The New York Knicks are on top of the Eastern Conference.
It is expected to remain that way after Saturday’s night road game in Big Easy with no Zion Williamson as a roadblock.
“Whenever [Zion] is on the court, it makes it a lot tougher, for sure,” RJ Barrett, the hero in the Knicks’ road win in Chicago, said. “Nonetheless, they’re still a good team. They have a lot of weapons. We can’t overlook anybody.”
The Knicks have made that mistake against the Orlando Magic, and they paid dearly for it — the only blemish so far in an otherwise perfect record dating back to the preseason.
They have won in a myriad of ways and best quality teams. They have also lost to a bad team. But this team is built for overcoming adversities.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” Kemba Walker said following their tough win in Chicago where the Knicks almost blew a 13-point lead inside the final three minutes.
They have found ways to win even when their odds are stacked against them. They have risen above adversities early in the season because, as Tom Thibodeau would always say, “don’t fight pressure with pressure.”
Past Knicks teams would have folded up easily to pressure. But not this new, rejuvenated Knicks team of misfits and outcasts tied together in a string by a journeyman coach who’s been kicked out twice but found a way to get up and reinvent himself.
They all found a home in New York.
They have been winning on the court and stealing the hearts of fans in a demanding city that requires toughness and recognizes real hard work.
“I think the way we play together, you know our connection, our togetherness, it’s unreal,” said Walker who has never felt great and looked healthier than this in the last two seasons.
Walker is starting to find his groove and spot in the team after early struggles to start the season. The Bronx native has racked up back-to-back 20-point games, and his backcourt partnership with Evan Fournier has juiced up the Knicks offense.
Walker and Fournier have combined for 36 three-pointers through the first five games. The Knicks are winning even when the teams are loading up on their All-Star leader Julius Randle.
“I love the way every game they get better and better. So, they’re building chemistry,” Thibodeau said of his reloaded starting unit.
“We’re gelling so well. We care for each other,” Walker added. “Nobody cares who scores the basketball or who makes the play. We just want to win. That’s what this game is about, man. It’s all about guys playing to win. And that’s going to make us special. That’s going to take us a long way.”
The selflessness had been infectious.
Derrick Rose quickly put to bed any issue between them and Walker right on the first day of training camp. The former MVP has ceded the starting role to Walker. When Rose closed out the first three games, Walker didn’t have qualms about it. Eventually, Walker’s rising play earned him minutes to close out the last two wins.
Their mutual admiration and respect have made them seamlessly fit in Thibodeau’s egalitarian system.
The Knicks have carefully constructed a balanced roster that is two-deep in each position. That keeps players on edge and makes each scrimmage competitive.
Iron sharpens iron.
Not every team can boast of that.
One example is the team they have recently beaten. Ahead of the Knicks-Bulls game, Chicago coach Billy Donovan admitted that they didn’t have anyone resembling Mitchell Robinson in practice. Donovan has staggered his starters with his bench throughout the game to compensate for their lack of depth.
On the other hand, the Knicks have one of the best second units in the league. Their bench currently ranks fifth in the league in scoring with 39.2 points per game and third in plus differential with 4.6 plus/minus.
â€œWhen we sub, thereâ€™s not a drop-off. And so whoever is going good, some nights one guy will play a little more and the other guy a little less,” Thibodeau said. “But I love the fact that everyone is sacrificing for the team and putting the team first. And that’s how you win big in this league.”
Selflessness is fueling their togetherness.
Culture is a buzzword that is thrown around often these days. That word seemed to have remained foreign to the Knicks until Leon Rose shifted from representing stars in the league to accepting the challenge of cleaning the mess in New York. When Rose handpicked Thibodeau, a few eyebrows were raised. Thibodeau, critics argued, is coaching rethread, who has quickly worn out his welcomes in his past two stops.
Rose’s first offseason quietly came and went. But Thibodeau, like in Chicago and Minnesota, made some noise right away. The challenge for him is how to sustain it longer than his past two stops.
Nobody saw this New York thing coming. Nobody thought the rebuilding would be this quick. From ping pong (balls) to bing bong, the Knicks are making the headlines now for all the right reasons.
For Thibodeau, culture isn’t just about the Knicks’ defense or how they are blitzing a pick and roll.
“Culture is what you do every day. It’s not one particular thing. It’s how you approach everything from draft, free agency, trades, player development, practice, travel, summer program,” Thibodeau explained during the training camp.
That starts by showing up in the training camp in good shape. In a nutshell, that is Thibodeau’s way or highway. The Knicks treated preseason like regular-season games. They went 4-0 with the starters playing deep in the fourth quarter.
Thibodeau defended that as his way of setting the tone for the season and keeping his players extra sharp ahead of the league.
“You have to be in shape to play for Thibs. It’s non-negotiable,” said Barrett, who dropped a season-high 20 points in Chicago on an array of drives and transition points. “That’s what we do. That’s what we practice.”
What happens when you’re not in top shape?
“You’re not going to play,” Randle said. “It’s the standard. We have a standard and a culture. That’s a part of it. It’s not just Thibs standard. It’s our standard that marks us as a team. We hold each other accountable. Everybody comes in the right shape. That’s the first thing.”
Randle earned Thibodeau’s respect when he showed up in great shape ahead of last year’s training camp. It set the tone for his breakthrough season that carried the Knicks to a surprising playoff run. That golden standard is what is driving them again to early success this season.
“How are you going to win games if you’re not in shape?,” Randle asked.
The minutes’ police keenly monitored Thibodeau’s first season with the Knicks. But Randle, who led the league in minutes, proved to be durable. He played all but one of the 72 regular-season games.
Even Walker, who did not play back-to-back games last season, has only missed one so far in a nine-game stretch dating back to the preseason. Walker revealed after the Knicks win in Chicago that taking care of his balky knees is a whole day routine, not just when he’s in the practice facility.
“I think guys know when they’re coming here to the Knicks, they’re coming here to play for Thibs. That’s what it is,” Randle said. “When you sign up to play here, you expect that of yourself. You expect that other guys to come in [with the same mindset].”
Thibodeau loves being around this team because they have embraced the culture of hard work, accountability, and togetherness.
It’s becoming a norm to see Knicks players working on their game outside their schedule in their practice facility. Randle’s road game routine of having extra work in the gym rather than checking out bars — something that he’s learned from the late Kobe Bryant — has caught on with the whole team.
But all work and no fun is no fun at all.
Thibodeau has learned that the hard way from his previous stops. There is still his gruffness and toughness on the court. But off the court, he’s now socializing and opening himself up a little bit.
The report coming out in Chicago is another reminder of that. The Knicks reportedly have stayed the night after their grueling win. Usually, they fly out to their next destination after games. Instead, they went out for dinner as a whole team.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that all my years in the NBA,” NBA analyst Brian Scalabrine, who played for Thibodeau in Chicago and Boston, said on SiriusXM’s NBA Radio.
Thibodeau still yells and yanks his players out of the game when he sees them repeatedly committing mistakes. But you will never hear Thibodeau throwing any of his players under the bus in postgame pressers, unlike other coaches around the league.
He still runs brutal practices. But he also throws around occasional jokes and cut short scrimmages when he feels his team needs a break.
“[Culture] is how you do everything and approach each day. If you have an organization putting everything they have and teaching every day, good things come out of that,” Thibodeau said.
From top to bottom, the Knicks have a synergy never before seen in James Dolan’s era. And to Dolan’s credit, he has given everything the team asked for — from robust analytics department to installing the league’s most comprehensive Noah Basketball system at their practice facility, from keeping out of any PR mess to letting Rose and the Thibodeau run the organization and the team.
“You couldn’t ask anything more [from Dolan]. Leon (Rose), Wes (Wiliam Wesley), and Scott (Perry) have been terrific,” Thibodeau said.
“Our players have been very committed. It’s a hardworking group but we don’t have it all figured out and there’s a long way to go. And it doesn’t go away. You have to do it every day. You can’t let up. There’s no shortcut to this. So everyone has to be willing to pay that price.”
Not everyone is built to play in New York. In the same way, not everyone is fit to play for Thibodeau. You have to be mentally tough and always ready for the grind — the price of sustainable success.
The Knicks are not the same old Knicks. Even with a large salary cap space in the offseason, they did not go after the flashy names. Instead, they signed role players to team-friendly contracts. They are keen to continue developing their own young players into stars with flexibility to trade for one who fits their culture.
Even if devoid of superstars, the Knicks are winning. They are thriving because of their culture.
“It’s still early, but we just want to continue to fight for each other and play the right way,” Walker said.
The Knicks are on top. And they don’t have any plan to come down.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo