Is it OK to stick my head out? Is it safe? I am a fan of the New York Knicks and this usually means that I never start a sentence by saying “I am a fan of the New York Knicks” because I am capable of feeling shame.
But this Knicks team is — I hesitate here because this is a word not used by Knicks fans since Jeremy Lin — fun. Fun! The team is young and exciting, almost as if the Knicks are a normal, well-coached team, not the well-chronicled example of dysfunction we have come to know and hate.
What is happening here? Tom Thibodeau is coaching this team very well and that means both that the Knicks are winning and I have learned how to spell “Thibodeau.” What does a good coach do differently than a bad coach? How much does the talent in the NBA differ from team to team? Each NBA team has incredible basketball players, the best in the world. With the right guidance, the players should be in a position to succeed.
For the Knicks, that has not been the case in decades. Thibodeau has made a world of difference.
The Knicks players are in a position to maximize their talents, which is amazing because I did not know that many of them had talents to maximize. Take Julius Randle. Julius is known as a scorer. But this? This Julius Randle averages 22.1 points and 7.4 assists per game. This Julius Randle takes the same amount of shots as last season’s ball hog Julius Randle and scores 2.6 more points per game. This Julius Randle is averaging more passes per minute than Steph Curry. Julius Randle is in line for Most Improved Player honors, an All-Star nod and to replace Bill DeBlasio as mayor of New York City.
Monday night, against Atlanta, the Knicks concluded the game with an Immanuel Quickley–Austin Rivers backcourt. Shades of Monroe-Frazier, except for the lack of sartorial splendor or, possibly, talent. And it worked!
The rookie Quickly, a draft pick criticized by many – Bleacher Report gives the Knicks a grade of “C’ for the pick of Quickley here – has proven to be a pleasant surprise for a team that normally surprises us by throwing Knicks legends out of Madison Square Garden. Quickley has an array of pump fakes, he can shoot and he can even shoot off the dribble. Did the Knicks get a steal late in the first-round? It sure feels that way. How can an NBA team steal a player from Kentucky, the most scouted team in college hoops? Yet — that may what has occurred.
RJ Barrett, has emerged as much better second-year player and may actually have been a good, high draft pick. Barrett has the green light to shoot, which means he has the green light to miss. That’s important because he misses a lot but he contributes in so many areas and he is going to shoot until it goes in the net. He has the confidence of the coaches and the most talent on the team.
Mitchell Robinson was a second-round pick and yes he, too, was a good pick. What is this, San Antonio? Robinson was picked 36th and when he stays out of foul trouble, he can change a game. He knows his limitations. He’s not a big man that stands at the three point line and he is not a big man that dribbles to the hoop. He takes short shots, sometimes alley-oops. He can redirect an opponent’s shot with the best of them. He’s not all the way where he can be but he may be on his way to where he can be.
Elfrid Payton was really taken off the scrap heap. Payton’s not bad. The Knicks have a long history of mediocre (at best) point guards. Please don’t make me name names. Payton may never been an All-Star – okay, he will never be an All-Star – but he has been effective. With Quickley emerging, too, we have said goodbye to Dennis Smith Jr., a cornerstone of the Kristaps Porzingis deal. And lottery pick Frank Ntilikina gets zero playing time as well and assures the Knicks never draft another player from France (that’s a Frederick Weis reference).
Alec Burks is injured now but has been a sparkplug. Obi Toppin has barely played but many expected the offensive-minded forward to compete for top rookie honors. In other words: there is room to improve.
When was the last time you saw the Knicks so committed on defense? 1999? 1995? Charles Oakley’s not even allowed into the arena but if he was, he may be impressed by what he sees on the Garden floor.
I’m not going to get carried away. The Knicks have been horrible to watch for the most part of 20 years. But the Knicks have massive salary cap room and draft picks. They can improve this team. They have a coach that can get the most out of his players. There is reason for optimism. I’m sticking my head out. I’m a Knicks fan. Given history, I may regret it but for now — let us have our moment and let’s hope that moment lasts a long time.