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Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier raise Knicks’ ceiling

Knicks additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 17: Evan Fournier #13 and Kemba Walker #8 of the New York Knicks pose for a photo on the observation deck at the Empire State Building on August 17, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

After Chris Paul led the Suns to the NBA Finals, teams sought their own Chris Paul this summer. The copycat league just saw how the veteran point guard could help a moribund Phoenix franchise surge forward. And Paul, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley were all free agents.

But Kyle Lowry wasn’t Chris Paul. Mike Conley wasn’t Chris Paul. Heck, Chris Paul wasn’t even Chris Paul.

Kemba Walker was Chris Paul.

The Suns landed a player of Paul’s caliber only because he carried so much baggage. He was just a year removed from a down year and injury issues. Those problems left him salary-dumped on the rebuilding Thunder, who were ready to move on and willing to accommodate him. Phoenix got him cheap – for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a reasonably protected first-round pick.

Lowry (Heat), Conley (Jazz) and Paul (Suns) were in high demand this offseason. They all got big contacts.

The Knicks landed Walker on just a two-year, $17,894,491 deal after he took a $20 million buyout from Oklahoma City.

Now, Walker didn’t have a reclamation season with the Thunder like Paul did before Phoenix got him. Walker is coming off his down year with the Celtics. There’s no guarantee he follows Paul back on track.

But, like with Paul, Walker wasn’t quite as bad during his down year as the critics suggested. They just declined from star-level peaks. It also seemed worse because expectations were higher.

The Knicks might regret not trading for Paul when they had the chance in 2019. But it’s easier not to dwell on it now after they just made the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

Julius Randle, who led New York to the postseason, also signed a four-year, $117 million contract extension. That was the largest-allowable extension – but far less than his projected max in 2022 free agency ($207 million over five years). The Knicks should feel good about locking in Randle now at that lesser rate.

Randle’s rough playoffs dampened enthusiasm. He looked overextended as New York’s primary offensive creator in a first-round loss to the Hawks. But the extension is still a bargain.

And the Knicks got him help – Walker and Evan Fournier (three years, $54 million followed by a team option). Those perimeter threats should add juice to a New York offense that was too stale despite Randle’s best efforts to prop it up.

I’d also bet on a Tom Thibodeau-coached team with plenty of continuity maintaining its strong defense. The Knicks re-signed:

  • Derrick Rose (two years, $27,965,850 followed by a team option)
  • Alec Burks (two years, $19,548,800 followed by a team option)
  • Nerlens Noel (two years, $18.04 million followed by a team option)
  • Taj Gibson (one year, $4.91 million followed by an unguaranteed season)

With Walker and Fournier incoming, Reggie Bullock (Mavericks) and Elfrid Payton (Suns) departed. Bullock will be more missed.

The Knicks also continued their now-multi-decade tradition of moving on quickly from their first-round picks, not tendering a qualifying offer to Frank Ntilikina (No. 8 pick in 2017). Charlie Ward (No. 26 pick in 1994), was the last player to spend his first six seasons with New York. Since, only David Lee (No. 30 pick in 2005) has spent even his first five full seasons with the Knicks. Kevin Knox (No. 9 pick in 2018) will probably be next out the pipeline.

In this year’s draft, New York traded down multiple times to get future draft capital and still emerged with No. 25 pick Quentin Grimes, No. 34 pick Rokas Jokubaitis and No. 36 pick Miles McBride.

In many ways, it feels like the Knicks are bracing for a bigger move later. In addition to the future picks, the extra years of team control, on Fournier, Rose, Burks, Noel and Gibson create flexibility. Rumors about New York and stars, as always, abound.

The Knicks should also take a step forward in the short-term. Even if they don’t overachieve by as much this season, their roster looks stronger. Walker and Fournier offer an upside last year’s try-hard group lacked.

Offseason grade: B