Although the Knicks’ record is only one game better than this time last season, subtle adjustments and changes in management’s culture point to a legitimate rebuild over treading around mediocrity.

The New York Knicks are just around the bend of the 2017–18 NBA season yet, once again, they’ve found themselves between a rock and a hard place. In early February, they’re in roughly the same shape as they were last year: a sub-.500 team without the talent needed to push towards the postseason nor the hindsight to bottom out. Additionally, the playoff window is even tighter with the arrival of five-time All-Star Blake Griffin in Detroit. Overall, it looks like the Knicks are in the grim place they always find themselves in around the All-Star break—uncertain of the direction of the franchise and befuddled in the malaise of a mediocre team.

But this time is different—I promise. This time, hope is alive because the team has hidden gems and emerging talents that, in the past, were cast aside due to impatience. That brand of hope is not the typical pipe dream Knicks usually sell like when your dad says he’s gonna pick you up for the weekend but never does, so you go back to your room and sulk while playing Def Jam: Fight for NY because a fictionalized version of Method Man is the only person who understands your pain. It’s hope grounded in reality.

A level-headed, serious assessment of how intrinsically dissimilar this Knicks team is from previous years is telling. However, it’s important not to get carried away with slight improvements. If the Knicks make the playoffs—no matter what seed they could finagle—they’d easily be the worst of the bunch. Still, after two years of ceaseless stumbling, these baby steps forward, for example, putting together a young core, have led to a pivot in the right direction, a legitimate rebuild.

Real NBA Players & G League Integration

This year, the Knicks have actually rounded out a roster with bona fide NBA talents. It sounds simple enough, but the Knicks have had the nasty habit of filling up roster spots with lackluster players. How many players on the 2016–17 Knicks roster aren’t playing in the NBA? How many from the 2015–16 season? As of today Mindaugas Kuzminskas, Maurice Ndour, Chasson Randle, and Sasha Vujacic, all alumni from the 2017 season, are absent from NBA rosters this year. Marshall Plumlee is barely hanging onto a thread with a two-way contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. Further, six players from the 2016 squad couldn’t find space on a roster this season. That’s a whole starting five and a sixth man of guys who weren’t good enough to be the 15th wheel on 30 teams. I’ll save you the embarrassment via association and keep the rest of the names to myself.

On the flip side of player development, the Knicks have strategically used the G League this season. With forwards Isaiah Hicks and Luke Kornet sporting two-way contracts, rookie Damyean Dotson on a multi-year guaranteed deal shuffling between Westchester and MSG,  and a re-emerging Trey Burke, it would be reasonable to consider that the Knicks have finally adopted a viable strategy for farming players under the radar.

Already, in limited minutes, Burke has been great in the Knicks’ backcourt. In his eight games as a Knickerbocker, he has averaged 7.4 points and 3.0 assists per game in 12.6 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. The fears that the Knicks would have allowed a prospering G League talent escape their grasp have not been unfounded. Randle ultimately didn’t work out, but the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers made room for him before the NBA affiliate of his G League team, New York, made a move is a frustrating mishandling. Sure, it seems petty to say the Knicks should have rejected him first, but a little extra work is an integral part of due diligence. To their credit, though, the Knicks have done a better job at identifying young talent.

Kornet and Hicks haven’t appeared in any games for the Knicks, but their solid play in Westchester is adequate. Both average above 15 points per game and boast at least 1.5 blocks per contest (via RealGM). Granted, it’s nothing to call home about, but a stint in the G League is more of a real shot than throwing Cleanthony Early directly into the fire of the NBA.

A Solid Core

Doug McDermott and Enes Kanter, the returns of the Carmelo Anthony trade, have been surprisingly useful. McDermott is shooting slightly above 40 percent from beyond the arc and Kanter is averaging a strong double-double (per Basketball-Reference). It seems new General Manager Scott Perry’s first move turned out to be a solid one. The last center to average a double-double with the Knicks was Tyson Chandler in the critically-acclaimed, Emmy Award-Winning 2012–13 season, and Kanter is more than a one-dimensional, alley-oop finisher on offense than Chandler. Enes’ two 20-20 games are a reason to rejoice, too.

Although his defensive shortcomings still peek through at times, Kanter has improved. Plus, the pair of offensive efficiency and rebounding substantially offset his weaknesses. Kanter already has stated that he wants to retire in orange and blue. Could he be part of a core the Knicks are building?

Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s $71 million contract is shaping up to not be as ludicrous as originally thought, despite a bummer of a game in Milwaukee on Saturday. He averaged 14.3 points in October and 19.2 points in November before his left leg injury in December. During his time off recovering, the Knicks went 8–10, plummeting out of the playoff race and into tank consideration. A wild Michael Beasley appeared and tried to clean up the mess, but unfortunately his efforts weren’t enough. The Knicks needed Junior in the worst way. Since then, he has averaged 16.7 points while the Knicks continue to struggle.

Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ chosen one, was happier than anyone to have another scorer on the court. With his usage rate dropping, Porzingis’ field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and true-shooting percentage recovered from a woeful December. Hardaway Jr’s ability to stretch the floor by scoring at every level and occasionally find the open man are essential parts to his game that alleviate the defensive pressure put on KP. When Porzingis said he was tired in the middle of a slump, he wasn’t complaining. He was trying to explain how teams were homing in on him as the Knicks number one option. They were wearing him down. Now, with Hardaway Jr. back in the mix, he has seen a resurgence, one of the main effects of being allotted breathing room from defenses. If the Knicks run a play to get the Unicorn open, then his numbers might even be in better shape, but these statistics illustrate how a strong playmaker like Hardaway Jr. is a necessary complement to amplify the play of Porzingis.

Individually, Kanter, Porzingis, and Hardaway Jr. are three players who rank in the top 15 of their respective positions in Player Efficiency Rating (via ESPN). Courtney Lee, a shooting guard, isn’t far behind at 24, and Kanter sits at no. 4 for centers.

Obviously, the Knicks have yet to put all the pieces together: the point guard spot is shoddy, and a bona fide athlete at the 3 would work wonders considering Lee and Junior cannot rotate perimeter duties forever.

Team Identity

This team may has a semblance of an identity, although it isn’t always good. The Knicks are a post-heavy, three-point shy team that takes more mid-range jumpers than anyone is comfortable with. Porzingis’ and Kanter’s strong frontcourt play fit the label as the closest thing to Pelicans-east. Although, that’s where the similarities end. Nonetheless, knowing what you can do is much better than the last couple seasons, which the estranged Joakim Noah perfectly embodied.

The Knicks are lacking at the 1 and 3. The reality is particularly unfortunate since rookie Frank Ntilikina has shown inconsistent progress since December. Jarrett Jack, his old and bald-headed mentor, runs out of gas in the second half but still sees more playing time than the 19-year-old.

Neither of the point guards can shoot well, or, at all. Neither Jack nor Ntilikina is averaging above 8.0 field-goal attempts per game. And their collective timidness may be justified. Neither Jack nor Ntilikina are shooting above 43 percent from the field. The three-point stats only get worse, with Jack shooting at 28 percent and Ntilikina at 32 percent (via Basketball-Reference). The rest of the Knicks, however, have followed suit in regards to three-point shooting. The team rank second-to-last in share of points coming from the three-ball. Nevertheless, New York shoots at a much higher clip, with the Knicks ranked seventh in the league in three-point percentage (via NBA Stats).

While it’s arguable that the Knicks should take more threes, their identity as a down low team is a marvelous contrast to their play in recent seasons. More points come from mid-range than they should, but ranking top 5 in percentage of their points in the paint while staying in the top 10 of points in the paint, 46.5, solidifies their standing as a frontcourt threat. And McDermott cuts to the hoop are the best thing since Netflix and Lorna Doone cookies:

Even recently, the front office acknowledged they needed an offensive threat running the floor, so, the move to sign Burke showed more self-awareness than the Knicks had shown in recent years. Burke is only shooting 33.3 percent from three so far, but that’s still higher than the incumbents manning the one-spot. Plus, his 61.1 two-point field-goal percentage on 4.5 attempts per game offers a nice lift. At his best, Burke can drive, dish, and shoot like the competent point guard the Knicks always wanted.

This year, the Knicks are going in a direction they hadn’t seen since before the new millennium. The team has their draft picks and plans to keep them. They have a budding All-Star in Kristaps Porzingis, a more than adequate swingman in Tim Hardaway Jr. locked into a long-term contract, and young prospects sprinkled throughout the roster.

The 10 games the Knicks will play in February will decide whether they tank, voluntarily or not, or make a big push into the playoffs. Five of those will occur away from the Garden and test their willingness to overcome their 7–21 road record. The beef between Joakim Noah and Coach Hornacek is a little worrisome (maybe Hornacek said Noah shoots like he has rocks for hands), but at this point folks should know locker room drama is part of the business. Despite subtle, yet noticeable improvements, some things never change.