The New York Knicks, a happy-go-lucky early season story, have reached a level few believed they could even with their success at the start of the year: Eastern Conference Finals contenders.
Much has been made of the Knicks – who were the worst-run franchise in the NBA for years – showing signs of proficiency this past winter. They were scrappy, starless, and hungry for respect. What the team has then transformed into over the course of this season is nothing short of admirable, and the players, coaches, and front office all deserve respect. It’s not just that the Knicks aren’t a laughingstock right anymore; it’s that the team should strike fear in every single Eastern Conference contender.
The Knicks have an identity. They are going to play hard, they are going to play smart, and they are going to outwork you. Everyone knows their role, and they don’t try to do too much outside of it.
It all starts at the top. Julius Randle is the team’s best player, but talent is not the complete reason for his success. He had most of the same talent last year, though he improved on a lot, his jump shot most significantly. What he didn’t yet master was the poise and leadership ability that all great teams in the league have in a player. Randle is the go-to guy in big moments, and he has shown an adeptness at hitting step-backs, getting to the rim, and perhaps most importantly, passing out of double teams. Randle knows he is the guy, but he doesn’t bask in it. He knows he has to trust his teammates to win, and that trust has lifted up sophomore R.J. Barrett and journeyman Reggie Bullock most of all.
Barrett not only looks much more confident in his shot, but like a man obsessed with getting better each and every day. He is strong, he is bold, and he looks like he has all the tools to be a lockdown defender, and perhaps even second best player on a championship team.
Bullock also stands out, as he continues the best season of his career. He is a talented 3-and-D player, but his chemistry with Randle and other Knicks players is what sticks out most. He is not afraid of the moment, and this allows him to take shots that he knows he can hit, with his teammates trusting him the whole way.
The word that I keep coming back to is trust, because that is the hallmark of all great defensive teams. Yet, with Head Coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm, it is no surprise. Thibodeau has always utilized hard-working gritty players and optimized their ability. Look no further than Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose, both of whom have played under Thibodeau in Chicago, Minnesota, and now New York. Both look incredible in their roles, and as necessary bench players to a rolling squad that just won perhaps its most impressive outing of the season against the Clippers.
Rose has led the bench unit with poise and patience. Many fans were uncertain about the midseason acquisition of the former MVP, as rookie Immanuel Quickley was ascending. Turns out, he has been the perfect fit, as Quickley learns the ropes and the bench has a go-to scorer. Even more, is that Rose and his play have lifted up other players, such as rookie Obi Toppin, who looks more comfortable with Rose on the floor and has credited the veteran with helping him learn during this condensed season.
Ultimately, the Knicks will go as far as Julius Randle takes them. The NBA is a league of stars, and until the star has won big in the playoffs, it is hard to take them too seriously. But defense wins championships, and the Knicks have a lockdown unit on that end. Ask yourself this too: Is there a head coach in the Eastern Conference playoff race besides Erik Spoelstra that you trust more than Tom Thibodeau?
Questions will be answered once the playoffs begin. Once the game slows down and the same teams look across at each other for a minimum of four games, the sport is a whole different beast. But in addition to an emerging superstar, a seasoned coach and a stellar supporting cast, the Knicks have the most dangerous weapon of all: nothing to lose.