Here They Come: How the New-Look Knicks Turned a Circus Into Must-See TV


The Knicks have successfully turned their franchise around this year, and the fans are all for it. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 was the last time the Knicks played basketball in a non-pandemic setting. The game was in Atlanta against the Hawks at the State Farm Arena.  

That was the day the NBA was put on freeze; that was the day my bubble had popped. Like myself, most sports fanatics were thrown into unchartered waters. The MLB and the NHL seasons soon followed suit a few days later, and by nature, that put the NFL season in jeopardy for 2020.

For nearly 20 years, the Knicks have gone through a violent cycle of incompetence, instability and frustration with last season being added to the cycle of doom. It seems that every year or two the front office staff, as well as coaches and players, come through the revolving doors of Madison Square Garden and leave on short notice.

The abrupt end of the 2019-2020 season was no different. The Knicks had just gone through another front office turnover with president Steve Mills being relieved of his duties and owner James Dolan appointing former super agent Leon Rose to assume the presidency.

Despite the NBA restarting five months later in a bubble in Orlando, the Knicks were one of eight teams not invited to participate. Thank goodness they were not invited to the Magic Kingdom at the time. The team was so egregious that even I couldn’t watch their games anymore.  

And I haven’t missed a Knicks game since 2011.

The Knicks didn’t return to our lives until December of 2020. Nine long months of no Knicks basketball meant nine months to completely flip the team around.  

Leon Rose, better known as the transaction warlord, went right to work. Like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, Rose executed an operation of complete house cleaning. He fired just about everyone from the previous regime, cutting ties with scouts, the remnant assistant coaches from the David Fizdale debacle, interim head coach Mike Miller and everyone else who held a front office spot.

The only remains of Rose’s Order 66 were Madison Square Garden janitors, security guards, concession workers and the MSG Network media crew.   

While the state of the roster remained in question, the team needed someone to captain the ship. The clear frontrunner, who eventually became the head coach, was screaming enthusiast Tom Thibodeau, a seasoned coach whose previous tenure in Minnesota ended in a sour state.  

The hiring reignited the ideas of the winning ways of old: defense and grit. Those two traits carried the ’70s Knicks to two world titles, the ’80s teams to multiple deep playoff runs, 11 straight years of Knicks playoff basketball with two NBA Finals appearances sprinkled into the ’90s and an iconic defense that still echoes in a Knicks fan’s mind to this day.  

Rose’s next order of business was an event that the Knicks have been wasting for 15 years now: the NBA Draft. The draft became a desolate place for the Knicks, as it seems every previous regime looked completely clueless in their draft management and evaluation of talents.  

But this time, it felt different.

On draft night 2020, the Knicks held the eighth and 23rd picks in the first round. Rose and the Knicks were poised on selecting Obi Toppin; the college player of the year and a superstar at the University of Dayton. Toppin was known for his electrifying style of play and ferocious dunks, which could get any crowd up on their feet screaming for more.

Later that night, the Knicks joined a gnarly three-team trade which landed them Kentucky star and SEC player of the year Immanuel Quickley. His basketball savviness and elite three point shooting were something Knicks fans had sorely missed in a guard since the days of John Starks.

But there was something about these two that wasn’t basketball related at all: high-character young men with joyous personas.  

Seeing two players who were so excited to join the then abysmal Knicks was almost unheard of. At the time of the draft, the Knicks were still thought of as a team that could never seem to get out of their own way, and every culture they created was gloomy and toxic in some way.  

Seeing such high-character young men join the Knicks was something unusual and even more enticing for Knicks fans.

Following the draft, Rose acquired Theophilus Alphonso Pinson. Pinson was waived by the Nets way back last June, and every NBA fan saw the effect that he had on the Nets culture that turned them into one of the nation’s powerhouse teams.  

Culture in the NBA is imperative in today’s model of success; teams with happy locker rooms and great foundations will most likely find success in the league. Pinson is known as the bench hype man for his teams, as it seems that everywhere he goes the teams always bring the good vibes and energy.  

So the foundation was set. The return of Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle as the team leaders, R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson as the developing young stars of the team and the neophytes Quickley and Toppin with Pinson as the master of ceremonies.  

And the captain of the ship, of course, the aforementioned Tom Thibodeau.

Up next came free agency, which is another event that the Knicks always seem to botch every year. While uneventful on the surface, the Knicks had three free agents put ink to paper to repair some immediate needs of the team.

Alec Burks was the first player to sign with the team. Burks is known as a bench spark plug and is a career 37% three point shooter. Burks also is able create plays for others and score in multiple ways on the perimeter. Since the Knicks had lacked real perimeter scoring besides Barrett, Burks signing on for a cheap one-year deal was a safe and smart signing.

Nerlens Noel was second on the Knicks hit list. Like Robinson, Noel is a loping and leaping stringbean who could play excellent defense. Noel also signed a one year contract.  

To close out free agency, the Knicks landed Austin Rivers on another cheap contract. Rivers is known for his upfront and honest attitude, shot creating ability and aggressive style of play on both sides of the basketball.  

From the first tip of preseason to the All Star break, the Knicks season has been nothing short of a successful one. The team started off with two consecutive losses but have not looked back, grinding to a record of 20-19, the best the team has obtained since the 2013 season.

Thibodeau should also be credited for constructing the fourth most efficient defense in the NBA while being ranked at the apex in multiple categories such as opponent three point percentage (33%), opponent field goal percentage (44%) and points scored by opponents (105).   

While the team was winning close victories, they lacked offensive punch. That quickly changed when the Knicks traded away notorious bench warmer Dennis Smith Jr. in a 2021 second round pick to Detroit for former NBA MVP Derrick Rose.

Rose immediately impacted the team in a bench role alongside Quickley. His leadership and mentorship of the young players was noticeable, as the team looked very cohesive under his guidance. 

With virtually everyone improving on the team, perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been Randle. Last season, Randle was one of the most condemned Knicks, with his mindless decision-making frustrating fans to their core.  

Despite the hole he dug himself into, Randle has become the most beloved Knick this year.  

Randle is averaging career highs in points (22.8), rebounds (11) and assists (5.6) and earned himself the first NBA All-Star appearance of his career. 

If you were to tell a Knicks fan at the beginning of the year that any of the aforementioned events would transpire, they would’ve looked at you as if you had three heads. The Knicks were projected to be one of the worst teams to begin the season.

It seems that the team has taken the doubters to town, and that identity of hard work has rubbed off on the fans and other players. The turnaround in the course of nine months has been a breath of fresh air, and Knicks fans are excited for what the future holds for this young team.