The New York Knicks have a balanced roster entering the 2021-22 season, but the engine is in the frontcourt. Let’s take a look at the bigs.
The 2020-21 New York Knicks would not have come close to the playoffs without Julius Randle. His career year resulted in a Most Improved Player award and a Second Team All-NBA nod. He was the driving force in New York’s resurgence.
That’s not going to change in 2021-22. The frontcourt is going to be key for Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau. Randle can shoulder the offensive load while Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel anchor the defense. Thibs relies on his centers to act as the lynchpin in his defensive system.
Let’s take a look at the frontcourt for the 2021-22 New York Knicks.
Engine: Julius Randle
“Engine” is not a random word I chose to describe Randle. This is the most common descriptor Thibs used when discussing his go-to guy. Not only did Randle lead the league in minutes per game and total minutes, but he did it while shouldering a massive amount of offensive responsibility.
His workload should go down with the additions of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker combined with the growth of RJ Barrett. He will still be the guy Thibs turns to most often when he needs a bucket, but he won’t always be the guy like he was last year.
That’s good news for Randle, who flamed out in an open-and-shut playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. By adding playmakers, the Knicks are putting Randle in a much better position to succeed.
X-Factor: Mitchell Robinson
We have yet to see Mitchell Robinson on the court for any action during training camp, but Thibs hinted that he might be a go for Friday’s preseason finale.
Although Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson filled in admirably for the injured Robinson last season (more on them in a minute), the Knicks are at their best when the charismatic big man is on the court. Mitch’s offensive game is limited to shots in the paint, but his gravity as a roll man can’t be overlooked.
But Robinson’s value is on the defensive end. His ability to protect the rim is still there despite the fact that his blocks per game are trending down. In fact, he’s becoming a better defender because he’s focusing more on being in the right spot rather than looking for the big block on every shot.
If Robinson can stay healthy and take another leap forward, it raises the entire ceiling of this roster.
Ol’ Reliable: Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel is no NBA superstar, but he is more than capable as a backup center on a playoff team. When Noel took over for the injured Robinson, New York didn’t miss a beat. The team’s defensive rating hung steady as the best in the NBA even after Robinson’s injury.
The fact that he fits the same archetype as Robinson certainly helped ease his transition into the starting lineup. Noel’s ability to protect the rim was on full display as he notched a career-high 2.2 blocks per game.
Noel is a reliable veteran for Thibs to lean on.
Security Blanket: Taj Gibson
Speaking of reliable veterans, how about Taj Gibson? Along with Derrick Rose, Gibson is one of those guys who was born to play for Thibodeau.
While Noel is Ol’ Reliable, Gibson earns his distinction as the team’s security blanket. He might be the best third-string center in the NBA. There is no doubting his status as a leader in the locker room.
When Robinson went down last year, Gibson made a smooth transition into the backup center role. Later, went Noel suffered an injury, Gibson began starting games in the playoffs.
He might be a step slower than he used to be, but he’s also much wiser. Gibson is quite literally the perfect fringe rotational guy.
Fring Rotational Guy: Obi Toppin
Did someone say fringe rotational guy? That was former lottery pick Obi Toppin during his rookie season. Randle’s emergence meant that Toppin’s minutes were going to be cut down.
The same is likely going to be true in 2021-22. We saw flashes from Toppin, including some nice moments during that playoff series against the Hawks.
How much Thibs trusts Toppin is going to come down to how consistent he is on a game-to-game basis. We all know Thibodeau isn’t afraid to run Randle out there for 40-45 minutes if he feels like it gives them the best chance to win.
G Leaguers: Jericho Sims & Aamir Simms
Jericho Sims is on a two-way contract and likely won’t see much time at the pro level for the time being. The Knicks can send him down to the G League in Westchester for seasoning.
Similarly, Aamir Simms is trying to use the preseason as a springboard for that second two-way deal. The Knicks still haven’t made a decision on that second slot.
Check out part one of this Knicks season preview series where we break down the guards. Part two is all about the wings.