Knicks president Leon Rose Treated Art
Time has certainly flown as this first half of the 2020-21 season is coming to an end. At this point last year, the Knicks were in a state of chaos. Head coach David Fizdale had been fired in December 2019 and team president Steve Mills was let go in early February. A few days after Mills’ dismissal, it was reported that the Knicks would hire NBA player agent Leon Rose as his replacement.
Though Rose’s hiring wouldn’t be made official until March, the Knicks were aware of the direction that Rose wanted to go in at the trade deadline. New York would begin to collect assets, dealing Marcus Morris to the Clippers for Moe Harkless and a future first round pick.
Mills and Scott Perry had established a team laden with young talent, a clean cap sheet, and boasted seven first-round draft picks from 2020 to 2023. With a pandemic that shut down the NBA, and a later finish to the 2019-20 season, Rose didn’t make his first personnel move until his eighth month on the job. In the limited amount of time, the Knicks have become one of the surprises of the NBA. In fourth place in the Eastern Conference with an 18-17 record, New York has achieved a lot more than anyone anticipated. All-Star Julius Randle has led the team with inspired play, and a young nucleus including RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Immanuel Quickley has made New York’s future much more scintillating.
Coaching Decision Has Proved to Be Impactful
Rose’s first major move as president was signing head coach Tom Thibodeau to a five-year contract. Rose and the Knicks’ front office interviewed a wide range of candidates that also included former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, current Knicks assistant Mike Woodson, and former Knicks interim head coach Mike Miller among other candidates.
Thibodeau has reinvigorated the Knicks franchise with a revamped culture and an attention to detail on defense. Ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency last year, the Knicks have risen to second in that category this season. New York has finished Top 10 in defensive efficiency only once since Thibodeau’s coaching mentor Jeff Van Gundy resigned in 2001.
Thibodeau has also been able to get the most out of his players. The team’s offense could improve, and Thibodeau could ease up on Randle’s minutes. Still, the signing was a smart move. New York has built a team that is competitive every night and capable of winning. That’s something that couldn’t be said about this franchise the previous two seasons.
In Rose’s first draft, the Knicks selected Obi Toppin eighth overall and drafted Immanuel Quickley with the 25th pick. Quickley has ingratiated himself with the Knicks’ fan base rather quickly (I know, sorry) and has established himself as a core piece in a short amount of time. Quickley’s sudden rise has quieted the early struggles of Toppin.
The Knicks initially viewed Toppin as Randle’s eventual replacement, but Randle’s ascension to All-Star status puts Toppin and the team in a predicament. Currently, Randle is third in the NBA in minutes per game (36.7) and with Thibodeau’s preference for a rim protector on the floor as much as possible, Toppin has been limited to 12.2 minutes in 25 games. It’s early, but Toppin’s place in the franchise’s future will be a topic going forward.
In what seems to be an annual tradition, the Knicks struck out on signing a star player in free agency. Though there was some interest in former All-Star Gordon Hayward, Charlotte ended up acquiring the small forward. There was reported interest in Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, but he re-signed with Toronto.
Instead of making a big splash, the Knicks went for efficiency by signing veterans Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel to one-year deals to bolster the bench. The team also re-signed point guard Elfrid Payton to a one-year deal. Though it wasn’t flashy, the signings of Noel and Burks have worked out so far. Noel has filled in admirably for the injured Robinson and Burks has provided quality offensive production off the bench.
Payton had a rough start and faced heavy calls for him to lose his job as starter. He has played better recently, averaging 14.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists in the month of February before a hamstring injury caused him to miss the past three games.
Trades Shine a Light on Savvy Decision-Making
New York went into November’s draft with the eighth, 27th and 38th picks in the draft. The Knicks packaged the latter two picks to move up to the 23rd spot after a trade with the Utah Jazz. Soon after, the Knicks sent the 23rd pick to Minnesota for the 25th and 33rd picks in the draft (they later traded the 33rd pick for a future second rounder).
The fact that the Knicks front office was able to move up two spots in the first round and five in the second round without giving up any future assets was impressive. Asset management has quietly become a priority with this new regime. Rose acquired center Ed Davis from the Utah Jazz for two second round picks and later flipped Davis to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jacob Evans, Omari Spellman and a 2026 second round pick.
As a result of the two Davis trades, the Knicks made out with three second round picks for a backup center who has averaged 2.3 points in 19 appearances this season for Minnesota. Some will shrug at that small fact, but the moves on the margins can grease the wheels in a future blockbuster trade.
If there was one burning criticism of the previous regime, the inability to view cap space as more than a tool to sign free agents put the Knicks at a disadvantage. In the summer of 2019, the Knicks failed to sign stars like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. Rather than use that available cap space to acquire draft picks or young players by taking on undesirable contracts from other teams, the Knicks opted to sign middling free agents like Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington and Taj Gibson.
The Knicks have made one in-season trade so far. They acquired Derrick Rose from the Detroit Pistons for point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round draft pick. Rose has made meaningful contributions in an early amount of time, shooting 45.5 percent from three and averaging 12.5 points in 10 games.
The Knicks are in the early stages of their rebuild, and are off to a good start under Rose’s stewardship. In his first year, he has prioritized cap flexibility while making the small deals that shows his willingness to play the long game.
The collection of assets, combined with New York’s improved play, puts the franchise in a better position to find that superstar-caliber player or continue to build a young core that can grow together. For Rose and the rest of the Knicks front office, the job will only get tougher, but they’ve taken the early steps to steer the franchise in the right direction.