Recapping several of the more unpredictable happenings that produced what was one of the most surprising seasons in the history of the New York Knicks.
Before the 72-game COVID-shortened season began, Vegas was not kind to the New York Knicks. Listing their over/under for wins at 22.5, oddsmakers believed that the Knicks would once again be sitting in Secaucus, New Jersey, waiting to see if Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum and the ping-pong balls would bless them with another top pick.
Instead of proving Vegas right, New York went the other way, winning 41 games and earning the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Miraculously, they had home court in their first playoff appearance since 2013, where they lost to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. With their winning season, the Knicks gave New Yorkers something to get excited about after not only a year of disease and isolation but countless seasons of disappointment prior.
When the season began, optimistic predictions centered around New York’s youth. After a decent rookie season, R.J. Barrett was supposed to take a substantial leap in year two. Obi Toppin, the eighth overall pick by New York, was supposed to be on a Rookie of the Year campaign, and hey, maybe Immanuel Quickley is proving draft analysts wrong. In the end, two out of three came to fruition—yet even the most far-fetched estimations had the Knicks around the play-in tournament.
Instead, the season we saw instead was utterly unbelievable.
Julius Randle: The League’s Most Improved Player
To say Julius Randle’s first season was a disappointment was an understatement. Randle struggled to put the ball in the basket efficiently, and his outside shot failed him. As New York lost game after game after game, Randle would be the one to receive the brunt of the blame. After New York’s season ended early when the NBA declined to invite the Knicks to the bubble, Randle spent his isolated offseason in his native Dallas with longtime trainer Tyler Relph, “We went back to what we used to do,” Relph said, per the New York Post. Footwork, stuff to make sure he got to spots fast. Over and over. Every day.”
When the 2020–21 season started, Randle looked like a totally different player. Shots that clanked off the rim in previous years swished through smoothly. Instead of holding the ball, Randle began to make quicker decisions. He was kicking the ball out to open teammates on drives—he averaged six assists per game after averaging 3.1 the two years prior. He was taking more threes and making more than twice as many as he ever had before.
It seemed unsustainable, even up through his All-Star selection; every fading baseline jumper or frenzied drive to the rim felt like it would be the end. That it was too good to be true, and Randle’s regression was bound to happen. But the floor didn’t fall out—at least not until the Atlanta Hawks threw everything at him in the first round—Randle averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists on shooting splits of .456/.411/.811.
In his seventh season, the 26-year-old forward, taken seventh overall in 2014, was named second-team All-NBA. Julius Randle’s improvement was unbelievable.
Tom Thibodeau: The Coach of the Year
Many Knicks fans begged for the Knicks to hire Tom Thibodeau following his exit from the Chicago Bulls. However, after his stint as head coach and President of Basketball Operations with the Minnesota Timberwolves, there was far less enthusiasm when the Knicks made Thibodeau head coach last July.
Thibs brought his brand of basketball to a franchise that couldn’t build any semblance of identity since Carmelo Anthony was traded in 2017. With team president Leon Rose and the new front office administration, Thibs righted the rudderless franchise after seasons of deterioration under the inattentive eyes of David Fizdale, Jeff Hornacek, and Kurt Rambis, to name a few. A new sense of urgency and level of effort was evident from the season’s outset, particularly on the defensive end.
Credit to the players for buying in, especially because Thibodeau’s system is expressly antithetical to some of the main tenets of the modern NBA; the Knicks played at the slowest pace in the league, and they attempted the fourth-fewest threes in the league. Look across the bridge, and at the same time, the Nets had 140-point games, pushing the pace and launching at will. It takes a real coach to zig when the whole league is zagging, convince a team to buy in and correct.
New York had the second-best shooting percentage from deep as a team, trailing only the Clippers, per NBA Stats. Randle led the league in minutes played. Barrett played more minutes per game than Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and Devin Booker, yet managed to stay healthy, likely in part due to the slower pace. Though far from perfect, Thibs shattered expectations leading the Knicks through an unbelievable Cinderella season.
R.J. Barrett silenced the critics
Drafted into the largest media market in the world to a team that won 17 games the year before, and not being Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett was in a no-win situation. Disappointed by the draft lottery and spurned by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Barrett was scapegoated. He absurdly labeled a bust at 19 years old by some analysts and lots of online loudmouths.
Barrett’s struggles shooting—both from the line and deep—was his most blatant weakness. He has left off both All-Rookie teams, and it bothered him, “It bothered me a lot,” Barrett said in December. “I really don’t understand why I wasn’t on it. But it was motivation—motivation for next season. It was good to have an extra chip on my shoulder and prove myself even more.”
With his trainer, Drew Hanlen, Barrett set out to rework his shot. On the “Court Vision” podcast with Jameer Nelson and Ben Stinar, Hanlen explained the three main changes they made, “The first one is posture: he was very upright, had no legs, and no fluidity… [Next] is his pocket. His pocket was moved in. A lot of coaches like an elbow in. The problem is when you have lefties, a lot of lefties don’t shoot with a good vision; you want a good vision triangle to see the rim with two eyes… so we moved his elbow out… And the third thing was he bunched up his hand on his follow-through a lot… We are just working on a clean, straight snap every single time, keeping his hand spread, so there’s more rotation on the ball and backspin.”
And it worked. Despite quite a discouraging December where the former Duke swingman made three of 24 three-point attempts, Barrett finished the season with 40.1% from deep and 74.6% from the line on 4.3 attempts and 3.8 attempts per game, respectively.
Not even the most optimistic Knicks fans could have hoped for this sort of leap. Barrett made strides as a secondary facilitator, and with his frame and Thibs’ tutelage, he’s on his way to being a nightmare on the defensive end. Barrett also showed the ability to make defenders pay for sagging off him at the arc or for sending him to the line; even in a best-case scenario, he’d end facing the same issues that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons face right now. Barrett seemingly solved the most glaring weakness in his sophomore season.
The Derrick Rose Trade
Reunited, and it felt so good.
Rose has played for Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota, so in February, with Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round pick, Rose and the Knicks front office reunited Rose and Thibodeau in New York. At 32 years old, a decade after becoming the NBA’s youngest MVP, Rose led the Knicks in points (19.4 per game), assists (five per game), and three-point percentage (47.1%) during their playoff series loss to Atlanta while playing 35 minutes per game.
Rose didn’t exactly endear himself to New York in his first stint with the Knicks in 2016–17, and some were concerned that trading for him would mean fewer minutes for Quickley—whose limitless range made for often-needed instant offense—while others hoped that it would spell the end of Thibs starting Elfrid Payton. Neither happened, as the Knicks found success in balancing three point guards.
Rose starting clearly took some of the scoring punch out of the Knicks bench unit, but starting Payton and forcing the bench to help dig the team out of a hole was never the answer. So while in the end, while Rose did spell the end of Payton’s tenure as starting point guard, perhaps the most unbelievable part of this season was that it took until the second game of the playoffs for Thibs to bench him.
Whether Rose, a free agent, is back next season is still up in the air. Nevertheless, Knicks fans will always remember his herculean effort as nothing short of unbelievable.
After so many years of utterly awful basketball, it’s important to appreciate all the fantastic surprises this season brought. The Knicks are in a great place as an organization, they have a bona fide coach, some talented young players, and a surplus of cap space and draft picks. Yet the underlying foundation may not be so sturdy, it was a magical season, but you should never get too comfortable.
Could the Knicks find a way to squander it all this away? You better believe it. For now, the 2020–21 Knicks remain unbelievable and unforgettable.