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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Knicks' culture becoming a class act around NBA filled with chaos

Obi Toppin #1 of the Knicks reacts after

Obi Toppin #1 of the Knicks reacts after a basket in the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers with teammates Derrick Rose #4 and Alec Burks #18 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When you look around the NBA this season, the Knicks are a model of calmness and stability, which is surely a sentence I never thought I would write.

Yes, there are better teams. Yes, there are more talented teams. But it’s hard not to admire the overall culture on a franchise where there are no protests outside the arena before games, no absent superstars, no near fistfights between teammates during a tight game and no glaring competing agendas.

After a tumultuous two decades which most recently included changing coaches six times in the last seven years, the Knicks have finally developed the type of culture where young players like RJ Barrett can grow, talented players like Julius Randle can make the jump to superstar and old savvy veterans like Derrick Rose can make a big-time impact both on the court and in the locker room.

This fact was not lost on 76er coach Doc Rivers, who has been dealing with the Ben Simmons telenovela this season.

Rivers, who played two plus seasons for the Knicks when the team also employed Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley, knows how hard it is to establish a resilient and winning culture. And he believes Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, who was his assistant in Boston for three seasons, is managing to do that in New York.

"Thibs is a hell of a coach," Rivers said Tuesday before his 76ers played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Tuesday night, Rivers’ team was again without Simmons. A max contract player, Simmons has yet to suit up for the 76ers after a tumultuous summer where there was a war of words as well as trade rumors and trade requests. The team had been fining Simmons, who was also kicked out of a practice and suspended a game.

Now, however, after he held a meeting with his coaches and teammates where he explained he is not in the right place mentally to return, they are no longer fining him, though there is no date for his return.

The 76ers, along with the Nets, were considered contenders last season. Both teams had disappointing exits in the second round of the playoffs with the 76ers losing to Atlanta and the Nets losing to Milwaukee, the eventual NBA champion.

While the 76ers have been dealing with the Simmons saga, the Nets have had to come to terms with the fact that their All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving will not be playing with them until he either agrees to be vaccinated or New York City lifts its rules that require people entering a public building like the Barclay’s Center to be vaccinated. Irving, in the meantime, has become a poster person for those who are against vaccine mandates. In the season-opener, a small group of protesters chanting "Let Kyrie Play" had to be repelled from the front of the arena after they tried to charge the door.

And then we have the Lakers, another team with big time aspirations. Not only have the Lakers gotten off to a slow start, but stars Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard had to be separated after a sideline scuffle when the Lakers were getting blown out by the Phoenix Suns.

The Knicks, who were a surprise to make the playoffs last year, don’t have the same expectations that the Nets, Lakers and 76ers do. Maybe you have to be good for a couple of years, before your culture really gets tested.

It’s clear right now that the 76ers are being tested, and Rivers thinks they have what it takes to get through it.

"Culture is not an accident," Rivers said. "We were doing it last year. We cleaned out a lot of stuff as you know on the team and all over. It’s not an accident. You have to work on it. When you have it, it allows you to get through tough times a lot easier than when you don’t have it."

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