A season ago, every victory seemed almost like a championship win for the Knicks. They treated each game with that sort of importance, and the fans, who had endured so many years of dysfunction, embraced the team as if a banner could be raised for each win.
So how do they follow that up? Expectations are raised. Tom Thibodeau is the reigning coach of the year and Julius Randle was named most improved player. The roster was improved. And after a disappointing postseason exit in the first round in June, what is enough this time?
"Expectations for this season," team president Leon Rose said, "straightforward, we want to continue to develop our players. We want to build on what we did last year and we want to get better every day . . . I really feel like one of the greatest things Coach has done, from the moment he started with us last year, there are certain principles he’s been preaching — not skipping any steps, focusing on what’s right in front of you, not worrying about two steps down the road, and we’ve taken that approach the entire way."
If step one was creating a culture, Thibodeau accomplished that. The embarrassments of the Phil Jackson era, the misguided rebuilding efforts, have been pushed aside. Thibodeau created a team in his image, a group of hard-nosed lunch-pail types who captured the imagination of the city even if the stands were empty and the streets were mostly desolate.
Randle and RJ Barrett led a group that spent countless hours in the gym, even finding places to get shots on arrival in road cities. Thibodeau’s long-time allies, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, served as surrogate coaches on the floor.
But the first-round postseason loss to Atlanta showed them that effort isn’t enough. So they parted ways with a pair of defensive-minded starters in Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton and added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to boost the offense and take pressure off Randle’s shoulders.
The Knicks ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive rating last season and led the league in opponents’ field-goal percentage. Now the greatest challenge might be fitting in the new pieces offensively and making the defense still work.
"For me, for our team, it’s just about getting better every day," Randle said. "Continuing to develop as individuals, develop as a team. I think the biggest thing last year was we came in, we did the right things every day. Because we created those good habits, we had a plan for what we were doing every night. It doesn’t change. We just want to stand by that.
"Obviously losing Elfrid and losing Reggie, those are two huge pieces for us last year. They did a lot for our team. Those guys had the toughest assignments on defense every night. They were tremendous for us. Not only that, they were great teammates. They were like brothers to me, so it was tough losing them.
"Evan and Kemba, those are guys you really have to account for on the offensive end. They can shoot, score the ball, make plays. Our biggest thing is we’ve got to continue to lock up every night, play defense. I’m excited about it. They’re obviously two experienced veteran players who have accomplished a lot in this league, and I think it will be great for us."
In this preseason, even as the Knicks went 4-0, there were glitches. Fournier shot 35.5% and had nearly as many turnovers as assists. Walker was only slightly better, shooting 39.3%, and struggled defensively.
And there are the questions of health. Walker’s left knee has been a problem for years. The Knicks avoided major shutdowns last season, with Randle and Barrett piling up league-high minutes, and the team never had to endure the COVID shutdowns that halted other teams. So can they repeat all of the work and count on the infusion of talent to lift them higher?
"The thing for us, the games are like tests . . . ," Thibodeau said. "We have to stay hungry. We have to stay focused. And we have to keep the focus on daily improvement. And so if we’re doing that, and the whole idea is you begin with the end in mind, so at the end, what do we need?
"If we want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year, there’s no shortcuts to this. It’s day after day after day. We always talk about stacking your days, and that’s what we’re trying to do."
Last season the Knicks finished 41-31 with a shortened schedule due to the coronavirus and exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic fan, earning a playoff berth for the first time in eight years. But if everything seemed to go right for them while others struggled through the COVID-shortened season, where do they go from here? Can they repeat the stellar performance of last season and perpetuate one of the most stifling defenses in the NBA while integrating talented new additions? Even if they’re better on paper, another fourth-place finish seems overly optimistic.
Steve Popper has covered the Knicks for Newsday since 2018.