The Knicks no longer conjure images of Lou Amundson, Joakim Noah, or Phil Jackson’s octopus tentacle dinners. Now it’s Julius Randle donning an All-Star uniform. It’s RJ Barrett draining 3s. It’s Tom Thibodeau scowling and screaming about defense. The wins are nice. Having a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013 is great. But most importantly, a lack of direction and purpose has been replaced with progress from key players and a team identity.
Thibodeau, who probably has the word DEFENSE tattooed across his shoulders, has instilled a defensive mindset into the locker room. But a head coach’s philosophy is only as good as their players. This roster is filled with tough, grizzled veterans and hungry young guys who play together and for each other. The Knicks have the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating this season, which is fueling their 27-27 season.
It’s no longer a fantasy to have hope. The players leading this Knicks resurgence have a track record of building their games.
Randle became an All-Star after improving on all of his weaknesses: defense, passing, and shooting. He’s playing the best defense of his life and still vacuuming rebounds. After grabbing boards, he’s making plays in the open floor as both a scorer and passer, averaging a career-high 22.8 points on 56.4 percent true shooting with a career-high 6.0 assists and 3.4 turnovers. Smart plays are up and reckless decisions are down after he deactivated his tunnel vision. On top of that, he’s hitting 39.9 percent of his 3s—up from 29.5 percent in his first six seasons. It’s completely fair to question if his shooting improvement is an aberration. But his shooting mechanics look more consistent than ever, which comes following an extended offseason in which he says he was “obsessive” about improving his shot. Overall, Randle had a real breakthrough, and he leaves you wondering what happens if he keeps getting better, as many 26-year-old All Stars have done before him.
Then there’s Barrett, who’s shooting 38.6 percent from 3 this season (and 42.2 percent in the 2021 calendar year) after he was rightfully questioned about his ability to shoot in past years. Barrett shot 30.8 percent from 3 at Duke and 32 percent as a rookie. Now he’s shooting the hell out of the ball. His stance is balanced. He’s steady. Much like Randle, he’ll need to sustain these shooting percentages. But he’s improved in other ways, too, as a passer, finisher, and defender. Barrett gets to the basket at a near league-high rate, logging 12.7 drives per game, which is more than 94 percent of NBA players. He’s finishing with far more finesse than he did as a rookie, scoring 0.9 points per chance, which is merely average (39th percentile) but ranks significantly higher than his rookie season (19th percentile), according to Second Spectrum. “I think his confidence is coming from all the extra time that he’s putting in. He’s showing his growth in maturity,” Thibodeau told reporters last week. “His work ethic is top of the line. His attitude and approach are top of the line. He’s a team-first guy. He’s 20 years old and he’s only gonna get better.”
Thibodeau’s comments align with intel from around the league that says Barrett is a basketball junkie who works hard and seeks out feedback. Guys like that tend to fulfill their upside. It’s just a matter of what that upside is: All-Star? Superstar? He already looks like a really good rotation guy and his head coach believes in him. We’ll see.
Maybe if the Knicks weren’t winning, or maybe if Immanuel Quickley didn’t look like one of the steals of the 2020 draft, there’d be more negativity pointed toward the fact their lottery pick has underwhelmed. Obi Toppin is playing 11.6 minutes per game and making an irregular impact on both ends. There’s a chance he won’t pan out considering his defensive limitations and his shaky jumper, but he deserves time given that he had no summer league, limited preseason, and had to return from a calf injury suffered in his first game. Even though he’s 23 years old, which is old for a rookie, Toppin was a late bloomer. He had no Division I offers after high school, then had a 4-inch growth spurt during a postgraduate year. After committing to Dayton, he was forced to redshirt as a freshman because of academic ineligibility. He was labeled as NBA-ready going into the draft because of his age, but that wasn’t quite true considering his unusual path.
Toppin also isn’t playing his ideal offensive role. Thibodeau is asking him to be a spot-up shooter even though he’s best used as a cutter and rim-runner who sets screens and dives hard to the basket. If Toppin were in an offense with a highly skilled playmaking point guard, he could finish lobs or dribble to the basket straight off a pocket pass. But he’s setting only 1.4 picks per game that result in him rolling to the basket, according to Second Spectrum. Sharing a floor with a big doesn’t help: Toppin has often received minutes alongside Mitchell Robinson, who was having his best season before he got injured, or other nonshooting bigs like Nerlens Noel or Taj Gibson. Maybe Toppin working on his weaknesses in games will benefit him in the long run, but for now, he needs some time to grow.
This entire team is unfinished. Though the Knicks are having defensive success, and though individuals are producing offensively, the team is still not scoring well. New York has the 21st-ranked offensive rating, logging the fifth-fewest transition chances per game and posting the fourth-worst points per chance in the half court, according to Second Spectrum. This roster needs more juice on offense, whether it comes internally, or through the draft, trade, or free agency.
People around the league consider New York more of a destination today than it was in the past. Team performance has gone a long way in repairing the organization’s image. But the people running the show have changed too, with a new front office led by former CAA agent Leon Rose and William Wesley (a.k.a. World Wide Wes). Fielding a competitive team and overhauling the front office was the same formula in recent years for the big-market Clippers, Lakers, and Nets, which positioned all three of those teams to appeal to their current superstars. The Knicks would have loved to have been in on that past crop of free agents, especially since this summer’s class is relatively weak after a rush of re-signings this past year. It’s been reported the Knicks will have interest in Lonzo Ball when he hits restricted free agency this offseason, which would make a lot of sense considering the pass-first nature of his game. New York was also in the running for Andre Drummond as a buyout before he signed with the Lakers. How much Drummond would actually help is questionable, considering the Knicks have plenty of other bigs and adding another could further stunt Toppin’s development.
Finding a star through the trade market could be more realistic. But even then, the coming years are murky with most great players in winning situations they’re unlikely to leave. Even Bradley Beal, mired in another losing season, has yet to express a desire to leave the Wizards. Whether it’s a trade or free agency, the Knicks better hope a player shockingly wants out—for example, if the Warriors collapse again next season even after Klay Thompson’s return, Steph Curry will have a tough choice to make entering his free agency in 2022. Who knows, but the NBA has shown through the years that we should expect the unexpected.
The Knicks may need to use trades and free agency to refine the team, and instead find more centerpieces through the draft. New York has two first-round draft picks in 2021 (their own and another coming from Dallas via the Kristaps Porzingis trade). This year’s draft class has quality depth through the middle of the first round, though the best prizes will be found in the top five. A sour ending to the season wouldn’t necessarily spoil all the progress the Knicks have made and it could help their draft odds, which actually might matter more in the long run. There really is no losing the rest of this season. If the Knicks make the playoffs, it would represent the progress achieved this season by the collective team and individual players. If the Knicks’ playoff-less streak extends to eight years, they’ll still have all of that player development and they’d get higher draft odds.
There’s still so much work to be done to go from a nice story to a playoff lock to a contender. But Knicks fans, take a deep breath. New York has already changed its perception. There is plenty of reason for hope, and enough success to enjoy right now. “It’s a proud organization,” Thibodeau said last month. “I was here during the 1990s. That doesn’t have anything to do with today. Just like I don’t want us looking ahead, I don’t want us looking behind. Our focus has to be exactly on what’s in front of us.”