Knicks offseason projections: Quest for stars, draft targets and more

We are back for more Knicks talk.

Earlier this week, senior NBA writer John Hollinger, who was the Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations from 2012-19, and Knicks beat writer Fred Katz pieced together a wide-ranging discussion about the Knicks. Today, they tackle new topics, including how the Knicks will know it’s time to trade for a star, what to make of Tom Thibodeau’s two seasons in New York and whether any draft prospects stand out as good fits for New York.

If you missed Part 1 of their conversation — which included talk about offseason priorities, roster-building decisions, the young guys and more — you can read it here. Here is Part 2:

Katz: We concluded Part 1 discussing point guards the Knicks could target this summer, from Jalen Brunson to short-term fixes. Let’s stay on the topic of potential upgrades. Before we continue any further, we must discuss this faceless star who will end up on the Knicks.

The plan, as we’ve both written about before, seems to be for the Knicks to put themselves in a position to trade for a big name. The identity of that player, however, remains in question, though the Jazz’s first-round playoff loss is providing a stream of content for New Yorkers these days. The Knicks have a lot of players on expiring, mid-tier deals.

Alec Burks makes $10 million this upcoming season. Nerlens Noel and Kemba Walker each make $9.2 million. Derrick Rose makes $14.5 million. All of them can become free agents in 2023. Piece their salaries together, and the Knicks can make the finances work in a trade for a max player. But let’s discuss this abstractly: Should they?

It would take more than just the aforementioned players to deal for a needle mover. The Knicks have all of their first-round picks moving forward as well as the Mavericks’ protected one in 2023. They have a surplus of second-rounders. They have eight players 24 and under. Is it worth it for them to deal away picks along with young players for a big name, hoping that someone with gravitas can attract a second star? Do they need a wink, wink from that other star that he will join this ambiguous great player? Where do you fall on all of this?

Hollinger: In the NBA you’re either in or you’re out, and the Knicks are unquestionably in. They aren’t tanking, which means they aren’t getting a centerpiece star in the draft, most likely. They have two players who might be good as the second- and third-best players on a good team in Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, but asking them to be the two best players puts a hard ceiling on how good they can be. And they have several young players who are coming along nicely and can be complementary pieces on a winning team, but realistically none of them will ever sniff an All-Star Game.

So where do you go if you’re the Knicks? You set yourself up to make a trade for an A-lister, and then pounce when that opportunity comes available. They still need to be smart about how much asset equity they put on the table — a Jrue Holiday-type package and a Paul George-type package are very different propositions — and that their target player has enough career runway left to sustain the franchise for years.

As a result, I don’t see what the alternative strategy here is for the Knicks. Right now they’re in NBA purgatory — they have too many half-decent players to be bad enough to tank into a top-five pick, but they don’t have the high-end talent they need to contend for anything beyond a one -and-done playoff cameo. They built this entire roster and cap structure to push their chips in at some point in the next 18 months. Maybe that comes via free agency, but the revised extension rules have made it increasingly rare for elite talent to come available that way. A trade is their most realistic pathway.

Katz: Let’s talk coaching. Thibodeau just completed his second season with the Knicks.

The first went swimmingly: an unexpected 41-31 record, home-court advantage in the first round and an NBA Coach of the Year award. This past one wasn’t as pretty: 37-45 and a long way from the playoffs.

Come October, he will be back for Year 3. What do you make of the job he and his staff have done?

Hollinger: What’s odd is that in a lot of ways I thought his second season was better than his first. Year 1 was the classic Thibodeau curmudgeon from central casting, playing his main players too many minutes, squeezing all he could from a limited team and then getting exposed in the playoffs.

Last season I thought we saw a different coach, especially once it was apparent that the team wouldn’t be as good as expected. The fact the starters were so routinely outplayed might have made it easier for him to limit the minutes loads, but he also proved very willing to push players like Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes and Jericho Sims into the mix (Cam Reddish, not so much) . The young guys have been given opportunities and have improved under his watch.

But I still think there are some limitations here. Thibodeau’s teams are prepared, always, but the offense is one of the league’s least creative, and his unwillingness to open the throttle with Toppin at the 5 further limited New York. He’s also struggled mightily to replicate whatever regular-season success he has in the playoffs.

Overall, I don’t think he’s earned a ticket out of town but I wouldn’t be jonesing to extend his contract either. Given that New York is still in this in-between stage of finding its next identity, I can get behind the idea of ​​bringing him back, letting him work with the 11th pick and the other young guys for another year and seeing what happens. Just please, for the love of God, stop playing Taj Gibson.

Katz: I appreciate your ability to go against the grain, but are you talking about the Taj Gibson who is the best positional defender on the Knicks? Or are you talking about the one who never misses corner 3s anymore? Or are you talking about the one who has somehow become a better shot-blocker than ever at 36 years old?

Moving on, though — you mention the No. 11 pick, which the Knicks don’t technically have yet, even if ending up there is the most likely scenario.

We are less than one week from the NBA lottery, where the Knicks will have the 11th-best odds are the No. 1-overall pick. They have a 2 percent chance of selecting first and a 9.4 percent chance of getting into the top four. The odds are overwhelming, however, that they pick at No. 11 — 77.6 percent. Their second-most-likely spot is No. 12, at which they have a 12.6 percent chance.

Let’s assume they end up somewhere in that range, considering if you simulate 10 lotteries, that’s where they’d be in nine of them. You’re a big draft guy. Is there someone around the end of the lottery you believe fits them particularly well?

Hollinger: I think it’s important to not get too hung up on “fit” actually, since the draft at its core is a talent grab, and the Knicks aren’t so overwhelmingly stacked at one position that you would exclude drafting another player for that spot. It would be amazing if an awesome point guard prospect happened to just be sitting there for them at No. 11, but it rarely works out that way. And teams too often ram square pegs into their round roster holes rather than just taking the best player available and using trades and free agency later.

Now that I’ve descended from my soapbox, I can point out there is one guy that I think would be a nice fit in New York: Dyson Daniels, the Australian guard who played in the G League this season. He’s a big, pass-first guard who also defends all three perimeter positions at a high level, which should allow him to get minutes right away, and I think his playing style makes him a solid fit in lineups next to Immanuel Quickley.

Daniels is a poor shooter who needs to speed up and refine his release, and that is going to scare some people, plus he’s a good-but-not-great athlete and can look a little bit stiff at times. But I love watching him play because he’s about all the right things, and he’s still young enough that it’s easy to buy his shooting coming around.

(Photo of Immanuel Quickley and Tom Thibodeau: Elsa/Getty Images)

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