Of all the postseason-ensuring victories across the Knicks’ grand reawakening of a regular season, none rose to the level of their most compelling, collective triumph. That would be the defeat of every team’s most formidable opponent: the coronavirus pandemic.
Like most teams in all sports, they have had their brushes with Covid-19. But at least until a swing out West that always loomed as a caveat to their playoff seeding, the Knicks could be counted on to “show up every night,” to quote a dearly departed season ticket holder I long knew.
Some N.B.A. teams did little to improve on borderline playoff rosters or gutted them completely. Others that figured to be measurably superior to the Knicks have wobbled under the weight of too many nights when they didn’t show up — physically or spiritually.
The N.B.A. this season has experienced an acute blowout problem, on pace late last month for more games after the All-Star break decided by 20 or more points since 1967-68. Let Jeff Van Gundy, the loquacious network analyst and former Knicks coach, begin to explain.
“In a trying season for everybody — with testing and Covid, injuries and load management — you just haven’t known who’s going to be there, night in and night out,” he said in a telephone interview. “But with the Knicks, you have known, for the most part, they were coming to play.”
This is where the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as coach was seamlessly set to pandemic conditions. Especially for what Van Gundy called “the whole crowd thing,” meaning that because there were no fans in arenas for most of the season, there has largely been no external force helping teams hold on to the rope after falling behind.
From no fans to some fans, these Knicks didn’t much need to be incentivized by a Madison Square Garden crowd. The coach’s baritone voice has been more than enough.
Who among the emerging young players (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley), veterans on expiring contracts (Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks) or reacquainted Thibodeau loyalists (Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose) was not going to be all-in with an old-school taskmaster, in his first year on the job?
Van Gundy, who had Thibodeau on his Knicks staff two decades ago during the last multiseason period of Knicks relevance, mentioned an unnamed coach who told him that the higher the level of basketball you reach, winning during the regular season tends to “matter less and less to the players.” Maybe that’s an exaggeration, or simply not true. But with these Knicks, Van Gundy said, “the care factor has been exceptionally high.”
Forgive the nostalgia, but their season has been reminiscent of 1982-83, when Hubie Brown rolled into town with a reputation much like Thibodeau’s, preaching defense and devotion, albeit in an exacting voice that over time grew discordant.
Brown’s first Knicks team lost 26 of its first 40 games, then caught fire, won 24 of 30 and steamed into the playoffs to win a round (for the record, against the Nets).
As with Julius Randle now, Bernard King was their lone star then, the one indispensable Knick, wearing the same No. 30. While other teams have required an Etch A Sketch to chart their stars’ nightly lineup availability, Randle has lost one game to injury and none to rest, leading the league in minutes played.
Load management is generally for the established elite, not for a guy in the midst of a remarkable breakout season, and who began it with a partially guaranteed salary for 2021-22.
Beyond Randle, Leon Rose, the team’s president, built a deep roster of interchangeable parts, ready for a condensed schedule promising to be marred by pandemic unpredictability. When the starting center Mitchell Robinson went down, the peripatetic young veteran Nerlens Noel stepped up. When Burks, a strong contributor to the team’s improved offense, was out because of virus protocols, Rose and Bullock picked up the scoring pace.
“In the regular season, you can’t be top-heavy, you need depth, which Leon did a great job with,” Van Gundy said. “In the playoffs, you need greatness.”
Watching the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic dismantle the Knicks in Denver last week may well have been a playoff preview. But wherever the Knicks’ season goes from here, it has been all the more astonishing when considering how little they have to show for their last five lottery picks, all top 10.
Basically, it’s the ever-improving Barrett, at least until Obi Toppin gets to prove he is more than the second coming of Kenny Walker, better known as Sky. Kristaps Porzingis? Long gone. Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox? Might as well be.
Here, again, is where the Thibodeau hiring has been a timely blessing. You may have argued last fall that this would be the perfect season to sacrifice achievement for player development, with few paying customers to please. I know I did. Why not find out once and for all about Ntilikina and Knox? Why not turn Toppin and Quickley loose from Day 1?
Thibodeau was clear from the start: He wasn’t interested in coaching a team on training wheels, instead subscribing to the maxim that the best teaching environment is a winning one.
Peter Roby, a childhood friend of Thibodeau’s, who in 1985 hired him for the coaching staff at Harvard, likes to playfully remind people of how Thibodeau, the acclaimed defensive guru, was known in his “knucklehead” youth for never passing up a shot. But in a recent telephone interview, he brought up Thibodeau’s age, 63, old enough to have been introduced to the pro game by the Knicks’ early 1970s championship team.
Those Knicks were all about ball sharing and defense, the kind of championship DNA, Roby said, that Thibodeau associates with the franchise, even if it hasn’t won a title since the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
“Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley — those are his Knicks,” Roby said.
His father’s Knicks, as well. Thibodeau wanted this generation-connective job too much to embark on a five-year plan that could easily disintegrate, given the organization’s trademark volatility under the ownership of James L. Dolan.
He also knows how easily an N.B.A. head coach his age can overnight be downgraded from outstanding to outdated with one twist of fate — what befell Brown after King tore up a knee at the height of his scoring prowess in 1985.
Chasing pickup games with Thibodeau while growing up in New Britain, Conn., a border town where sports passion is split between Boston and New York, Roby also chose the Knicks over the Celtics. As a former athletic director at Northeastern and current interim athletic director at Dartmouth, he’s long been closer to Boston but is a bigger Knicks fan than ever, thanks to his old pal.
“Can you imagine what it would be like if they were playing in front of a full Garden house?” Roby said.
We can, but perhaps we shouldn’t. Not yet. Because who knows what comes next, when the high-achieving role players, Derrick Rose included, will demand their free-agent rewards. When road games — such as Friday night’s in Phoenix, where the Knicks faltered late in front of 8,063 fans — may again require competing with a full-throated cacophony. When expectation will become part of the equation and, yes, when Thibodeau’s voice could begin to grate.
Stirring to life a long-slumbering franchise, the story of the season has been harmony for coach and players, all while withstanding, even foiling, the daunting challenge of a pandemic.