After blowing out the Warriors Thursday night, the Knicks are 8-8. It is the latest in the season they have been .500 since December 30, 2017, when they were 18-18 (and they were 17-14 after 31 games that season, too). Fans should be thrilled with the team playing this high above expectations, and both Tom Thibodeau and his players should be proud they are where they are.
Yet, for some reason, I hesitate. Maybe it is the deep scars of Knicks fandom the last 20 years that are not so easily cleansed? The Knicks did finish the 2017-2018 season going 11-35, and ended the year with 53 losses. Am I just afraid to have the carpet pulled out from underneath me yet another time?
Or maybe it is my prior assumptions from before the season that are holding me back? I believed this team needed one more bad season to get a high enough draft pick to secure a great player in a loaded draft, and give them the foundational superstar they needed to begin to organically build towards playoff contention and eventually more than that. Part of me still believes that.
Maybe all of that is why I’ve tried to find reasons not to believe?
The Knicks’ defense should not be as good as it is based on the shots they are allowing. Yet, somehow, they lead the league in FG%, 3PT%, and points allowed, and they rank third in points allowed per possession, which is the best indicator available. What if they have figured their way around the analytics? What if it’s real?
Heading into this season, the book was supposed to have been written on Julius Randle. He was a selfish player that went stat-hunting every night and didn’t play a lick of defense. Despite obvious passing ability, he had little interest in involving his teammates and instead bullied his way to the basket, which led to turnovers and bad decisions.
This year, Julius Randle is 18th in the NBA in assists per game. He is showing genuine effort on defense. The Knicks are running their offense through him, and he is making good decisions that are setting up open shots for his teammates. He looks like a completely different player. What if Randle is a real building block on a reasonable contract that will be a big part of long-term contention?
After an inefficient rookie year, RJ Barrett’s start to this season was alarming. Even now, his compiled shooting stats (.408/.235/.753) leave a lot to be desired. He still lacks that explosive fist step or leaping ability that limits his ability to create space offensively and finish efficiently at the rim.
Yet, in his last five games, he is shooting .514/.389/.867 and averaging 22 points per game. He has begun to show the craftiness in the paint and at the rim that will allow him to be more efficient finishing at the basket. He is not going to win with straight line drives, but he can be more successful using hesitation moves and creative footwork to create more space. He is doing more of that.
Barrett’s improved free throw shooting shows the jump shot is progressing. It is showing up in his mid-range game, and perhaps one day it can extend to the three-point line. If Barrett can make his jumper a high-level weapon, it could open up his whole game and give him All-Star potential.
The best news for Barrett is that he is constantly improving on everything that does not involve scoring. He is a good rebounder, passer, and defender, and that raises his floor to the point that he can be a useful player even if the shooting never comes around. But if it does, could he become a player like Jimmy Butler, who can be a main cog on a championship team? What if he is one of those building blocks?
When he was drafted out of Kentucky, Immanuel Quickley was evaluated as more of a combo-guard that could shoot, defend, and draw fouls. He has shown long-term potential to be a starting-caliber point guard for the Knicks. What if he can become an All-Star level player, or close to it at the position?
Mitchell Robinson has progressed as a defender this year to the point there should be serious consideration for him to be selected to one of the All-Defense teams (though Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, and Bam Adebayo make that very difficult). He is fouling less often, rebounding more often, and staying on the floor despite contesting as many shots at the rim as anyone in the league. What if he is going to become a true defensive anchor that competes for Defensive Player of the Year honors?
The Knicks might have four members of their long-term starting lineup already on the roster. If they can simply add a high-level wing shooter, they might have a high-level starting five with the chance to become something special sooner rather than later. I didn’t even mention Obi Toppin, the lottery pick who has flashed the athleticism and shooting touch of a strong offensive player. I also didn’t mention Kevin Knox, who is shooting over 40 percent from behind the three-point line.
Maybe the common evaluation of the roster before the season was wrong? Perhaps it was the lack of a high-level coach and competent player development program that was holding the team back, and not the raw talent on the roster?
Or maybe it’s just 16 games, and the same thing will happen to this Knicks team that has happened to most of their teams over the last 20 years. Maybe the flaws of their young players will ultimately outweigh the positives. This is the feeling I cannot get out of my gut, or my brain. I have seen it too many times to let it go. The Knicks have programmed me to be a realist, or what some others may call a pessimist.
But maybe, just maybe, this year is different. Maybe, just maybe, the young players are finally hitting their stride and ready to compete. Maybe Tom Thibodeau is the coach to put it all together. Maybe they didn’t need one more year of struggling and a high draft pick to put the core of the team together. Maybe the time is now for the Knicks to grow organically enough to compete for a playoff spot for an entire season.
Or maybe not. I have both my feet in the orange and blue pool. My phone is out of my pocket. I’m close to jumping in. The pool is as crowded as I’ve seen it in years. I’m just not quite there yet, but I wouldn’t blame you if you were neck deep and basking in competent Knicks basketball for the first time in years.
Follow John Schmeelk on Twitter: @Schmeelk