The New York Knicks are exceeding expectations already this season. Without any major roster upgrades, the Knicks were projected to once again be one of the NBA’s worst teams. And after losing their first two games against the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers by a combined 35 points, that projection looked on-point. But the Knicks rallied, winning 5 of their next 6 games en route to a respectable 6-8 ledger as of this writing — tied for 8th place in the Eastern Conference.
Curiously, the Knicks are playing well for a coach — defensive guru Tom Thibodeau — whom Insider reports was voted by NBA players as “the coach they’d least want to play for.” The fact that the man known as Thibs won said anonymous poll isn’t surprising given his reputation as a demanding, defense-first coach who plays his best players 40 or so minutes per game.
“(Thibodeau) plays his guys so many minutes,” said one player who took part in the poll. “They’re playing like 40 f—ing minutes a game in the regular season — like, why? I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to coach.”
Thibs’s no-nonsense approach may not be well liked, yet that same approach seems to be turning the once-moribund Knicks into a competitive, hardnosed, defensive-minded, and well-coached team. At the moment, the Knicks are the second stingiest team in the NBA, surrendering only 104.1 points per game on a league-best 38.1% opponent field goal percentage. The Knicks still struggle offensively (29th overall at 101 points per game), as is often the case with Thibodeau-coached teams, but at least they have a clear plan of attack every game, and are executing it beautifully.
This relatively hot start is welcome news for long-suffering Knicks fans, who have had to endure years of futility and failed rebuilds, including the disappointment of 2014 otherwise known as the Phil Jackson-Derek Fisher era. In the 2014 offseason, the multi-titled Jackson, after missing out on then TNT analyst and now Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, hired Fisher to coach team instead, and it proved to be a bad decision. With Fisher at the helm, the Knicks went 17-65 in the 2014−2015 season, and was 23-31 when the former Laker was fired in the 2015−2016 season.
It has all been downhill for the Knicks since then, though their fortunes seem poised to change starting this season. But despite this better-than-expected start, the Knicks are obviously a long way off from being contenders. They might not even make the postseason, as they are still classed as rank outsiders in the NBA title odds listed on Bwin. The team ranks just ahead of the young Chicago Bulls, the in-transition Cleveland Cavaliers, the slow-starting Washington Wizards, the hard luck Detroit Pistons, the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, and Sacramento Kings.
Regardless, the Knicks are proving naysayers wrong, and are actually giving fans a reason to be optimistic. As For The Win’s Charles Curtis points out, the team’s future is bright thanks mainly to internal improvements from holdovers like Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson, and steady veterans such as Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, and Reggie Bullock. Randle and Barrett, in particular, have been spectacular, averaging 22.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 6.5 assists and 16.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, respectively.
Robinson, on the other hand, has been an anchor on defense, registering per game averages of 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals. Even rookies Immanuel Quickley and Ossining High School graduate Obi Toppin are showing flashes of sustained brilliance, with the former proving to be the steal of the 2020 NBA Draft and Toppin looking like a solid, über-athletic contributor for years to come.
Indeed, the Knicks are looking better than advertised. In fact, they might actually be good — with the potential to get even better under Thibs.