In a summer in which the NBA seemed to be slipping into a crisis, star players demanding trades — and to their preferred destinations — the Knicks were, well, boring.
There was no frantic chase of stars like they had engaged in nearly every summer, and no draft night intrigue (the Knicks didn’t have a pick in the draft).
Other than dealing away Obi Toppin to Indiana in a friendly move that allowed him to land in a place where he could start, and signing another former Villanova standout at the start of free agency, they mostly relaxed.
The normally volatile franchise found serenity in the second round of the playoffs and are running it back.
“I think that helps a lot, just having guys that kind of know each other already,” Isaiah Hartenstein said. “I think that’s always something special and how all great teams keep building. I think that’s something we need to keep building on, keep everyone together and it will make it a lot easier, especially at the beginning.”
That might not be as simple as it sounds.
The Knicks don’t possess one of the premier stars in the NBA. There's no Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic on the roster. Those are the players they have chased most summers.
But still, the Knicks got uncharacteristic respect in the NBA’s annual general manager survey, picked for fifth place in the East. They garnered a decent number of votes for as high as third place behind only Boston and Milwaukee.
No player got a vote for the best anything other than Jalen Brunson, who also received votes for best leader and a player who might make a good coach someday.
“We’re a team, man,” RJ Barrett said. “We’re a team. Everybody is coming together for one goal. We know the expectations we have of ourselves and we kind of work to that standard every day.”
But the thing about this Knicks team is that it isn’t just continuity in terms of keeping the pieces in place with the coaching staff intact — although that matters if you consider that Tom Thibodeau, entering his fourth season at MSG, is on the longest run of any Knicks coach since Mike D’Antonio walked away 42 games into his fourth season. The Knicks also had five coaches in the five years prior to Thibodeau’s arrival.
The team brought back these pieces and have good reason to believe that they still have levels above where they reached last season. Not one player in the nine-man rotation is 30 years old yet, and two starters (Barrett and Quentin Grimes) are just 23 years old. Brunson now has one full season with the franchise and Josh Hart is entering his first full season with the organization.
"We can bring people back and pick up where we left off,” Julius Randle said. “Already have a great sense of how we want to play together and play off of each other. So, we’re just gonna keep building off of it.”
“This group, we have a bunch of guys who love to work on their game, have great work ethic,” Brunson said. “We have guys that we have to kick out of the gym. It’s not a problem for guys to work on their game. So I think that’s a plus for us.
“I think we all come back better, we all come back wiser. We understand the task at hand, what we need to do. It’s just getting better every single day. This is a great group. We have resilient guys and a lot of tough-minded, hard-working and great teammates. Resilient guys on this team. Couldn’t be more happy to go into games with this group.”
It hasn’t shown yet, however, as the Knicks have not only struggled to a 1-3 record in preseason, but their calling card of hard-nosed defense was absent for stretches. So, it’s no surprise that Thibodeau has preached over and over that the success of last year means nothing this time around, that the team must start at zero and build without skipping steps.
The Knicks were the No. 4 seed in the 2020-21 season and dropped back into the lottery the next year. But that team was far different than this one, shifting pieces and hoping for the best next season. This time, it is with a foundation set and no excuses — as long as the group approaches the season with the same chip on its shoulder as it had a year ago and doesn’t believe that a switch is flipped and they are back in the postseason again.
“That’s the danger in it,” Thibodeau said. “I think if you get into the mindset that I’m going to pace myself through this you’re making a huge mistake. We open with Boston on Wednesday. I already saw the intensity level that’s going to be required. That’s a habit that you’ve got to build that through your practice habits. We’ve got to put as much as we can into this. And when we do, we’re a good team. And when we don’t, we’re not. It’s not really complicated."
“I think what’s been brought up the most is not being comfortable, not looking too much ahead,” Hartenstein said. “I think again Thibs is always big on taking it day by day. That’s really going to help us, taking it really day by day, as corny as it may sound.”
47-35, 3rd place Atlantic Division; lose in second round of playoffs
The Knicks should be better this season, through continuity, maturity and the addition of playoff-tested Donte DiVincenzo. But that doesn’t make them good enough to beat the two teams at the top of the East and if things line up as expected, either Boston or Milwaukee will be awaiting them in the second round.
Steve Popper has covered the NBA since 1990. He has covered the Knicks for Newsday since 2018.