The Knicks are back! No, it’s for real this time.
The Knicks stand at 19-18 at the All-Star break, only a half game behind the Boston Celtics for the 4th seed in the East. This is a far cry from the 22.5 projected win TOTAL that Las Vegas pegged them at before the start of the season. Their young core of RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and the newly added Immanuel Quickley is starting to show a lot of promise. The signing of Julius Randle is beginning to look like a stellar free agent pick-up because he has been their obvious MVP halfway through the season. So, what has been the main reason behind this complete 180 that this franchise has gone through in the past eight months?
It’s obvious and it’s something they haven’t really been able to do in the last two decades and that is stringing together good decisions. For a long time now, the Knicks have been characterized by a certain type of decision making. I think it can be characterized best by this saying: one step forward, three steps back.
That was the consensus thinking of the old Knicks management and most of their decisions seemed to turn out that way. They would make a decent move, either acquiring a solid free agent or maybe even making a good draft pick. Then, they would almost always follow that up with a foolish move that sets them back even more.
One of the more recent ones that comes to mind is their trade for Andrea Bargnani. They had been moving in the right direction, collecting picks and avoiding bad players but then they handed the Toronto Raptors their first round pick for an aging, not very good center who did not make them better at all. Again, it was the old adage from them, one step forward, three steps back.
But this is a new team, with new management. Helmed by Leon Rose, the former CAA agent, the Knicks revamped their front office and brought in extremely intelligent basketball minds, like William Wesley and Walt Perrin. They’ve removed Steve Mills (who, I think, never made one good deal for them in his tenure as their GM) and instilled new people into their ranks who are continually focused on making the right decisions and it shows!
Besides being over .500 after the All-Star break for the first time in over 7 years, the Knicks have an exciting rookie in Immanuel Quickley (who they almost passed on, if it wasn’t for World Wide Wes’ staunch endorsements of the kid) Even though their other pick, Obi Toppin, has not impressed that much so far, the future is still extremely bright for him. I still think we have yet to see the best of Toppin.
The new coach, Tom Thibodeau, has them playing the best defense I have ever seen out of them. They’ve regained this gritty, grind-it-out identity that they were famous for in the 90s. Guys like RJ Barrett and Julius Randle seem to have soaked up his messages like a sponge. RJ is shooting better than ever and Randle literally puts the team on his back some games. Their team is one that nobody wants to face because of their hard-nosed defensive style and ability to move the ball well.
The hiring of Thibodeau, the Quickley pick, the re-working of Julius Randle’s game. These are the good decisions they are finally stringing together. They could never do this in the past and because they are doing it now, it’s a huge reason as to why they are looking so promising. And that’s just the thing, any kind of improvement this year would have been viewed as progress, but they are literally looking at a potential top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference!
A playoff appearance would be stellar and I know they have a tough 2nd half schedule, so even if they can just remain around .500 toward the end, it would be a big improvement. We haven’t even begun to think about the potential players they could get from their two first round picks in this next, supposedly stacked, draft. They could be very set up with an abundance of talent in a year or two.
This team is in a great spot moving forward and it’s finally due to their decision making. They don’t need to trade for a star and/or forfeit all their future picks and they don’t have an albatross contract on their roster. They’re in a serious playoff spot halfway through the season. If you’ve watched them, for even just the past 5 years, what more could you want right now?
Daniel Karpin is a contributing editor to nysportsday.com