Before the start of each NBA season, Las Vegas oddsmakers publish the projected win totals for each team. These folks ought to know the right number. They are professionals.
For the woebegone New York Knicks, saddled by a mediocre and rather anonymous roster, the Vegas number was 22.5. This represented improvement since the Knicks managed just 21 wins last season.
What the oddsmakers did not calculate was the impact new coach Tom Thibodeau and underrated Julius Randle would have on this team. Together, with a little help from some of their friends, they produced a 41-win season, fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and a return to relevance for professional basketball at Madison Square Garden.
Both Thibodeau and Randle are retreads, reclamation projects imported from elsewhere in the Knicks’ annual reboot as the franchise sought to find its way out of the depths of the NBA.
Randle was a hot prospect, the seventh player chosen in the 2014 draft heading for Hollywood and the glamorous Los Angeles Lakers. He broke his leg in his first game and missed the remainder of his rookie season.
There were three more unremarkable seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and one in New Orleans before he found his way to New York in 2019. The crosstown rival Nets had signed fancy free agents Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Knicks went shopping in the “Nearly New Shop” and came up with Randle, a nice player but hardly in the class of the Nets’ haul.
Randle became a solid contributor last year. Then, when Thibodeau arrived as the latest member of the team’s coaching merry-go-round, Randle blossomed into a star. He averaged 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game and logged a league-leading 37.6 minutes per game.
There was a Player of the Week award, a berth on the All-Star team and then recognition as Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April when the Knicks ran off a nine-game winning streak and 11-4 record. He is a leading candidate for the Most Improved Player Award and is even mentioned in the Most Valuable Player conversation.
Thibodeau called Randle the Knicks’ engine. Randle called Thibodeau the difference in the Knicks’ success. Hired as the team’s eighth coach in the last 10 years, the man they call Thibs changed the culture of the team. He emphasized defense first, a new concept for this franchise, and it paid off. The Knicks went 16-4 down the stretch and finished the season 41-31.
Take that, Las Vegas.