What if I told you that the New York Knicks have a winning record after 35 games for just the third time in the past 20 years?
Would you believe it? Or think the statistic is too dramatic to actually be true?
Unfortunately for the Knicks, it does sum up the franchise in the past two decades, when winning seasons have been blips before the status quo set in again.
Enter the 2020-21 New York Knicks. They’ve vibrant, fun, scrappy, tough, overachievers. They give off real New York vibes and that makes it the perfect pairing between team and fanbase. Knicks fans favorite teams to root for are the underdogs despite the many resources inherent to New York because of — well, see the previous paragraph.
The Knicks are fun, and they are good. And that is important for a franchise that has not had this sort of sensation in quite some time.
Tom Thibodeau, who would garner coach of the year votes this year for the way he has pulled the strings to make this team go, has seen Madison Square Garden at its best so he understands the franchise and the fanbase.
“It’s a proud organization — I was here during the ’90s — but that has nothing to do with today,” he said. “Just like I don’t want us looking ahead, I don’t want us looking behind and what happened in the past. It’s important to know the history of the organization, that part is important, but our focus has to be exactly on what’s in front of us and that’s each day, each game, each practice. Be ready to keep improving. We got a young team. We have a team that can grow.”
This is to be expected of a man who lives in the moment, whose reaction to prosperity is to go back to practice and to watch more film. He knows that while the Knicks are a feel good story, they are lightyears away from being back to the days of being title contenders like they were in the 90’s.
But sometimes it is alright to lose yourself in the bigger picture and appreciate what these Knicks have become. They are, at this moment, a playoff team. They have a bona fide All-Star. There is a building-block rookie and another – a lottery pick, no less – who could become one, too. Their lottery pick from the year before has begun his second season on an upward climb that calls for optimism.
Finally, the Knicks are trending right.
This has been a long time in the making. Through a handful of executives and even more head coaches. Through spoiled first-round picks and through homegrown All-Stars lost on their own accord. The Knicks were so bad that they became a meme; no more jokes necessary.
This doesn’t change in 35 games, but it does make the start to this season resonate. Not only for the franchise but to the fans who flip out on Twitter with every Immanuel Quickley floater or RJ Barrett dunk and to the ones who go wild outside Madison Square Garden after a win over the Pacers. Every year is its own book in the anthology, and it’s worthwhile to appreciate when the good books drop.
These current Knicks are a real throw back team. They do it with the second-best defense in the NBA with majority of their offense coming from their lone all-star Julius Randle. It is a real sight to behold.
It is no longer a surprise when Randle scores 25 points and adds eight rebounds and six assists, and all with efficiency. Gone are the days of him being an unpolished, clumsy, one trick pony he was in Los Angeles, out shined by aging Kobe Bryant and flashier youngsters in Brandon Ingram and Jordan Clarkson.
He isn’t even the player he was a year ago with the Knicks. He turned himself into one of the conference’s best players in nine months and came back from the offseason as the embodiment of the Thibodeau way. His teammates recognize the growth from their all star leader.
“I remember playing against him last year and years before,” Nerlens Noel said, “and right now, it’s just a different confidence. It’s All-Star, simply put. He shoots the ball with ultra confidence. Tonight he was in his bag with the mid-range. I think that’s taken a real step forward to be the leader of this team.”
Randle is the constant for the Knicks, and every night it is someone else at his side as a crucial aide. It may be Derrick Rose, who had 14 points and five assists against his former team as he leans into a starting role that makes life easier on Randle. On some nights it is Quickley, who attacks the floor with cunning, weaponizing the referees against his foes, and with a quick-trigger jumper. On any night he can give the Knicks life with both.
Barrett deserves recognition, too. He has rebounded from a difficult start and began ti show some more consistency on the offensive end. His shooting, long a concern, has improved. Barrett is shooting 40 percent on 3s since the start of 2021, a 30-game stretch.
There are still bad nights, and his playing time has diminished with the trade for Rose and the return to health for Alec Burks. But when Barrett gets heavy minutes, it is because he has earned them, playing better than his competition on the depth chart.
“I’m not really surprised where we’re at as a team,” Randle said late Sunday night.
Perhaps, but everyone else is. The Knicks have outplayed expectations in every way. The annual lottery fodder has a better record than the Heat, Celtics and the Raptors. The team long mocked for their lack of spacing and shooting is — get ready for this — 11th in the NBA in 3-point percentage.
I could throw statistics that will overwhelm most of you to showcase how the Knicks have improved since a year ago but it is unnecessary. Sometimes the evidence is on the court, and that’s all you need. And with a naked eye you can see the Knicks growth with simple effort, chemistry and confidence.
But like all teams who overachieve, this has the potential to all fall apart by years end. All of this energy and feel good talk could all disappear.
Randle’s jumper could go ice cold. The defense could get worse, and even a few small steps back might not be enough to withstand the margin of error it has built up to keep winning games with a lack luster offense.
This grueling, quixotic season could take its toll, with fatigue or injuries or anything else that could occur when a league decides to cram 72 games into five months amidst a pandemic.
Anything is possible, and for so long that open-ended future has lent itself to demoralizing the Knicks in so many ways. This scrappy Knicks team could simply fall back to the law of averages and sit 12th in the Conference as early as a weeks time.
This season, however, has the feel of something different. It is a simple analysis on their play on the court and vibrance they are giving off.
The Knicks are 18-17, and for the third time in the past 20 years, they have a winning record after 35 games. I think they at least deserve a light small clap.