Obi Toppin is gone and the New York Knicks don’t have a conventional power forward to replace him. It won’t hurt them … as long as Julius Randle doesn’t get hurt.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau has no problem using Josh Hart against power forwards, and there aren’t many backup fours who could push the 28-year-old around anyway. Hart always looks to strike first and remains one of the world’s elite rebounders. Problems will come, however, if Randle, who had ankle surgery this summer, is unable to play and New York faces a brutal frontcourt on the other end.
Could Hart or RJ Barrett hold their own against e.g. Minnesota Timberwolves starting Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, considering that’s a huge size difference and neither Knicks player would stretch the Wolves’ big men to the 3-point arc on offense? And if Hart were to play the four for an extended period, would he hold up physically? It’s one thing to spot-start at power forward or struggle against backups; it’s something else to battle with top fours every night.
The Knicks don’t need a one-on-one Toppin replacement. They already have nine guys to play into their nine-man rotation. The flashiest part of free agency is long gone, but some players linger in the abyss still without a contract. Meanwhile, the Knicks could use insurance — and not just at power forward, either.
Maybe there is a wing they go after to solidify their depth. Or maybe there’s someone else who doesn’t necessarily fill a need, but who they like as a locker room presence.
New York has 12 players on guaranteed contracts today: Hart, Barrett, Randle, Jalen Brunson, Evan Fournier, Mitchell Robinson, Donte DiVincenzo, Isaiah Hartenstein, Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, Jericho Sims and Miles McBride. It has three more (Isaiah Roby, DaQuan Jeffries and Jacob Toppin) on non-guaranteed deals.
They must enter the regular season with at least 14 players.
Roby could be an option at power forward if the Knicks don’t have Randle and need extra size. They could go to lineups with Sims defending power forwards, as they did when Toppin missed a month this past season. But whether Roby sticks around or not, they have room to add.
Because of their salary cap situation, the Knicks can sign anyone to a minimum contract. They could also use the semiannual exception to sign a free agent for a starting salary of up to $4.5 million — though spending that much would mean moving money elsewhere so the team doesn’t go into the luxury tax. It also wouldn’t make sense to sign a non-rotating piece for that much.
So instead of going after Kelly Oubre Jr., PJ Washington and Christian Wood, the best talent left on the market, let’s delve into cheaper options.
The Knicks may sign a few inexperienced players to round out the slate. They could hold on to Roby and Jeffries to enter the regular season with 14 players. Jeffries has always been a Thibodeau favorite because of his work ethic. But for today, let’s concentrate on those vets who are still looking for a job.
Here are six the Knicks could consider for the end of their bench:
2022-23 team: Washington Wizards
2022-23 statistics: 9.8 mpg., 3.4 ppg., 1.9 rpg.
Gibson returning to the Washington Wizards remains on the table, but it would have been malpractice to write this list without his inclusion, even though the Knicks already have three centers. After all, if Gibson were to come back to New York, where he previously played for three seasons, it would be less for basketball reasons and more for relationship reasons. He is one of Thibodeau’s most loyal long-term associates. He has played for Thibodeau in all three of the coach’s stops (Chicago Bulls, Timberwolves and Knicks). Derrick Rose is already out the door after signing with the Memphis Grizzlies. Perhaps Thibodeau will have another well-respected translator in the locker room. Knicks players already revere Gibson. He is one of Robinson’s all-time favorite teammates. The 25-year-old center is absorbing all the advice Gibson has to offer. And if there’s an emergency and Gibson needs to fill in, he can still knock down a corner 3 and play strong team defense.
Derrick Jones Jr.
2022-23 team: Chicago Bulls
2022-23 statistics: 14.0 mpg., 5.0 ppg., 2.4 rpg.
Jones opted out of a $3.4 player option for the upcoming season, but he may have to take a little less into consideration as he remains unsigned. If he were to join a team for the minimum, he could help — and if it were the Knicks, he could step into the emergency power forward role seamlessly. Jones was a fixture in Chicago, sliding in as a forward who could also play center with the Bulls’ reserve units. He’s only 6-foot-5, but he’s a super athlete, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and can block shots. He could throw lobs from Quickley or DiVincenzo in another unit that could play especially fast. But it’s also possible that Jones doesn’t want to sign with a team that might not have a spot for him on opening night. And it is also too early to assume that he will only sign for the minimum. He is a useful rotation player. Someone could offer him more.
2022-23 team: Detroit Pistons
2022-23 statistics: 17.8 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.0 apg.
Diallo would be another candidate more in Jones’ mold than Gibson’s. He has performed well in Detroit over the past few seasons, albeit on a team that gives its young players miles of leash. But here’s the thing: Diallo is still young, only 24 years old. He’s a former dunk champion, a high-flying athlete like Jones, though he doesn’t play nearly as big. Diallo is more of a wing. He is also from Queens. But he still struggles mightily from 3-point range, which isn’t ideal for the Knicks, who need someone who can hit the long ball. Like Jones, Diallo also might not want to join a team that doesn’t guarantee him playing time, as he could reasonably argue that he hasn’t reached his potential yet and should be working toward a bigger future contract.
2022-23 team: Sacramento Kings
2022-23 statistics: 13.1 mpg., 6.7 ppg., 2.2 rpg., 36.6 percent 3-point shooting
If the Knicks want to lean into feisty, 6-foot-4 guards, why not play for Davis, another mid-career player who fits the team’s larger identity? New York already has Grimes, Hart and DiVincenzo, who are Davis’ size and better players today. It also has Brunson and Quickley, a pair of smaller guards. Davis is an off-ball option and can knock down 3-pointers. If the Knicks want to move forward with a slew of perimeter players 6-foot-5 or smaller, a couple of centers and, of course, Barrett as the independent wing, Davis could be a defensive-minded long-range option to add to the mix.
2022-23 team: Sacramento Kings
2022-23 statistics: 4.9 mpg, 1.4 ppg.
Bringing Dozier to New York would be more about potential than what he did last season in Sacramento, where he barely played. It wasn’t long ago that Dozier was a promising defender on a top team. He was a key cog off Denver’s bench, guarding wings and ball handlers from 2019-22. But not long after, he tore his ACL. It has been a long recovery since. Still, he’s only 26 years old, and his gritty personality would fit well with the Knicks’ persona. He could also give New York a little more size on the wing in an emergency, considering he has a few inches on Grimes, DiVincenzo and Hart. He couldn’t crack the rotation with the Kings, but sometimes it takes an extra year to get back to normal after a serious injury.
2022-23 team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2022-23 statistics: 12.5 mpg., 5.5 ppg., 1.3 rpg., 43.2 percent 3-point shooting
Like Dozier, Green spent this past season working his way back from an ACL injury. He didn’t play until February. And yet a team ended up relying on him when it came to the playoffs. At one point during their first-round sweep against the Knicks, the Cavs hoped an infusion of Green would be helpful. The adjustment fell flat and Green fell back from the rotation, but it’s not like the Knicks would sign Green to bolster their perimeter defense. He would be an extra wing capable of guarding well and knocking down a 3. He’s a beloved teammate and would bring as much championship experience as anyone, considering he’s been a starter on three different title teams and played in 169 postseason games over his 13-year career.
(Photo by Hamidou Diallo and Derrick Jones Jr.: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images)