The New York Knicks are 5-3. To put that record in perspective, it took them 25 games to reach the five-win mark last season. This season it took eight games. Their impressive play out of the gate is a testament to head coach Tom Thibodeau.
This is an entirely different team with the same core as last season, and it’s not just young players taking the next step. Thibodeau and his coaching staff are getting newfound performance and production from established players. Take Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, for example.
Randle, who looked like a rough fit on the roster in training camp, is playing at a level that warrants Most Valuable Player Award consideration. He’s scoring in the post, off the dribble, and from distance while hitting the boards and finding the open man at an exceptional rate. Randle is averaging 23.1 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game.
While a respectable and productive floor general, Payton has never been a leading offensive catalyst for an NBA offense. This season he’s getting to the rack and finishing with ease, sticking outside jump shots, and seeing his production translate into wins. This season Payton is averaging 14.6 points, five assists, and four rebounds per game while shooting 37.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Last year Randle was a bit out of control with the ball in his hands. Prior to re-signing with the team on a one-year deal, Payton’s team option was declined for this season with the anticipation that the Knicks would find a long-term backcourt player. Thus far, both players have been integral components of Thibodeau’s offense. Speaking of guards, Austin Rivers is closing out games for the Knicks.
In the team’s Wednesday night bout with the Utah Jazz, Rivers converted 14 consecutive points en route to helping the Knicks overcome an 18-point first half deficit. He’s draining outside jump shots, bursting to the rim, and playing tight defense.
RJ Barrett has been inconsistent offensively but is providing a calming defensive presence while showcasing a presence on the boards (7.3 rebounds per game) and being more assertive with the ball in his hands. Mitchell Robinson has held his own as the team’s starting center. Rookie guard Immanuel Quickley, who was selected with the 25th pick in November’s NBA Draft, has found success from beyond the arc and by sinking floaters off the dribble.
By the way, Obi Toppin and Alec Burks have played a combined four games due to injuries while Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, and Nerlens Noel nurse injuries of their own. And yet the Knicks have won five of six. The Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks, and Indiana Pacers, three playoff teams last season, fell victim to New York. In fact, the Knicks beat the Bucks by 20.
Thibodeau is known for being a defensive-minded coach who holds his players accountable. This roster seems to be buying into his philosophies.
The Knicks went into Thursday second in the NBA in adjusted defensive rating (104.11). Offensively, they’re far less spectacular but efficient. They went into Thursday shooting a plausible 46.4 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from beyond the arc.
They’re swarming bees out on the perimeter defensively, performing well against post play, and playing in a cohesive manner. Offensively, they’re moving the ball, and different players have risen to the occasion in the closing moments.
Every team in the NBA had restricted training camp and fewer preseason games. You can’t tell that by watching this team.
Last season the Knicks roster was some compelling young players mixed with a conglomerate of veterans that poorly complemented them. At times, they looked lost. This season they’re a team with direction. Thibodeau is getting the utmost production from veterans and has youngsters playing soundly on both ends of the court.
The Knicks aren’t a finished product. They’ve been together too short of a time to have complete familiarity with each others’ tendencies. Injuries have changed Thibodeau’s initial rotation. What happens when they get Toppin and Burks back? If the Knicks keep playing stout defense, what does offensive improvement do to this team?
It has been eight games. There are 64 games left to be played. A month from now, the Knicks could be five games below .500. That said, would you have believed someone a month ago if they told you that the Knicks would start the season 5-3? How about them beating the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, Donovan Mitchell-led Jazz, and continuity-based Pacers?
Thibodeau has the Knicks playing like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow never came they would finish as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. This team and this season was always going to go as far as this coaching staff could develop its youngsters (Barrett, Robinson, and Toppin). While healthy versions of their young core have played well, it’s the veteran tweaking that makes this start so unique.
This is some of Tom Thibodeau’s finest work so far.