To be a New York Knicks fan in this day and age is to have your heart broken into a million pieces over and over again. Just ask Stephen A. Smith.
Knicks fans are among the most loyal fanbases in the NBA and yet the on-court product has yet to reward the faithful, who last experienced a championship back in 1973. Since then, New York has made multiple trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and two NBA Finals only to lose each time.
The turn of the millennium hasn’t been kind to the Knicks as well as they only made the playoffs six times while having only three winning seasons.
In between, team owner James Dolan has overpaid players and alienated both fans and former players with bizarre and deplorable decisions – a bad sight for a team with such a large market.
Towards the end of 2020, however, things seemed to be looking up. New York’s offseason began with the appointment of former agent Leon Rose as team president. Later on, he selected the defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau as the Knicks’ head coach. The hiring of Thibodeau was met with mixed reactions, as his credentials sparked positive reactions, while his history of running players to the ground struck fear into the hearts of some sections of New York, with particular concerns on RJ Barrett’s knees and rookie Obi Toppin’s playing time. However, the results so far have been promising.
The Knicks are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 34-28 record, tied with the Atlanta Hawks and 1.5 games ahead of the Boston Celtics. They have also been one of the hottest teams in the league, going on a nine-game winning streak (their longest since 2013) prior to their 118-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Adding Thibodeau and retaining most of the roster from the previous season seemed to be the right mix for New York, as veterans with something to prove coupled with a young set of talented players have surprised the NBA and brought newfound joy to fans that haven’t seen the postseason since Carmelo Anthony was around. The team has also bought into Thib’s culture so much that even he had to lock his players out of the gym to force them to rest.
The Knicks have also been reaping the benefits from a career year from Julius Randle, whose performance this season has thrust him to the front of the Most Improved Player conversation. The former Los Angeles Laker is currently averaging 23.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, and six assists, all of which are career-highs. While the Knicks drafted Toppin in last year’s draft, it turned out that Randle was the power forward they never knew they needed.
RJ Barrett and Derrick Rose have also thrived under Thibodeau this season. Barrett’s scoring numbers have gone up from last season (17.5 points per game on .446/.386/.744 shooting splits in 2020-2021 compared to 14.2 points per game on .402/.320/.644) and he has served as a complementary wing threat to Randle. Rose’s numbers have been down as he’s taken a bench role, but his experience under Thibs has gained him minutes and allowed him to lead the 12th-highest scoring bench in the NBA.
As of this writing, New York has one of the stingiest defenses in the NBA. They allow the least points in the league at 104.9 points per game, and also have the fourth-highest defensive rating at 108.5.
Their offense, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. The Knicks are the slowest team in the league with a pace of 96.0 and their 106.9 points per game is among the worst marks in the NBA.
Perhaps what has helped New York this year has been their youth. Aside from a few players on the wrong side of 30 in Rose, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, and Alec Burks (he turns 30 on July 20), the rest of the squad is 27 or younger. Apart from Barrett, rookie Immanuel Quickley has also been turning heads as his 11.6 points per game off the bench have been helpful.
The success the Knicks have had as of late, however, begs the question of whether this is the start of something new or a one-time fluke. Only six players will be on the team’s payroll next season, with Randle and Norvell Pelle’s contracts being partially guaranteed.
New York also holds a team option for Mitchell Robinson, while Derrick Rose and Reggie Bullock are among the notable free agents. If they feel this success is sustainable, continuity should be the main priority for Rose and the front office this offseason.
Prolonged success has evaded the New York Knicks for much of the past two decades and their current run this season is giving its loyal fans hope. While they have enjoyed this run so far, there is that apprehension that this could be a flash in the pan. After all, the only thing consistent with the Knicks as of late has been the disappointment it gives to fans.