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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks players buying into hardnosed basketball, making future draft position meaningless

Julius Randle #30 of the Knicks celebrates the

Julius Randle #30 of the Knicks celebrates the win with head coach Tom Thibodeau after the win over the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

One NBA executive earlier this season labeled the upcoming NBA Draft as a historic crop of talent, with the top five players all potential franchise-shifting pieces.

And a few months ago, before the season began, the Knicks began their scouting mission with the thought that they would not only have their own lottery pick, but also another one coming from the Mavericks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. It was a scout’s dream, a chance to put an imprint on a franchise for a decade to come.

But the Knicks are now left out of the lottery. Entering the NBA’s final weekend, their pick currently sits at No. 18 while the Dallas pick is at No. 23. The fantasy of Cade Cunningham teaming with Evan Mobley or Jalen Green has disappeared.

And you can be sure of one thing — it’s absolutely worth it for the Knicks.

Do you want proof? Just listen to the two most important players on the roster:

"I love playing in New York," Julius Randle said on The Victory podcast this week. "I want to retire as a New York Knick."

"The Mecca of Basketball, best arena I’ve ever played in," RJ Barrett said on the Michael Kay Show Friday. "I love the Garden and I hope that I’m here for the rest of my career."

Will they say the same when they’re in contract negotiations? Maybe not (or their agents might advise wearing a muzzle). The point is, they are saying things that haven’t been said in any believable way for the Knicks in years.

"I mean, who wouldn’t want to retire in New York?" Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Nah, that’s great. We’re thrilled with them. I think anyone who’s played here, has lived here, they know how special this place is. And, yeah, there’s no better arena to play in, there’s no better fans. It’s just a great environment. Obviously, we’re thrilled with both of those guys, and we just want to keep building and winning."

It was seven seasons out of the playoffs before this campaign, 20 seasons with just one trip beyond the first round of the postseason. And let’s be clear, it wasn’t just losing. It was Phil Jackson overseeing a dysfunctional franchise in a way that seemed like a bad comedic film, making fans wonder, 'Is he doing this on purpose?' It was a procession of coaches and front office executives, as well as players, trying and failing to break the franchise stranglehold on losing seasons.

Finally, for one season, they have shed the stench of failure and done it in a way that shifts the tone so drastically it’s like hearing a new style of music for the first time. The scratch of the needle came in the form of a change in leadership with Leon Rose taking over as franchise president and making the most important move, hiring his former client, Thibodeau, as head coach.

From there, the credit goes to Thibodeau and to the players, who in other years, for another coach, might have played into a familiar refrain — like folks who sometimes talk about today’s game and today’s athletes — that you can’t coach them hard, can’t demand everything from them. There was an old story from Pat Riley’s time coaching in Miami in which he jammed his head into a bath of icy water before a playoff game and when he finally emerged, he told his team, "To the last breath."

Without the danger to his hair that Riley risked, Thibodeau does the same in a less dramatic fashion and he’s gotten that from his team.

"I don’t think it’s what I give them," Thibodeau said. "I think it’s the commitment that they make to each other to be successful."

Will it last? Will these players continue to work this hard? Will Randle and Barrett continue to take unexpected steps forward in their games? And maybe most important, as Rose and his staff bring in new pieces — players who promise they want to be a part of this as the expectations have been raised and the team's profile has been raised around the league — will they all buy in the way this group has?

It’s a question that will have to be answered at some point. But for the Knicks, as they prepare for the playoffs, it’s better than asking the usual question of which lottery pick will be the savior for the franchise.

New York Sports