These are tough times in Knicksville. The team is down 3-1 in their best-of-7 vs. Atlanta and the past two games did nothing to raise hopes they’ll turn things around. The sweetwater offense of the past few months is a thing of the past and Trae Young looks likely to be a pain in their coolies in the present and the future. History is no more promising: not only have only 5% of all NBA teams to trail 3-1 ever come back to win the series, but in 75 years the Knicks have trailed 3-1 in a series 12 times. They’ve lost all 12.
And yet, even with their season on the brink, this Knicks’ season has been an unqualified success. Instead of finishing 5-10 games under .500 and maybe scrapping for a play-in spot, the team finished 10 games over as the East’s fourth seed. Several players showed significant, even unimaginable improvement. The coach is better than competent. The front office looks to be, too. The Knicks accomplished all that they did this year with zero bad contracts, the league’s lowest payroll and a stash of future draft picks still intact.
A year ago tomorrow I wrote a mailbag featuring questions about what Leon Rose could do to instill confidence in the fans, and whether I’d rather trade Mitchell Robinson or RJ Barrett to acquire a franchise player. It’s hard to imagine the Knicks swinging a deal for any available star who would have done more than elevate them to where this year’s team ended up. Now we’re asking different kinds of questions. Success will do that. Here’s a look at what we were wondering before this year started, and how much better the questions have become.
“Can we trade him for a 1st-round pick? Anywhere? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?”
“What does the team need to add to Randle, the Most Improved Player and an All-Star who could earn All-NBA honors?”
It’s possible Randle is struggling as much as he is because he’s never been in the playoffs, much less been the lead option on a playoff team. This could be a learning experience for him, one he bounces back from as impressively as he bounced back from last year’s disappointing New York debut. It’s possible Randle shouldn’t be the end-all be-all of any good team’s offense, and that adding a guard or a wing who can create like he does for themselves and for others takes enough of a load off for him to breathe easy and fly higher. It’s still impossible to predict Randle’s future. But it’s a lot more fun daydreaming about it now than we were hoping to trade him for the same return Marcus Morris brought back.
“Are the shooting numbers he put up at Duke and as an NBA rookie evidence of a volume shooter who’ll never be efficient enough to warrant a significant role on a good team?
“If he improves his finishing at or near the rim the way he has his 3-point shooting, what is Barrett’s ceiling?”
A year ago people wondered if RJ could be part of a package deal to acquire a big-time piece. Now it’s fair to wonder if he can reach that level on his own and become that rarest of Manhattan celestial objects: a homegrown star. Barrett is a baller who has been able to grow in the shadow of Morris and Randle most of his first two seasons. I wouldn’t bet against Randle showing improvement from this year to next, but I don’t know how much more Randle can do than put up 24/11/6 on 41% from deep while also playing terrific defense. If Barrett can make a similar leap next year to what he did this time around, we’ll be asking even more exciting questions about this team in 2022.
“Oh my God why did they draft him 8th? The guy they got at 25 is better! Did they pick him just because he’s a CAA client? LOL same old Knicks.”
“Why isn’t Thibs playing Obi more and Randle less — or playing them together?”
That pain in your neck is the whiplash that comes with following sports, especially the NBA and doubleplus especially the Knicks. The 24 hours leading up to Toppin’s selection in the draft were rife with complaints about him. With no summer league or any kind of normal training camp to acclimate to the pros — Toppin’s history from high school to college includes periods of adjustment — plus missing 10 games the first month due to injury, Obi got off to a slow start. Fans of a certain era wondered if the Knicks had drafted Kenny Walker all over again. But Toppin kept his head up all year, and over the past month or so has really come on nicely, doing things on both ends. The ability to pass while on the move, the fake dribble hand-offs that turn into highlight swoops to the hoop, the alley-oops, the surprising defensive impact, especially at the rim — we still don’t know what the Knicks have in Toppin. Unlike six months ago, we know the Knicks have something.
“How come we never have any?”
“Should they re-sign Reggie Bullock or Alec Burks? Or both?”
Bullock is more of a classic 3-and-D wing than Burks, the more accomplished creator and shooter off the dribble. Both were integral to the Knicks’ success, ranking third and sixth on the team in minutes. Bullock developed a remarkable simpatico with Randle, while Burks stepped up as a point guard option and is often the team’s best player in tfourth quarters. The Atlanta series has been rough on both of them, which may ironically work to the Knicks’ advantage if either player’s postseason keeps their price low enough for New York to re-sign. As hard as it is to imagine choosing one over the other, it’s become just as difficult to imagine both of them leaving. I doubt anyone felt that way in 2020.
“Has the guy fired by freaking Minnesota made any adjustments to his coaching style?”
“Will Thibodeau be the first Knicks coach since Jeff Van Gundy to last more than 3 years?”
Thibs’ performance in the playoffs doesn’t exactly have Knicks fans throwing bouquets at him. He is infamous for not adjusting or adjusting slowly, a rep that’s been earned and on display in the Atlanta series. But just like Julius Randle isn’t LeBron James but is good enough to get you from point A to point C or D, Thibs may not be on the level of an Erik Spoelstra or Quin Snyder. But before you can run you have to jog, before you can jog you have to walk, and before you can walk you have to stand up long enough for gravity to take you seriously. Thibodeau may end up being training wheels, but for a franchise that’s too often crashing and skinning its knee, just going as far as the first round is progress. We’ll see what comes next, but let’s not pretend losing to the 5-seed is some kind of indictment of Thibodeau’s quality. He may very well win Coach of the Year — deservedly.
“Are we really relying on someone with zero experience at the job to not screw up?”
“Why don’t we hear more Rose-for-executive-of-the-year buzz?”
The Knicks three leaders in minutes played this season were all returnees from 2020: Randle, RJ and Bullock. Four of the next five were new additions: Nerlens Noel, Burks, Immanuel Quickley and Derrick Rose. The only significant midseason additions were Rose, who cost the Knicks Dennis Smith Jr. and a 2nd-round pick, and Taj Gibson, signed after Mitchell Robinson fractured his foot. With a medley of familiar faces mixed with zero marquee add-ons, the Knicks had the biggest single-season increase in winning % in franchise history. The team has an identity and a culture, young players have grown while here and there’s still a lot of powder in the keg for an explosive move down the road. Word around the league is that the Knicks are respected and intriguing to players. What more could anyone ask for from any front office, much less a bunch of noobs?
“How might he screw it all up?”
“How might he screw it all up?”
So maybe not everything changes. On the Knick end of things, Dolan was pretty quiet this season. But a dormant volcano only is until it isn’t, at which point it’s a natural disaster whose range of destruction no one can predict. Two years after hiring Rangers legend and team president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton to five-year deals, Dolan fired both men in early May. You don’t have to be a Rangers fan for his rationale to the Post’s Larry Brooks to send chills up your spine:
“‘Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup,” he said. “I’m sure we can always do better and add more, and I will tell you that both JD and Jeff did a good job of putting talent into this organization, and we also got lucky along the way too [with lottery victories the last two years].
“But other owners, other general managers have been telling me for a year that they can’t believe how stocked we are with talent, but talent alone doesn’t do it. We’re missing this piece and we need it. And when I looked at our organization, I felt that we need to change the whole organization and change the culture.’”
Dolan has shown more patience over the years with the Rangers than the Knicks. Yet with a rebuild going along perfectly well, he decided not even halfway through to overhaul his front office...because rival owners told him his team, which hasn’t won a playoff series since 2017, should be contending now? That they’re “missing something”? Did they tell him what was missing was a former player with zero managerial experience in the NHL taking over? Dolan on why he turned things over to Chris Drury: “...it was a question of who was going to be the best person to lead that change, and I would argue that Chris Drury has the best résumé for that, period. He is a consummate team player, a winner, a man of high character. He reminds me somewhat of [Yankees GM] Brian Cashman.”
Cashman has helmed a team with a top-two payroll for over 20 years in a sport with no salary cap to one championship. Hopefully Dolan’s patience with Rose, Thibs and Co. outlasts what he showed the Rangers’ braintrust. If he does decide to go in a different direction sooner than later, would Theo Epstein consider coming to Madison Square Garden? It’s an odd question, yes. But pro’ly no stranger than the other questions being asked of the Knicks today versus last year. These are interesting times. Savor them.