Fans of the Knicks certainly thought they would be great, putting together a collection of yesterday’s All-Stars. Derrick Rose declared the squad a “super team” in the realm of the Golden State Warriors. Expectations were sky high in the Big Apple.
But the rest of the country knew that the Knicks’ season was bound to end in disappointment. A collection of injury-prone, aging players who left their athleticism at previous stops was not going to rejuvenate a proud franchise. The hope for the future — Kristaps Porzingis — was still years away from true dominance.
The Knicks played the script to open the season, combining legal issues with early injuries and poor shooting. Their defense was a turnstile for opposing teams, and a 3-6 start saw every opponent break the century mark. A disappointing season — nearly an annual tradition in New York — seemed all but certain.
Then things changed, and the Knicks began winning games. Sparked in part by Joakim Noah’s absence from the lineup due to illness, the Knicks have increased their use of small-ball lineups with Porzingis at the 5 and Carmelo Anthony at the 4, and seen positive results. Their 3-6 start is now an 8-8 fight back into the middle of the Eastern Conference.
Nov 22, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks guard Brandon Jennings (3) celebrates with forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) during the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Vegas had the Knicks’ over/under set at 38.5, less than the Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Those teams are floundering through the first month, while the Knickerbockers are firmly in the playoff race.
On the one hand, this run has the shine of fool’s gold. Four of the five wins were by single digits, including wins by two, three, and four points that could have easily gone to either team. Derrick Rose has been both healthy and productive, two adjectives that haven’t applied to him in recent seasons.
On the other hand, there is reason to think the Knicks have something to build upon. Kristaps Porzingis’ future is as at the 5, where he can take advantage of speed mismatches to score both inside and outside. Expanding his minutes at the pivot increases the Knicks’ offensive versatility without compromising on defense.
The Knicks have been heating up during a stretch of their schedule that is not particularly forgiving. The Hornets, Trail Blazers, Pistons, and Hawks all lost to the Knicks after making the playoffs last season, and all are on track to make the playoffs again this year. New York didn’t get hot playing the likes of the Suns and Nets.
When the schedule eases up, that could offset the possibility of injury to key rotation players. If head coach Jeff Hornacek can continue to limit Noah’s minutes and use Porzingis at the 5, he will help his team be more competitive and win more games. That’s the simple reality this season as Noah struggles to have any positive impact on the floor.
No one expects the New York Knicks to be contenders this season — that is, outside of New York — but no one expected them to be competent either. The Knicks are winning games against good teams, and doing so with a variety of contributors.
Brandon Jennings has been dynamic off the bench, Porzingis is truly something unique on a basketball court, and Carmelo Anthony is continuing to lead the team in scoring. There are options on this team, and plenty of them.
The odds are stacked against New York making a serious run in the East; there are somewhere around seven locks for the Eastern Conference playoffs, leaving a half-dozen teams to fight over one or two spots.
The Knicks have earned the right to be in that conversation, at least for now. Their gritty play and offensive development over the last few weeks has impressed many and surprised most. They held Dallas to a 12-point quarter last weekend, and 77 points overall. That’s a new look for the Knicks.
If they can sustain their current level of play, they will be in the mix until the final weeks. That’s the high water mark for a franchise in a unique form of transition, investing resources in old hands to form up around the young gun. It’s equally likely that injuries, reversion and the forced adaptation of the Triangle pulls this team right back where it started from.