The growth of young players, establishment of culture and proper balance of present and future have set the Knicks up for long-term success.
At 33-27 and currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks have inarguably had a successful first half of the season, one that should have the fanbase excited for the home stretch and playoffs. Between the addition of Josh Hart, the emergence of the Randle-Brunson duo offensively, and young players like Mitchell Robinson and Quentin Grimes solidifying their games defensively, the highlights of the first half were sound.
However, that forces the mind to wonder what’s in store for the future. The Knicks started the NBA year with a failed pursuit of Donovan Mitchell, a bloated rotation that saw several players and millions of long-term dollars on the bench, and questions about Tom Thibodeau’s long-term status with the franchise. Since then, all of that has changed – not only are they playing well on the court, but the off-court silence has actually been a positive and the development and strengthening of the front office has the Knicks in position to make a big move.
New York’s front office has remained steady, and that has slowly paid off in future equity
Though sometimes overstated, the New York Knicks front office, led by Leon Rose, has done a great job of setting the Knicks up for long-term success. On the floor, the roster is led by Brunson and Randle, two top-40 players in the league, while also balancing Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett, Miles “Deuce” McBride, Quentin Grimes, and Obi Toppin – all currently under the age of 25. The addition of Tom Thibodeau as the head coach created a culture around the team, rewarding hard work and a desire to thrive on the defensive end. Though last season was a tough one for the Knicks as a whole, the entire three-year run for Thibodeau and Rose has been beneficial, including one past playoff appearance and another on the horizon.
Best of all, New York remains flexible with their assets, something previous front offices couldn’t grasp. Even though the Josh Hart acquisition cost a first-round pick, the Knicks still have a plethora of draft capital to play with in future deals. Last offseason, New York swiftly found out that their protected picks aren’t as valuable as one might think when it came to the Donovan Mitchell pursuit, but with the ability to push their own assets into the deal with more stability on the roster and other teams, like Atlanta, blowing their asset farm up on previous deals, the Knicks have put themselves in prime position for when the time to pounce reveals itself.
Also, with Randle having regained his All-Star status and Jalen Brunson on the cusp of the same feat, New York will be in a position to make a move this summer, or any following summer.
The Tom Thibodeau decision, not a superstar acquisition, will be the next fork in the road
For all the talk about when the Knicks will pick up a star, the moves surrounding Tom Thibodeau and his continued tenure as the coach to take the team to the next level is going to be the fork in the road and where the weight of family and business ties will come into play.
After a rocky start, Thibodeau has been a solid coach this season, settling into his nine-man rotation and leaning on the team’s defensive capabilities to take off. Still, the devil is in the details. Thibs is just now playing Immanuel Quickley and Jalen Brunson together and that’s expected to be brief as the addition of Hart throws the guard rotation in flux. The timing of when guys get on and off the floor hurts the team daily and the outdated process of having one strictly-defense center on the floor at all times limits Obi Toppin’s minutes.
Still, the Knicks are going to have to balance trusting the guy they installed to create a culture with the upheaval that would accompany anyone else they bring in. Thibodeau’s arrival came with hard-working young players, like Barrett, Grimes, Quickley, and Toppin. Take young players hungry to improve and veterans who want to continue to prove their value and you have a roster of guys who put in the work to get better together. Part of that was because of the players who came in wanting to be great, but a huge part of that is Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff promoting and pushing how much hard work results in minutes in his rotation.
The grass isn’t always greener and coaching rankings aren’t fluid. Look no further than Nick Nurse in Toronto. Nurse elevated the Raptors to an NBA championship, then subsequently damaged his reputation through a combination of shortening his rotations to Thibodeauian levels, brash demeanor with the media, wearing his own logo on his hat during press conferences, and resisting offering minutes to young players outside of Scottie Barnes. Two years ago, Nurse was considered one of the best coaches in the league. Now, there’s a chance he might be let go at the end of the season.
However, Thibodeau is in year three of a five-year contract and an extension conversation looms. Leon Rose, Walt Perrin, Brock Aller, Frank Zanzin and crew will have to figure out if keeping Thibodeau around could unlock their vision, or if Thibodeau is the Dwane Casey to, say, Johnnie Bryant’s Nick Nurse and make the move to further accelerate the current trajectory of the franchise.
The Knicks seem ready for a star acquisition
It’s tough to completely rush things, but the Knicks seem ready for the next step: adding a star. From an outside view, New York has seemingly changed their culture from the top down. They’ve remained tip-lipped, if only to help change the perception of the franchise, drafted and developed players who aim to improve every chance they get, and hired a head coach to install that ethos amongst the entire roster. Then, the Knicks boosted their scouting department and thrived with late first-round picks and even second-rounders like Deuce McBride and Jericho Sims. The owner is the owner and that won’t change until it changes, but from Leon Rose down, the Knicks are in a much better spot than they were three years ago.
The Mitchell acquisition was halted when they didn’t believe in their ability to compete after making the trade. The acquisition (and most likely, subsequent re-signing) of Hart should further push the kids like RJ, Grimes, and Quickley to new heights, which helps the team organically or as trade chips. The Knicks have hit on all areas to ready themselves to make a trade push for whatever star becomes available next. Ideally, that player is a wing, someone like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Brandon Ingram, but neither is likely to be moved, no matter how rabidly Knicks fans fantasize about them. However, even if that player turns out to be a center (Karl-Anthony Towns?) or a guard (Trae Young?), New York has created an atmosphere, on and off the floor, to entice a star.
The Knicks and the fanbase will want everything at once, meaning, two stars coming to New York together, but with unconventional stars like Randle and Brunson on the roster, New York could take a chance again on someone who doesn’t fit the exact star mold, attach them to Brunson and Randle and build from there.
The New York Knicks, with a victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, put the finishing touches on an impressive 60-game stretch that saw them claim the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks still have work to do and after being provided Josh Hart from Portland, seemingly are ready to level up. For now, the focus should be on whether New York can maintain their spot in the top six and, if they’re lucky, get one of Brooklyn or Cleveland in the first round to pull the upset.
However, it’s tough not to think about the Knicks of yesteryear and how this could be a shining moment in the franchise’s history. New York has several players under the age of 26 developing and getting minutes, two offensive fulcrums at an all-star level, and, this season, further established culture on the floor and in the front office. Whether a star player comes available this offseason remains to be seen, but the New York Knicks have worked their way to the front of the line and after hesitating on taking the next step at the cost of their assets last summer, the Knicks are better and those assets might be ready to be cashed in.