How the Knicks Went from Jokes to NBA Finals Contenders (Yes, Really)

<span><een klas=Jalen Brunson of the Knicks leads a fast break flanked by two New York teammates during a November game at Madison Square Garden.Photo: Jesse D Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ b45eaa7bfb71″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 45eaa7bfb71″/>

It’s spring in New York City: the snow has thawed, the hot dog vendors are wearing short sleeves. Hope begins to permeate the city, as it does every year around this time, when the tulip bulbs in Central Park begin to sprout again. The sun is shining, the NBA playoffs are just around the corner, and New York Knicks fans are ready to get hurt again.

“Aggressively optimistic” would be a good characterization of these particular fans, who have historically seen significantly more bad than good basketball from their team. As dark as things have become for Knicks fans over the years, as bleak as the prospects are under widely despised team owner James Dolan, they have remained loyal to their franchise. But this year feels different, despite the recent injury woes, and the infectious hope for what’s to come for the team is ultimately far from deceptive.

Admittedly, it’s a bit unsexy to describe what allowed the once almost universally derided Knicks organization to go from laughingstock to legitimate playoff threat as an “alchemy” of factors, but that’s what happened. The most notable change, of course, occurred in New York when Jalen Brunson emerged from under the 6-foot shadow of Luka Dončić in Dallas and was reborn as an All-Star under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. He posted back-to-back 40-point games this month, the first Knick to do so since Carmelo Anthony in 2014, and is rocketing up the ranks of local fans’ most beloved players faster than a New York minute. But a lot had to be done to undo the “unserious” label that bedevils a franchise that has managed just two playoff series victories in the last two decades.

The first positive change came in 2020, with the appointment of NBA player agent Leon Rose as the team’s general manager. The decision was controversial because Rose, the former co-head of CAA’s basketball operations, had no significant experience in the NBA front office. But he had solid relationships with some big names, a result of his years of tenure on the agency side of the business. And if there was one thing the Knicks desperately needed, it was talent. They had experienced big swings several times over the past decade, most recently during the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the previous offseason. In his still relatively short tenure with the team, Rose has successfully managed to bring a significant amount of talent into the building, either via free will (such as acquiring Brunson, or his fellow Villanova alum, three-pointer Donte DiVincenzo) or through trade (another friend of Brunson Villanova in Josh Hart and former Toronto Raptor OG Anunoby, both gorgeous Knicks), without giving up many valuable assets. New York still has a war chest of first-round picks that they can use to add another star this season, if they so choose.

Upon his hiring, Rose wrote a letter to the Knicks faithful, asking for “continued patience” and emphasizing that “there is nothing easy or quick about this.” While it hasn’t necessarily been easy, the process has been faster than many predicted. Four years removed, almost to the day, from Rose’s hiring, the Knicks are 43-28, marking their first consecutive 40-win seasons since 1999-2000 and 2000-01, with eleven games remaining. They have made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. And barring catastrophe, as they are on course for number 4, that will soon be three out of four.

One of the team’s strongest points is their clear identity, which rests on the fulcrum of a tough, hard-hitting defense. While Rose’s on-field personnel management certainly deserves credit, one of his first moves, hiring Tom Thibodeau a few months into his tenure as General Manager, seemed like a genius move.

Thibodeau is a veteran head coach who is generally well respected within the league, although his reluctance to rest his star players, and the injuries they may have suffered as a result, have earned him mixed reviews over the years. But it becomes clear that he was the perfect man to tap for this particular gig: a defensive savant who helps the Knicks return to their roots as a tough, gritty team that may not play a particularly fancy brand of basketball, but certainly does. is. It’s an opponent anyone would love to spar with over a seven-match series.

The Guardian spoke with Chris Herring, who literally wrote the book on the Knicks, about the team’s remarkable turnaround and what Thibodeau has to offer them. “He’s done, I think, as good a job, if not better, than what could really be expected of him when he was hired,” Herring said. “They’re actually knocking on the ‘competitive’ door now, and to be at that level, to insert yourself into that conversation and have it be what seems like a potentially eternal thing, is a huge step forward from where they goods. ”

Clearly, the right staff and chemistry are critical to team success, regardless of who is in charge. But Rose and Thibodeau deserve credit here, too, as they are clearly adept at the art of both detecting who would be a good fit for the team and convincing those players to buy in once they arrive. The atmosphere in the Knicks locker room is certainly good this season, especially as some of their injured players begin to regain their health and make their way back to the court.

And they’ve been smart about moving their belongings, too. While the likes of Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett were homegrown favorites, Rose and Co were judicious about when to move, and getting back a defensive powerhouse like Anunoby in return was a net win.

Although the Knicks reached the Eastern Conference semifinals last season — marking only their second playoff series win in 23 years — and have been on an upward trend since Rose’s arrival, the hope in the airwaves this season is remarkable and clearly. “There’s clearly something different [this year]. There is a camaraderie around this team that feels very different,” Herring said. “When the Knicks are on these winning streaks, when they look like, ‘Man, they could really accomplish something,’ the Garden just screams a little bit different.”

Injury issues, or the lack thereof, will go a long way in shaping the outcome of New York’s season. And all roads from the east probably still go through Boston, Milwaukee, Miami or some combination thereof. But what’s unique about this Knicks team, and their now perhaps shockingly competent top brass, is that this feels far from their only chance. For once, their success feels stable and sustainable. They create something that is built to last. So whether it is this year or next year, eternal hope arises in the Garden. And for once it is not without reason.

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