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7 unanswered questions heading into the season

Seven of many.

New York Knicks v Charlotte Hornets
Look, it’s ‘seven questions,’ okay?
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Knicks didn’t get any big names and are unlikely to improve much this season, but the front office has maintained flexibility while cutting some fat, adding low-risk free agents with upside, bolstering their stash of future picks and drafting a couple of plucky rookies. Still, there’s a lot we don’t know.

Let’s explore seven unanswered questions that remain after Leon Rose and the front office remade the roster ahead of the 2020-21 NBA season.

What’s going on at point guard?

This has been an unanswered question for 20 years, but it’s just as pertinent as ever. Early in the condensed offseason period, to the delight of many, the Knicks waived Elfrid Payton. Then, to the dismay of many, they brought him back for a little less money. Meanwhile, we’ve got the usual reports that Dennis Smith Jr. is looking tremendous in practice and may have figured out how to fix his jumper. And finally, rumor has it the Knicks are still shopping Frank Ntilikina.

So like, what’s the deal? The Knicks don’t seem to believe their future starting point guard is on this roster. Payton is a stop gap measure for the second straight season, while only some in the organization seem to have hope that DSJ will still ascend to become better than very below average.

As for Ntilikina, who cares that he finished last season on a tear, including his first ever 20-point game? The long-term project is taking too long to develop! He must be shopped incessantly!! For goodness’ sake, Frank is already 22-years-old. He’s never going to be any good.

Honestly, the Knicks should just sign Isaiah Thomas and start him at point guard. It would help wash away any remaining Isiah Thomas stink.

Is Mitchell Robinson going to start?

Last season, Taj Gibson started 56 of the Knicks’ 66 total games, compared to just seven starts for Robinson. The year before that, Robinson’s first in the league, he started 19 times. That’s 26 total starts across two seasons.

In seven starts during the shortened 2019-20 campaign, Robinson averaged 9 points, 7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, plus 3.3 fouls, in 17 minutes per game. In 19 total starts during the 2018-19 season, Robinson posted 7.6 points, 6.8 boards and 2.3 blocks, plus 3.4 fouls, in 25.1 minutes per game. Closing the loop, overall for his career, Mitch averages 8.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.2 swats, plus 3.2 fouls, in just under 22 minutes per game.

We’ve been told that coming off the bench was better for Mitch, but his numbers as a starter are basically his numbers as a bench guy. His impact on the court goes without saying, and the one argument you can really make is that it’s better for him not to quickly get three fouls early in the game. Considering he’s one of the two foundational pieces on the team, it shouldn’t be crazy to think that year three is when Robinson finally lands the starting role.

Only, the team signed Nerlens Noel, a 26-year-old center who’s been in the NBA since 2014-15. Therefore, he’s got experience, which is something everyone knows that Tom Thibodeau values.

Prior to the Noel signing, it didn’t feel crazy to pencil Robinson’s name into the starting slot. As the season gets closer, however, the idea of Noel nabbing the starting position is starting to seem more likely.

How much will RJ Barrett improve?

The third overall pick from 2019 displayed the dogged nature that David Fizdale kept trying to tell us the whole roster had last year, but there remain question marks about Barrett’s game. Last year, he shot poorly from the field and was woeful from the free throw line, but still managed to become the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 steal as a rookie teenager, alongside LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Luka Doncic.

For all the hubbub over Thibs and the new front office, it’s Barrett who could, theoretically, lead an about-face for the franchise. From January on, Barrett shot 68% from the free throw line, which still isn’t good, but is a heck of a lot better than his overall 61% free throw shooting for the season. What if he hits almost 70% of his free throws this year? That, combined with a slight bump in his general shooting percentages, could result in a season where Barrett averages closer to 20 points per game.

Could Thibodeau help Barrett look like, say, former Thibs protege Jimmy Butler? Or will Barrett buckle under the weight of high expectations?

Are any of these free agents here to stay?

This year’s decision makers, besides Scott Perry (and James Dolan), are new. Does that mean they deserve slack when it comes to the roster? We’ve been telling ourselves that it’s okay to have a whole new roster each season for what seems like forever; at some point, you have to sign players who will be here for longer than 365 days.

Last year, the Knicks signed Julius Randle, Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock. Randle, Payton and Bullock stuck around this year, but there’s no way of knowing where they’ll be come next season.

In the name of maintaining flexibility, the team’s strategy hasn’t changed all that much, although they appear to have become more clever at managing the salary cap, especially on the margins.

This year, they signed Payton, Bullock, Noel and Alec Burks to one-year deals, while giving Rivers a three-year deal in which the final two years are both team options, among other moves. Is anyone buying any of their jerseys? Are they even making consumer versions of their jerseys? Is it worth it to try and become fans of these players? Or are they just a bunch of temporary pieces plugging major holes at almost every position?

What’s the deal with Julius Randle?

For all the hate he gets, it’s easy to spin Randle as a person who’s actually very good at basketball. You don’t stink your way to 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in the NBA. Yet you probably don’t know a single person who loves Randle on the Knicks. If anything, maybe you’ve got a few friends who would argue that, under the right circumstances, he could be a solid second- or third-best player on an above average team.

Meanwhile, the Knicks just drafted an explosive power forward who can shoot. There’s no question that, all things equal, a majority of Knicks fans would prefer to see Obi Toppin over Randle most of the time. But Thibs seems enamored with Randle, and we haven’t really heard anything in terms of Randle trade rumors with any merit.

So is he here to stay? Will they deal him at the trade deadline? Considering his stats are so good that the Knicks felt he could basically replace Kristaps Porzingis, why don’t other teams seem to want to trade any good players for him? Is he going to be the team’s go-to player this year instead of Barrett? Will his presence stunt the growth of Toppin?

Will the youngsters, including rookies, get enough run?

We started to consider that question in the last section, but the overall inquiry is important. The Knicks are young and mostly looking toward the future, but Thibs isn’t going to tank, so how exactly are all the minutes going to be doled out?

In a perfect world, we get to see Toppin for at least 25 minutes a night from the opening tip of the season. And it would be great to get a sense of whether Immanuel Quickley can have an impact. Most Knicks fans would also agree that they’d like to catch significant glimpses of the following players this year: Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntililkina, Kevin Knox and Dennis Smith Jr.

Will Thibs allow his youngins to fight through struggles? Or will he rely on a group of mercenary vets who probably aren’t going to do all that much winning? The answer might be frustrating. But maybe Thibs can change his ways. As the old saying goes, tigers can easily change their stripes later in their career once they’ve been humbled.

What’s the actual plan?

This isn’t going to become clear for awhile, but it’s a question still worth asking. We know Rose wanted Chris Paul, that he had interest in Gordon Hayward, and that he was down to listen when it came to the likes of Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo but stood firm on his limits. It wouldn’t be shocking to find out that, internally, the plan is to hopefully develop a few of the younger players but stay competitive while ultimately staying positioned to make a major trade for a star. Easy peasy, right?

But Rose hasn’t said much publicly, and from what we’ve seen the Knicks are showing a propensity for picking players that have ties to Creative Arts Agency or the University of Kentucky. Should we be scouting from those places exclusively?

Is it okay if the Knicks are bad this year? Or are they expected to be pretty good? Do the Knicks view RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson as the future? Are they seen as guys who will hopefully grow their value so they can be traded as part of a package for the next disgruntled superstar? Heck, we don’t even know for sure whether the team thinks Frank Ntilikina is a bust or about to blossom.

Literally anything is possible this season. The Knicks have a full roster of guys who could all be traded rather easily, depending on the circumstances, plus a bucket of future draft picks, which could also easily be dealt. Buckle up, because the ride is about to begin.