It all begins anew Wednesday night when Boston visits the Knicks for a 7:30 p.m. opening night game.
How does it feel? Unfamiliar? Synthetic? Like it belongs to someone else? That’s hope for you. It never feels like it’s yours until it’s obvious. When the 2020-2021 season started nobody knew then what’s obvious now. Back then, Julius Randle was spin-moving into oblivion. RJ Barrett wasn’t worthy of anyone’s Twitter defense. Tom Thibodeau was a welcome change but fans still had reservations. They had grown to like Mike Miller. Many we’re even keen on the possibility of Kenny Atkinson.
Boy how great is it to be wrong. Fast forward a year and some change and optimism lies at the doorstep. This is the most optimistic Knick fans have been since...well, the days of prime Patrick Ewing to be exact. This current bunch of orange and blue feels to have a higher ceiling than even the 2013 #Knickstape crew.
Take a moment and think about all they have accomplished:
- Tom Thibodeau is Coach of the Year.
- Julius Randle earned Most Improved Player, All-NBA Second Team, and an All-Star selection.
- The Knicks secured the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference and a play-off bid.
- Derrick Rose was a top three finalist for 6th Man of the Year.
- Immanuel Quickly was All-Rookie Second Team.
Take it in for a few seconds. Now, forget about all that. This is a new season, none of that matters any more. Seems harsh? Look at it this way, this is exactly how Thibodeau is approaching it too. Here he is talking about expectations in year two at the helm.
“Every year you start at zero base,” he said. “What happened last year was last year. You have to start all over again, build your fundamentals on offense and defense. And you keep building every day.”
This year there are a few simple goals to build upon last year’s success. The Play-In tournament should be avoided at all costs. The Knicks are better than that. A top five seed is likely in the cards. Placing in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency should be a goal as well. With new additions Kamba Walker and Evan Fournier, spacing should be wider, passing crisper, and the offensive load on Julius Randle’s back lighter. Speaking of Randle, the little engine that could just needs to maintain. His real test will come playoff time. The regular season is the trial run. If games are. close, Randle should demand the ball and show doubters, haters, and the Knicks contingencies he has what it takes to close out games. Obviously we need health and sustainability from new PG Kemba Walker. Same could be said for Mitchell Robinson. But the X factor this year is Rowan Barrett Jr. they say year three is when players show the league what to expect for their career henceforth. It’s time for Barrett to drop over 20ppg. It's obvious the media is stuck in #LOLKnicks land. So making the All-Star team as a reserve, with the backing of either coaches or the media is unlikely. While “All-Star” would look great next to Barrett’s name, it’s just an empty signifier. Under Thibs, points or game impact winning. And if he can average around the same, or even more, than Randle, we have a very high ceiling on our hands this season.
For the first time in a long time Knick fans open the season with new-found optimism. And they do so Wednesday in their first game against Atlantic Division rivals, the Boston Celtics at home in the Garden. The Celtics are enjoying sustained success, making the playoffs for seven years straight. Yet, they have been stuck in a state of ennui themselves since drafting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Each year they are expected to be competitive. And each year they reach a competitive level of play. Yet, they can be accused of one of modern basketball’s great sins; boredom. The brand of basketball they have employed under head coach Brad Stevens has been ISO heavy and on the shoulders of a short rotation.
It seems anyone watching outside of the Boston area has seen the same four or five players every season. You have the dynamic J’s, Brown and Tatum, Swiss-Army knife Marcus Smart, and high-upside big Robert Williams. Jr. surrounded by a bunch of overpaid role players and a carousel of injured and underperforming point guards. Well now long-time exec Danny Ainge is gone. And Brad Stevens was elevated without an interview. Practically handed the keys to the kingdom without any competition or front-office experience. First year coach Ime Udoka is from the Greg Popovich head coaching tree. The defense should be much improved and we might even see a bit more experimentation with line-ups since Brad Stevens is longer depended upon to remain overly-committed to Marcus Smart.
But this is a franchise in need of a shake-up, so what else is new? Center Al Horford is back with veteran leadership and three point spacing in the starting line-up, albeit older and slower. As is Dennis Schroeder, who is replacing Kemba Walker. Schroeder was the laughing stock of the off-season when he turned down a $84 million deal, believing his worth was closer to a multi-year $100 deal on the open market. He ended up being one of the final signings of the off-season, settling for the $5.9 mid-level exception from the Celtics. Stevens probably promised him the starting spot and a chance at a hefty extension should he prove himself. And while Schroeder has been relatively healthy for his career, unlike the Walker experiment, he has only shot .34% from three for his career. This is one of the main reasons, besides hints at a malcontent attitude exhibited during his Lakers stint, he signed at the end of the finish line his off-season. In the age of pace-and-space, starting point guards must be contended on to knock down a consistent three. (See Elfrid Payton)
This Celtics team starts the season with much to prove. Yet, many NBA experts have them ranked higher than the Knicks in early polls. This will be a test for both teams, one they will take personally as Division rivals. Especially in the backcourt where Walker and Fournier look to seek revenge against their former team. If Cardiac Kemba still exists, you can bet he’s unleashed against the team who was quick to let him go. Back up Nerlens Noel is listed as “doubtful” for the season opener and Mitchell Robinson is still working his way into game shape. Expect Taj Gibson to start, which he did all four pre-season games. Unless Mitchell Robinson is conditioned enough to make a surprise appearance in starting line-up.
Prediction: Cardiac Kemba makes an appearance against his old team for the win.