How the Knicks went from laughing stocks to NBA finals contenders (yes, really)

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Jalen Brunson;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Jalen Brunson</a> of the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Knicks;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Knicks</a> leads a fast break flanked by two <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:New York;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">New York</a> teammates during a November game at Madison Square Garden.</span><span>Photograph: Jesse D Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images</span>

It’s springtime in New York City: the snow has thawed, the hot dog vendors are in short sleeves. Hopefulness has begun to permeate the city, as it does every year around this time, when the tulip bulbs in Central Park start to sprout, yet again, anew. The sun is shining, the NBA playoffs are right around the corner, and New York Knicks fans are ready to get hurt again.

“Aggressively optimistic” would be a fair characterization of these particular fans, who have seen, historically, considerably more bad than good basketball from their team. No matter how dark things have gotten for Knicks fans over the years, no matter how bleak the outlook under widely despised team owner James Dolan, they’ve stayed true to their franchise. But this year feels different, recent injury luck notwithstanding, and the infectious hope for what’s to come for the team is, finally, far from delusional.

It’s admittedly a little unsexy to describe what enabled the once nearly universally derided Knicks organization to go from laughing stock to legit playoff threat as down to an “alchemy” of factors, but that’s what’s happened. The flashiest change, of course, landed in New York when Jalen Brunson emerged from beneath the 6ft 7in shadow of Luka Dončić in Dallas and was reborn as an All-Star under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. He posted back-to-back 40-point games this month, the first Knick to do so since Carmelo Anthony in 2014, and is shooting up the rankings of the local fans’ most beloved players faster than a New York minute. But a lot had to happen to undo the “unserious” label that has beleaguered a franchise that has managed just two playoff series wins in the last 20 years.

The first positive change came in 2020, with the hiring of NBA player agent Leon Rose as the team’s general manager. The decision was controversial because Rose, the former co-head of CAA’s basketball department, had no NBA front-office experience to speak of. But he had solid relationships with some marquee names, a result of his multi-decade tenure on the agency side of the business. And if the Knicks were in dire need of anything, it was talent. They had whiffed on big swings several times in the last decade, most recently in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the offseason prior. In his still relatively short tenure with the team, Rose has successfully managed to bring a substantial amount of talent into the building, whether through free agency (like their acquisition of Brunson, or his fellow Villanova alum, three-point ace Donte DiVincenzo) or by trade (another Brunson Villanova buddy in Josh Hart and former Toronto Raptor OG Anunoby, both picture-perfect Knicks), without giving up many valuable assets to do so. Indeed, New York still have a war chest of first-round picks they can use to add another star this offseason, should they so choose.

Upon his hiring, Rose wrote a letter to the Knicks faithful, asking them for “continued patience” and emphasizing that “nothing about this is easy, or quick.” While it hasn’t necessarily been easy, the process has gone more quickly than many predicted. Four years removed, almost to the day, from Rose’s hiring, the Knicks sit at 43-28, marking their first back-to-back 40-win seasons since 1999-2000 and 2000-01, with 11 games still to be played. They’ve made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. And barring catastrophe, as they’re on course for the No 4 seed, that will soon be three out of four.

One of the team’s greatest strengths is their clear identity, resting on the fulcrum of a hard-nosed, tough-as-nails defense. While Rose’s personnel curation on the court is certainly due credit, one of his earliest moves, the hiring of Tom Thibodeau a few months into his tenure as GM, has looked like a stroke of genius.

Thibodeau is a thoroughly seasoned veteran head coach who is generally well-respected within the league, although his reticence to rest his star players, and the injuries they have ended up suffering potentially as a consequence has earned him mixed reviews over the years. But it’s becoming clear that he was the perfect man to tap for this particular gig: a defensive savant to help shepherd the Knicks back to their origins as a tough, gritty team that might not play a particularly pretty brand of basketball, but certainly isn’t an opponent anyone would be thrilled to spar with over a seven-game series.

The Guardian spoke with Chris Herring, who literally wrote the book on the Knicks, about the team’s remarkable turnaround and what Thibodeau brings to them. “He’s done, I think, as good as, if not a better job than what could have really been expected of him when he was hired,” Herring said. “They’re basically knocking on the ‘contending’ door right now, and to be at that level, to put yourself in that conversation and have it be what looks like potentially a perennial thing, is a huge step up from where they were.”

Obviously, the right personnel and chemistry are crucial for team success, regardless of who is in charge. But Rose and Thibodeau deserve credit, there, too, as they are clearly skilled at the art of both detecting who would be a good fit for the team and getting those players to buy in once they arrive. The vibes are decidedly good in the Knicks locker room this season, especially now that some of their injured players are starting to regain their health and make their way back to the court.

And they’ve been smart about moving their assets, too. While players like Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett were homegrown favorites, Rose and Co were judicious about when to move them, and getting a defensive powerhouse like Anunoby back in return was a net win.

While the Knicks did make the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season – marking just their second playoff series win in 23 years – and have been trending up since Rose’s arrival, the hope in the ether this season is notable, and distinct. “Something clearly is different [this year]. There’s a camaraderie around this team that just feels a lot different,” Herring said. “When the Knicks have these win streaks, when they look like, ‘Man, they could actually accomplish something,’ the Garden just roars a little bit different.”

Injury luck, or lack thereof, will go a long way toward shaping the outcome of New York’s season. And all roads out of the East still likely run through Boston, Milwaukee, Miami, or a combo therein. But the unique thing about this Knicks team, and their now perhaps shockingly competent top brass, is that this feels far from their only shot. For once their success feels stable, sustainable. They’re creating something that’s built to last. So whether it’s this year or next, hope springs eternal in the Garden. And for once, it’s for good reason.