Knicks' early exit poses questions for future

Just as the Madison Square Garden crowd saluted the New York Knicks for a return to relevancy after years of misery, Trae Young drilled a 30-footer, bowed to the crowd and signaled that for all the good vibes the moment delivered, the series was over.

And it was a reminder of the work to be done before the Empire State Building can turn its lights orange and blue again when the Knicks take the floor for the 2021-22 season.

The feel-good story of the year had a hard crash Wednesday, dumped by the surprising and mouthy Atlanta Hawks in five games. The expectations were raised headed into the series by the Knicks’ strong finish, but they were relatively exposed as an overachieving bunch.

It proved something that wasn’t a secret, with the regular season being about what you can do and the playoffs being about what you can’t.

Here’s where Knicks president Leon Rose, senior adviser William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley and general manager Scott Perry must get busy in the offseason, because honeymoons in that city don’t last but for a New York minute.

What the Knicks are facing this offseason

The Knicks face plenty of questions — not as many as when a seat is reserved at the lottery, but plenty nonetheless. Playing for head coach Tom Thibodeau requires maximum effort at all times, which doesn’t leave much room for the elevator to go higher in the playoffs.

The temptation is alluring — $60 million in cap space, extra draft picks courtesy of shrewd trades to use as sweetener in a deal for a prime-time player and an annoying amount of hope — but going for the large talent upgrade could be fool’s gold unless the perfect deal comes along.

They’ll be in every conversation for any disgruntled superstar, and even if they aren’t, we’ll still hear about it anyways. The Knicks have turned into a desirable destination and with the crosstown Brooklyn Nets charting a championship path, the pressure will be on to match their energy sooner rather than later.

 Julius Randle #30 of the the New York Knicks drives to the basket in the third quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during Game Five of the Eastern Conference first round series at Madison Square Garden on June 02, 2021 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Wendell Cruz-Pool/Getty Images)
Julius Randle should be a top priority for the New York Knicks this offseason. (Wendell Cruz-Pool/Getty Images)

Taking care of Julius Randle is probably the easiest financial decision if he wants an extension, a relative bargain this season at $18.9 million and $19.8 million next season. Randle struggled mightily in the series, looking nothing like the Most Improved Player and at times, like the turnover machine he was when he first arrived via free agency.

It looked like Randle saw triple during the series, every set of eyes fixated on him, and couldn’t discover the man who dominated Atlanta during the regular season, the Julius Randle who gave the Hawks two of his three 40-point games.

It’s because the playoffs are a different game, and teams will load up on his left hand next season as the book is out. His turnovers increased as the series went on, highlighted by eight in the clincher, and he shot under 30% from the field.

Ugh.

They didn’t have the playmakers to lessen the dependency on Randle when he struggled and strategically, didn’t find ways to make the game easier for him. He was either forcing the action or wholly indecisive, an experience the Knicks better hope is an outlier rather than harbinger.

“There's only one way to get experiences, you have to get it, but it's a big part of learning,” Thibodeau said. “And hopefully we can take that and move it forward.”

Randle thrived as the main playmaker, and it’s easy to say he’s not a traditional No. 1 for a contender, but not many of those players come on the market, especially not after the litany of player turnover league-wide the last couple of seasons.

Can he be as effective if the Knicks made a personnel move to acquire a top-line scorer, if the offense wasn’t built around him? If he finds a way to be more finisher than facilitator, it’ll make his life and the Knicks that much easier.

After the confetti from making its first postseason since 2013 fell from the emotional rafters, we saw a team that couldn’t shoot, could barely score and maxed out.

What the Knicks can learn from the Hawks

The Hawks didn’t make them quit, but the mascara was removed and the picture wasn’t as pretty as we thought.

Antics aside, the 4-5 matchup with the Hawks looked like a clear disparity with talent, and if the Knicks look close enough, they’ll see a team that’s perhaps a half-step ahead with roster development.

Young was sensational and theatrical, but it was a group effort from the Hawks that propelled them to a second-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I thought Atlanta really, they added some good pieces to complement Trae and I think that helped him,” Thibodeau said following Game 5.

Second-year forward De’Andre Hunter didn’t get a full chance to display his growth, but the potential — both from using his length and the angles to effectively guard Derrick Rose and his improved shot selection — was evident in stretches.

And adding a secondary scorer in Bogdan Bogdanovic took pressure off Young. Not only did it shift opposing defenses, but it took pressure off Young to make every play, limiting the bad shots and questionable decisions.

 Derrick Rose #4 of the New York Knicks celebrates late in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on May 26, 2021 in New York City.The New York Knicks defeated the Atlanta Hawks 101-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Derrick Rose wants to be back, and if Tom Thibodeau has his way, the Knicks will sign him. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Sounds like a recipe the Knicks can follow.

Rose wants to be back, and if Thibodeau has his way, the Knicks will sign him. Names like Dennis Schroder or veteran Kyle Lowry will come up in free agency, but Thibodeau would close games with Rose even if a 25-year old Magic Johnson was manning the point.

Thibodeau clearly soured on Elfrid Payton, but there’s enough space for internal development elsewhere on the roster if the Knicks choose to be patient.

It’s not sexy to say “player development” but that’s the lane Obi Toppin, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley travel in. Mitchell Robinson is still a second-round gem, but his injuries had better be more freak than the sign of a brittle athlete. He missed out on valuable playoff experience with a fractured right foot.

Can the Knicks invest in every young player or will they be bold and try to capitalize on the organizational momentum? Rose and Wesley are still novices, and they could want to press the fast-forward button.

But even the biggest Knick optimist can see there’s a gulf between any team in the East and Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Milwaukee — hence why Danny Ainge stepped down in Boston. There’s no one magic move to elevate them to that echelon, not one without huge risk that isn’t necessary at this stage of development.

The appetite has been whet all around New York City, now it’s up to the front office not to get too full in the meantime.

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