More than anything, the Knicks have played an identifiable brand of successful basketball under head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Tom Thibodeau was the unanimous MVP last season. Thibodeau not only did his job masterfully but also the job of Steve Stoute. Stoute, for those who do not remember, was hired by the team last year as a brand consultant with the goal to make the Knicks cool again.
And while I’m grateful for perhaps Stoute’s involvement in the improved in-game music selection at the Garden, it is Thibodeau who successfully shepherded the rebrand.
One of the many things Knicks teams over the years have missed the mark on has been developing a brand, a standard, any identifiable trait other than dysfunction. For example, when you thought about gritty defense, you thought about the Memphis Grizzlies. When you thought about a well-executed offense with a lot of picks and ball movement, you thought San Antonio Spurs. When you thought about star destinations, you thought of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat.
Life is too good right now to reminiscence on the days of Don Chaney and Isaiah Thomas, just know 2001–08 was dark and featured none of those things. The organization’s turnover resembled an Amazon warehouse, and the team was the furthest thing from a star destination.
Mike D’Antoni helped establish some sort of stability. D’Antoni was a hopeful callback to the Holzman Knicks rather than the rumble and tumble Riley Knicks. D’Antoni had the most success in building an identity. He sped up the tempo on offense to resemble his Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Just as it seemed it would all come together with Amar’e Stoudemire’s arrival followed by Carmelo Anthony’s, D’Antoni was gone. He and Anthony never seemed to jive, a couple of years of contention turned into one good year under Mike Woodson.
Since then it has been years of an identity crisis. Phil Jackson tried, in vain, to force-feed the Triangle through three head coaches. Then there was the NBA’s Billy McFarland, David Fizdale, who spoke of this new day of position-less basketball centered around his unicorn Kristaps Porzingis.
Tom Thibodeau thankfully flipped the script. In his inaugural season, Thibodeau quickly established a standard. The Knicks were going to show up every night, ferociously compete, and if you didn’t match that energy, good luck. The chemistry among the players and coaching staff radiated off the screen during the 41-win season.
Still, it’s just one season. If you have followed the Knicks long enough, you know the good moments are fleeting, while the bad ones seem to linger.
That is what made Vegas so special and reassuring about the franchise’s rebirth.
Getting caught up in the Summer League is nothing new, however, this Las Vegas experience hit different. There was noticeable energy with the Knicks Summer League squad.
Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin carried that “Ali in Olympic Village” confidence. The rookies, eager to prove themselves, followed the sophomores’ lead to play to the standard they knew Thibodeau expected from them when the real games start.
The Knicks played a Vegas-high six games and finished 4-2. In all six games, there was a consistent edge to the team. It wasn’t so much the talent that had me glued to the screen as much as it was the familiarity with the Thibodeau Knicks I had grown to love over the last year.
One sequence, in particular, embodied the Thibodeau Knicks ethos, coming in the team’s third game. There were 26 seconds left in the first half. Deuce McBride picked Austin Reaves up from three-quarters court, staying in Reaves’ hip pocket like ‘09 Darrelle Revis.
McBride’s unrelenting defense forces Reaves to pick the ball up. Reaves kicked it back up top to Justin Robinson, who is met by a swarming Quentin Grimes. Robinson plays hot potato, swinging to Mac McClung who is forced inside the arc by a swarming Immanuel Quickley with Obi Toppin or Jericho Sims sitting back wishing McClung would try it. McClung opted to kick it back out Reaves who relocated beyond on the arc, McBride still attached to the hip. Reaves unsuccessfully tries to shake McBride before firing an airball for a 24-second violation.
Deuce McBride is a STELLAR defender WOW pic.twitter.com/HdDLUsS0gt
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) August 12, 2021
The whole sequence was art. And for Tom Thibodeau, who watched courtside, it was a vision realized.
“If you watch New York night in and night out, they don’t have great single defenders. Whatever their defensive game plan is, that shit is great. They play great defense as a team at all times. I love watching them play defense. I feel they’re the best defensive team in the league. They play hard. They take you out of your stuff and pressure you.”
That was Anthony Edwards describing exactly what you saw in that clip above, the expectation opposing players now have when they face the Knicks.
There were individual flashes too that triggered flashbacks. When Quentin Grimes went right at top pick Cade Cunningham or when Deuce McBride made it his mission to put Sharife Cooper in a straitjacket. It was in those moments you could clearly see these two played like Thibodeau guys, played like Knicks.
Grimes taking on the challenge of defending Cunningham felt eerily similar to Barrett taking on the challenge of defending Kawhi Leonard.
It was anticipated Thibodeau would attempt to “restore the feeling” at the Garden; bring the gritty, hardworking, defensive-minded demeanor of the Riley/Van Gundy teams back to New York. The front office supplied the head coach with a group of gym rats, and the head coach returned the favor by restoring a standard of Knicks basketball.
Blowouts have become rare occurrences. Defense is the heartbeat of the team. The best players put in as much work in the gym as the guy at the end of the bench.
The front office took important steps in building the roster out to match this rebrand, keeping the core together, and swapping out the bad parts for improvements, without sacrificing this rediscovered brand of basketball.
Veteran leaders and Thibodeau guys, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, were re-signed. Strong seasons from Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel were rewarded with multi-year deals. Randle, the team’s MVP on the floor, inked to a big extension, proclaiming he wants to spend his prime in New York.
The few additions that were made to the roster fit with this new Knick archetype.
Evan Fournier surely was not the big free-agent signing fans were clamoring for, and does not appear to be one of these guys on the surface. But Fournier played for Steve Clifford in Orlando, which means he kind of already played for Thibodeau already. Clifford was an assistant coach with Thibodeau in New York in the early 2000s, shares a similar vision on team-building, and said was said to be fond of Fournier.
“There’s nothing more important when you play 82 games than having a guy who you never have to worry whether he’s going to try hard,” Clifford said about Fournier. “It was a given with him. Played hurt, played really hurt, always ready to play, always into the game plan and badly wanted to win.”
The greatest ability is availability, and if you’re available, you can bet you are playing. Randle and Barrett learned this last year, finishing first and second in minutes played in the league last season. Kemba Walker—the surprise star signing, who coincidentally also played for Clifford—found out during his introductory press conference when asked if he would play back-to-backs.
Will Kemba Walker play in back-to-backs this year?
Tom Thibodeau, off camera: "He's playing" 🤣 pic.twitter.com/TxWZ7iZZS5
— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) August 17, 2021
Speaking of Kemba, his homecoming was perfect for so many reasons. His reputation as a hard worker figures to fit well with a group that stays in the gym 24/7. It also represents a stark shift in perception of the franchise. Walker, and to a lesser extent Fournier, wanted to play in New York, wanted to be a Knick.
There are still steps to be taken next season and beyond before the Knicks can be deemed “back,” but one unmistakable thing is that there is a renewed standard in New York. Tom Thibodeau and Leon Rose gave New York more than a fun season, they have given the team an identity it has sorely been searching for.
Finally, “Knicks basketball” means something again.