The expectations outside of the very limited crew allowed into the Knicks' training center are low for this season, but as the team embarked on the first day of training camp Tuesday, led by coach Tom Thibodeau, they insisted that they will not be defined by those critics.
RJ Barrett shrugged off the predictions and said he is aiming for the playoffs. Nerlens Noel talked of getting it done in the short preseason as players basically are introducing themselves. While Thibodeau did not make predictions of playoff berths or drastic jumps through the standings, he pointed out that doing things the right way is a step he intends to take.
"That’s the first step. It’s practicing the right way," Thibodeau said. "And having a professionalism and togetherness that will allow us to reach whatever our potential is. We want to build a winning culture, and that happens day-by-day. So oftentimes you’re not going to jump from one point to the top of the league in a short amount of time. You have to go step-by-step and don’t [skip] any of those steps. Hopefully we have the right guys where we can build that culture."
He said of the predictions: "I never really pay attention to that stuff. If you go back over the years, it’s really meaningless. What I look at is, ‘OK, this is our team. How can we get better? What gives us the best chance to win?’ and just taking it day-by-day.
''A lot of things can happen over the course of the season. So the focus for us and for our team has to be on doing the right things each and every day. And if we do that, we’ll improve and we’ll get better, and that’s all we have to think about.
''It really doesn’t matter what the outside people think, whether it’s Vegas or anyone else. It’s what we think. So if we come in each and every day and we do the right things and we play for each other, good things will happen."
Barrett, still smarting from a 21-45 rookie season, echoed those sentiments. But he was willing to put a goal in place and say it out loud.
"I’m trying to make the playoffs and trying to win," he said. "We shouldn’t expect anything less from ourselves. We have to try and go out there and be the best team we can be. We got a lot of talented players and hard workers. If we put it together with the coaching staff we have, we should be able to do very well."
But if Thibodeau was blocking out the criticism from outside the organization, he also seemed to have little interest in any notion of a patient rebuild. He was seen as a hard-driving coach in his first two head-coaching stops, and he did little to counter that impression as he talked Tuesday about weighing the development of the young players on the team versus playing to win each night.
The Knicks are young up and down the roster and do not have a player over 30 years old. But there are decisions to be made on playing time. Does Julius Randle crowd Obi Toppin out of minutes? Will the return of Elfrid Payton mean less time for rookie Immanuel Quickley, not to mention still young point guards Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.? Do Austin Rivers, Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock crowd out Kevin Knox?
"Nothing will be given to anyone," Thibodeau said. "You’re going to have to earn your minutes. Those decisions on rotation will be based on performance and what gives the team the best chance of winning. A player is not going to get minutes just to get minutes. You have to impact winning, you have to put the team first. There has to be sacrifices made. And that’s what we’re going to strive toward each and every day.
''I think we have a very strong staff. The focus will be on teaching and work. So we know there’s a lot of work to be done."