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The Knicks might take a step back this season, but that’s alright

The results of the upcoming 2021-22 season matter far less for the Knicks than the process they should continue to emphasize.

NBA: Preseason-Washington Wizards at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a long time, things are looking up for the New York Knicks ahead of the start of a new season.

Offseason additions Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier are sure to provide a scoring punch the league’s ninth-worst offense sorely lacked last season. Mitchell Robinson looks beefed up and ready to last more than the 31 games he appeared in last year.

Youngsters RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Obi Toppin are expected to take respective steps in their development. The same could be said of Julius Randle on the heels of signing a fresh new contract.

Add all these elements to a team that finished fourth in the Eastern Conference in 2021, and the logical expectation would be a similar regular-season outcome while looking towards the second round and beyond in the playoffs, right?

Well, things aren’t that simple.

Several Eastern Conference teams that struggled amid the COVID-crazed 2020–21 season are expecting a bounce-back year. Both Miami and Boston tweaked rosters that were playing in the conference finals just two seasons ago. Indiana is hoping a coaching change can right their wobbling ship.

The Bulls improved with a handful of offseason additions highlighted by the arrival of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. Charlotte will likely look better with health and a leap by reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball. The Raptors could be re-energized by a return to their home country. And an Atlanta team that surged after Nate McMillan took over head coaching duties in March will try to replicate their 27–11 regular-season record and postseason success across an entire 82-game season.

Not even including Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia, that’s an awful lot of teams for the Knicks to compete with just to finish where they did last season. And they won’t have the element of surprise to help them do it.

So, maybe the Knicks are something less than the fourth seed. Maybe they find themselves in the play-in tournament. Maybe they come up short in the play-in and don’t technically finish among the top-eight teams when the postseason rolls around.

That feels like a backtrack coming off such an unexpectedly memorable previous season. Many will feel as such should it play out that way. But a step back in the standings doesn’t mean the Knicks have taken a detour in their quest for the ultimate goal.

Playoff appearances and series victories are great steps for the Knicks to take, but the ultimate goal this team is trying to build towards remains a championship trophy. And while the roster in place is a surprisingly competitive one, it remains lacking in the one area that matters above all else: star power.

In pursuit of the kind of star talent who can validate their title dreams, the Knicks don’t have to operate in the same manner many of the other teams around the league do.

They play in New York. Stars want to come to New York. They’ve just needed a basketball reason to commit to the Knicks, which hasn’t existed until now with the franchise heading in a positive direction for the first time in a while.

Nobody can predict who that player is or when they’ll become available. But in this era of player empowerment, the next disgruntled star looking for greener pastures is never too far away. The Knicks just have to hold onto their competitive streak long enough to be legitimate players for his services when that time inevitably comes, which is why the specific results of this season matter far less than the underlying foundation being built in the Big Apple.

If the title ultimately remains out of reach this season anyway, the goal remains rooted in answering the questions that could further convince a star that New York is the place to be.

Was Randle’s breakout All-Star and Most Improved season a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come? Will Barrett take the all-important third-year leap to become an All-Star caliber guard? Have any of Quickley, Toppin, or Robinson taken significant steps in their development?

A top seed or a second-round appearance would likely have the answers baked right in, but that causation isn’t a guarantee given the improved state of the conference.

The Knicks can only control so much of this season’s outcome, but they have what to take care of internally to leverage their location into the most impactful of players who can take them where they want to go.

As long as that business is handled, they’ll remain on the right path no matter how the standings shake out.