The Knicks’ Revolutionary Competence

The New York Knicks playing against the Toronto Raptors on April 11 at Madison Square Garden. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

After an incredibly tough year characterized by disconnection and alienation, you may need a reminder that the world is a glorious place full of sublime wonder, that life can still come out of nowhere and surprise you. May I submit to you the following bit of evidence for this thesis: The New York Knicks are good.

Okay, okay, fine: So they are not good, exactly. After their win Monday night over the defending champion (but LeBron James and Anthony Davis-less) Los Angeles Lakers, they are one game over .500 three-quarters of the way through a truncated, pandemic-riddled, still-impressively-robust NBA season, and if all goes perfectly for them the rest of the way, they’ll “win” the opportunity to get drilled by the Nets, 76ers, or Bucks — actual championship contenders — in the first round of the playoffs. They continue to be the most woebegone franchise in the recent history of the NBA; if they somehow hold onto their winning record by season’s end, it will be the first time they’ve done so since 2013, when their current second-leading scorer was 12 years old. They are still owned by Jim Dolan. They remain the Knicks.

But as someone who has written about, obsessed over, and cheered the Knicks for more than 20 years now, I can confidently tell you that this season, this .500 season, has provided the most pure joy and actual, palpable hope than any moment since the Jeremy Lin fortnight of 2012. And unlike that giddy stretch, this seems, dare I say it, almost sustainable? Like it won’t be ripped away from us immediately? The New York Knicks, the most perpetually bloated, dysfunctional, downright Trumpian franchise in all of professional sports, are the scrappy underdogs you can’t help but root for. And, for once, it looks like they might know what they are doing.

It has been just more than a year since Leon Rose, the longtime NBA mega-agent (he brokered the LeBron-to-the-Heat deal), took over as president of the Knicks, and what has been most notable about his tenure is its quietness. It had been thought Rose, the ultimate deal-maker, would bring a bunch of expensive, past-their-prime faded stars to the Garden — which is to say, he’d act like every other Knicks executive under Dolan, mortgaging the future for flashy but ultimately tepid short-term results. But he hasn’t. He has instead run the Knicks as a responsible adult: not chasing veterans, hewing to short-term contracts, maximizing the team’s salary-cap flexibility, and focusing on the draft, where he has compiled an impressive arsenal of picks, including two in this year’s upcoming draft in July. These are not themselves brilliant or even unusual strategies; they’re widely accepted as standard operating procedure in today’s NBA. They are strategies the Knicks have never, ever been able to follow for very long. Rose’s basic competence feels revolutionary.

But that’s not what is making the Knicks so exciting — all told, it’s not even that shocking. After all, nearly every NBA season preview pointed out that the Knicks were starting to act a bit smarter … while making sure to note that they’d be absolutely dreadful this season. The stunner is that the Knicks are solid right now. They’re a tough, defensively minded squad that plays together, plays hard, and plays like it hasn’t noticed that it says KNICKS on their uniforms. This has been almost entirely the doing of new coach Tom Thibodeau, a 63-year-old gym rat who won a championship as the “defensive guru” of the Boston Celtics, nearly won a title with the Chicago Bulls, and then was run out of Minnesota, labeled as a control freak coach in a league where coaches are now supposed to be hands-off and player-friendly. In many ways, he took the Knicks job because no one else would have him (and because he wasn’t exactly the smoothest television personality). But his obsessive attention to detail and unhealthy competitiveness — he looks like every vein in his head is going to burst into flames at any moment — has, remarkably, transformed the team.

He has turned Julius Randle, long considered a mercurial, unfocused coulda-been star who would never realize his true talent, into an All-Star and deserved fan favorite in New York. (After years of being viewed as a disappointment, Randle nearly burst into tears upon hearing cheers of “MVP” from the newly admitted fans at the Garden.) He has conjured magic from Immanuel Quickley, who has gone from an unheralded late first-round pick to become one of the best rookies in the NBA. He has found key roles for players who were otherwise NBA flotsam (which is why they were with the Knicks in the first place) like Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, and Nerlens Noel. And, most intriguingly, he seems to have unlocked something within 2019 draft disappointment RJ Barrett, who has become one of the most reliably clutch players in the NBA and may well be on his way to becoming the sort of star the Knicks can build around (or at least persuade another superstar to come play with). These were all players on the roster when Thibodeau signed on — a roster widely considered the worst in the NBA. And now he has them on the cusp of their first playoff appearance in eight years. It is a sort of mad alchemy. Not that Thibodeau seems to be enjoying any of it. He is the sort of coach who skulks around courtside as if he has now been on hold with customer service for several hours. It’s wildly entertaining.

Again: None of this has made the Knicks title contenders. They are playing as well as they possibly can, which is to say, still not all that well. But it has made them a respectable NBA team, something I had honestly forgotten they were allowed to actually look like. And most important: It has made them no longer a joke. The Knicks have been the mockery of the NBA so long that they’re a sight gag in Pixar’s Soul:

While the Knicks aren’t living down to that reputation in a single year, they’re well-positioned after 2021, too. They have a “clean sheet,” salary-cap-wise, which means they can offer any free agent a maximum salary in the coming years. Many such free agents have already signed extensions with their current teams, making those prime players harder to find (Giannis Antetokounmpo probably isn’t coming to the Garden, sad to say). But if any already-claimed star ends up being disgruntled with their current team, the Knicks will be one of the few teams able to absorb his salary. (And the way things are going in New York right now, this might be a place players actually want to come.

There is still an air of menace around this franchise, of course: Jim Dolan still owns the team, after all. (And he’s still out there banning fans for protesting his ownership.) Any time even a little optimism has crept in about the Knicks during Dolan’s tenure, he has stepped in and stomped mud all over the carpet. But blessedly, he has been saying for years he wants to take a lesser role with the team’s daily operations, and Rose — the rare executive with total cover from Dolan, since the Knicks certainly need him more than he needs the Knicks — has thus far been left alone. So even the franchise’s biggest obstacle to success feels perhaps surmountable.

I’m not sure there would be a bigger story in sports over the next few years than the New York Knicks turning into regular contenders. They’d be the rare New York team the whole country rooted for, a plucky underdog that comes equipped with glitz, glamour, and Spike Lee. (The Nets are the better team in New York City right now, what with their stars and title chances. They are also, still, the Nets: They’re not, and will never be, the premier New York franchise.) The Knicks’ resurgence has taken place in front of near- or total-empty stands, but soon, Madison Square Garden will be full and hopping again, and it’s tough to argue that any team’s fans (who have been selling out MSG for decades despite these horrible teams) deserve a winner more than theirs do. A packed house is going to love this team. Because they’re not just a resurgent basketball team — they’re a welcome and much-needed reminder, amid all the tumult of the world, that the unexpected can happen. Sometimes in a good way. It almost makes you want to believe it can be better, that the hard times are in the past, that we’re on the cusp of a thrilling new future. Because if there’s hope for the New York Knicks, dammit, there’s hope for all of us.

The Knicks’ Revolutionary Competence