After roster tinkering, the expansion and shortening of the rotation, and one trade, the Knicks have a roster that fully fits Tom Thibodeau. 

Winners of six in a row and steadily climbing up the Eastern Conference standings, the New York Knicks are on fire and the vibes seem to be immaculate since the All-Star break. Julius Randle is on a torrid pace after his second all-star appearance, Immanuel Quickley is pushing his Sixth Man of The Year campaign and, Jalen Brunson quietly has an argument for Most Improved Player of the Year. Not only that, but the return of Mitchell Robinson gave the Knicks their starting center back into the rotation. With the Brooklyn Nets slowly falling to the back of the pack and the Cleveland Cavaliers just 2.5 games ahead, the Knicks have a genuine chance to earn the fourth seed come playoff time.

But the true intrigue is the development of the roster. Between the recent addition of Josh Hart and the return of Mitchell Robinson, head coach Tom Thibodeau might finally have his idealized roster – the full-fledged idea of what a Thibodeau team should be. After navigating through poor defensive players, non-shooters in the backcourt, and hot-and-cold players who slid in and out of the rotation, President of Basketball Operations Leon Rose and the front office rewarded Thibodeau with a proper nine-man rotation that has allowed the former Bulls and Timberwolves front man the ability to bend and navigate the team his way.

Hart connects all the dots and extends the Thibodeau mantra

Before the start of the 2022-23 regular season, I lauded the potential of New York’s four-man wing/guard combination for success – the combination of Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Cam Reddish possessed everything needed to carry the Knicks to a strong season. I went three for four. Reddish wasn’t trusted in the rotation and was shipped out to Portland, with Hart brought in. Just six games into his Knicks career, Hart has a +18.6 net rating and the Knicks are nearly 10 points better on the defensive end. Overall, Hart has reignited the same thoughts I had in the preseason: the Knicks have a talented four-man group that can navigate New York’s wing position.


The addition of Hart has been huge for New York for several reasons. It starts on the defensive end, where Hart is not only a good defender but also an excellent rebounder for his six-foot-five frame. The ability to have another talented rebounder on the floor allows Thibodeau to play smaller than normal. His stocks so far (10 in 158 minutes) have been critical and more importantly, Hart offers the rare ability to defend up a position, capable of defending guards and even some smaller wing players. Play him alongside RJ Barrett and you have two guys capable of defending bigger wings, or, play him with Immanuel Quickley and switch everything. Hart can do it all.

Offensively, Hart is a bit of a junkyard dog, capable of attacking the rim, thriving off of cuts, and mainly succeeding off-ball. He’s a solid passer (4.3 assists per game as a Knick), but the thing about Hart is that he should take more threes. Hart has been spotty for much of his career as a shooter, but with two solid offensive hubs in Randle and Brunson, more space is created and much like Quentin Grimes, Hart could be a benefactor of some wide-open, catch-and-shoot threes.

In the end, New York needed another player at the end of their rotation and needed a wing. Hart filled both spots. Evan Fournier’s offensive game was fine, but he just couldn’t keep up defensively to remain in Thibodeau’s rotation, while Miles “Deuce” McBride was too timid offensively, despite his defensive tactics. Josh Hart was the perfect addition for New York’s needs as an impressive defensive player, excellent hustle and rebound guy, and a solid, if not undersold offensive player. For the cost of a first-round pick (or four second-round picks), the Knicks arguably made the best trade deadline upgrade this year.

Mitchell Robinson returns to an even better defense

On the year, the Knicks rank 13th in the league in defensive efficiency, and 10th since February 1st. With Mitchell Robinson coming back, the Knicks have a chance to slide into the top five defensively. During his absence, both Jericho Sims and Isaiah Hartenstein were solid stopgaps in their own ways. Sims assumed a starting role, then Hartenstein came in and became an effective offensive rebounder and things clicked from there as a backup. Moving Sims out of the rotation for a returning Robinson improves the defense, while also giving New York a more capable offensive player.

Add Hart into the equation and New York has Hart, Grimes, Quickley, Barrett, and Randle as all capable defenders in front of him. Randle is solid at shifting his feet and defending wings, while Barrett, even in a down season defensively, has moments of success as a defensive player. The trio of Hart, Grimes, and Quickley with Robinson behind them is where the Knicks can truly win defensively. Both players have taken a step forward this year, with Quickley manning both wings and point guards, while Grimes has evolved into an elite wing defender. Both players have been essential to Thibodeau’s defensive structure. The newly-added Hart is a good defender who plays up a position, allowing RJ Barrett, whose defensive performance has waxed and waned this season, to float and even occasionally defend fours.

Robinson not only cleans up mistakes at the rim, but he’s also good at sliding his feet and holding opponents on the perimeter, good enough to allow other teammates to get back in position. He’s also built up enough physical strength to hold his own against the various opposing big men across the league. While he may never get the all-defense accolades, Robinson has been a plus defender for a Knicks team that suddenly has various defenders in front of him who can hold his own.

All things start (and end) with isolation maestros Randle and Brunson

For all the talk about defensive success, all things start and end with the success of the team’s isolation scorers. In this case, that’s the duo of Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. When both are on, the Knicks have two dangerous scorers, capable of garnering free throws and stretching defenses. Randle, in the midst of a strong scoring pace, has been able to pester opponents inside, pull them outside with his shooting and then take advantage of bent defenses with his passing. The same goes with Brunson, who despite not being a traditional pass-first point guard, has thrived with his herky-jerky driving and solid mid-range offense.

With these two rolling, everything falls into place. From there, RJ Barrett gets the next on-ball reps, with Mitchell Robinson serving as a screen and roll option from there. Quickley, who can play with or without Brunson, has offered a steady changeup off the bench offensively, with Grimes largely serving as an off-ball shooter. Hart interchanges between on-ball and off-ball, attacking the rim and gnawing opponents in transition. Hart gets some put-backs, while Obi Toppin assumes his “big wing’ role, shooting from the corners. It all works and it’s much easier to navigate while Randle and Brunson are on.

The New York Knicks went through several different periods this season. From a team trying to figure out a proper rotation to several players shuffled in and out of the rotation, to Thibodeau on the verge of being fired, to several winning streaks, the Knicks have had about 10 different seasons all in one. However, with the recent addition of Josh Hart, the return of Mitchell Robinson, and the strict nine-man rotation, New York has found a stride that has them ascending in the Eastern Conference. More importantly, the Knicks finally found a team that has fit Tom Thibodeau, both in his overall mantra on both sides of the ball and overall in terms of trust. Whether it wins them a playoff series or not remains to be seen, but after two-and-a-half seasons at the helm, the coach has his players, and it’s beginning to pay off.

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