Despite the Game 7 loss, the Knicks have built a culture that will be conducive to winning for years to come

This might be a first from me but I’m not here to bury the New York Knicks, but rather give them their flowers.

New York concluded an overachieving season, its first 50-win campaign in 11 years and a rise to the No. 2-seeded team without any of its opening-day starters on the court.

The hurt of a historic offensive performance from the Pacers, whose 67.1 percent shooting performance in Game 7 was the best in an NBA playoff game, was topped only by the physical pain that accompanied this run.

The Knicks won despite injuries all season. As the incline steepened, they pedaled and pedaled — until the wheels came off.

Once a fallen franchise, the Knicks did not always boast this competitive culture, which has become their defining personality trait. A feeling of “What if” has permeated up and down the organization with each tweak, twist, sprain and pull that crumbled their season.

“This team is special,” Brunson said. “In a way that I can’t really explain.”

The Knicks went 12-2 in the 14 games that immediately followed their midseason trade for Anunoby. Injuries to both Randle and Anunoby derailed the run. Randle never returned.

The January Knicks will be an internal topic heading into the offseason. This group looked like a contender when at full strength. But there is no guarantee the same crew will be back in 2024-25.

The first question of the summer is about the coach, the one who renovated the culture. Thibodeau is now entering the final season of his contract. The two sides will engage in extension negotiations this summer.

Whether an extension gets done or not, the Knicks have questions about the roster to mull.

Anunoby is a free agent, and while New York is the overwhelming favorite to re-sign him, the details remain a question. Does he come back for $35 million a year? Or might the average annual value approach $40 million? Or maybe more than that? There are not many more versatile defenders, ones who can start on point guards through centers. Only a few of the guys who fit that description also can deliver 15 to 18 points.

Isaiah Hartenstein is a free agent, too. His return is less guaranteed — even if he has insisted he would like to remain in New York.

Because of salary-cap eccentricities, the Knicks cannot offer Hartenstein more than $16.1 million in starting salary, and $1.8 million of that money must be in bonuses. But coming off his best season ever, a team could give him more than that.

The Knicks will push to re-sign Hartenstein, a dynamic defensive center who doubles as Brunson’s most trusted pick-and-roll outlet, but you never know how someone will react when presented with a life-changing amount of money.

There is one more element that will shape the team’s offseason, too: The never-ending chase for a second star.

The Knicks already employ their first in Brunson. But he needs a partner, another running mate to create shots when defenders swarm. Had Randle never gotten hurt, had a healthy roster propelled this group to the conference finals and given the Boston Celtics a fight, or even topped them, maybe this conversation would not exist.

Alas, in this world, the Knicks will pursue that faceless star using only the January heater, sporadic evidence and hypotheticals to decide their future.

Or maybe you lean into the narrative Becky Hammon pushed midseason that you can’t win with your best player being under 6’3. Maybe Brunson is actually the second star and you’re still searching for the 1, in the 1-2 punch.

The organization is still targeting the upcoming summer as the time to trade for the next big name.

Randle can become a free agent in 2025 and will be due for a raise then, as can Brunson, who is eligible for an extension this summer but could make more money by waiting until 2025 free agency to sign a new contract.

A year from now, the Knicks will become more expensive. Financially, and with the current collective bargaining agreement, this summer is the time for a star trade.

New York has loads of draft picks. It owns all of its first-rounders moving forward, has the Dallas Mavericks’ selection in this summer’s draft and three future, protected ones belonging to other teams. It has tradeable contracts. The encouraging part of this season wasn’t just that the Knicks won; it was that they won while their front office prepared them for 2025 and beyond as well as any other could have.

It’s not clear who that star will be. Even the Knicks do not know. They are counting on one universal truth: In the NBA, someone unexpected always becomes available.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George on an opt-in-and-trade, the Miami Heat breaking it down, Donovan Mitchell again, the Phoenix Suns retooling — whatever happens, the Knicks plan to inject themselves into the conversation. Of course, circumstances today are not the same as they were when they sought after Mitchell only a couple of summers ago.

Back then, the Knicks were a 37-win team looking for a first star. If the fit was not clean with Brunson, they would figure it out later. The objective was to bring talent in the door.

That’s not the case today.

The Knicks have talent. Brunson is an obvious star. He, Hart, Hartenstein, Robinson, Anunoby, Miles McBride, Donte DiVincenzo and even Randle are all better players than ever. Their culture oozes into every one of their actions. They want another top-level talent to place next to Brunson and maybe to add to Randle, too. But they also have found success in a particular type of personality, and in their hunt for the next big name, they must not forget that.

It’s no coincidence the Knicks are known most for their tryhard. Thibodeau demands it, but as the players will tell you, this is how they operate, independent of who leads their locker room. After gaffes with Cam Reddish and Evan Fournier, the front office realized that if Thibodeau was their head coach, then it must supply him with Thibodeau-minded players.

That does not change in the chase for a star, either.

The Knicks will search for the next great player, but they also will hope not to disrupt the culture that helped most of their roster to career years and encouraged the players to keep swinging, even as if they couldn’t feel their arms.

“I think (the future) is very bright,” Hart said. “I think there’s hope for what we’re building, and I think that’s the biggest thing. … I think we built a foundation of a franchise that’s gonna be fighting, a franchise that’s moving in the right direction. It’s tough to end it this way, but we’re going in the right direction. I think we’re giving this city and Knick fans something to hope for.”

Either way for the first time in forever the Knicks and its rabid fanbase can look to the offseason with hope and excitement. They finally have a core, a fun one to root for. Under Thibs and these Nova boys, they have an identity that isn’t being the clown act at the circus. The Garden, while just for a short two rounds, was back to being the Mecca of basketball.

The Knicks are a tough and gritty team that gives it their all for 48 minute and 82 games plus the playoffs. In a world of load management and uncompetitive sports, appreciate the Knicks.

As painful a loss Game 7 was, along with the what ifs that will plague the offseason, to my Knicks fans you’re no longer in the dark times, so enjoy it rather than sitting in the misery of what could have been.


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