I am only a couple of words in, and already firmly aware that I may be in the process of casting an enormous jinx upon my favorite basketball team.
But persevere I must.
Because it’s March already. We’ve reached the NBA All Star break. Nearly forty basketball games played. And my New York Knicks are above .500 and occupy the fifth seed (FIVE!) in the Eastern Conference and would qualify as a playoff team were the NBA Playoffs to begin today.
We (yes, to further the hex I brew, I am breaking out a whole lot of “we’s” today) finally have an honest to goodness coach; one that preaches defense and fundamentals. And we actually have young talent on the roster that is exciting and fun to watch. Hell, we even have an All Star!
And perhaps most importantly, since it is the Knicks we speak of, let’s not lose sight of what we haven’t done.
We haven’t traded our young talent and/or draft picks for a short-term fix like Victor Oladipo or Andre Drummond. We aren’t sniffing around Blake Griffin. We passed on Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden when they were available.
To put it in terms the lifelong diehards can appreciate — we haven’t signed Spencer Haywood, Jim McMillian or Marvin Webster. We haven’t traded for Bob McAdoo, Eddy Curry, Carmelo Anthony, or (gasp) Stephon Marbury.
Last we checked Isiah Thomas was no longer allowed anywhere near the World’s Most Famous Arena. And neither is Big Chief Triangle.
So is the coast clear? Not so fast…
Before declaring a new day has dawned for us long-suffering Knicks fans (last title back in 1973 — I was in second grade for crying out loud), let’s take a look at both sides of this tantalizing coin.
Since it’s the Knicks we are discussing, we’ll begin with the half-empty point of view.
For starters, only a year ago our All Star and best player, Julius Randle, was being roundly booed and ridiculed as a lazy, ball-stopper by the Garden faithful. Randle was the poster child for another last place team, as we slogged through the latest in our interminable string of dreadful, losing seasons.
Our most recent lottery pick, Obi Toppin, is a much bigger project than any of us anticipated on draft night, and other than the occasional fast-break dunk has brought little to the team’s success so far this year. Nor should that surprise, since we seem to be collecting failed lottery picks at the end of our bench, and have for quite some time.
Despite a few surprising wins over top teams, much of the Knicks fast start can be attributed to feasting on the sub-.500 teams around the league. Can we expect that to continue during the season’s second half, or will the law of averages catch up to us?
Will the Knicks be able to handle a full season of Tom Thibodeau’s intensity and heavy workloads? Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, easily the Knicks’ “Big Two” and most important budding stars, are both among the league leaders in minutes played. We’ve already experienced injuries to starting center Mitchell Robinson and starting point guard Elfrid Payton. While their injuries were not necessarily caused by overuse, losing either Randle or Barrett during the second half would be devastating to any playoff aspirations.
Lastly, James Dolan still owns this team, and we are still the Knicks, two realities that would point to a hole in this franchise so deep that one mildly successful half of a shortened season is unlikely to have filled.
However, there is a half-full view of the New York Knicks that can’t be ignored.
Let’s start with Coach Thibs and our revamped front office. We must give credit where it is due and throw out a hearty “thank you” to top basketball man Leon Rose. His hiring of Tom Thibodeau immediately brought an air of professionalism to what has been nothing short of hoops amateur hour for the past several seasons at MSG. Rose and his sidekick William Wesley (who happens to own one of the great nicknames in the NBA today — Worldwide Wes) have taken several early and necessary steps to rid the Knicks of their stigma as the NBA’s version of Siberia.
In short order, Thibodeau has created an esprit de corps among his youthful charges not seen at The Garden in years, and his defense-first approach and intolerance for selfish play harkens back to the days of Red Holzman. Crank up the MSG organ and get the chants of Dee-fense reverberating off the hardwood floor again. Even with only a couple thousand or so fans in the seats, the positive energy is palpable.
Randle’s story of redemption via hard work and introspection following that difficult first year in New York is a good one, and the type that the hoops-mad New York fans can rally behind. Matching him with the athletic and fast-developing Barrett appears to give us a nucleus around which a winner can be built.
And we have the means to do that, with a deep collection of draft picks over the next couple of years, combined with ample salary cap space. Now it’s on Rose and Worldwide Wes to provide Thibs the pieces needed to pursue long-term excellence while avoiding the big, foolish bets (as much a part of Knicks history as the Willis Reed game in the 1970 Finals) that could cripple our optimism just as we are starting to work up a head of steam.
Rookie Immanuel Quickley looks like an amazing find late in the first-round (a staple of championship organizations is delivering on draft picks outside the lottery — Draymond Green anyone?), and Robinson (like Green, a second-rounder) appears to be a long-term, core piece with an incredibly high ceiling.
Yes, we still have our painful reminders of lottery failures past, but Frank Ntilikina could still learn to contribute with his defense, length and energy on the second unit, and Kevin Knox seems to have somehow maintained trade value around the league. So when Leon and Wes scan the league for trade-deadline opportunities maybe Knox brings us back some value that contributes to a playoff series victory in the spring.
If this were one of those T-charts we draw up on a legal pad, it feels like the “Pros” vastly outweigh the “Cons.” So let’s examine a few “what if” scenarios:
*What if Rose and Wes approach the Rockets before the trade deadline, and rather than making a foolish swap of picks for Oladipo, instead make a run at P.J. Tucker? Could Knox and a second-rounder get that done? A three-and-D guy would fill our biggest hole — shaky outside shooting — that will prove problematic in a short series if left unaddressed. Meanwhile, adding Tucker would also shore up Thibs rotation with a veteran who understands team defense and has a history of winning.
*What if Mitchell Robinson returns as expected at the end of March and picks up where he left off, combining with Nerlens Noel to provide 48 minutes of shot-blocking energy in the pivot?
*What if the Knicks somehow cobble together enough wins to hang onto the five-seed? If the season ended today, we’d be taking on the Celtics in Round One. Think about how much fun that would be for a minute. The Celts are vulnerable this year, and the young, well-coached (am I really describing the Knicks as “well-coached?” Glory be…) Knickerbockers would come into that series with absolutely nothing to lose. There is nothing more dangerous than an athletic, young, up and coming underdog playing with house money come playoff time. Add 5000-10,000 success-starved, hoops lunatics in the stands for the New York home games (are you listening, Governor Cuomo?), and the recipe is there for a first round upset.
*Which could set us up for a conference semifinal against… you guessed it, the Brooklyn Nets. Talk about headline fodder for the New York tabloids, as KD, Kyrie and The Beard take on the Big Apple’s favorite sons. And let’s take this scenario one step further, and say, just for fun, that Thibs whips his young lions into such a frenzy that they go into Barclays Center and steal Game 1, a la Pat Riley and the Knicks of the early-’90’s. Okay, I’m drooling a little…
Sure, a lot has to happen in this season’s second half for these dreams to come true. But for the first time in a very long time, we Knicks fans can dare to dream about such scenarios.
And that’s really all we’ve been asking for since Jeff Van Gundy was last seen roaming our sidelines a couple of decades ago in one of those awful, rumpled suits of his.
Yeah, I know, we are probably a year (or two) away still. But the hope is real and the arrow is pointing up, folks. And we are going on record here at SportsAttic as saying that no hex, jinx, whammy or Starbury can undo the progress being made before our very eyes in 2021.