• Gabe Bottazzi

Knicks At 8-8, Not Great, But Getting Straight

Updated: Jan 23

It has been 8 years since the last time the New York Knicks have made it to the NBA playoffs. Back then, I was a sophomore in college and times were much simpler in comparison to the modern day pandemic we are currently experiencing. New York had a formidable star duo of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, who brought the franchise back to relevance after several years of embarrassment and mediocrity. They had a great supporting class of productive role players from gritty center Tyson Chandler to the volatile shooting guard, JR Smith. There was a certain swagger to that Knicks team that has not been apparent in quite some time, playing the game with fiery passion and a strong desire to

win. In 2013, the Knicks finished the regular season with a record of 54-28, the second best record in the Eastern Conference and their highest win total in 15 years. “Stat” and “Melo” turned the Knicks back into a prominent franchise playing in the city that is considered to be the Mecca of Basketball. After disposing of the great Celtics team that had Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett in 6 games of the first round, the Knicks had their sights set on a NBA Finals appearance going into the next round against Indiana. These two teams have a storied rivalry dating back to the 1990’s with Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller going at it that made for some classic series. In the Conference Semi Finals, the Pacers had their own great stars with Paul George coming into his own as a budding superstar playing above the rim while being reliable down the stretch of games when his team needed him most. In the middle at center, Roy Hibbert was an intimidating force in the paint that protected the rim well and had some effective post moves. The teams matched up very well making for a very competitive and physical series. It was tied at 1 game a piece going into a pivotal game 3 in which the Knicks lost after only scoring 71 points on the road. New York was unable to gain momentum afterwards, even after forcing a Game 6 in which they lost in Indiana and failed to reach the 100-point mark. It was a disappointing end to a season where the Knicks had championship aspirations.

Since losing in the Conference Semi-Finals, the Knicks have yet to get back to their winning ways. In the last 6 seasons, the Knicks best win total was 32 wins back in 2016 as they became a forgotten about franchise over that time period. The Knicks owner, James Dolan has had his share of controversy during that span including an incident involving former Knick Charles Oakley at Madison Square Garden, where he had him escorted off the premises. The way Dolan carries himself publicly made the Knicks a non-appealing destination for big-time free agents. The coaching job in the New York has not been a secure position with the Knicks having 6 different head coaches in the last 6

years. The sad part is many fans want the Knicks to be good again because it is great for NBA ratings when there is a winning team in the Big Apple. Flash forward to present day; the Knicks have made some successful draft choices in the last few Drafts after selecting promising young talent of the likes of Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, and Kevin Knox. In 2019’s off-season, the Knicks were hoping to secure either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irivng who both instead went across town to play in Brooklyn for the Nets. As a result, the Knicks settled to sign journeyman forward Julius Randle to a 3-year, $62 million contract. Randle played well in New Orleans once Anthony Davis joined the Lakers, averaging 21 points and 8 rebounds so his signing gave optimism to Knicks fans. When Barrett was selected with the 3rd pick in 2019, he was believed to be New York’s savior. RJ was the #1 recruit coming out of high school, committing to Duke. He

lived up to the hype playing alongside fun freshman phenoms Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish. Barrett was heralded scoring 22 points a game and leading Duke all the way to the Elite 8. Greatness seemed eminent for Barrett after he made a splash in college basketball, so the 2019/2020 NBA season was the proving ground to see what he can do on the biggest stage. Considering the circumstances, RJ and Randle played well as they both up productive stat lines on the season. This type of productivity however, did not lead to many wins for the team under coach David Fizdale, posting a mere 21 wins before the Pandemic suspended play in March of 2020.

The NBA had a bubble from August to October, but the Knicks were so bad, they did not even qualify to participate. Like in years past, New York had to rely on the NBA Draft as a means to rebuild and improve the team that is what happened in 2020. Because of the Kristaps Porzingis trade with the Mavericks, New York had the luxury of selecting twice in the first round. With the 7th pick the Knicks drafted College National Player Of The Year, Obi Toppin out of the University of Dayton. Toppin is a highflying prospect that took college

basketball by storm with his aerial assaults of the rim. He played two seasons in college, which is rare for top NBA prospects nowadays, and expanded on different areas of his game from shooting the 3 to putting in work on the post. With the 25th pick, the Knicks selected SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley out of the University of Kentucky. Like Toppin, Quickley played two seasons in college and this proved to be beneficial for his basketball growth. From only scoring 5 points a game as a freshman, Quickley brought up his scoring average by 11 points to average 16 points while shooting 42 percent from 3 point range and 92 percent from the free throw line. Under legendary coach John Calipari, Quickley vastly improved as a shooter turning it into his number one weapon by the time the Knicks selected him late in the 1st round. The draft results gave Knick fans a new wave of hope that this young core has potential to do great things if under the right tutelage.

The New York Organization did not just add new young players, but great personnel as well including the big hire of Leon Rose as Team President, “World-Wide” William Wesley as Vice President, and last but not least Tom Thibotheau as Head Coach. A team is only as good as the sum of its part, so each new acquisition for the franchise provide key elements to the table in hopes of a bright future in New York. The element that Coach Thibotheau

brings is his 10 years of head coaching experience and winning vigor. He was an associate head coach in Boston alongside Doc Rivers where in 2008 he won a ring with the Celtics. “Thibs” then got his big break filling the Chicago Bulls Head Coach vacancy. In his first season as Bulls Coach, Thibodeau made history. He tied the record for most wins by a rookie coach with 62 and won NBA Coach of the Year. His Bulls team had tremendous talent with star players Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Thibs is known for coaching with great passion, telling his players how it is and not sugar coating anything. He is an in your face yelling type of coach, some players do not respond well to it, others thrive in it. He takes precedence on the defensive side of the ball, wanting players to scrap and work their tails off to ensure victory. Thibodeau’s first season with the Bulls resulted in an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Miami Heat, which is quite impressive for a first year head coach. The following years, he coached the Bulls competitively until he then had a short coaching stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now, he is coaching New York’s team where there is a lot of pressure on him to turn this franchise around because the city does not like to wait, as loyal fans have been very patient in these reconstruction years.

With the Coronavirus Pandemic ruining almost everything, it still has not stopped the NBA from continuing their season schedule. In December, the season commenced, as this was an opportunity for this young New York Knicks team to showcase what they have arduously worked on during their time off. The first two games the Knicks were lacking the cohesive team chemistry that is essential in order to garner wins in today’s NBA losing two in a row to start things off. The next game the Knicks were up against the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that had the best record in the NBA in the previous season and the winner of the league’s MVP trophy, Giannis Antetokoumpo. The Knicks had one of their best overall games in years defeating the stacked Bucks club 130-110. New York could not miss from the three-point line, something that has always plagued the Knicks in years past. They shot an eye-popping 16-27 from three en route to the victory as Julius Randle posted 29 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists. The Knicks went on to win 4 out of their next 5 games beating good

teams like Utah, Indiana, and Atlanta during that span. Many things were starting to click for the Knicks. The way they began to execute late in games and not get complacent when holding a comfortable lead. Randle wants to prove that he is an All-Star caliber player, and so far he is making a strong case with impressive stat averages of 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. The Knicks have found their range from three with proven shooters like Reggie Bullock and fearless rookie Immanuel Quickley knocking down shots with consistently when called upon. RJ Barrett has matured in his second NBA season and is more confident when taking a jump shot or when he decides to drive and go downhill to the basket. In the two wins previously mentioned, RJ scored 25 plus points in consecutive games exemplifying that he is not afraid of the moment and is ready to become a leader on the team. Young center Mitchell Robinson has come into his own as an elite defender with a post presence, blocking shots, and being an efficient scorer in the paint. Journeyman point guard Elfrid Payton is playing like he has something to prove. He scores when needed while facilitating to teammates as a floor general.

With all these pieces playing in unison, New York was surprising many fans and opposing teams with their performance posting a 5-3 record in the first 8 games. Optimism was in the air for the first time in many years in New York as it has been so long since they came out the gate so strong. This hot start for the Knicks, however, was short-lived as they began to lose focus on the defensive side of the ball losing 5 consecutive contests. Three of the five losses were by double digits, as the Knicks fell back into old habits like bad shot selection, turnovers, lazy defense, and missing free throws. This past Sunday, the Knicks got

back on the right track with a 30-point victory against the Celtics in Boston. RJ and Randle combined for 39 points and Immanuel Quickley added 17 points off the bench in the wire-to-wire win. The Knicks use that win as momentum going into their Martin Luther King Day game against Orlando. While it was a sloppy game in which the Knicks almost gave up the lead, they were able to put it out for another win at home. Yesterday, the Knicks began a 4 game West Coast road trip in San Francisco going against Curry and the Warriors. Both teams were riding two game winning streaks going into the contest and the Knicks had one of the best offensive first quarters in years, dropping 40 points. They did not look back, coasting to a 15-point road victory. As a team, they shot great from three nailing 11 out of their 24 attempts. RJ was in alpha-mode once again; scoring 28 points while Randle flirted with a triple double posting 16 points, 17 rebounds, and 9 assists. With the Knicks record at 8-8 and riding a 3 game winning streak, they want to win again tonight as they take on DeAaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings.

It’s great to see the Knicks being competitive again. Before teams would not really have to prepare for them because they knew the Knicks would more than likely sabotage themselves on the court with frequent errors. But now, the young players have seemed to buy into Thibodeau’s system in which they play hard on defense and look for the smart shot on offense. As of right now, The Knicks have the number 1 defense in the NBA. New York is holding teams to 102 points per game on just 43 percent shooting from the field. Both of which lead the NBA. It’s only been 16 games, but it is safe to say that the Knicks have a good chance to make the playoffs this year whether it be the 6th seed or 8th seed. They are going to give it all because they are playing with a chip on their shoulder. The Brooklyn Nets have been garnering a lot of media attention recently with them adding James Harden to join Kyrie and Durant. The Knicks have been flying under the radar, which they can use to their advantage as they look to build on the season’s early success.

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