Don’t look now but there’s a Renaissance Happening in New York

Feb 7, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks speaks with Julius Randle #30 during the game against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden on February 07, 2021 in New York City.

The New York Knicks have been one of the laughingstocks of the NBA for what feels like forever. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013 and haven’t reached the conference finals since the dawn of the century. Before this recent period, they were one of the legendary franchises in the NBA. Now, we may finally be seeing a rebirth of the Knicks.

48 years ago, the Knicks beat the Lakers in the finals, their last title to date. It’s been a long road for Knicks fans since then. The team played well in the 90s but never reached the heights of the team from the early 70s. The Knicks in the 2000s have been nothing short of abysmal, making blunder after blunder on the court and off. But for the first time in a while, Knicks fans have hope.

A Young Team

Feb 7, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Austin Rivers #8 and Elfrid Payton #6 of the New York Knicks defends against Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden on February 07, 2021 in New York City.
Mike Stobe/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

As of February 10th, the Knicks are 11-15. If the season ended today, they would be in the play-in tournament with a decent chance of making the playoffs. They would have low expectations if they make the playoffs; nobody would favor them against teams like the Bucks or 76ers. Nonetheless, making the playoffs this year would be a hugely positive step for the Knicks.

Fans have real hope for the future with this roster. According to the NBA’s roster survey, the Knicks have the 3rd youngest team this year, with an average age of 24.4 years. Compare that to the last time they made the playoffs; in 2012-13, the Knicks had an average age of 31.1, the 4th oldest in league history. That 2012-13 team had no hope for the future, they were set up to win immediately, and they couldn’t even do that, losing in the 2nd round.

This current Knicks roster is all about building for the future. Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson are the cornerstones of the current roster. Randle, 26 years, is the oldest, RJ only a sophomore is 20, and Mitchell Robinson is 22. They also have Immanuel Quickley (21), Kevin Knox (21), and Obi Toppin (22) playing important roles off the bench. This is a solid group of young guys the Knicks can build around for the future. For the first time in a while, it feels like the Knicks roster has real direction and purpose.

RJ Barrett

Feb 3, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett (9) dribbles the ball against Chicago Bulls guard Coby White (0) during the first quarter at the United Center.
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

RJ Barrett is arguably the highest upside player on this roster. His short career has only shown us flashes thus far, but he’s trending upwards this season. His shooting percentages are up from a year ago, but still not where they need to be. He’s been pretty feast or famine this year, good games, bad games, but not much consistency. His ability to pass and rebound should be the most exciting for Knicks fans. He’s up to 3.1 APG and 6.4 RPG, great numbers for a player of his age. This skillset will only improve with time, possibly allowing him to play PG for stretches. At the very least, he can play a point-forward role and initiate offense for the Knicks even if he lacks the ability to create his own shot at times.

Learning under coach Thibodeau will help Barrett. It’s easy to write Tom off as a bad coach for a young team after his stint in Minnesota. People seem to forget that he had the youngest MVP ever in Derrick Rose and led a young Bulls team to multiple playoffs. Barrett’s played less than a season’s worth of games for the Knicks. For him, it’s about continuing to learn and grow. The Knicks’ rebirth is matching up with his coming into the league, which will reap great results for both sides.

Julius Randle

Jan 22, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) dunks the ball against the Sacramento Kings in the second quarter at the Golden 1 Center.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest star on this roster is Julius Randle (I really think his nickname should be “King Julius,” but maybe LeBron already has ownership of the “King” moniker); he’s averaging career-highs across the board. He’s been the focal point of this Knicks offense, with the highest USG% at 27.4 and leading the team in APG with 6. Throughout his career, he’s been a frustrating player; he’s shown flashes of an all-star but never lived up to those expectations. He would give you some inefficient offense and a liability on defense at most. This year he’s changed all that.

He’s become a positive defender in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system due to his hard work on closeouts and rotations and being more checked in on defense than usual. He’s made a jump on defense, leading to the first positive defensive box plus-minus of his career.

In the first clip, Julius Randle fights around Dwight Howard to get the steal and draw a foul. In the second, he denies Brogdon a drive to the basket, then quickly switches back onto Sabonis and pokes the ball for another steal. Randle always had the chance to become a neutral, at least on defense, but now he’s showing defensive awareness that we haven’t seen before. If this keeps up, he’ll remain positive on defense.

Defensive Rebirth

Feb 1, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) shoots and scores a three-pointer against the New York Knicks during the second half of an NBA game at United Center.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Randle’s defense this year isn’t an outlier among his teammates. In fact, it’s indicative of a trend across the whole team. Coach Thibodeau has come in and greatly improved the Knicks defense. Their defensive rating is at 109.1, good for 7th in the league. If this keeps up, it would be the first time since the 2011-12 season that the Knicks would be a top 10 defense. Though the Knicks’ offense this year is one of the worst in the league, they’re still able to win on the back of their defense.

The interesting part of this is just how they’re succeeding on defense. A quick look at the NBA’s stats page makes that a little confusing. First, off they’re allowing the 6th most opponent 3-point attempts out of all teams. Of course, this could be their system, prevent shots at the rim, and allow more 3’s. Except they’re 12th in opponent attempts within 5 feet of the basket. A closer look shows that some of their defense could be a fluke. Opponents are currently shooting the lowest 3P% in the league against the Knicks, and this stat says more about your luck than it does about your defense.

You can’t just luck into a top 10 defense, though, not when it’s already 1/3 of the way into the season. To see the Knicks defense in action, you have to watch their games. When you tune in, you see things like Austin Rivers sprinting on his rotation to prevent a wide-open 3. You see Mitchell Robinson getting an easy block because of his quick help defense. This is what makes the Knicks defense tick. Tom Thibodeau is stressing quick rotations and working hard. A lot won’t show up in the stats, but it does create a strong defense.

It Starts with the Coach

Feb 6, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in New York. The Knicks won 110-99.
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

For a young team, this is so important. Work ethic is one of the most important skills a player can have. It elevates a good player to great, a benchwarmer to a rotation guy. It often isn’t there for young teams; they may have the talent, but they don’t have the work ethic to maximize it. From day one, Thibodeau had this team working hard, and it’s why he’s succeeding as a coach so far. Work ethic will stick with this team for a long time; it’s helping them create a culture in the organization. This is part of the Knicks’ rebirth; this isn’t a one-season thing. Having an identity and a culture as an organization will be the first step back towards winning ways.

Thibodeau has revitalized not just the Knicks’ defense but the Knicks themselves. This team has grit; they know how to win. Talking to SNY’s Coby Green, RJ Barrett said:

“It starts with Thibs, and then it goes all the way down. Julius is tough every night. It goes all the way down the line. Everybody that comes in the game plays hard, plays with an edge. Everybody on the team contributes in many different ways and it’s been great so far.”

They’re playing as a team and winning as a team. This is all part of that culture that the organization is creating.

For a long time, it felt like the organization had no direction. From the Porzingis trade (which actually might work out for the Knicks now) to Charles Oakley being banned from the Garden. From Isiah Thomas to Phil Jackson, to David Fizdale. The Knicks could seemingly do no right. For Knicks fans, it’s been a long ride. Complex gives a look into Knicks fans’ struggles over the past 20 or so years.

This is virtually the same roster that went 21-45 last year. Now, they’ve come in and started 11-14. As Barrett said, everybody’s playing hard; that’s the main difference. It’s a full-on rebirth for the Knicks. Take a look back at the Knicks of the 70s and 90s, the most successful in franchise history. They were always teams that fought for every game. From the best player to the last man off the bench, everybody played hard. That’s what gave those teams success, and it’s showing this team success as well.

What’s Next?

Before we go too far, no, the Knicks aren’t a title contender this year. But for the first time in a while, the organization is headed in that direction. Remember two years ago in the offseason, the Knicks had all that cap space and were certainly signing every single free agent on the market; then they ended up with no one? A big reason for that is they didn’t look like an organization where someone could win. Those free agents signed with teams like the Nets (this one really stings for Knicks fans) and Clippers. Funnily enough, those two teams looked a lot like the Knicks do right now. Before signing those big names Brooklyn and LA were gritty teams. People didn’t think they were playoff level; they just lacked the talent. But it didn’t matter to them, they played hard as a team, and both made the playoffs.

This roster is by no means a finished product. For now, they can replicate what the Nets and Clippers did before them. Prove themselves a legitimate location for stars to come and win. That’s the next step for the Knicks’ rebirth.

Knicks fans should enjoy everything they can for now. It’s been a while since they’ve had a fun team like this. At the same time, it might be time to get excited about the future. The Knicks have undergone a rebirth this season, but this is only the beginning.

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