If you build, they will come.
That is essentially Leon Rose’s vision for his “Knicks of Dreams,” channeling his inner Ray Kinsella.
The New York Knicks team president has stuck to his summer proclamation that they’re building the right way.
Though it’s a small sample size, the early results have been encouraging.
Basically using the same core as last year in the starting unit, and despite the rash of injuries, Knicks’ new coach Tom Thibodeau was able to make do with what he has on their way to beating a pair of playoff-quality opponents.
The Knicks have a chance to get above .500 for the first time in a long while when they take on the Atlanta Hawks, owner of the league’s second-best offense, Monday night.
Trust Thibs’ process
They were fun to watch when they routed the Milwaukee Bucks at home and pulled out a gut-wrenching win on the road against the Indiana Pacers.
But there were also “growing pains” moments, just like when their starters shot their way to the wrong end of the history with a 0-for-23 three-point mark in a 17-point loss to the Toronto Raptors.
That prompted free-agent acquisition Austin Rivers to plead for patience from the anxious Knicks fans on their team’s page on Instagram.
NYK vet Austin Rivers writes on Instagram after loss to TOR: “It’s a process. Trust us. We are getting better…. I promise we getting there step-by-step.” Rivers made Knicks debut Thursday. New York shot terribly, defended solidly in loss to TOR, fell to 2-3. Rivers’ full post here: pic.twitter.com/grsbyqrRjB
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) January 1, 2021
The next day, he walked the talk and contributed 15 points, including the game-sealing layup, off the bench in a character-building win in Indianapolis. Rivers then took us inside the culture that Thibodeau has been building.
“I’ve never done that. I’ve never commented on a team page. But I just want to let it known that Knicks have great fans. I know they have been waiting a long time to see progress. We’re on the right direction,” Rivers said afterward.
Rivers has nixed offers from several playoff teams, including a reunion with his father Doc Rivers in Philadelphia because he was sold to Rose’s “Knicks of Dreams.”
‘We’re gonna get there’
The younger Rivers said he had not been here long enough to know everything about the Knicks. But there’s one thing he’s really certain about. The Knicks are about to turn the corner.
“I don’t meant to come off as someone who knows everything. But they’ve brought in all these new people from top to bottom, from Leon to Thibs, to players to trainers, I mean everything… the whole nine yards. I just want to let people know that be patient. We’re working so hard. Tonight’s a big win, but we know we still have a lot of work to do.” Rivers said after picking up their third win.
“Every time I get to the locker room, I keep on telling guys we have to keep building, we have to keep building. So we are heading in the right direction. I know we have great fans. We’re doing everything we can, We’re building, and we’re gonna get there,” he continued. “Right now, we just have a whole team that is buying it. It’s the beginning, so, like I said, we have a lot more work to do, but it’s just nice to have good guys, and everybody is buying it.
Building the culture
A couple of months before Thibodeau was hired, he guested on The Platform podcast and had a revealing interview.
“How you build a culture is you have to sell your vision to your best players and your best players have to sell it to the rest of the team,” Thibodeau said in May. “Your first meeting is the most important meeting of the year. You have to begin with the end in mind. What wins in the playoffs, these are the things that you have to do, building habits.”
Thibodeau has relied on his veterans to right the ship. He’s always mentioned Julius Randle’s leadership dating back to as far as before their OTA.
The Knicks’ quiet but underrated offseason has yielded high-character and productive veterans on cheap deals. Rivers, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel are proving to be smart acquisitions by this new savvy front office.
The veterans have bought in to Thibodeau’s vision, and they’re selling it to the younger core of the team.
“We’re coming together great. It helps when you have great guys. It makes my job, Julius’ job, all the vets who are going to lead this team. It makes our job easier,” Rivers said.
“All the young guys that we have are great. Guys who are not playing are real supportive. Everybody is cheering each other on. That’s what we’ve been trying to instill in the locker room. If you’re not playing, be happy for someone else’s success. You got to act the right way. You have to be professional because you never know who’s watching you, you never know when your opportunity is coming. So right now, we just have a whole team buying in. It’s the beginning,” he added.
Theo Pinson, another Knicks’ offseason acquisition, is one of those guys who’s been riding the bench that has been providing a jolt of energy. He’d seen this play out before across the borough when he was the Brooklyn Nets’ no. 1 cheerleader on the bench.
“I think team camaraderie is the biggest thing. The more you like each other off the court, it helps the court, especially with a young team. You go out there and start playing selflessly. You just want to play for each other. You want to see the other person succeed. That’s when everybody eats. As you could see, it help the guys in Brooklyn,” Pinson reflecting on his experience with the Nets.
“That’s also gonna help here. The guys in the locker room, we get along really well. We are already a tight-knit group. Even after the loss to Indiana [in the season opener], we already started talking to each other about what we saw on the court, what we can do better, how we can get each other better shots on the court, how we can finish games. So for us to react to a loss like that early is big time, in my opinion,” Pinson continued.
It showed in their rematch. The Pacers couldn’t bully the Knicks the way they did in the season opener. The Knicks flaunted their newfound chemistry and defensive tenacity.
Playing for each other
Rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley represents the Knicks’ future. The dynamic guard out of Kentucky has successfully returned from a hip pointer that caused him to miss four games.
His playmaking and shotmaking has injected a new dimension to the Knicks’ offense and has stabilized their second unit.
Viewed by fans as a threat to Payton’s starting job, the veteran guard has taken it in stride and is, in fact, mentoring the Knicks’ point guard of the future.
“I say Elfrid is definitely a big one, just showing me little things that would help me on and off the floor. I have really gotten close with pretty much all the guys. I feel like this team is really tight-knit. We love being around each other. I feel like this group can do something special just because of the type of chemistry that we have,” Quickley said after the Knicks’ Monday shootaround in Atlanta.
Payton has rebounded well from his scoreless performance in their earlier home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s since averaged 18.5 points on 61 percent field goal shooting and 5.8 assists to solidify his stranglehold of the starting job.
It’s just one of those many proofs of the Thibodeau effect in New York.
The Knicks have long been the league’s laughingstock, but Thibodeau’s serious approach to the game has started to change the team’s dynamics and culture.
Their early success has put the league on notice.
Some nice praise for Julius Randle and the Knicks from @ZachLowe_NBA this morning:
“But New York, under Tom Thibodeau looks more coherent. The Knicks are moving more, cutting harder, playing with some organized purpose.”https://t.co/AbZYGtdDjk
— Jonathan Macri (@JCMacriNBA) January 1, 2021
Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickly is already a Lou Williams-level Jedi master at tangling his off arm with an opponents’ arm to grift fouls. Got Indy three times with this. pic.twitter.com/uIPoWWeQpq
— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) January 3, 2021
— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) January 3, 2021
Knicks’ biggest acquisition
Thibodeau’s gift of maximizing value out of his players is seen as a curse by his critics.
But for a team lacking in bona fide superstars, Thibodeau is proving to be the team’s biggest acquisition, essentially the team’s superstar.
Rose’s unpopular decision of opting for a coaching retread is paying dividends for this young Knicks team.
“We want to find the right leader that can develop our young players as well as hold everyone accountable,” Rose said in his first public appearance in June. “And take us from development to becoming a perennial winner. We also want someone that we think will be collaborative with the front office and someone that when you’re in that huddle and when you’re looking at that coach’s eyes, every player who’s looking at him knows that person is driving the ship and going to get the job done.”
So far, Thibodeau is getting the job done.
Rose’s vision of bringing back the Knicks’ old glory is starting to come to life. Just like how Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” has brought back to life Shoeless Jackson and his baseball team.
Rivers can see it. Pinson has seen this play out before. Quickley is feeling it. The national media has taken notice.
If you build the culture, the wins and stars will come to Leon Rose’s “Knicks of Dreams.”
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo