The New York Knicks are 5-3. To put that record into perspective, it took them 25 games to reach the five-game winning mark last season. This season it took eight games. Their impressive game out of the gate is testament to head coach Tom Thibodeau.
It’s an entirely different team with the same core as last season, and it’s not just the young players who are taking the plunge. Thibodeau and his coaching staff get new performances and productions from established players. Take Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton, for example.
Randle, who looked like a tough player on the training camp roster, is playing at a level that deserves the MVP’s consideration. He scores at the post, off the dribble and from distance while hitting the boards and finding the open man at an exceptional pace. Randle averages 23.1 points, 12.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game.
Despite being a respectable and productive general, Payton has never been a leading offensive catalyst for an NBA offense. This season he arrives at the rack and finishes with ease, staying out of the 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 little out of control with the ball in his hands. Before signing with the team again for a one-year contract, Payton’s team option was turned down for this season with hopes the Knicks would find a long-term player in the backcourt. So far, both players have been an integral part of Thibodeau’s offense. Speaking of guards, Austin Rivers is closing Knicks games.
In Wednesday night’s team fight with the Utah Jazz, Rivers converted 14 straight points en route to help the Knicks overcome an 18-point first-half deficit. He discharges jumping shots on the outside, bursts to the edge and plays a tight defense.
RJ Barrett has been inconsistent offensively, but provides a calming defensive presence while also showcasing a presence on the boards (7.3 rebounds per game) and asserting himself more with the ball in his hands. Mitchell Robinson held on as the team’s starting center. Rookie guard Immanuel Quickley, who was selected with the 25th pick in the November NBA Draft, has found success beyond the arc and in sinking floats on the dribble.
By the way, Obi Toppin and Alec Burks have been in four combined games due to injuries, while Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina and Nerlens Noel are treating their injuries on 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 to be a defensive coach who holds his players accountable. This list seems to buy into its philosophies.
The Knicks came in second in the NBA on Thursday in adjusted defensive rating (104.11). Offensively, they are much less spectacular but effective. They came in on Thursday shooting 46.4% from the field and 37.2% from beyond the arc.
They swarm with bees around the perimeter defensively, behave well after the game, and play consistently. Offensively, they move the ball, and different players seized the opportunity in the last moments.
Every NBA team had a restricted training camp and fewer preseason games. You can’t tell by looking at this team.
Last season, the Knicks’ roster consisted of convincing young players mixed in with a conglomerate of veterans who didn’t complement them well. Sometimes they seemed lost. This season, they are a managed team. Thibodeau gets the most production from veterans and youngsters play solid on both sides of the field.
The Knicks are not a finished product. They have been together for too little time to fully familiarize themselves with each other’s trends. Injuries changed Thibodeau’s initial rotation. What happens when they get Toppin and Burks back? If the Knicks continue to play strong defense, what does the offensive improvement do to this team?
It’s been eight games. There are 64 games left to play. In a month, the Knicks could be five games under 0.500. That said, would you have believed someone a month ago if they had told you the Knicks would start the season 5-3? Why not beat the Bucks led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jazz led by Donovan Mitchell and the continuity-based Pacers?
Thibodeau plays the Knicks like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow never comes, they would end up as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. This team and this season were always going to go as far as this coaching staff could develop its young people (Barrett, Robinson and Toppin). While the healthy versions of their young core performed well, it’s the veteran’s tweaks that make this debut so unique.
This is one of Tom Thibodeau’s finest works to date.