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Knicks believe they'll be better this season, but others aren't so sure

In this photo from January 4, 2021, head

In this photo from January 4, 2021, head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Knicks reacts against the Atlanta Hawks during the second half at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  Credit: TNS/Kevin C. Cox

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Knicks spent the summer shoring up their roster, filling in the obvious holes from last season’s disappointing playoff exit. And they have spent the first week of camp with nothing but good news while headlines blare from other Eastern Conference teams troubled by potential season-wrecking problems.

The Nets wait for the cryptic messages from Kyrie Irving to let them know whether he will play home games or any games this season. The 76ers find themselves in limbo, their second-best player holding out of training camp and demanding a trade while they can’t find an offer that would bring back nearly the return to keep them near the top of the conference.

So the harmony and the achievements of last season would seem to point to a step forward. But when Las Vegas oddsmakers put out the opening lines on over/under for wins this season they put the Knicks at 41 1/2.

The Knicks, with Elfrid Payton starting at point guard and Derrick Rose not arriving until months into last season, won 41 games in just a 72-game season, a 41-31 mark and a .569 winning percentage. Now Vegas has them teetering at .500, expecting 41 wins in an 82-game season with a city full of potential overly-optimistic bettors?

"I’ll let you guys decide," Julius Randle said earlier this week. "For me, for our team, it’s just about getting better every day, 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."

"Your first meeting is critical because you have to lay all that stuff out, and it’s a goal-setting meeting," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said following Saturday’s practice. "We have to understand what our plan is and how we’re going to go about approaching that. I think it’s important. I know that’s part of your job. It’s part of our league "People are excited. But for us, it really doesn’t mean anything, you know? You have to play the games. And so we have to understand what goes into winning and the work part of it, and you do start at a zero base.

"I always felt like stuff like that — they don’t know. If we went by what they said last year, we never would’ve done what we did. And so, whether it’s praise or criticism, treat it the same. And it doesn’t really matter what outsiders think. It matters what we think. And we have the understanding of what we’re doing each and every day. And we understand we have to do it together."

One of the factors certainly could be that the Knicks optimized the harsh conditions last season as well as any team, avoiding the COVID-19 shutdowns of practice that other went through. The Knicks only lost three players all season to the virus — Derrick Rose and Alec Burks for positive tests and Frank Ntilikina for a contact tracing episode — and were able to keep the rest of the team safely at work.

Compare that to a team like Boston that endured team-wide shutdowns of practice and had games postponed while seeing their best player, Jayson Tatum, not only test positive but saw him hampered by lingering symptoms for much of the season.

Under Thibodeau, the Knicks also played every game not only with nearly a full roster, but also with the fervor of a Game 7, while many teams seemed to be floating through the season with an eye toward the postseason. Does that explain why, when the playoffs did arrive, a team that the Knicks had passed in the standings, Atlanta, was able to dominate them for a five-game series victory?

Three times already in the first week of camp Thibodeau has used the phrase "zero base" to emphasize that what the team accomplished last season doesn’t carry over, doesn’t mean a thing to what this season will bring. He’s not wrong, having seen the Knicks maximize their potential last season. And while the Knicks can see a clear path to improvement with the additions of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker and the development of their own young players, Thibodeau has stressed that nothing is given.

"I think you go into every season and we feel if we’re doing the right things, the results will take care of themselves," Thibodeau said. "So understand what goes into winning, do everything you can to help the team win and if we get the whole group doing that, we like our chances. There’s no easy way to do this. The teams are good, all 30 teams have great talent so you have to find a way to win games."

Last year, it was an everyday, step-by-step approach that got the Knicks as far as they did. Fournier only watched from afar last season, but in his first camp with the Knicks, believes he sees that same sort of hunger.

"This is my first time being with these guys every day, so I'm getting to know them," he said. "I'm not sure what it was like last year on a daily basis, but the young guys are hungry, the veterans are hungry, the coaching staff is hungry. You can definitely feel that work atmosphere. Everyone is coming into work to get better and we have the right mindset and attitude. It's been very enjoyable to be around those guys.

"To be honest, I think most of the players want to be on a team that wants to work and wants to win. Nobody's having fun if nobody cares, but obviously when you have a coach like Thibs, and you want to accomplish things, you bring in players that fit into that mentality. Everyone's on board, obviously, so they've been doing a good job."

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