Julius Randle of the New York Knicks

Are the New York Knicks back? Let’s ask Amar’e Stoudemire.

Amar’e might have been 10 years too early on his declaration. But after a 41-31 record that resulted in the team’s first playoff appearance since 2013, the Knicks very well might be back.

In 2020, the Knicks were the scrappy underdogs under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau. The Knicks clawed and battled their way to the fourth-seed in the Eastern Conference through the defense (top 5 in defensive ratings) and rebounding (top 10 in rebounds per game).

On the offensive side of the ball, Julius Randle shattered expectations by becoming a dynamic playmaker on his way to a stat line of 24/10/6 and a trophy for Most Improved Player. Derrick Rose was a godsend at point guard, RJ Barrett improved in almost every statistical category including 3P% (32% to 40%), and Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Reggie Bullock all became solid contributed.

Last year was full of surprises. After a successful year, those surprises have now turned into expectations. The days of praying for a 30-win team are over, or at least fans including myself believe those days have passed. Now is the time to build on the momentum from last year and grow into a consistent playoff team.

Things That Must Happen For The Knicks To Take The Next Step

– The Knicks must make the playoffs: I can’t stress this point enough. If the Knicks don’t make the playoffs, then last year was a fluke. All of the building blocks put into place last year mean nothing if this team can’t play meaningful basketball in April. I don’t expect the Knicks to be the four-seed again, but if they don’t make the Play-In Tournament, then the season will be a failure.

– RJ Barrett must become a playmaker: If RJ Barrett wants to become a star in this league, then he must become a playmaker on offense. What do I mean by playmaker? Throughout last season, the go-to play for the Knicks was a Randle isolation. That either lead to a tough make, a missed shot, or a pass for a three. While Jules was amazing for most of the year, his playmaking was nowhere to be found in the Atlanta series. This is where RJ comes in. RJ needs to be able to take his man off the dribble and either get to the rim, pass for an open three or hit a pullup jumper. His 2020 game averages of 3 assists and 3.8 free throws are not going to cut it. Those need to get to 4.5 and 5 at the very least.

– Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier must ease the offensive load for Randle: It sounds obvious, but Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier were paid to play offense. They were brought in for their ability to create offense, especially off the dribble. As I stated above, the go-to play was a Jules-iso. Kemba is the best opening day point guard for the Knicks in over a decade. If he stays healthy, the Knicks have a true starting point guard. With Fournier, he must shake off his preseason shooting woes and become a threat from behind the arc. Anything less than 40% is a failure and I’m being generous with that number.

The Bottomline

Superstars win championships, and right now, the Knicks don’t have any superstars. That’s ok for now. The Knicks must return to the first round of the playoffs and play a competitive series. If the team ends up playing the Nets or Bucks in the postseason, then their season will most likely come to an end. However, if they run into a team like the Hawks, Heat, or Sixers, then the Knicks must last more than 5 games. If the Knicks win a playoff series, I’m doing cartwheels outside of MSG. I’m expecting 42-45 wins.

It’s time to take the next step towards becoming a winning franchise once again.

Playoffs or bust.

What are your predictions for the Knicks? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet me, @danny_giro.

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