Does 2023 Belong To The Knicks?

Jayson Buford analyzes why the New York Knicks' time could be now, due to their nine-man rotation, their head coach's belief in structure and their unified empathy and encouragement.
By    March 6, 2023

Image via New York Knicks/Instagram

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Jayson Buford once beat John Starks 1-on-1

Spike Lee sat into his chair – across from Stephen A. Smith and a foot away from Max Kellerman – for the ESPN morning show First Take. He was steaming mad, to the point where smoke should’ve burned a hole in his $30 beanie. The night before, March 2nd, 2020, Spike and the Knicks organization got into a good ‘ol fashioned New York verbal tussle. The director of some of America’s finest films had attempted to enter Madison Square Garden through the 33rd Street entrance, when a security guard allegedly wanted him to leave The Garden and re-enter. “I put my hands around my back and said “arrest me like you did my brother Charles Oakley,” said Spike, breathing histrionically.

“It’s Garden spin!” he shouted, leaning forward in his chair. In a show of exceptional theater, Spike brought the house down over the Knicks not letting him use an entrance. It’s one of the many great First Take scenes.

At that point, Spike was furious at Knicks owner James Dolan. (To love Spike is to often laugh at his antics. He acts like a short kid who doesn’t get picked for dodgeball come recess. Tarantino was right when he said, in relation to Spike not seeing Django Unchained, “that little guy has to buy a ticket!”). Becoming more self-righteous and defiant, Spike continued: “I love the Knicks. Those are my guys… It’s a shame. I look at the roof, and I see the banner that says 1972-1973 NBA Champions. That’s the last time they had a banner. Am I going to die before I see another championship?! My son is 24, is he going to see a championship?”

Spike Lee isn’t wrong. Many older Knicks fans justifiably react intensely to the antics of James Dolan. If there will be an afterlife for team owners, then James Dolan is definitely in Hell, arguing with Satan because Satan won’t let him perform his shitty music.

But this is not a piece about James Dolan and his nepotistic semi-criminality. He’s the worst of the human population – a stain on the ideas of empathy and honesty. But all owners deserve to be booed. After all, this is a basketball team. We can talk about hoops and the fact that the Knicks are currently fifth in the East with a 39-27 record. The COVID hangover season of 2020-2021, where the Knicks finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, might have sent shock waves throughout Manhattan, but they were short-lived. The Knicks went right back to banality. Julius Randle pouted. Evan Fournier was a broken defensive possession waiting to happen. You’d hear “same old Knicks” all around New York. They were 37-45, and it was not a fun 37-45. Fans yelled and booed. Thibs cursed in postgame press conferences.

Flash forward to now. The New York Knicks have won nine straight games, including most recently, a double-overtime victory in Boston. Julius Randle is having the best comeback since George Foreman, Jalen Brunson was already killing it in Dallas, but he’s become a revelation at MSG. The Knicks are back?

It took a while for the Knicks to catch their groove. Then last December, they went full minimalist. Thibs went with a nine-man rotation; benching Derrick Rose, Cam Reddish, and Evan Fournier. Since that move, the Knicks are 30-14 and in prime position to go deep in the playoffs. Even ESPN is saying good things about them. In an era where there is more parity than ever, and no one is the true face of the league anymore, this Knicks team fits well into the collective ecosystem. There are no “Light Years” Warriors teams; there are not even a “Big 3” Miami Heat team. The Knicks can do real damage. They play with obvious joy, exhibit empathy and encouragement to each other, and their team’s average age is just 24. This is a team with room for real growth.

We need to give credit to Tom Thibodeau. He’s been much maligned in the past for good reason. Even when he won Coach of the Year in his first season, he inexplicably played Elfrid Payton. Real Knicks fans – and not the corporate shills who dream of calling games on MSG Network alongside Clyde Frazier – know that we’ve been asking for Thibs to currently do the game management he is finally doing. Of course, benching Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose, starting Quentin Grimes, and adding five to ten minutes on Immanuel Quickley’s minutes total doesn’t mean we all knew the Knicks would be playing this well, but it sure as hell is working. Veterans and even the young cats with what the kids call “dogs” in them, swear by Thibs. Even when he was playing Luol Deng the most minutes in the league – so much so that he had to be hospitalized because of fatigue and receive a spinal tap, Thibs had players who would do anything for him. It’s not surprising that Joakim Noah once said: “Thibs is the coach I spent the most time with — workouts, hardest workouts of my life. And he … was always asking me, ‘Do you have your house in order?“And I didn’t know what that meant at the time. Now I understand what that means.”

He treats them like men. And men are what Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, and Immanuel Quickley are. Yes, Thibs is a brute, and possible maniac, who barely wanted to dap up Jalen Brunson after his 39-point onslaught against the Nets last Wednesday. But he is someone who has his teams prepared – hail, sleet, rain, snow, bricks by RJ Barrett — for every single game. He can be frustrating because he is slow at making adjustments that a fan with an average-IQ can point out. But it is because he believes in a code – in a structure. And players play for him. Besides Minnesota, his players rarely quit on him. If you want to work, you work with Thibs. And work you do with all the exertion possible. You don’t make sudden changes. You work hard every game and trust each other. With that, comes mental fortitude. The Knicks are always ready to play.

This year’s Knicks team is one that thrives on work ethic, but not in a corny way. They don’t dive for the ball down 20 points. There are players in the NBA who can’t last at the end of games because they have no ability to score. (See: Matisse Thybulle, or Elfrid Payton). The Knicks do not have that. A first round draft pick from 2020, Immanuel Quickley hustles, and with arms the size of Jay-Z’s money, can deflect any would-be assist in the air. He is at 36 percent from the triple, and when he is in the game, he is an immediate pest, and stat stuffer. The lineup that has Brunson, Quickley, and Josh Hart – is 60+ points better than the opposition in 97 minutes.

The free agent splash, Brunson, reminds me of the kind of player in pick up basketball who you can’t cover because he just knows the game better than you do. If Dr. Naismath made basketball based off of angles, then Jalen Brunson studied those, and refuses to give the answers out. (Do not edit that, Jeff. It’s not hyperbole). See, the move here at 0:28. It is subtle, but the step back is slow but done with gravity. Space is cleared, and Brunson has daylight to rise and hit it in your f*cking eye. You can do nothing but stare in amazement. Every pass he makes is the right pass, and he understands that teammates need to feel a part of the offensive flow even when they’re struggling. Sometimes when RJ Barrett is missing shots, Brunson will feed him the ball heading to the basket to get him into the flow of the game. The list of the reasons why the Knicks are on fire goes on.

In his fourth year with the Knicks, and the third as the the emotional leader of the team, Julius Randle is feeling better mentally, and is – yes, I know I sound like Woj – in better shape. The pass here at 0:25 is his best pass, possibly ever. It’s on a dime, and lightning quick with his off hand. The biggest difference in his game from last year to this year is he gets into his footwork and moves quicker. Gone is holding the ball like Carmelo. Now he understands that basketball is a game of motion. From Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers to the glitz and glamor of the NBA, everything works better when players get to their sets speedily and move with pace.

They’ve also added Josh Hart, in a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers for Cam Reddish. Hart is a classic conundrum. To see him is to see someone who you don’t want to play against, and even someone who will annoy you while being on your team. With his “I’m bringing NY back” mantra, it can sound like Eric Adams is writing a script for him. Except, genuinely speaking, he is the kind of a player that is involved in every big play. He dives for every ball, gets offensive rebounds that only Charles Barkley should get, and takes every open shot. If Thibs could create a basketball player, God would have handed him Josh Hart.

All of this is to say that the Knicks are a professional team after years of being dogmatically unprofessional. Leon Rose doesn’t talk to the press — and he should – but he does know how to evaluate talent. A working relationship with the press is an American right, and it leaves a pit in my stomach that even a team as beloved as the Knicks, can escape the necessity of that. Dolan is still an albatross looming over this team, always one childish tantrum away from becoming a distraction.

But they’ve stuck with Thibs, even after people wanted him out, a gamble that has paid off. It makes you think that loyalty and patience might occasionally be possible in the era of 24/7 basketball media and unruly fans on Twitter. Last week, I spoke to my dad, who is one of those fans that Spike was talking about — who hasn’t seen a championship since their childhood – a fan who complains that his son will never see a championship. I was worried, as I usually am. I texted: “Dad, I’m worried that Brunson won’t have any gas come postseason. But they’re playing great. Holy shit.” He was nonchalant but content. “Yes, like a real basketball team! Lol.” – Jayson Buford

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