The Knicks have been a revelation this season, turning the corner after years — decades? — of dysfunction and presenting a new image as a hard-working team with playoff aspirations. A new front office. A new coach. A new team, at least in terms of record.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The new coach, Tom Thibodeau, has made a huge difference in the organization, preaching accountability and effort, making a 14-16 record feel like something different from the past struggles. But the roster is made up of much of the same pieces as the latest lost season — nine players back from a team that finished 21-45.
And in the front office, it’s worth noting that a lot of the work was done by the quiet voice that somehow was a holdover from the past regime.
When Leon Rose took over as team president and brought along longtime friend and associate William Wesley, much of the front office was unceremoniously pushed out. But general manager Scott Perry survived, as Rose kept him in place with a one-year extension on his expiring contract.
That might have brought exasperation to fans who wanted a clean cut from the previous teams. But as the Knicks have moved forward this season, much of the work can be traced to Perry’s arrival in New York and the work he did under difficult circumstances.
The first thing Perry did after Phil Jackson was fired as team president was ease the tension and lower the temperature with Carmelo Anthony, whom Jackson had tried to prod to waive the no-trade clause Jackson had given him. Perry made it work, and that began the moves that sowed the seeds that have begun to grow.
"He has a settling influence that’s good to see and it resonates to people he works with," said a counterpart executive from another team who asked not to be named. "I think his steady hand played an internal part, and with Leon and the rest of the gang now, it’s a win-win for both parties."
What Perry and Steve Mills did was get the Knicks back on stable ground after an organizational history of massive payrolls, contracts that could not be moved and draft picks being dealt away.
You can argue the decision to trade Kristaps Porzingis, and I fall on the side that you don’t move a franchise cornerstone unless you are getting a star back because you are spending draft picks and assets still trying to find one. But the move did clear a huge amount of salary-cap space and gave the Knicks the Mavericks' first-round picks in the 2021 and 2023 drafts.
The chase for a star failed, as Mills and Perry could not even get a meeting with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard. So the admitted Plan B took hold, and that was where Perry came in.
With a long history in the Detroit Pistons' organization, part of a front office that put together a team that won the NBA title in 2004 and reached the Eastern Conference finals six straight seasons, Perry liked the notion of a deep and competitive roster. Those teams had contracts that they could pivot from and also had hard-nosed players who competed not just with the rest of the NBA but for their own minutes.
Julius Randle was the Knicks' highest-paid piece of that free-agent class, but it is hard to argue that it wasn’t a bargain. Perry saw him as one of those Detroit grinders, a player who would put his head down and plow through a defense.
The Knicks hold a team option for next season, again providing the flexibility that Rose and Perry can use in a number of ways. They can move Randle for a haul that can help build a foundation or, what seems more likely right now, sign him to an extension as one of the cornerstones.
But it wasn’t just Randle. It was Marcus Morris, who was moved for a pick that turned into Immanuel Quickley. Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington weren't exactly the stars that fans were hoping for, but the Knicks did maintain their flexibility, and now Perry and Rose have the assets in place to make a major deal or the ability to keep building.
Three of those players from the free-agent class are in the starting lineup of this team — including Randle, who has made a case for an All-Star berth. He is averaging 23.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game and is shooting 48.0% from the field and 40.7% from three-point range.
"I think it’s extremely important to have a stable hand around," the NBA executive said. "For the front office with people in new roles, Leon having been an agent on the other side of the table, having Scott’s experience, his wealth of experience and knowledge can galvanize an organization. As you see the success, most of those guys are ones he went and acquired. Now they went and got a coach to put it together for him. His personnel decisions look pretty good."