Sports

Wait, Are the Knicks Good Now?

Julius Randle flexing and yelling in celebration on the floor at Madison Square Garden
A Knicks player … celebrating??? Elsa/Getty Images

It’s enough to make us question all that we once understood about our collective reality: The New York Knicks are decent. Just look at the scenes of jubilation from the streets of midtown Manhattan last week. Knicks fans were celebrating Saturday’s victory over the sub-.500 Indiana Pacers like it was V-E Day.

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The win brought New York’s record to 17-17. The Knicks have since played three more times and are 19-18 heading into the All-Star break. I worry for all the revelers in that video. They have not been inoculated to the experience of watching a competent, sure-footed basketball team. The shock of being a game over .500 may prove to be fatal.

Economists call this a “Black Swan event”—an occurrence so unexpected and extraordinary that contemporaneous attempts to rationalize it can have an outsized impact on the future. But rationalize it we must, for the Knicks are currently the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and look poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. How did this happen?

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It is not at all uncommon for a team to turn around its fortunes in one year, but the reversal usually involves acquiring a super-duperstar or the rapid maturation of a promising young player (or both). Even the most delusional Knicks fan would have told you that they weren’t in a position to do either of those things after a 21-45 season last year. Real change would need to come from lots of incremental improvements over time, a strategy that’s antithetical to how the franchise has done business throughout the 21st century. The team likes to move fast and stupid. So far, the 2020-21 season has delivered an answer to that most tantalizing Knicks-related hypothetical: What if they, like, didn’t do that?

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The organization’s first and most important decision in the offseason was to hire Tom Thibodeau as its head coach. A question that’s always asked of those who take the Knicks job is whether they can handle the “bright lights” of Madison Square Garden and the anxiety that comes with it. But Thibodeau is stress incarnate. His resting heart rate is the drumbeat at a Slayer show. The biggest criticism against him has been that he pushes his players too hard, even to the point of injury or burnout—but that drive starts to look like a good thing when your team has won only one playoff series in 20 years.

Thibodeau’s forte is defense, and New York’s defensive transformation has been instantaneous. The Knicks have the league’s second-best defensive rating (108.1) and have held their opponents to 43.5 percent shooting (the lowest rate in the NBA). They’ve kept this up even after losing center Mitchell Robinson, their best defensive player, to a broken hand in February. Thibs magic is working.

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In the era of constant player movement, no team has been more desperate for a marquee star and less successful in luring one than the New York Knicks. In recent years, no other fanbase has hastily photoshopped as many jerseys onto pictures of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyrie Irving with nothing to show for it. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that the current team was constructed to be essentially “starless.” This is not to discount Julius Randle, a literal All-Star this year, but no one could have predicted that the free agent signing would suddenly turn into a mecha-suited Bill Walton in his seventh season. Randle is averaging 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game—all career highs.

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At Kentucky and for much of his pro career, Randle was a burly forward who played like a boulder chasing Indiana Jones downhill. With the Knicks, however, he’s refined his game and is showing the ability to score from all over the floor.

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Here’s usually where I’d try to explain why this is happening, but this season—which has also featured the dominant Phoenix Suns and the thrill-a-minute Charlotte Hornets—is all about defying reason and logic. So instead, I’ll just have you behold this video of a few mask-wearing fans inside an eerily empty MSG serenading Randle with MVP chants.

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Randle isn’t the Knicks’ only happy surprise. Rookie Immanuel Quickley, the 25th pick in the draft, provides instant offense off the bench. He’s averaging 12.2 points per game and boasts one of the most impressive catalog of floaters in the league. They must play with different parabolas where he’s from.

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Then there’s second-year wing R.J. Barrett, once known as “the guy from Duke who isn’t Zion.” The former No. 3 pick in the draft is shooting 35 percent from behind the arc and is turning into a confident all-around scorer with or without the ball.

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Even a guy like Frank Ntilikina, once considered a ghost of Knicks draft mistakes past, is getting in on the action.

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Because they’re the Knicks, they couldn’t resist the temptation of signing an oft-injured and past-his-prime point guard to throw his body around Madison Square Garden. But it actually seems to be working this time? The Derrick Rose–Tom Thibodeau reunion may not be the award-winning spectacular it once was, but the revival is sharp enough to go on tour.

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Are we going overboard about a squad that’s one game over .500? Probably! Of their 19 victories, only five have come against teams with winning records. They also play in the East, a conference where a .500 record is considered impressive. The season may be shortened by COVID, but there is still plenty of time for the wheels to come off this bandwagon—and for Randle, Barrett, and everyone else to either come back down to earth or be ground into dust from playing 900 minutes a night. (Whichever comes first.) And, with owner James Dolan running the show, catastrophe is always just a short blues riff away. But let’s shake off those familiar anxieties because, for 37 glorious games, the good has finally outweighed the bad on the court. The Knicks’ defense is the real deal, and it’s always a good sign when a young team finds ways to close out games. Go ahead and celebrate, New York.

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Knicks fans are an excitable bunch, but it’s nice to see them swarm the streets to cheer competence. And to think, they didn’t have to trade away any first round picks to find themselves in this position. However, the trade deadline is March 25, so there is still plenty of time to make familiar mistakes. Apologies to those fans if I just gave the front office some ideas.

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