How the New York Knicks became the feel good story of the 2021 NBA season

Julius Randle vs Luka Doncic
Julius Randle has led the Knicks to their best season in years. Photo from Sports Illustrated.

There is a hint of irony that in a salary-capped league, we hold each franchise to a different standard. Some we expect to be in the championship picture, others vie for the playoffs, whilst a few teams are synonymous with the league’s basement. Moving into an upward threshold is mark of progress for teams, a tip of the cap to a well-run organisation. The New York Knicks’ progress from basement dwellers to legitimate playoff contenders has everyone’s attention in the Big Apple.

New York Knicks stats 2021: Feel-good story

Knicks fans have been burned too many times by this franchise. From Phil Jackson’s abysmal spell as executive, to the PR blunders in recent years involving Charles Oakley, and Spike Lee, an infamous spotlight reigns on New York’s premiere team.

Knicks owner James Dolan was public enemy number one, with many demanding for him to sell the team. A major culture reset was required. Hiring sports agent Leon Rose as president of the New York Knicks and the subsequent hiring of Tom Thibodeau as head coach has changed the identity of this team. Talent on the roster may be bleak, but they will outwork you for the entire 48 minutes to no end.

Long-awaited run

The Knicks are in the midst of a five-game win streak for the first time in seven years.

The old adage in the NBA is that your team takes on the identity of its best player.

This however doesn’t apply when it comes to a Coach Tibbs-led team. Given that New York ranks 27th in points per game (105.8) and 29th in assists per game (21), you would be forgiven for thinking this team is among the worst in the league. Rather it’s their ability on the defensive side of the ball that makes them a nightmare to play against.

Currently they rank first in opponent points per game (104.3), opponent field goal percentage (44.2%) and three-point percentage (33.6%), as well as boasting a top-three defensive rating (107.6). Their defensive performance in their latest win against the Dallas Mavericks, who have a top ten offense, was striking. Holding Dallas to 33% behind the arc was capped off by the show-stealing block at the rim by Nerlens Noel from Dorian Finney-Smith.


Player development

New York’s torrid time with player development seems to be coming to an end. Among players they have drafted this century, the Knicks have not given a multi-year contract to any of them. The writing is on the wall with Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina’s futures with the team, and the soured relationship between Kristaps Porzingis and the organisation led to the 7’3 centre to be traded to Dallas and subsequently extended this run.

The wait might be over soon given RJ Barrett’s uptick in production. Coming off a rocky rookie season, Barrett’s development has not gone unnoticed. The former Duke wing has played in every single Knicks game this season and given his increased minutes per game (34) compared to last season (30.4), he has repaid Thibodeau’s faith. Beyond the improved points, assists, and rebounds, Barrett is taking care of the ball more. His turnover percentage is down by over 2% while seeing a markedly improved true shooting % (53% this year compared to 47% last year).

The emergence of Immanuel Quickley is nothing to be sneezed at either. Knicks basketball president Leon Rose’s infatuation with Kentucky players proved beneficial for the 6’3 point guard when he was traded on draft night from Oklahoma City Thunder to New York. Quickley has shown to be a viable NBA player, one that can make telling contributions most notably when he dropped 31 against the Indiana Pacers back in January.

The Julius Randle experience

Sometimes we expect too much too soon from players. We put them on a pedestal and the moment they lose their balance, we lose interest and move on to the next talent. Former seventh pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Julius Randle is a classic example of a late bloomer. At 26 years old, Randle is playing the best basketball of his career.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When Randle signed for the Knicks in 2019 the move was scoffed at. The Knicks harboured hopes of signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as well as getting the number one pick in the 2019 draft Zion Williamson. Randle was seen not as a consolation prize but a mere wooden spoon.

Randle is enjoying career highs in points, rebounds, assists, three-point percentage, and minutes per game. A shoo-in to win the NBA Most Improved Player Award, Randle’s leap from above average player to all-star has been significant. His status as the team’s best player was evident in the fourth quarter vs the Mavs.

With 1:50 remaining, the Knicks cleared out the entire right side for Randle to iso vs Maxi Kleber. Randle was able to spin away from Kleber and hit nothing but net on a difficult shot that put the Knicks up 8 and eventually close out the game. The all-star finished the game with 44 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists on 55% shooting to propel New York to a 30-27 record.

The New York Knicks have been a resolute team this season. After years of inadequacy, we wanted the Knicks to be competent and live up to its status as a marquee destination for players to want to come and play.

One year might be too short of a time frame to convince players, however, they have shown that with a combination of a clear identity and winning basketball, players’ attentions will point towards Maddison Square Garden and the New York Knicks.

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About Kelechi Ulu 14 Articles
It was during the 2018 Conference Finals my interest in the NBA began. Watching the Rockets and Warriors duel it out was something akin to a movie scene. It was then when I knew I was hooked onto the NBA... Since then I love reading all things NBA and listening to a plethora of basketball podcasts. It’s all for the love of the game

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