happen will be a defining question of this season.