Are the New York Knicks Really Heading in the Right Direction?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2021

Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox, right, is double-teamed by New York Knicks' Elfrid Payton, front left, and Mitchell Robinson, center, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

For the first time in a long time, the New York Knicks are a respectable basketball team. They might even be sort of good.

This is what new team president Leon Rose was going for over the summer when he hired Tom Thibodeau, who is the coach you hire when you want to win more games than you won last season. A month in, they're 8-9 with the NBA's best defense by points allowed per game.

There's plenty to be excited about but also plenty of reason for caution. With the trade deadline just two months away, it would be smart for the new regime to let the rebuild continue organically rather than go all-in too early, which can be tempting for a team with Thibodeau as its coach.

That defense, a Thibodeau staple dating back even before his first head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls a decade ago, is probably not actually the best in the league. In a three-point-happy NBA, they've been more than willing to let teams fire away, giving up the fourth-most three-point attempts per game. Despite this, teams are shooting a league-worst 31 percent from long range against them. The Golden State Warriors on Thursday shot 9-of-38 from three.

Those kinds of numbers scream out that a regression is coming. But the Knicks haven't had a defense outside the bottom 10 since the 2015-16 season, when they were 18th. Even if they finish closer to the middle of the pack than the top of the heap by the end of the season, that would still be a massive improvement and a solid foundation for the first year of the Thibodeau era.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
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Even more than Thibodeau's defense, the biggest factor in the Knicks' surprising success has been Julius Randle, who has been playing like a flat-out All-Star after six promising but underwhelming seasons. He has established himself as a go-to scorer in a way he hadn't before, taking and making more mid-rangers and expanding his range out to the three-point line. He's shooting a tolerable 33.8 percent on four attempts per game and averaging a career-high 22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists.

On a winning team, those are All-Star numbers, though like the team's defense, you have to wonder if it's sustainable. But maybe this is just who Randle is now. If it is, that makes the Knicks' rebuild a lot easier, although it could block the playing time of lottery pick Obi Toppin, who has seen limited minutes in six games since returning from a calf injury he suffered in the season opener.

Toppin, despite being the No. 8 overall pick in November's draft, isn't even the rookie Knicks fans are most excited about. Former Kentucky point guard Immanuel Quickley has already developed a cult following based on his raw talent, even if his production has been sporadic and he has yet to win the starting job from Elfrid Payton. Thibodeau is famously reticent to give rookies extended playing time, so it may be a while before we find out how good Quickley can be with a bigger role.

RJ Barrett has also been up and down in his second season but is currently on a hot streak. He had a career-high 28 points against the Warriors and appears to have improved greatly as a playmaker and defender from his rookie season.

On the year, his shooting is about where it was last year—a little over 40 percent from the field—which is concerning for someone who has the ball in his hands as much as Barrett does. But Randle's emergence as a first option has taken some of the pressure off him, and he's doing everything else well.

All of this adds up to a lot of things that look good now and may or may not be sustainable. It's still too early to judge Rose's front-office regime, which has thus far done a lot of favors for clients of CAA, the agency Rose used to work for and that represents Thibodeau, Toppin and Randle. This was a concern around the league when Rose took the job, but it's hard to argue with results.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

It will be tempting for Rose to seize upon this early success and make a move to further the win-now ambitions of his coach. Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine is one high-level scorer executives have speculated to B/R's Eric Pincus could be available, and for whom the Knicks would make sense as a destination. LaVine is looking for a long-term extension, and at 25, he isn't that much older than the core of players who have driven this run.

But the time will come for that. Trading for even a borderline All-Star like LaVine won't vault the Knicks into the top tier of East contenders. They finally have an unexpected taste of winning and what could be the beginnings of something worth building on; short-circuiting that to chase a slightly higher playoff seed now would be shortsighted.

In an Eastern Conference that was already top-heavy and has only gotten tougher since the Brooklyn Nets traded for James Harden, it's going to be a struggle for the Knicks to stay in the running. They're closer in talent to the group of teams vying for a spot in the play-in tournament than they are the contenders in their own division. But the franchise hasn't made the playoffs since the 2012-13 season. They'll take a low seed and a promising future even if they aren't as good as their record would have people believe.

The Knicks may not be contenders, but they aren't a joke anymore. After the past half-decade, that's enough.

              

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.