Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Things are looking up for one of the most tortured fan bases in all of professional sports.
What began as the expectation of yet another Knicks season of bottom-feeding in the Eastern Conference has transformed into a final push for a top-four playoff seed. The Knicks sit at 34-28, in a comfortable position to avoid the play-in tournament, barring any late-season collapse. But how has a franchise that finished with one of the worst records last year suddenly become a postseason threat? Luckily for Knicks fans, there are multiple answers.
Firstly, forward Julius Randle has been nothing short of extraordinary. This season marked his first All-Star appearance, and for good reason. He’s averaging 23.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game on 46.0% shooting from the field and 41.8% from deep. What stands out is how all-encompassing his offensive production has been. Scoring, crashing the boards, dishing to teammates, hitting from deep, you name it. Randle has done it all in the Big Apple.
Randle’s production is a significant leap from his first five full seasons in the NBA. His previous career-high mark from deep was 34.4% back in the 2018-19 season in New Orleans, and his 6.0 assists almost double his previous career-high average of 3.6 in the 2016-17 season in Los Angeles. Last season with the Knicks, Randle often had tunnel vision once he received the ball in the paint. He would dribble with his back to the basket until he either shot a difficult fadeaway jumper or turned the ball over. So, to see him so engaged with his teammates this year has been a welcome sight.
Shooting guard RJ Barrett has also shown encouraging signs of improvement in his second NBA season. His averages of 17.5/5.7/2.9 aren’t leaps and bounds above his rookie marks of 14.3/5.0/2.6, but he’s making much better decisions with the ball in his hands. Barrett simply tried to do too much as a rookie, usually driving to the rim with reckless abandon or hesitating for a tough midrange jumper. Once his 3-point shot leveled up, his all-around game did too. Barrett has shot 38.6% from beyond the arc this season, a notable upgrade considering his 32.0% mark and general reluctance to shoot in Year One.
Manning the offense is 32-year-old Derrick Rose, who was acquired in early February from the Pistons. Rose has been the ballast in the Knicks’ postseason push, averaging 14.8 points and 3.9 assists in the month of April. He may not have the athleticism that once earned him a Most Valuable Player Award, but his presence both on the court and in the locker room transcends any statistic.
Finally, rookie Immanuel Quickley and 29-year-old Alec Burks have been vital for the Knicks in late-game situations. They rank first and fourth in the league percentage of points scored in the fourth quarter, respectively. Quickley has demonstrated immense poise for a first-year player, and Burks has magically become a walking bucket this season when the last quarter comes around. It’s definitely comforting for the Knicks to have two guys that can pile on points in a hurry when it matters most.
Tasked to harness these players’ potential, the addition of head coach Tom Thibodeau could not have worked better. The defensive specialist has shaped the Knicks into a suffocating unit, as evidenced by their leap from 13th in points per game allowed last season to first this season. Thibodeau held his players accountable from the start of training camp and preached fundamentals. It’s obviously stuck with the Knicks roster; they always try to stick to their assignment like glue and efficiently execute switches.
This engagement is all the more impressive considering the loss of their best defender: big man Mitchell Robinson. Robinson missed 15 games with a hand fracture earlier this season, and four games after returning, he broke a bone in his foot that required season-ending surgery. Somehow, the tandem of veterans Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson has worked beautifully in the Big Apple. Neither of them are particularly adept at putting the ball in the basket, but their effort is unmatched—just what Thibodeau loves.
The energy that the Knicks have brought this season should give fans hope for the future. They’re a playoff team this year, and when the offseason rolls around, free agents may want to buy into that passion. For the first time in what seems like eternity, Knicks fans can look forward to what will happen next.