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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks can learn from the Heat and star Jimmy Butler

Heat forward Jimmy Butler, left, passes around Lakers

Heat forward Jimmy Butler, left, passes around Lakers forward LeBron James during the first half in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Oct. 9 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Credit: AP/John Raoux

While the Heat and Lakers were battling it out in the NBA Finals, the last step of the three-month-long bubble restart to the NBA season, the Knicks were conducting a series of workouts at their Greenburgh practice facility. Although it might seem worlds apart, there was a connection through the distance that could provide a valuable lesson for the Knicks’ task of trying to rebuild the franchise.

Even though Heat Culture is heralded with good reason, a franchise set on playing the right way, developing young talent and pairing it with veteran leadership, all under the guidance of Pat Riley, it was still no match in the end for the talent gap the Lakers possessed. But outgunned in the matchup from the start and shorthanded for much of it, the Heat still made a series of it by playing harder and smarter for much of the Finals.

Not all the time. In the series-ending Game 6, the Lakers took the court and from the opening tip played defense as if they were the undermanned squad, outworking, outrunning and outhustling Miami, leaving a predictably one-sided result.

And it may be that way for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks next season unless team president Leon Rose and his remade front office can drastically make over the roster. They don't have a Jimmy Butler to carry them when two key pieces are sidelined. Maybe Rose pulls the trigger on a deal for Chris Paul, Victor Oladipo or Russell Westbrook to serve as the cornerstone for the young lottery picks who have yet to prove themselves.

But for Thibodeau, the workouts provided the first chance for him to put his imprint on the players he has inherited. He was able to get an in-person look at RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, as well as Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., providing an opportunity to see who was all-in on his system and who might bristle like some of the Minnesota Timberwolves did even as he brought them to the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons.

"We know how important this offseason is for all our players in terms of preparation and development," Thibodeau said after the final group workout, emphasizing that the mini-bubble the team was granted would not be the end of the offseason teaching.

Can Thibodeau, in this odd offseason, change a culture that has been rotting for much of the last two decades in New York?

After the Phil Jackson era at Madison Square Garden that featured a procession of coaches and the ensuing continuation of dysfunction, Thibodeau arrives with a line that links from Riley to Jeff Van Gundy to Thibodeau — a straight line, not a triangle, before you panic. You could add Jimmy Butler to that lineage, Thibodeau having helped form his career when they worked together in Chicago and Minnesota and now Butler reaching a pinnacle of his career with his postseason performance.

Again, right now there is no Butler in New York. But maybe Thibodeau can provide a hint of what Butler did in the locker room.

After the series was over, Butler said, "We're trending in the right direction. We're going to learn from this. We're going to get better. We're going to come back. We're going to come back. We'll be back. That's what we're all saying in that locker room. We got guys that want to do it. We got guys that already want to get back in the gym and get to working at this thing. That's what we do here."

"We didn't get the final result that we wanted," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "But even what I mentioned to the guys, these are going to be lifetime memories that we have together. This locker room, regardless of whatever happens in the future, we're going to remember this year, this season, this experience and that locker room brotherhood for the rest of our lives. You're in this business to be able to be around people like this. And I can go on and on. But the guys that competed and played in this series, we had several guys that were not even close to being a hundred percent. Probably shouldn't have been playing, but that's how this group was. They wanted to do it for each other. And I just, I'm really bummed that we couldn't find a way to get over the hump and finish the season with a win."

They didn’t have the talent to beat the Lakers. The Knicks don’t have the talent to beat almost anyone right now. Oddsmakers have already made them one of the long shots in the league for next season. But maybe if they play the right way, if they absorb what Thibodeau is trying to teach, they can exceed at least those low expectations.

What’s next?

If Rose wants to remake the Knicks roster he can’t do it yet. Right now, as the NBA and the players association work to negotiate on details for next season - talks that ESPN reported have been extended a third time - trades are on hold even with rumors swirling that some stars could be on the block.

The NBA Draft has been reset for Nov. 18 and Rose already has begun interviews and workouts.

But the contracts that were supposed to be guaranteed as of this week on team options remain in limbo until a league calendar is in place, so the Knicks do not need to make decisions on their veterans (Elfrid Payton, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington all have team options or partial guarantees).

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