The Knicks Are Finally Building the Right Way

The Knicks have played hard under coach Tom Thibodeau and finally look functional. Can they keep it up?
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I pitched a Knicks column to my editor on Friday, before the Zombie Thunder handed New York a 12-point loss and the Nuggets—in those hideous burnt orange jerseys—walked into Madison Square Garden and tattooed them by 25. I wanted to write about Immanuel Quickley before the rookie guard went 1-9 against Oklahoma City; I wanted to write about Tom Thibodeau before I saw Julius Randle playing his 38th minute with the Knicks down 20.

You know what? I still do.

Because while the Knicks are not as good as the 5-3 start teased, they are something better.

Functional.

The Knicks were battered by Charlotte on Monday, New York’s third consecutive double-digit defeat. Still—what do you see when you watch the Knicks? You see a solid young talent in Quickley, who New York plucked with the 25th pick. Obi Toppin, the eighth overall pick, has been heralded as a future starter, and he still may be. But while Toppin has battled injuries, Quickley has established himself as rotation player, impressing Knicks coaches with his point guard skills.

You see Mitchell Robinson, the long, hyperathletic 22-year old center who has emerged as a defensive anchor. Robinson was an elite shot blocker his first two seasons. But he lacked discipline. He was foul prone. Robinson is still swatting shots this season, but he’s also guarding the pick-and-roll more, fouling less and looking more like a Tyson Chandler-esque defender every game. Check out the on/off numbers—the Knicks are vastly better defensively when Robinson is on the floor.

New York Knicks forward Julius Randle dunks against the Jazz

You see Julius Randle, the burly, 26-year old forward and a bright spot in an anemic Knicks offense. Randle struggled against Charlotte—the heavy minutes he played the night before probably didn’t help—but he has been excellent this season, posting career highs in points (22.1), rebounds (11.2) and assists (6.9), while knocking down 35% of his three’s. Randle’s turnovers have shot up (4.4) but it’s a small price to pay for one of the few players who can engineer his own offense.

You know what you don’t see? Bad contracts. New York wisely kept its powder dry last offseason. There are no Joakim Noah or Tim Hardaway Jr.-like deals on the books. Randle has a partial guarantee for next season, when he is scheduled to make an affordable $19.8 million. Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., disappointing lottery picks, will be restricted free agents. Elfrid Payton is on a one-year deal. The Knicks could have burned cash on a veteran—they did make a run at Gordon Hayward—but that could have cost them future flexibility. Instead, they left the roster alone—and were willing to live with the results.

You don’t see dysfunction. I admit—I was skeptical of the Knicks decision to bring on Leon Rose, the ex-agent turned executive hired last March to run basketball operations. The Knicks have a bizarre history of plugging unqualified people into top front office positions (Isaiah Thomas, Phil Jackson, Steve Mills) and this seemed like more of the same.

But Rose has been different. He has fleshed out his staff with top basketball people. He brought in Walt Perrin, a key figure in Utah’s drafting machine for nearly two decades, to run the scouting side of the front office. He hired Frank Zanin, a former assistant GM in Brooklyn, to run pro personnel. An organization once operated largely by loyalists now is one loaded with deep institutional knowledge.

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to his players

That includes Thibodeau. Thibodeau has his quirks—Randle and RJ Barrett are among the top-five in minutes played; a natural disaster may be the only event that could get Thibs to take either off the floor before the midway point of the fourth quarter—but the man can coach. The Knicks have played hard all season, and have probably been able to steal a couple of wins because of it. Rival coaches have praised New York’s defensive schemes. The offense remains fairly vanilla. The Knicks rank dead last in three-point attempts, one of three teams averaging fewer than 30. But that happens when you don’t have a lot of players who can shoot them.

Thibodeau’s job isn’t to win a championship, not this season anyway. It’s to develop young talent. Thibs has a reputation for preferring veteran players (Welcome back Taj Gibson, by the way) making it easy to forget that Derrick Rose was the NBA’s youngest MVP on Thibodeau’s watch and Karl-Anthony Towns claimed an All-Star spot with Thibs on a Timberwolves team that appeared headed in the right direction before L’Affaire Jimmy Butler unraveled it.

Thibodeau can unlock talent, and he’s got some pieces in New York. He’s got Barrett, a slashing scorer who needs to become an efficient shooter. He’s got Kevin Knox, another ex-lottery pick who has had an uneven first two seasons. He’s got Robinson, a free agent next summer. He’s got Toppin and Quickley, two pieces who look to be part of the Knicks long term core.

Look: Knicks brass wasn’t swooning over the fast start. They know there is a talent gap between them and the better teams in the NBA. They haven’t been tempted to deal away draft picks for players who might help them squeeze into the playoffs. A spot in the end of season play-in tournament is likely the ceiling for this team, and they know it.

But the Knicks are in a good place.

They are building the right way with the right people.

When was the last time New York could say that?