Evaluating the First Half of the Knicks 2020-21 Season


The Knicks have put up a fight this season behind Thibodeau and the development of his young players. (Courtesy of Twitter)

If you were to tune into a New York Knicks game this season, you might notice something different about the experience. The first thing most people point to is the fact that Madison Square Garden isn’t the usual jam-packed arena that New Yorkers have grown to cherish due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, the real shock will hit when one realizes the Knicks are playing a brand of basketball that not only is showing in the Eastern Conference standings, but is also bringing a level of excitement through which the chants of just 2,000 fans are reminiscent of the raucous roars of the 20,000 that make up a “sell-out crowd” at the world’s most famous arena. That same excitement might exude as you jump out of your living room chair with every big play. 

Indeed, the New York Knicks are once again relevant and have emerged as one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season. Heading into the All-Star break, head coach Tom Thibodeau’s squad was sitting above .500 at 19-18 — marking the first time since the 2012-13 season that the Knicks have held a winning record this far into the season — and currently hold the fifth-place spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Along the way, they’ve picked up some big wins against teams like Milwaukee, Portland, Golden State and Boston. Much of that success comes from their stellar defense that is rated second overall and has kept some of the better scoring teams in check. 

The team’s overall success through the first half of the season has stoked flames of insanity throughout the New York media market, as no one can stop talking about the Knicks. On Feb. 23, when the Garden welcomed back fans for the first time for the game against Golden State, the atmosphere in the arena was like that of a playoff game. When the Knicks finally reached .500 with their recent win over the Indiana Pacers, the scene on 32nd Street and 7th Avenue showed fans celebrating like the team had just won the Finals. 

One of the notable reasons for the Knicks’ resurgence has been Thibodeau’s presence and the work put in with his staff to groom the young players on the roster into rising stars. Regardless of whether the team is a game above .500, ten games below, leading by 20 points or trailing by 15, Thibodeau continues to push his players through his deep, stern voice to never treat any minutes on the court as “garbage time.” The players have latched onto their coach’s tutelage, playing each game with a hunger and drive to make the next big play and never fraying from putting in the extra work.

However, the buck does not stop with the leaders the front office has lining the Knicks bench. Credit must also be given to several players in the Knicks rotation who have stepped up and grown in a smaller number of games to elevate the team’s competitiveness every night on the floor. 

The first and foremost of those players is forward Julius Randle. The Kentucky product has become an All-Star caliber player in his second season with the Knicks and has accepted the role of lead voice in the locker room. From the start of summer training camp, Thibodeau said he saw that Randle meant business and wanted to learn what his teammates’ strengths were in order to mesh his abilities with theirs and elevate the entire team. 

“I knew that this summer when he came in [to camp] and we spent time before the bubble, I saw the type of shape he was in, so I knew he was highly motivated and I think it’s a big advantage for him,” Thibodeau said in a recent presser. “I also think he has a pretty good understanding of his teammates and what their strengths are, and he’s playing unselfishly and that’s probably the biggest thing”.

Randle is the engine that has powered the Knicks offensively. He currently leads the team in points per game (23.3), rebounds (11.1) and assists (5.5), while securing his first ever All-Star nod. His leadership on and off the court has inspired other players to step up and become unsung heroes as well. 

Reggie Bullock has learned a lot from being in the same position group as Randle, becoming a shooting weapon averaging 8.5 points per game on 40.6% and 37.2% shooting from the field and three-point arc. Players, RJ Barrett and Elfrid Payton have both accepted the challenge of being Number two and three in the scoring chart, averaging 16.5 and 12.7 respectively while being facilitators in the paint. 

One would be remiss not to mention rookie guard Immanuel Quickley in the conversation. Quickley has been dubbed the big draft steal for Knicks’ President Leon Rose and he certainly deserves it. He’s added 12.2 points per game and has given the Knicks an improvement from deep range and at the free-throw stripe. Kudos for his blossoming should go to player Derrick Rose who immediately took Quickley under his wing after rejoining the team. 

Put it all together and the Knicks have been something special over the first half of the 2020-21 season. They’re playing for each other, working hard every possession, giving the fans a product to be proud of and are in the middle of an extremely tight race for the top 10 spots in the Eastern Conference. The second half of the schedule is tough and the Knicks will need to win a few games that they are not favored in. That being said, Randle knows that the team isn’t going to let the success get to their heads because, as Thibodeau emphasizes to them, there’s always room for improvement and they are hungry to reach greater heights. 

“As a group we aren’t satisfied, we haven’t accomplished what we want to accomplish,” Randle said. “We know we can get better so we’re hungry for more”.