The New York Knicks are on track to make the NBA Playoffs in 2021, for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
That team, led by Carmelo Anthony, was a blast to watch and was the best Knicks team since the ’90s, when Patrick Ewing was competing for championships.
The reputation of the ’90s and early 2000s Knicks were that they were tough, defensive-minded and had established a winning culture. That winning attitude returned when Amare Stoudemire signed in New York in 2010 and Carmelo Anthony joined the team soon after. This duo was supposed to be the answer to all the Knicks problems, but ended up leading to more questions than answers. After the 2013 playoff run, where the Knicks won a playoff series for the first time since 2000, the team went into a major rut and haven’t come close to finishing .500 since.
Despite the ’90s Knicks reputation and Melo/Amare excitement, the 2020-21 Knicks are trending towards being my favorite Knicks team ever.
Let’s be honest, the Knicks weren’t supposed to be THIS good. You can argue they weren’t supposed to be any type of good this season. Competing for a spot in the play-in game was a realistic and fair goal for Knicks fans entering the season., but even that felt like a longshot after a quiet offseason, where they failed to add a big name (Gordon Hayward, Victor Oladipo among the names that were rumored).
So why is this my favorite Knicks team?
It’s a team, if we’re being honest, full of rejects.
In order to fully appreciate the success of this year’s team, it’s important to understand what went wrong the last few years.
Failed plan #1 – Transitioning from Carmelo to Porzingis
When Carmelo Anthony was traded in 2017, the expectation was the Knicks were Kristaps Porzingis’ team. He was the new face of the franchise and the Knicks would build a winner around him.
Porzingis was named to the 2018 All Star team but didn’t play after tearing his ACL. Less than a year later, his relationship with the Knicks deteriorated so badly that they traded him to the Mavs for draft picks. They also received Dennis Smith Jr, who is a big part of the story (more below).
Failed plan #2 – Didn’t sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
A big part of the Porzingis traded was that the Knicks included Tim Hardaway Jr and Courtney Lee, who had huge salaries for 2019-2020. By removing those salaries, the Knicks had created enough cap space to sign two free agents to max contracts, with the expectation being that it was Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who are destined to sign with the Knicks.
Ultimately, both chose to sign with the Brooklyn Nets.
Failed plan #3 – 2019 Draft Lottery
In addition to signing Durant and Kyrie, Knicks had hoped to win the draft lottery. After going a league-worst 17-65, Knicks had a 25% chance of winning the #1 pick, which would have meant drafting Zion Williamson. They fell to third in the order, which means missing out on Zion and Ja Morant,. Knicks “settled” for RJ Barrett.
No Porzingis. No Durant or Kyrie. No Zion. Now what?
Pivot to lottery reject plan
The 2019 offseason saw the Knicks sign a handful of veteran free agents to short contracts. Among them were Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, and Reggie Bullock. Those four remain with the Knicks today. The other two big signings were Marcus Morris (more below) and Bobby Portis.
Once the Knicks lost out on Durant and Irving in the summer of 2019, they signed Julius Randle to a 3 year deal.
Randle put up good numbers in his first season, but was considered a selfish, turnover-prone player who most assumed was not a part of the future, and simply a placeholder who can help the team get by in the short term, while developing players for the long term.
Randle had different plans. He got himself into shape and worked really hard for the 2021 season and was rewarded with his first career All Star appearance.
Lakers drafted Randle #7 in 2014. The 2013-14 season snapped a streak of 8 straight playoff appearances (which includes 3 trips to the Finals, 2 championships). 2014 was the beginning of a 7 year playoff drought that ended with another championship in 2020. The Knicks’ playoff drought also began in 2014 and should end in 2021.
The 2014 Draft has actually been important to the Knicks, in hindsight. Randle was the #7 pick and starting PG Elfrid Payton was the 10th pick.
Payton was directly involved with the Knicks’ pick. Knicks didnt have a pick in 2014 as a result of the Carmelo Anthony trade. Their pick, #12, belonged to the Magic (Via Nuggets) and was used on Dario Saric, who was traded to 76ers for the #10 pick, Payton.
Randle and Payton were teammates together in New Orleans in 2018-19, before both signing with the Knicks. Both were signed out of desperation and both have been key parts to the success in 2021 (Payton has had moments, though most fans would discuss that he has been a “part of success”).
The year before Randle and Payton were drafted, the 2013 Draft was a weird one. That was the year the Cavs drafted Anthony Bennett first overall. For a while, there was an expectation that Nerlens Noel would be the #1 pick but he suffered a serious knee injury towards the end of the college season.
Noel was signed by the Knicks in 2020, and was one of two key free agent signings (Alec Burks being the other).
Because of his injury, Noel fell to #6, where the Pelicans drafted him and traded him to 76ers. This trade actually kickstarted “the process” in Philly, as the Sixers traded Jrue Holiday for Noel and a future pick. Noel also spent time with the Mavs and Thunder, and has been a major part of the Knicks defensive success this season.
Bullock was the 25th pick in the 2013 draft, 19 picks after Noel. He has bounced around a bit and notably played for the Lakers in 19, starting 16 games as Lebron James missed time due to injury in his first season in LA.
Bullock has been a full-time starter for the Knicks this season and has been one of the team’s best and most important shooters.
Burks was the 12th pick in the 2011 Draft. One pick after Klay Thompson, two after Kemba Walker and three before Kawhi Leonard. Burks spent 7.5 seasons in Utah, before bouncing around to the Cavs, Kings, Warriors and 76ers. He has become a three pointing shooting specialist off the bench for the Knicks and a very valuable part of their offense.
RJ Barrett had a good rookie season. Nothing special. You can say that he didn’t perform up to the standards of a #3 pick, but the team around him stunk and the coaching was poor and he clearly wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Part of the problem was a roster built around veterans on 1 year deals, looking to get theirs and not focused about the franchise’s long term building.
While Barrett was nothing special, he certainly deserved a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie Second Team. Instead, he was snubbed for Terence Davis. Davis averaged 7.5 ppg in 17 minutes per game for the Raptors after going undrafted. Barrett played 30 mpg and scored 14.3 ppg with 5.0 rpg. While Barrett has made significant improvement in 2021, Davis was so bad that the Raptors traded him to the Kings for a future second round pick.
How about the most important piece of the puzzle? It’s not that rare that coaches get a second chance after being fired from their first head coaching job. But a third chance after two firings? That doesn’t happen much. But it did with New York, who hired Tom Thibodeau in 2020.
Thibs, a former Knicks assistant, coached the Bulls and Wolves. Bulls went to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year and than never got back to that point. He helped the Wolves snap a 14 year playoff drought, but clashed with players and was fired in his third season.
After two firings, Thibs is on his last chance and he has found a way to connect with this group and has them playing at a level no one even thought was possible.
Thibs’ Boys – Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson
In 2008, Derrick Rose was the #1 pick in the draft to the Bulls. He played for Chicago until 2016, when they traded him to the Knicks. From 2010-2015, he was coached in Chicago by Tom Thibodeau.
His one year in New York was marred by disappointing, including the time he went MIA and the team was unable to find him.
Since that 2016-17 season with the Knicks, Rose has bounced around a bit, playing for Cavs, Wolves (played for Thibs) and Pistons, before finding his way back to New York. Earlier this season, Knicks traded Dennis Smith Jr (who they acquired for Porzingis) for Rose, who has been an extremely valuable addition to the Knicks, coming off the bench.
Rose played with Taj Gibson in Chicago and are reunited together, again with Thibodeau. Like Rose, Gibson also played for Thibs in Minnesota, before playing for the Knicks last season. He didn’t start the year with the team as he signed late, but because of injuries to Mitchell Robinson, Gibson has stepped up as a value asset off the bench.
It’s safe to say, at this point, that Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox are not going to emerge as stars for the Knicks. Frank has a role as a defensive specialist and Knox is still working on carving out a unique niche for himself.
Ntilikina was the 8th pick in 2017. Donovan Mitchell (13) and Bam Adebayo (14) were both picked shortly after and both have played major roles on playoff teams.
Kevin Knox was the 9th pick in 2018. Shai Gilgeous Alexander (11) and Michael Porter Jr (14) are the most notable players picked after him.
Obi Toppin was picked 8th in 2020 and the jury is still out. He hasn’t carved out a major role, due to vets playing major minutes and a lack of preseason/training camp has likely impacted his development as well. It’s way too early to label Toppin a bust and while some fans may pine for Tyrese Haliburton, that likely would have impacted their second first round pick in 2020.
Draft Steals – Immanuel Quickly and Mitchell Robinson
Quickly is the steal of the draft in 2020. No questions asked. He was the 25th pick and the Knicks drafted him with the pick they acquired from the Clippers last year in the deal for Marcus Morris, who was signed with the cap space freed up by the Porzingis trade.
Robinson was a second round pick in 2019 and while injuries have slowed him in 2021, he has proven to be a valuable piece of the Knicks’ young core.
Winning with Rejects
Who are these Knicks?
- RJ Barrett wasn’t who they initially wanted in the draft (Zion or Morant).
- Julius Randle was a consolation prize, after failing to hit the jackpot (Durant, Irving).
- Quickly wasn’t supposed to be a first round pick.
- Derrick Rose was washed.
- Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks are nothing.
- Nerlens Noel was a draft bust
- Thibs wasn’t the first choice of most fans.
- Leon Rose was an agent, trying to be a Team President.
Maybe that’s who all these guys were. But who they are now? The most surprising team in the NBA and a 2021 Playoff team.
Summary of Knicks roster
- 2 former #1 overall recruits out of high school (Barrett, Noel)
- 9 former lottery picks (Barrett, Noel, Randle, Knox, Frank, Toppin, Burks, Rose, Payton)
- 1 former #1 pick (Rose)
- 4 former Kentucky Wildcats (Randle, Noel, Knox, Quickly)
- 5 former John Calipari players (4 above, plus Rose)