Tom Thibodeau says no to Knicks tanking: I don’t want a quitting spirit

The New York Knicks‘ future is already here. And maybe not in this year’s lottery.

Buoyed by their young core’s stellar play and Alec Burks’ timely hits, the resurgent Knicks are riding high on a season-high four-game winning streak after a 109-104 upset of the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed Chicago Bulls.

It may not be enough to cover up the Atlanta Hawks’ 4.5-game lead over them for the final play-in spot with only seven games left to play. But it’s an important development for their future.

RJ Barrett is emerging as a leader. Immanuel Quickley is rapidly growing as a playmaker. Jericho Sims is becoming a serviceable backup center. Miles “Deuce” McBride is finally getting his due. Quentin Grimes shows he can be a solid 3-and-D when healthy. Obi Toppin is finally taking the leap. Cam Reddish showed potential before he went down with a season-ending injury.

“The big thing is we’re playing these young guys. And they’re getting valuable experience,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau stressed when asked about their recent surge could hurt their lottery chances. “You’re never eliminated until you’re eliminated. And so, I don’t want a quitting spirit in our team. I want to keep fighting. So until we’re eliminated, we’re going to keep fighting.”

After winning their ninth in their last 14 games, the Knicks’ lottery odds of landing the top overall pick in the coming NBA Draft dwindled to 1.5 percent. If they don’t move in the lottery, they are slated to pick at 12th in a top-heavy but murky draft class headed by Auburn’s Jabari Smith, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Duke’s Paolo Banchero, and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey. Their odds of getting into the top four and snagging one of these young studs are currently pegged at 2.1 percent, per Tankathon.

Thibodeau is not a tank commander. He’s a battle-scarred playoff general whose vocabulary only knows winning and learning from losses.

“We’ve got a number of guys that are growing. That’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t believe in that other stuff (tanking),” Thibodeau said.

The Knicks’ young players are growing, and at the same time, they’re winning. It’s hard not to wonder why it came a little late before Thibodeau finally pushed, or was he forced to push the right buttons?

“Well, there were some good moments early on, too. We’ll do a deep dive after the season,” Thibodeau said. “I have some pretty good ideas why.”

Thibodeau has pointed to the balance — getting stronger on both sides of the ball — as the reason behind this resurgence. At the heart of it is their young core, proving that they are up to the task.

Their 9-8 record since the All-Star break or since Thibodeau finally relented to use the young guys more doesn’t reflect the growth of the team from their disappointing performance three-fourths into the season. Since the break, they have a top-5 defense (allowing only 110.5 per 100 possessions) and a middle-of-the-pack offense (14th in offensive rating with 113.8 points per 100 possessions), with more than half of Thibodeau’s rotation being 23 years old and younger.

Their net rating over that span is 3.3 points, the 10th-best in the league. Their record might have been better if they learned how to close out games better earlier.

“You’re learning. You’re dealing with finishing… There’s nothing you could do in practice that could replicate the intensity of a game,” Thibodeau said. “So why would you not use the game for your young guys to develop?”

It’s never too late for next season.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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