When we get hurt, we put up walls. It’s human nature. We remember what it feels like to be vulnerable—to care about something so much that you extend your arms to embrace it—and what it feels like when that decision backfires. We don’t want to feel like that again. So up go the walls, getting taller with each blow and bruise, brick by brick. Eventually, we can’t reach the thing we cared about anymore. But it can’t reach us, either.
The Knicks have spent the better part of two decades giving fans like me reasons to stack bricks. Between 2000 and 2020, chairman James L. Dolan cycled through eight front-office leaders, 14 head coaches, at least that many prospective saviors who didn’t pan out on the floor, and a frankly incalculable number of sideline pouts and lifetime bans. All that churn netted just five postseason appearances, four winning records, one playoff series win, more losses than any other team ... and many, many towering walls.
It takes a lot to break those down. This year’s Knicks are doing it.
New York is the hottest team in the NBA, riding a league-best eight-game winning streak. After coming back from a double-digit second-half deficit to knock off the Hawks in overtime on Wednesday, the Knicks are now 33-27, in sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference. With 12 games left in the regular season, they have a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine. It would be the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013, ending the league’s third-longest drought.
There’s more to feel good about than just the current streak, though. From the start of Tom Thibodeau’s first season on the bench, this iteration of the Knicks has repeatedly proved compelling and enjoyable to watch. For so much of this century, willingness to tune into New York’s games has doubled as evidence of a potentially dangerous predilection toward masochism. Now, though, the Knicks—the Knicks!—are a reliably refreshing and invigorating watch: a collection of reclaimed talents and improving youngsters that plays smart, hard, physical, and disciplined basketball.
You might not be used to that. If you’re reading this, you’re likely young enough that you’ve had much more experience trying to survive joyless Knicks seasons than figuring out how to luxuriate in a joyful one. So, in the spirit of trying to break down those walls for good, here are nine things to savor about a team and a season worth cherishing.
The Element of Surprise
When the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook released its 2020-21 NBA win total odds, the sharps pegged the Knicks’ over-under number at 22.5 wins for the compressed 72-game slate. They shared that league-worst forecast with the Cavaliers, winners of just 19 games in each of the previous two seasons, and the Thunder, who had dealt four of their five leading scorers from last season and clearly intended to sink to the bottom of the standings. No team had a more dire projection ... which, y’know, seemed about right.
The Knicks hadn’t added a major free agent, dealt for a superstar, or drafted a surefire phenom in the offseason. New president of basketball operations Leon Rose made what appeared to be only marginal moves, bringing back most of a roster that posted 2019-20’s sixth-worst record and fifth-worst net rating. New York’s biggest addition was Thibodeau, who’d spent a year and a half outside the league following the end of his tumultuous tenure in Minnesota. Hope springs eternal in the offseason, but still: Skepticism seemed warranted.
The Knicks cashed the over bet just 45 games into the season. Even the most ardent Knicks fans—the kind that see the world through orange-and-blue-tinted glasses and carry in their hearts an unyielding respect for Kurt Thomas—didn’t see that coming. Nobody did. Which makes it all the sweeter.
Julius Randle, Putting It All Together
Nobody ever doubted Randle’s talent. The no. 7 pick in the 2014 draft had flashed a nimble, multifaceted game belying his bruising stature throughout his four seasons as a Laker, and had averaged an efficient 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game during a breakout 2018-19 season in New Orleans. The question, especially after a rocky maiden voyage in Manhattan, was whether he could put up those big numbers in a way that meaningfully impacts winning. The answer he’s provided this season has been nothing short of astonishing.
Randle has undergone a stunning evolution in his seventh NBA season, getting in the best shape of his career and unveiling a deadeye shot—45 percent on long midrange jumpers, 41 percent from 3-point range, 80.7 percent at the foul line, all career highs—that has made him an incredibly tough cover. Forcing opponents to honor his jumper has unlocked his playmaking, too. At 6-foot-8 with good court vision, the 26-year-old can see over the defense to find open shooters on the perimeter, and also has the touch to thread the needle in traffic. With better spacing and more reliable reads in Thibodeau’s offensive system, and better marksmen around him on the NBA’s sixth-most-accurate 3-point shooting team, Randle has become one of the game’s premier frontcourt facilitators, ranking 10th in the league in points created by assist, according to PBPstats.com.
The sheer production is mind-blowing: 23.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, the kind of numbers only five MVPs and this season’s favorite for the hardware have ever put up in a season. Randle’s doing all that while leading the NBA in minutes, playing a key role on the league’s no. 3 defense, and continuing to alternate between canning extremely tough jumpers and absolutely truck-sticking overmatched defenders who know he’s New York’s Plan A, B, and C on offense:
It’s incredible, the weight he’s carrying, and how reliably and brilliantly he’s doing it. This is the best individual Knicks season since Carmelo Anthony’s prime, and it has earned Randle the first All-Star berth of his career, and likely his first playoff appearance. It might also net him the Most Improved Player award, and maybe even his first All-NBA nod, too. Of all of the surprises of this Knicks season, finding out that the team did, in fact, have an in-his-prime All-Star in house ranks as far and away the biggest and most pleasant.
RJ Barrett’s Ongoing Growth
I went long on Barrett’s development last month, but it remains incredibly heartening to see the no. 3 pick in the 2019 draft making strides in all facets of the game and cementing himself, at just 20 years old, as a reliable no. 2 option on a playoff team.
Barrett has done enough through 116 pro games to suggest his combination of size, skill, and work ethic will make him a high-floor two-way contributor. What’s exciting is that the swing skill that used to seem like it’d limit his potential—his jumper—has now turned into a strength: Barrett’s shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range over the past three months, the seventh-highest percentage out of 187 players to hoist at least 100 triples in that span.
Even more encouraging: After a brief period during which Barrett started losing fourth-quarter playing time, the sophomore has come on strong in late-game situations, scoring 56 points in 70 fourth-quarter minutes in April while shooting 19-for-30 from the field (63.3 percent) and 9-for-14 from deep.
After a frustrating rookie season in which he saw draft classmates Zion Williamson and Ja Morant flourish in systems tailored to their skills, Barrett could’ve sulked, stagnated, and stalled out under a taskmaster like Thibodeau. Instead, he’s worked his ass off, gotten better, and made winning plays on both ends of the floor all season long.
Immanuel Quickley, Instant Hero
Knicks fans love a ballsy backcourt gunner—John Starks, Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, J.R. Smith, et al.—so when Quickley came out of Kentucky firing away without hesitation, he seemed destined to be a favorite. When he showed a capacity to do more than just gun, though—enough craft to get into the teeth of a defense and draw fouls, a soft enough touch to loft floaters beyond shot blockers’ reach, a sense of how to operate in the pick-and-roll and find the open man, the willingness to dig in on defense—he became something just shy of a sensation.
Quickley’s combination of willingness to launch and long-range accuracy—he’s attempting 8.9 triples per 36 minutes and drilling 38.7 percent of them—make him a perfect fit as a floor-spacing release valve for downhill drivers like Randle and Barrett. New York has outscored opponents by 84 points in 304 minutes when Quickley’s on the court with its two best players, scoring a blistering 123.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions. By comparison, the Knicks are minus-10 in 1,118 minutes when non-shooter Elfrid Payton shares the floor with Randle and Barrett, scoring 14 fewer points-per-100—nearly the difference between first and last place in offensive efficiency.
You can understand why Thibodeau might be more comfortable with the veteran Payton as a point-of-attack defender and table-setter, but it sure seems like the Knicks—who, amid all this season’s good vibes, rank just 21st on offense—are leaving money on the table by not giving the talented youngster more run. With the Knicks’ offense stagnating on Wednesday, Thibs chose to close with the rookie, sitting Payton down for good with 5:26 to go in the third quarter and riding Quickley for the final 19-plus minutes against the Hawks. Quickley rewarded his coach’s trust, scoring 15 of his 20 points and dishing four assists during that extended run, which he capped by drilling a swaggering 29-foot dagger late in OT:
The franchise’s recent history is not exactly littered with promising young guards who can shoot, pass, and defend. Finding one with the 25th pick in the draft feels … well, like stealing.
Tom Thibodeau, the Perfect Hire
The last Knicks teams that really mattered—not the brief flickers of competitive fire under Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson; the Pat Riley–Jeff Van Gundy–era squads that consistently contended deep into the playoffs—were built on defense, physicality, cohesion, and relentless effort. In that context, the idea of hiring Thibodeau always made sense.
New York has finished in the top 10 in points allowed per possession just once since 2001. Thibodeau built his reputation as the defensive coordinator of Doc Rivers’s championship Celtics before getting the head coaching job in Chicago and promptly winning 76 percent of his games during his first two seasons on the strength of elite defenses. A link to New York’s storied past didn’t hurt, either: Thibs served as an assistant on Van Gundy’s staff, spent seven years with the franchise, and referred to coming back to coach the Knicks as his dream job.
The concern, though, was that Thibodeau’s most recent teams hadn’t managed the same defensive success. With offenses putting more shooters and playmakers on the court, Thibs’s bread-and-butter scheme—“ice” the pick-and-roll by pushing ball handlers away from the middle of the floor and toward the baseline, wall off the paint, and scramble to cover the arc—had seemed to lose its effectiveness. His Timberwolves teams gave up lots of shots at the rim and from the short corners; Minnesota ranked 26th and 23rd in defensive efficiency during his two full seasons, and 17th at the time of his firing during his third in 2019.
Was that because his approach no longer worked? Or was it because a Wolves roster led by inconsistent youngsters wasn’t equipped to execute his commands as well as another roster might? Well, with all due respect to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the early returns in New York—complete with a constant soundtrack of hoarse-voiced hollering about assignments and positioning—suggest it might be the latter.
Thibs will personally see to it that this team wins its 7th straight pic.twitter.com/dqaPoWulGP— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) April 21, 2021
The Knicks rank third in defensive efficiency and first in opponent field goal percentage. Their defense also sits in the top 10 in a slew of other categories—points allowed off turnovers, on second-chance opportunities, in the paint, on fast breaks, and in transition—that indicate a team is playing organized, rigorous defensive basketball. They rotate on a string and close out hellaciously, turning shots that seemed open into at least moderately contested looks.
Early in the season, I highlighted one cause for skepticism about the Knicks defense: the frequency with which New York was conceding shots at the rim and from beyond the arc. I figured that over the course of the full season, the chasm between what opponents’ shot locations suggested they should be shooting against the Knicks and what they were shooting against the Knicks would close, and the Knicks would slide down the rankings a bit accordingly. Well, with a month left in the season, opponents are still taking nearly 74 percent of their shots against the Knicks at the cup or from long distance, according to Cleaning the Glass ... and they’re still underperforming their expected effective field goal percentage against the Knicks by a higher margin than against any other team.
This might be a case where what looks like luck is actually the residue of design—of a plan drawn up by one of the most respected defensive minds of his generation, and executed with precision by a team of dudes he’s gotten to buy in. For most of the past 20 years, all Knicks fans have wanted was a team that plays hard, with a definable defensive identity, and that doesn’t give shit up easy. It turns out Thibs really was the right guy to bring about that sort of cultural shift.
A Litany of Competent Role Players
Randle and Barrett have been the centerpieces of the Knicks all season, but the complementary pieces surrounding them also deserve a ton of credit for New York’s surprising success.
The Knicks signed Nerlens Noel to a bargain-bin, one-year, $5 million deal to back up Mitchell Robinson, aiming to pair the itinerant ex-Process jewel with New York’s incumbent starter to provide 48 minutes of elite rim protection. But injuries to Robinson—first a broken hand, then a broken foot—have opened the door for the 27-year-old Noel to play a larger role. He’s been phenomenal, averaging 6.3 points and 7.4 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game as a starter, attacking the glass, finishing lobs, and wreaking defensive havoc all over the floor.
Noel, who’s holding opponents to a microscopic 50.1 percent shooting at the rim, is a huge reason the Knicks have remained a top-flight defense even with Robinson playing just three full games since Valentine’s Day. At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, quick feet, and great instincts, Noel can slide with guards on the perimeter and recover to contest shots inside, and shut down passing lanes with his length and constant activity. He’s averaging 2.3 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 3.0 deflections per game as a starter, disrupting possessions in all sorts of ways—some of them very loud. Since Robinson first went down, no player in the league has blocked more shots at the rim than Noel, according to PBPstats.com:
While Noel and longtime Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson—averaging 5.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and just under two combined blocks and steals in 20.4 minutes per game—hold down the fort on the interior, several other shrewd pickups have paid dividends on the perimeter.
Alec Burks has provided vital off-the-bounce scoring, 3-point shooting, and playmaking off the bench for the low, low price of $6 million for one year. After an up-and-down first season in New York, Reggie Bullock has thrived as a tailor-made 3-and-D wing under Thibodeau, shooting 40.6 percent from deep on nearly six attempts per game while routinely guarding the opponent’s most dangerous wing. He’s developed great chemistry with Randle; the big fella has set him up 94 times this season, tied for the 11th-most-frequent assist combination in the league:
And then, perhaps most surprisingly of all, there’s Derrick Rose. His first run in New York was marked by negativity, controversy, and inconsistency. His return trip, though, has been remarkably successful: The Knicks are 17-7 when Rose plays, outscoring opponents by 10.4 points-per-100 with him on the court.
The 32-year-old former MVP—acquired in February for Dennis Smith Jr. and Charlotte’s 2021 second-round pick—is averaging 13.3 points on 45/37/84 shooting splits to go with 3.9 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game as a Knick. In his third tour of duty with Thibodeau, he’s provided a north-south jolt that New York’s offense desperately needed, averaging 11.5 drives to the basket per game and taking 62 percent of his shots in the paint.
He’s been a steady hand, posting a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and has helped keep the Knicks’ offense afloat on the rare occasions when Randle sits. In 233 minutes of no-Randle floor time, Rose has averaged an efficient 25 points and 5.2 assists per 36, with New York scoring a healthy 113.5 points-per-100 in those minutes. He also hasn’t cannibalized Quickley’s opportunities, as some feared he might—the rookie was averaging 18.9 minutes per game before the Rose trade, and he’s averaging 19.9 minutes since then—and the two have worked well together, with the Knicks blitzing opponents by more than 18 points-per-100 when they share the court.
Even teams with established superstars need contributions from up and down the roster, not only to make it through the grind of the season, but also to put themselves in position to thrive come the playoffs. That this many of the Knicks’ supporting cast members are coming up big is a testament to their talents, to Thibodeau’s feel for how to get the most out of them, and to a front office that nailed the around-the-margins additions that New York needed.
Speaking of that front office ...
Leon Rose and Co., Moving Quietly Toward Normalcy
When occasional Ringer contributor Yaron Weitzman published a behind-the-scenes look at the Knicks’ front office in the New York Post last month, different things stood out to different readers. There was the reported dissension between Thibodeau and vice president of basketball and strategic planning Brock Aller, and the note that Leon Rose “fumbled a couple times as he tried unlocking his iPhone to call in” a draft night deal. There was Thibodeau hectoring Rose to use the Knicks’ cap space to offer big deals to high-priced free agents and trade young players for more vets, and legendary adviser William “World Wide Wes” Wesley “changing his shirt on camera” during a Zoom meeting, “revealing his bare chest to the group” in attendance.
What stood out to me, though—well, besides the bare chest thing—was that, as all the voices in the room argued their cases and insisted on their preferences, Rose didn’t seem to lean one way or another. He considered all their advice and recommendations, and moved in the direction he thought most prudent—maintaining financial flexibility, targeting players that seemed to fit Thibodeau’s system, and making deals that provided either short-term upside without requiring irreplaceable assets or added more draft capital. This, I gather, is how normal, functional, smart front offices run. It’s pretty neat to have one of those!
That This Could Be the Start of Something Bigger
Put it all together, and the Knicks have a playoff-caliber roster led by an All-Star in Randle who’ll make less than $20 million next season, and Barrett, Quickley, Robinson, no. 8 pick Obi Toppin, and former lottery picks Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox all under team control. They have control of all of their own first-round picks moving forward, plus Dallas’s 2021 and 2023 no. 1s from the Kristaps Porzingis trade, and all of their own second-rounders save their own this season, plus seven additional no. 2s between now and 2026. They also have a projected $50 million in salary cap space this offseason.
That’s not a war chest on par with what Sam Presti’s got in Oklahoma City or anything, but it’s a lot of raw material that Rose can use to craft something sustainable. Whether he’s able to do so, and succeed where so many predecessors have failed, remains to be seen. But it seems, at least, like the Knicks are in the safest hands they’ve been since Donnie Walsh held the wheel a decade ago, with a legitimate shot to build and fortify the foundation of a consistently competitive team.
For those who have long since forgotten what it looks and sounds like when New York has a good Knicks team to root for, this season could serve as a reminder. For the young folks who’ve never seen or heard that, it could provide a proof of concept—evidence that a real culture is growing at Madison Square Garden that could actually make the Knicks a free-agent destination. You’d hope that Knicks brass doesn’t put all its eggs in that particular basket, continuing to focus on drafting and developing more Barretts and Quickleys while scouring the trade market for opportunities. It’s awfully nice when the “sign an elite free agent” basket is available to you, though; just ask the Nets and Clippers. Becoming a serious team is a critical step to unlocking that team-building avenue.
That Today Actually Matters
It’s cool that the Knicks will have the cap space to take a run at whatever free agent they’d like this summer. It’s cool that Knicks assistant Kenny Payne, formerly John Calipari’s development guru at Kentucky, is tight with every recent-vintage Wildcat, including Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s cool that Zion Williamson can’t lie about how much he likes playing in New York. All of that is cool.
But precisely none of it matters right now.
What matters is that the Knicks have a winning record. What matters is that they absolutely refuse to give up on a game, replacing the fake comebacks of years past with actual comebacks, climbing out of fourth-quarter deficits to win three overtime games in the past 13 days. What matters is how Thibodeau and the Knicks scraped, clawed, and trapped their way back into that game against Brooklyn last month, and the tone that approach sets; even their past two losses came by a combined four points, on the road, to other playoff teams.
What matters is that, after losing five of six to fall back under .500, when it looked like things might start to wobble, they shaped up and started the franchise’s longest winning streak in seven years. Not by looking to the future, but by staying 10 toes down in today.
This Knicks team isn’t great. It’s not a juggernaut on par with a superteam like the Nets, Clippers, or Lakers. But a team doesn’t have to be great to be special. It just has to have something about it—something ineffable but undeniable—that sparks joy. For some teams, it’s a style of play that evokes and epitomizes the elegance of a beautiful game. For this one, it’s the unwavering focus, concentration, intensity: an eagerness to fight in a phone booth, a willingness to eat a haymaker if it means landing one in return.
With every hardscrabble performance and borderline unbelievable win, this Knicks team is revealing itself as that kind of special—the kind that connects with you, and that makes you want to connect with it. Teams like that are rare, especially for this franchise, and you’d better celebrate them while they’re here. It’s spring—a time of renewal, teeming with possibility. And all around—improbably, finally—walls are tumbling down in New York City.
All stats and records used through Wednesday’s games.