The New York Knicks' Mini-Renaissance
Last year was a tough one for New York Knicks fans. Amidst the trauma that was David Fizdale, Julius Randle, and Steve Mills, I found myself frequently looking back on my decision to become a Knicks fan as a coping mechanism.
Last year was a tough one for New York Knicks fans. Amidst the trauma that was David Fizdale, Julius Randle, and Steve Mills, I found myself frequently looking back on my decision to become a Knicks fan as a coping mechanism. It was 2016—the Knicks had just acquired Derrick Rose and as a gullible middle-schooler I thought: “This can’t be too bad.” That one innocent decision has haunted me over the past half-decade. Moments of genuine joy, such as Porzingis’ 40 point and six block game, the four overtime game in Atlanta, or Marcus Morris Sr. hitting a game-winner in Kristaps Porzingis’ return to Madison Square Garden (MSG) have been sullied by Ron Baker’s uninspiring performances starting at guard, Porzingis’s demoralizing exit from the Mecca, the deplorable treatment of Spike Lee at MSG, and Julius Randle being our “star” 2019 offseason pickup. Over the past decade, Knicks fans have remained loyal, clinging on to hope alone, but each letdown has whittled away at the remaining faith of Knicks-nation, especially after missing out on moves for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to cross-city rivals in the Brooklyn Nets.
Luckily, Gotham has been treated to a quality team this year. Of course, it’s too early to say “the P word” (playoffs), but as a whole, the Knicks have been mediocre this year, which is an A in my book. And during their highs, the Knicks have been flat-out good—that’s an A plus! The Knicks are no pushover, and if you’ve been paying attention, there has been a noticeable difference in attitude since last year’s hiring of Leon Rose, the Knicks President of Basketball Operations.
If you want to build a culture of winning, you need winners. As frustrating as Knicks Governor James Dolan is, he deserves credit for hiring Rose; Rose has earned a reputation among National Basketball Association (NBA) circles as a high pedigree agent, having managed countless NBA stars such as Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Allen Iverson. Rose, on behalf of James, negotiated “the decision” with the Miami Heat, one of the most infamous free agency decisions in league history. As Knicks President, Rose has continued his winning ways by placing other winners in key roles: Namely, Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach.
Thibodeau won Coach of the Year in 2011 with the Chicago Bulls by implementing an identity of smart defense. He has copy-and-pasted his gameplan on the Knicks by instructing his team to concede the right shots, only switch when necessary, and utilize smart rotations. They prioritize paint protection and get plenty of it with a disciplined Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel. While their defense is anchored by a sagging big man, the other four players use rotations to buy time for on-ball defense, leading their opponents to jack up deceptively open three-point shots. As of January 24, the defensive system has kept their opponents to a league best 102.8 points per game and 31 percent three-point shooting.
Despite their competent defense, Thibodeau’s Knicks have scored the league’s lowest points per game at 101.3. But with Thibodeau, the Knicks offense for once runs through an organized, logical system, and it starts with their best player. Last year, under coach David Fizdale, Julius Randle caught the “power-forward spin cycle” syndrome in which he’d spin-move, sometimes even three times in one play, and turn the ball over as he ran into a double team—it was worse than Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam’s infamous habit. This year, however, Randle has been a willing passer out of his post possessions, an initiator of system offense with dribble handoffs, and a bucket-getter with an efficient face-up game. Randle’s buy-in to the system has rewarded him with what could be his first All-Star season. RJ Barrett has also bought in. The sophomore player has started to accept the key matchup on defense every game and has found his offensive identity. It’s clear he’s not a perimeter shooter, but with his speed and strength at 6’8”, there aren’t many defenders that can stop him when he drives to the basket. With an improved free-throw percentage to add to his paint attacks, he’s become a mainstay in Thibodeau’s starting five.
The Knicks’ achilles heel is clearly shooting. A majority of the team presents no shooting threat. The Knicks have long struggled to find proficient point guards, this year’s Elfrid Payton included. He's been able to survive in the NBA off his play-making and finesse in the paint, but he won’t survive much longer without adapting to the three-point era—it’s quite literally painful to see him shoot a three. Barrett and Reggie Bullock, on the other hand, are hot-and-cold shooters despite the latter having built an identity on making catch-and-shoot threes.
We all know what a good culture can do for a basketball franchise. It’s how the San Antonio Spurs have stayed relevant for the last 20 years, how the Heat made the Finals last year, and how the 2018 Brooklyn Nets attracted Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant—Theo Pinson, who was a professional “bench cheerleader” on the 2018 Nets, may have been signed for just that reason. It’s clear Leon Rose wants to build a culture of winning and that Thibeodeau wants to build a team on defense. Knicks fans are always hopeful—it’s what sustained our irrational patience through consecutive losing seasons—so this may seem like another false “Knicks are back” campaign.
But whatever happens in the win-loss column is quite frankly second to the culture of the team.
Of course, culture is easy to build when you win, but when you have competent leadership like Rose and Thibodeau steering New York basketball, culture will be not a side-product, but a catalyst, for winning.