New York Knicks X-Factor: Kemba Walker

The New York Knicks spent their offseason aiming to rectify the playoff pitfalls that buried their joyful 2020-21 campaign on a sour note. Outside of All-NBA forward Julius Randle, New York’s options for creation were severely limited last year. In the first round, the Atlanta Hawks were fully cognizant of that, so they swarmed his airspace on every touch and coaxed other guys to beat them. Randle forced some shots, struggled with his jumper and everyone else couldn’t pick up the slack when presented the chance. The result was a 4-1 defeat in which none of the final three games were particularly close.

Alongside anticipated growth from RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, a pair of former Boston Celtics, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, have come to the Big Apple in hopes of New York now having the requisite offensive firepower to supplement its stifling defense. Fournier begins his Knicks tenure on a four-year, $73 million as one of the higher-profile free agents of last summer. New York wanted him and invested heavily in his services.

Walker, meanwhile, begins his Knicks tenure following an injury riddled 2020-21, brief excursion as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder and a buyout that saw an early termination of the max contract he signed back in 2019 and led to him inking a two-year, $17.8 million deal with New York.

Despite the gulf in salaries and divergent paths from Boston to New York, both Fournier and Walker will be central to the Knicks’ intentions of building upon last season’s resurgence. Fournier, though, feels a little more solidified in what he will bring. He’s 28, doesn’t have Walker’s recent string of unfortunate health concerns, will offer valuable floor-spacing, and touts some on- and off-ball scoring chops. Walker is a good player, but his contributions are in flux.

He was good last year, but was clearly diminished from his pre-injury self. Did the offseason revitalize him or will he continue to decline as he approaches his 32nd birthday? He also only played 43 games last season. How much can New York expect of him? His pull-up shooting, playmaking and off-ball versatility will invigorate the offense and provide traits this team either lacked or needed more of to avoid its demise last season.

But how much can the Knicks rely on him without overextending him and jeopardizing his health? Finding that balance is a pressing factor. He makes life easier offensively for Randle, Barrett and other foundational players, yet that’s only if he’s available to suit up. This isn’t to say he won’t be, but the last year and a half paint a dubious outlook for a small guard on the wrong side of 30 who backpacked a huge offensive workload for nearly a decade.

The spectrum of outcomes for Walker’s health and performance this season is wide and where exactly he lands on that spectrum has massive implications for determining where New York settles among the crowded middle class of the Eastern Conference.