The elephant in the room is not Tom Thibodeau’s offensive play-calling.
The elephant in the room is not Jalen Brunson’s admittedly poor play in the FIBA World Cup, nor is it R.J. Barrett’s cheek-to-cheek grin at the podium a month after eliminating Brunson’s Team USA squad.
It is not Leon Rose — at least not today — the ventriloquist of a Knicks general manager who operates from the shadows, opting against addressing local media despite Sean Marks having represented the Nets’ front office a week ago.
The elephant in the room is, in fact, two: the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, a pair of already-great-turned-how-is-this-legal NBA title favorites after Damian Lillard’s trade to the Bucks rippled into Jrue Holiday’s arrival in Boston. That no matter how over the Knicks achieve, it won’t register after landscape-altering moves by two teams sporting different shades of green.
The Celtics and Bucks are world beaters, defensive juggernauts who each addressed a burning need for more offensive firepower this summer.
The Knicks? They will be a work in progress, a work they hope picks up where they left it: top-10 in three-pointers made and attempted; about league-average in three-point percentage; top-two in rebounding; and getting to the foul line a ton.
This is what Thibodeau is calling his base, Point A for a Knicks team hoping to build on the successes of last season without deluding themselves that success is guaranteed after upsetting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s clear the status quo will be insufficient after a pair of mega-upgrades for the Bucks and Celtics.
“I think that’s what we have to be careful of: is to make an assumption that automatically it’ll be better,” Thibodeau said. “The East is strong, and we got to understand that and we got to embrace it.”
The aforementioned Bucks and Celtics assembled all-time rosters 78 hours in-between one another.
Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers remain a threat until he no longer headlines the team, and other teams that finished below the Knicks in the standings last year, like the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and, yes, even the Heat, are expected to take a jump this season.
The Heat, after all, finished eighth in the East before plowing its way to the NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, the Knicks kept their core intact. They kept it player, resisting the urge to overpay in potential Lillard and Holiday deals despite having the draft assets and young players to do so. They opted simply to double down on what they already have, adding Donte DiVincenzo — yet another Villanova Wildcat — for backcourt depth.
In truth the Knicks appear pleased, even if their core doesn’t quite compare to those in Milwaukee and Boston. Comparison, after all, is the thief of joy, and things are joyous at the Knicks’ practice facility.
Randle, Barrett and Brunson took the podium together during Monday’s content day, laughing their way through a 15-minute back-and-forth with reporters.
Quickley was all smiles despite his status without a contract extension as he enters the final year of his rookie deal before potentially entering restricted free agency.
As James Harden held out of the beginning of training camp after trade requests from Philadelphia, Quickley said he’d let his agent do the negotiating. Asked if he’d ever consider a contract holdout, the fourth-year guard said: “Nah, I’m gonna play.”
DiVincenzo was happy to reunite with Brunson and Josh Hart, his former Villanova teammates. Randle even smiled as he declined to answer a question about the superteams that assembled in Boston and Milwaukee.
“That’s for you to write,” he said on his way out the door.
A rough stretch of games, of course, could change the temperature.
The Knicks open their regular season with seven games against potential playoff opponents, including three championship contenders: hosting Boston, at Atlanta, at New Orleans, at Cleveland, hosting Cleveland, at Milwaukee and finally hosting the Los Angeles Clippers.
Seven games that could set the tone for the next 75. Seven games that will determine just how much of last season’s successes can carry over to another go this time around.
It’s quite clear the Bucks and Celtics are head and shoulders above the rest of the conference in a way only Kevin Durant’s decision to join forces with Stephen Curry made the Golden State Warriors a nauseating opponent.
DiVincenzo spent his first four seasons with the Bucks and joined the former champion Golden State Warriors last summer, only for the Warriors to eek out of falling into the Play-In Tournament, barely survive a seven-game first-round series against the Sacramento Kings, then fall to LeBron James’ Lakers in Round 2.
“Our focus is ourselves. Our focus isn’t what Milwaukee is doing or Boston is doing,” the newest Knick said on Monday. “I joined the Warriors and we struggled last year throughout most of the season on the road. But everyone had us winning the Western Conference and doing this and doing that. It’s about what you’re going to do day-in and day-out. That’s what our focus is.”
That’s the message Thibodeau wants his group to embody. The ever-so-cliché control-what-you-can-control.
Come to work, give your all “each and every day” and live with the quality of work put into the craft. Sacrifice for the greater good, focus on getting better and develop good habits.
Because all good things come from good habits.
Even if it’s not a championship — because the road to a championship will go through Milwaukee or Boston, and while the Knicks might not have the Bucks’ or Celtics’ number, they don’t quite give a you-know-what.
They’re going to lace them up and let the chips fall where they may.
And hopefully those chips fall further than they did last season.