New York Knicks
How the Knicks turned their season around, and built immaculate vibes
New York Knicks

How the Knicks turned their season around, and built immaculate vibes

Updated Mar. 7, 2023 3:37 p.m. ET

You know what's perhaps the wildest part about the New York Knicks' recent surge up the Eastern Conference standings? It's that we're not even three months removed from the wheels looking like they were surely about to fall off.

Let's go back to December. The Knicks began the month with a home loss to the Dallas Mavericks, their sixth in eight games. The defeat dropped them to 10-13.

At the time, the Knicks' future looked, well, bleak. Their offense was stagnant and stilted, their defense hollow and heartless (they were surrendering points at the fourth-worst rate in the league). Immanuel Quickley was being dangled in trade proposals. Cam Reddish, Isaiah Hartenstein and Evan Fournier were all fixtures in the rotation. Head coach Tom Thibodeau, aware, according to league sources and as has been reported by SNY, that Knicks executive vice president William Wesley had internally been pushing for his ouster for around a year, believed his time in New York was running out, even telling a friend in early December that he believed the Knicks were on the verge of firing him, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

"They're going to fire me," he said.


How close the Knicks were to changing coaches is unclear. What is clear, though, is that in a matter of weeks, the Knicks have executed a turnaround that has not only salvaged their season but propelled them to a stratosphere they haven't occupied in years.

They've won nine in a row, tied for the franchise's second-best win streak since 1994, and at 39-27, now sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, good for a two-game cushion ahead of the play-in teams. They're within striking distance of the fourth seed. They boast the league's sixth-best offense. Their defense has climbed to 14th. They have two players who are going to receive All-NBA votes and the current favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.

But it's not just that they're winning. They've had stretches of competence before, even as recently as two years ago. But this feels different. It feels real, genuine. The New York Knicks are good, fun and relatively young. It's like we've entered the NBA's Bizarro World.

Are New York Knicks the real deal after ninth-straight win?

How did we get here? How did a team that hasn't won a championship since 1973, and has just one playoff series victory in the past 21 years, nevermind countless scandals, seemingly right the ship? The best place to start is last offseason — as the Knicks brought in Jalen Brunson, who not only has been the best free agent signing of the year, but is looking like the best signing in Knicks history.

Brunson's been an absolute star. He's been able to pull off the rare feat of upping both his usage and efficiency. No longer playing off Luka Doncic, he's averaging a career-best 23.9 points and 6.2 assists per game, while drilling a career-high 41.1% of his 3-pointers. He's also racked up the second most clutch points of any player this season, according to NBA advanced stats, leading the Knicks to a stellar 20-15 record in games within five points in the final five minutes, all while boasting the top turnover rate among the league's high-usage guards.

Brunson's impact on the group can't be overstated. He's the engine for everything the Knicks do, the one pumping up teammates on Twitter and credited by Thibodeau for setting an example over the summer with his frequent gym visits. 

He's even coaxing smiles out of his notoriously gruff coach.

The Knicks made Brunson their priority over the summer, and even if there may have been some nepotism behind the decision, the four-year, $104 million deal they handed him now looks like a steal. Brunson's presence — and his high volume, highly-efficient, low-turnover, ceaselessly-attacking style — has allowed everything and everyone else for the Knicks to click into place.

Just look at Julius Randle, who has rediscovered his stroke after an ugly 2021-22 campaign. Part of that is a result of Randle being free to focus more on finishing possessions as opposed to starting them. Brunson has assisted Randle on 116 baskets this season, according to PBP Stats, a top-10 mark. Randle, meanwhile, is averaging a career-best 25.4 points per game while boasting a true shooting percentage (which takes into account 3s and free-throws) of 59.1. 

As a reference, his true shooting percentage during his first All-Star season with the Knicks was 56.7.

Then there's Mitchell Robinson, who has grown into an interior force. On the offensive end of the court, he's a dangerous lob threat and, more notably, a beast on the offensive glass. Only Steven Adams has pulled down more offensive rebounds per game, and only the Houston Rockets have rebounded a higher percentage of their team's own misses. Mix this in with two elite shot-creators like Brunson and Randle, and a top-five turnover rate, and you can see how the Knicks have been able to build one of the NBA's most potent attacks.

It's defending teams where the Knicks have occasionally struggled this season, a surprise considering their defense-first head coach, but there's reason to believe those holes might now be plugged. First off, Robinson is back on the court, after missing nearly a month with a fractured thumb. He's one of the league's top rim-protectors and with him on the court this season, the Knicks have defended at a top-five rate, according to Cleaning the Glass. Also, the Knicks are giving more minutes to Quickley. You likely know about his recent offensive explosion, but for the third straight season, the Knicks's defensive rating plummets when Quickley plays.

Finally, of course, there's the massive trade deadline addition of Josh Hart. He's the best perimeter defender the Knicks have — he's given MVP candidate Jayson Tatum fits in two games — nevermind a maestro on the defensive glass and a relentless paint hunter. With him and Robinson now in the fold, the Knicks have a core that elevate and accentuate one another. It's been only a handful of games, but when Brunson, Randle, Robinson and Hart have shared the floor, the Knicks have thumped opponents to the tune of 35 points per 100 non-garbage time possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.

But you know what was also notable about the Hart deal? It was a rare deal executed by this current Knicks regime where everyone was on the same page. Remember, for example, when the front office parted with a first-round pick for Reddish, only to have Thibodeau bury him on the bench? There have been numerous other examples of internal clashes since Leon Rose was hired in March 2020. This was the opposite, the front office finding a player who would be a hand-in-glove-fit with the current group, who Thibodeau loves and who's extremely close with Brunson, a former college teammate at Villanova.

Meanwhile, Reddish, like Kemba Walker, is gone, Fournier's been banished to the bench, Thibodeau's going to receive Coach of the Year votes for the second time in three seasons, and Rose & Co. have a plethora of future draft picks to play with over the summer.

That's not to say everything around Madison Square Garden is perfect. The internal jostling between the front office and coaching staff is ongoing. MSG's tempestuous chairman, James Dolan, has created a culture where different factions are always going to be fighting for his ear. In bad times, that means blaming others for the failures; in good times, it means trying to claim the success.

But give this group credit for succeeding despite that environment. Because right now the vibes around the team, as Brunson would say, do appear to be immaculate. 

When was the last time we could say that about the New York Knicks?

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of "Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports." Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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