The Knicks Are Exactly Where They Want To Be In The Rebuilding Process
The orange and blue have been dwelling in a perpetual state of "suck" for the better part of two decades. For Knicks' faithful like myself, the experience has been something akin to reality television, chock filled with sex scandals, internal feuds, and public exile. The once-proud franchise had devolved into a perennial laughing stock, a model of dysfunction for an entire generation of hoop enthusiasts. This season has given Knicks fans hope that there is some light at the end of the tunnel in Leon Rose, Scott Perry, William Wesley, and HC Tom Thibodeau. What initially started as a "transitional season" has morphed into one of the feel-good basketball stories of 2021, reinvigorating one of the most enthusiastic and loyal fanbases in all of basketball. With the season inching toward its inevitable conclusion, let's reevaluate the Knicks fairytale season, explore their playoff possibilities, and look toward next season.
It's getting harder and harder to taper Knick fans' enthusiasm; the team is currently two games over .500, sitting atop the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference standings heading into the final leg of the season. As of 4/15/21, the Knicks currently rank 1st in OPP PTS, OPP FG%, OPP 3-PT, all while ranking 3rd with a DEF RTG of 107.8. HC Tom Thibodeau's demeanor and approach evoke memories of Riley's and Van Gundy's Knicks, teams defined by their consistency, physicality, and toughness. Julius Randle has established himself as a legitimate MIP/MVP candidate this season. R.J. Barrett has shown growth on both sides of the ball this season, particularly as a playmaker and spot-up shooter. Mitchell Robinson continues to mature and evolve as the team's "man in the middle," showing distinct improvement in his positioning and hand placement which have historically kept him in foul trouble. Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, and Derrick Rose have been revelations for the 2nd unit, performing admirably as spot starters.
Barring a catastrophic collapse, the Knicks seemed primed to make their first playoff appearance in almost eight seasons. HC Tom Thibodeau's inaugural season has been nothing short of miraculous, transforming the league's laughingstock into a legit playoff contender. While I am cautiously optimistic the Knicks make the playoffs, they cannot compete with Philadelphia and Brooklyn in a 7-game series. This isn't an indictment on the players or staff; they simply don't have enough firepower to offset the output of stars like Embiid or Harden in a playoff setting.
So where do the Knicks go from here? The tradeline deadline served as a clear indicator of where the Knicks feel they are in the rebuilding process. Rather than trade their draft assets for proven commodities, the team decided to stand pat and keep their four scheduled draft picks in the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft. Evaluating talent during the 20-21 season has proved to be difficult because of COVID-19. Games were canceled or rescheduled; players missed extended time due to sickness and observance of protocols. Evaluators were forced to do more with less this season which proved to be problematic come June. The Knicks have an abundance of draft capital, which opens up a ton of possibilities. Could the team package their two 1st round picks to move up in the draft? It will be interesting to see what Leon Rose and Scott Perry have planned for the upcoming season.
Derrick Rose, Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, Nerlens Noel, and Alec Burks will all be free agents this summer. Rose, Burk, and Noel have both outplayed their contracts and should garner a ton of attention from contenders in the open market. It's my sincerest hope that Scott Perry and Leon Rose find a way to bring the trio back next season. Their impact on the bench can't be overstated; the first unit largely depends on Julius Randle to initiate the offense. On the contrary, the 2nd unit tends to take a "by committee" approach, with Rose, Burks, and Quickley sharing the scoring load. Burks' ability to space the floor and defend multiple positions on the perimeter has made him indispensable to Thibodeau. Rose's capacity to put pressure on the basket in the open court and navigate the pick and roll has added a new dimension to what can be a stagnant offense. Noel has been nothing short of a revelation in his relief of Mitchell Robinson and is a huge reason why the Knicks have managed to maintain their defensive dominance in his absence. Lost amongst their many tangible contributions has been the value of their veteran leadership. Rose, Burks, and Gibson have been exemplary models of professionalism and preparation for a very young, impressionable group. I'd argue that they've been a driving force behind the team's culture makeover.
Though the 2020-2021 season has undoubtedly been a step in the right direction, expectations will dramatically shift next season. Honeymoon periods don't traditionally last very long in New York, and there will be pressure on this group to make playoffs next season. Like the upstart Brooklyn Nets of years past, this collection of overachieving hoopers have managed to capture the hearts and eyes of New Yorkers in ways few could have imagined at the beginning of the season. Before Knicks fans start salivating over the potential free agent and lottery picks, we need to appreciate the present and remember the past. This team may not make it to the finals, but it's certainly a team worth celebrating.