Last year, the NBA halted play for four months due to the coronavirus outbreak before setting up a “bubble” for teams to finish out the regular season; the league invited 22 of its 30 teams to participate and vie for playoff spots…the Knicks were not one of them. Following an embarrassing offseason where their two biggest recruits signed with their cross-town rival, a trade sending out their leading scorer, and year-long offensive misery, the team finished 21-45 placing them 12th in the Eastern Conference.
2019-20 was their seventh-consecutive season finishing under .500 and missing the playoffs. Management fired head coach David Fizdale after a horrific 4-18 start, fired general manager-turned-president, Steve Mills, after continuous losing seasons, and ended the year without a head coach for the fourth time in seven years…brutal.
After trading disgruntled franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis, New York made numerous moves to clear up their payroll so they could land two All-Star talents in free agency. They swung for some big names like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Kemba Walker, but missed out on all of them in hilarious fashion. Trades for Anthony Davis and Chris Paul weren’t seriously considered, and prayers to land the number one overall pick, Duke’s Zion Williamson, in the draft lottery fell two spots short.
The front office utilized its league-high cap space to sign lots of veterans as a last resort, filling out most of the roster with power forwards (strangely enough) headlined by former Laker and Pelican Julius Randle. Fans became growingly frustrated as the laughing stock of the league couldn’t bring in talent as they promised, couldn’t develop its lottery picks, and couldn’t win games. And the Kyrie-KD-Zion Knicks photoshop is now an internet legend.
Right before play resumed in the bubble (without the Knicks), the team hired Tom Thibodeau to be their new head coach. He had lots of success coaching the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves and even won the NBA’s Coach of the Year honor in 2011. A few months prior they had also brought in high-profile sports-agent Leon Rose to be their new president, and special consultant William “World Wide Wes” Wesley to be his senior advisor. Following October’s NBA Finals, they selected two players in the collegiate draft, added to their assistant coaching staff, and signed a new wave of free agents.
In just two months of action, “Thibs” has the Knicks back in a playoff spot thanks to a drastic culture change. Franchise cornerstones are taking steps forward (not backward), veterans are locking into a challenge, and the leading man is breaking through the ceiling left by their last All-Star.
Let’s look at how things were able to turn around so quickly, thanks to the Knicks’ new foundation of “good business”.
1. Highly-Respected Manager
The seven-straight losing seasons can largely be attributed to the Knicks’ coaching carousel, and its failure to find a competent person to bring the team back to the playoffs. Management’s reluctance to rebuild in the early years significantly delayed the process, but even when the front office selected David Fizdale as the person to finally lead the new era, they still got the pick wrong.
At long last, the Knicks have finally made a splash, not with a player signing but with a coaching hire in Tom Thibodeau. In his first stint, he revived the sour-spelled Chicago Bulls and elevated them back to the East’s 1-seed, molding Derrick Rose into the youngest MVP ever in 2010-11, and in his second stint, he revived the doormat Minnesota Timberwolves and guided them back to the playoffs, ending a 14-year-drought with the 8-seed in 2017-18. In the last decade, he’s lifted two lottery teams back into the NBA playoff picture, making him a great choice for the Knicks, who have endured endless instability.
“Thibs” is sticking to his model of playing young guys for heavy minutes, demanding defensive effort, and creating accountability within a strict (and low-volume) rotation. The Knicks, like the Bulls and Timberwolves, have instantly seen a rise with young players and drastic improvement on defense, indicating that what the team lacked all along was a highly competent and respected manager at the helm.
2. Motivated Human Resources
In the past seven years, the Knicks have had their share of stars lighting up Madison Square Garden, former greats turning back time, and youngsters creating some buzz. The stretches have proven to be very short-lived, and while exciting, not progressive in the aggregate, as it’s become common nature for Knicks’ players to perform only to get a crowd reaction on the big stage and far-too-often blame coaching for their shortcomings.
The new crop of talent is certainly being pushed more than ever before because of Thibodeau, however, the players’ resurgence can be equally linked to all their drives. R.J. Barrett was third in rookie scoring last year but didn’t receive any of the league’s 10 All-Rookie team spots, Mitchell Robinson was averaging over 2 blocks-per-game but had only started 20% of his pro games, Alec Burks was shooting 38% from 3-point range but was passed around by five teams in two seasons, and most notably Julius Randle was averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds before his 25th-birthday but was let go by both the Lakers and Pelicans who didn’t view him as a franchise player.
This year the team is benefiting from all the doubters and mistakes, proving several team executives and the media wrong about its respective talents. There’s reason to believe that all 10 players in the Knicks’ current rotation are being driven by organizations who’ve left them by the curb. Thibodeau may be challenging the veterans and young players to perform at a high level on a daily basis, yet it’s clear that all their human resources are internally motivated to succeed, and for a variety of reasons it’s creating a storm that’s unifying the locker room and being unleashed on players throughout the league.
3. The Best Protection Infrastructure
This recent stretch of misery in a more analytical sense stems from porous defensive play. The Knicks have been able to score at decent rates and produce some great individual offensive seasons, yet they’ve constantly been bested by playoff-caliber teams who can lock them down fairly easily.
Thibodeau while a tremendous franchise elevator and young player developer is best known as a defensive specialist who’s able to wreak havoc on the opposition. He recognizes player’s individual strengths, disperses the notion of accountability onto the court, and gets the team to commit to defensive pressure to win (and if members don’t show effort, then they don’t play). Based on Thibodeau’s track record, it’s clear that the players with the heaviest minutes and most fourth-quarter time are those giving the greatest efforts on defense and making the impact he likes to see, whether they’re blocking lots of shots at the rim or contesting jump shots or chasing after loose balls or forcing turnovers.
In two months, the Knicks have shockingly soared to become the league’s best defensive team, with the lowest opponent field goal percentage, lowest opponent 3-point percentage, and lowest opponent points-per-game (even lower than the defending champion Lakers and the NBA’s winningest Jazz team). It would surprise no one if none of the Knicks received All-Defense honors because their defensive averages don’t leap off the page, however it would also surprise no one if this team found themselves in the playoffs because they own the league’s best protection unit.
4. Allegiance to Top Prospects
Years of desperately trying to compete cost the Knicks several first-round picks in the previous decade, and eventually the team fell apart and needed to embrace a rebuild, forcing the team into the draft lottery. Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant were scooped up in 2015 yet they wouldn’t live out their rookie deals, and Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox were selected in 2017 and 2018, respectively, yet they’re no longer part of the rotation.
Poor commitments to developing young talent have effectively halted the team’s progress, while many in the Eastern Conference and especially those in the Atlantic Division (Celtics, 76ers, Raptors, and Nets) have emerged with great young cornerstones starting and playing heavy minutes. Even if Ntlikina, Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., or even Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier weren’t of the likes of Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, or Fred VanVleet, the team could’ve still moved forward with their draft picks leading them and gauged their fullest potentials. It took a fifth coaching hire in eight seasons for the team to finally throw the young guys into the fire, and now R.J. Barrett (34 minutes-per-game), Mitchell Robinson (29 minutes-per-game), and even Immanuel Quickley (27 of 31 games played) are playing terrific basketball as hardened steel.
It’s much more beneficial to the franchise if they’re winning with the young talent they drafted and not in big part to the big-money free agents they’ve signed because it creates a foundation of great player development and helps the organization recruit needed parts. The Knicks don’t need to look very far regionally to see the competition was getting ahead, with younger and more inexpensive talent making significant strides, and now the team is finally following their locals in their allegiance to top prospects on the roster (and it’s working…as the team currently sits among them in the Eastern Conference playoff).
5. Their Value Proposition
The underwhelming Carmelo Anthony experience came to an end in 2016-17, and right after began a new era led by 2015 first-rounder Kristaps Porzingis. He immediately emerged as the leading man and earned his first All-Star appearance, becoming the rising-Knicks’ 7’3” unstoppable “unicorn” and very-bright future, but following a devastating ACL tear in February 2018, he was sidelined on his year-long road to recovery where he became increasingly frustrated with the direction of the team, eventually resulting to a trade demand that was granted in January 2019.
The team then shuffled the return from the trade and their existing roster (on its way to 17-65) to clear cap space for the summer, where they hoped to replace Porzingis’ starring role, and after several failures bringing in All-Star talent, they lofted for free agent Julius Randle for what many believed to be an overpay (3 years, $63M…formerly Lakers and Pelicans didn’t want to pay him over $10M a year). Frustrated and disappointed Knicks fans blamed the cause of their misery onto Randle, who couldn’t help the poorly-assembled squad from their 4-18 start and was only trying to play up to his pay-grade with ball-dominance. This year, however, with a much greater coach and teammates to work with, the big man has reinvented himself and dramatically improved his game, setting career-high marks with 23 points-per-game, 11 rebounds-per-game, 5.5 assists-per-game, and a 41% 3-point percentage.
He’s the engine driving the Knicks’ offense, a motor revving the Knicks’ defense, and the character everyone on the young roster looks up to because of his work ethic and huge unselfishness. The former value proposition was a unique one with a 7’3” two-way force unlike anything the league has ever seen, but the new value proposition is a modern one with a 6’9” offensive star unlike anything the Knicks have ever seen (no Knick has averaged 20,10, & 5), and it’s making a much bigger difference because he’s bleeding blue and orange (something Porzingis never really cared to do).
New York was one of the five worst teams in the NBA since 2015 (.308 winning percentage), and though they’re not at the top of the Conference just yet, they’re clearly turning things around and moving forward in the right direction. 2021 has Knicks fans, the organization, and the media feeling the best about the team since when they last made the playoffs in 2013.
Julius Randle through half-the-season is playing a legitimate #1 option, R.J. Barrett has shown flashes of excellence as the cornerstone of the franchise, Mitchell Robinson is powering the league’s best defense in his first year as a starter, Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks are providing desperately-needed floor spacing, Austin Rivers and Nerlens Noel have found a home they’re proud to play for, and newcomer Thibs-favorite Derrick Rose is strengthening the bench unit while mentoring the exciting rookie scorer Immanuel Quickley.
As of this writing, the Knicks are 15-16, which is the closest they’ve been to the .500 mark in February since that awesome 2013 season. There are reasonable concerns whether this terrific play and effort could be sustained over the full 72-game season, and there’s still half-a-season where they could fall out of their playoff spot.
Instead of worrying about the next two months and how things could fall apart like they always do, the Knicks players, Tom Thibodeau, Leon Rose, and the fan base should only think about two things. One — that the Knicks actively winning games should be celebrated considering their long history of losing. And two — that the Knicks are finally…FINALLY, after years of poor planning, and false hope, and disgruntled stars, and bad hires, managing a good business, thanks to a much more dedicated and healthier operation…
RJ Barrett photo by Sportsology