Concerning the Knicks, it's always better to try
Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks speaks with Julius Randle #30 during the game against the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden. Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t measure the Knicks with traditional metrics. Or you could, but you’d quickly become depressed. For the past 20 years, they’ve mostly been dismal, sometimes outrageously incompetent and at others treading water: with the eighth pick in the 20xx draft, the New York Knicks select. It’s fitting that they played their most entertaining ball with Amar’e Stoudemire before Carmelo Anthony showed up and with Melo while Amar’e was hurt. The Knicks are not about Putting It All Together, that’s more of a Lakers or Heat thing. You just want them to be interesting, whether that means they’re a train wreck under Isiah Thomas, bombing threes with Mike Woodson or pioneering a football-on-hardwood style while Pat Riley frowns in an expensive suit. When you find yourself straining to have something to say about Charlie Ward or Renaldo Balkman, that’s the pits. As things currently stand, the Knicks are above the Celtics and Heat in the Eastern Conference standings and Julius Randle is getting outskirts-of-the-MVP-vote buzz, and that’s all lovely, but more than anything it’s a joy that Knicks have an identity, that they are once again and finally worth talking about.

When I wrote my season preview for each team in December, I dreaded having to come up with something for the Knicks entry. What, I have to have an opinion on R.J. Barrett now? Ugh. I figured they might be the most boring team in the league, a past-his-sell-by date Tom Thibodeau trying to instill rugged defensive intensity in a bunch of dubiously invested CAA clients as the offense barely nosed over the 100-point mark every night. It turns out I was a little bit correct, but wrong in all the ways that matter. The offense is brutally slow yet not altogether terrible. The defense is excellent, world-class, up there with Thibodeau’s most tenacious Bulls teams. Crucially, everybody involved in the enterprise appears to care. These Knicks are not a great team. They are exploring the outer limits of what a not-great team can do when they play really hard every night. In the midst of a sleepy pandemic season, this counts for a lot, maybe more than it would in a normal year, but effort is an enduring quality. It’s always better to try. Basketball is in the end an entertainment, and the Knicks are very entertaining. 

Julius Randle didn’t make sense through his first six seasons. Too beefy to play on the wing, too short and defensively challenged to play center. A set of skills wanting for an application. Like, he could post up. He could shoot from midrange. He hardly ever passed. You could put him in the corner and he’d maybe knock down a triple or two but nobody was particularly worried about him. More Jabari Parker than Blake Griffin, he seemed destined to accumulate stats on lottery and fringe playoff squads, make exactly one All-Star team, and retire with a curiously short obit for somebody who averaged 17 and 7 over 12 seasons. Talented guy, but who cares?

Apparently he’s a star now. More than that: a winning player. Not a half-bad defensive cog, either. There’s no faint praise to give him anymore; he’s tearing opponents apart with his sharp passes and the expansive array of shots he can make. He’s simply one of the best forwards in the league and an emblem for the team’s nigh-universal improvement. Without significant help, Randle would be struggling to carry the Knicks toward a play-in seed, but there’s a wealth of Actual Dudes on the roster: R.J. Barrett coming along nicely as a No. 2 option, Nerlens Noel as a rim protector and screen-and-diver, Immanuel Quickley as a sort of swaggering J.R. Smith type, an ancient Taj Gibson providing 20 rock-solid minutes per night. (I do not care to talk about Derrick Rose, but he’s faring well enough.) 

This crew — perhaps besides Barrett, who is after all a young high lottery pick — reminds us that there are several players on every NBA roster who could go one way or another in a given season, depending on how they’re used and what the atmosphere around the team is like. (There’s a reason Jae Crowder vacillates between Valuable Role Player and How Does This Guy Keep Getting Minutes, and it doesn’t have much to do with Jae Crowder himself.) It’s much easier said than done, to give everybody just about the right amount of floor time and ask them to do only the things they’re suited for, but Knicks are doing it. “It’s a good group,” Tom Thibodeau told Kyrie Irving on the sidelines last month. This was water cooler small talk, but there’s no reason to believe he didn’t sincerely mean it, too. 

Were Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns really so disengaged in Minnesota? It certainly seems that way, given what Jimmy Butler and now Thibodeau have done elsewhere. Thibs is deep in his element. He’s got players who for one reason or another came into this year eager to be coached, and who know they’re not gifted enough to drift through the schedule. There is a fierce presentness about the Knicks, an attention to getting every little thing right, that we can safely attribute to Thibs, because his relentless fixation on the details of each possession is what has made him both a good coach and a boss who tends to wear people out over time. We’ll see where this squad is mentally a few seasons down the road, but in year one of the Thibs Takes Manhattan experiment, he’s been a perfect fit.

We are always, given the size of the town and the market forces at play, going to be talkin’ New York Knicks. It’s a fact of following the league. But when the Knicks are compelling, they are a singular pleasure to talk about, because they do in some ineffable way seem bigger than most — maybe even all — other franchises, and they have been so broadly bad for so many years that it’s easy to be happy for their many boisterous and beleaguered fans. This year belongs to them, at least until they get tossed from the playoffs and the title hunt comes into sharper focus, and given the shape of their success, the long and now-surging arcs of the characters involved, it is an achievement hard-won and richly deserved. They’ve triumphed over their own tedium and become great fun. That is not the most a team can do, but for the Knicks, when the mood strikes and Randle’s knocking on 40 points, it feels like everything.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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