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Once at rock bottom, Knicks under Tom Thibodeau have solid foundation

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of the team's NBA preseason game against the Pistons on Dec. 11, 2020, in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

To realize where the Knicks are today, it’s best to look to the past, as painful as that may be. And if you’re thinking about painful days, think back to June 30, 2019.

That was the day that after dreaming and even boasting privately and publicly that the long-awaited turnaround to the struggling franchise’s fortunes was coming, the Knicks were confronted with a hard dose of reality. Having traded away their stars, clearing cap room for a chance to recruit new stars for Madison Square Garden, the Knicks instead were left with Plan B.

The news that the primary targets, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, were heading across the East River to Brooklyn made it particularly hard to take — so hard that even as word was leaking out about the players arriving in Plan B, the Knicks felt it necessary to issue an apology to fans.

In case you don’t remember it, this is what team president Steve Mills sent out: "While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents."

I’m not putting you through this pain, rehashing these memories, to be cruel. Instead, I’m wondering aloud if maybe that day should be framed differently in a historical context now. And maybe Mills was right, even if he didn’t know exactly how it would happen and he couldn’t be thrilled with how it would hit him.

When the Knicks settled for Plan B — and let’s be honest, it was really Plan C or D — they signed a group of players to short-term, low-risk deals. And when they began last season by starting off 4-18, maybe as expected, coach David Fizdale was dismissed. Mills would follow a few months later.

But in that crushing dose of reality, the Knicks also hit turning points, touching rock bottom and finally finding a way forward.

Julius Randle was the jewel of that class — nothing you’d see in the window at Tiffany’s, but at least the only player given more than one fully guaranteed year to come.

Leon Rose was hired to serve as team president, and he brought longtime friend and former client Tom Thibodeau to coach the team.

And here’s the thing about that — while Durant and Irving are part of a team in Brooklyn that is a legitimate title contender, would that dream scenario at Madison Square Garden have been as good as the future the franchise has now?

It’s certainly understandable for any downtrodden Knicks fan who has endured two decades of nearly constant futility and dysfunction to want to trade any past and future for a shot at a title.

But consider the other possibilities.

Irving is one of the most talented point guards in the game, but he also is — let’s say politely — unique, spending only 20 games on the court last season and 44 thus far this season.

Durant not only is one of the greatest players in the league but probably ranks among the top 10 most dangerous scorers in NBA history. But he also was coming off a major injury and didn’t play a minute last season. This season it has been just 24 games.

The two of them helped lure James Harden — at a steep trade price — to join them. Harden has played 34 games for them, missing 12 since arriving, and his return might not come until the postseason. The three have played together in only seven games.

If they arrived in New York and the team struggled through their absence last season, does Fizdale get a pass? Does Mills remain in place? There is little chance that the organization would have pulled the plug when it would have been looking ahead, hoping for a healthy enough stretch to compete.

So now consider where the Knicks are today. Thibodeau is the most valuable piece, converting the on-court culture. But Randle, a consolation prize, has emerged as a perfect complement to him, leading the NBA in minutes played and emerging as an All-Star and maybe a player who will merit consideration for All-NBA and MVP balloting.

And in those two, they have a baseline that can last longer than the brief window the star search would have brought.

In failure, the Knicks have build a foundation.

"A lot of things came like full circle, honestly," Randle said in an appearance on The Woj Pod this past week. "Last year was definitely — I knew the challenge I was accepting. Was still man, things hit you from all different kinds of places that you’re not always going to be prepared for it. And that’s kind of what happened to me."

If that hit Irving or Durant, if Fizdale still were in place and if the front office still were one mired in dysfunction, what would the result have been? Would they have done what Randle did — ask for more accountability and more work?

"Leon took the job, not too far along [William Wesley] took the job with him," Randle continued. "Wes called and asked, ‘What do you need to be an All-Star? What do you need to lead this team?’ One of the things I told him was I need a coach to hold me accountable. I need a coach to push me. So Thibs comes into the picture . . .

"It really just comes full circle. A year ago at the start of the season, it was tough. A lot of the things in the league are about situation, they’re about opportunity and all that type of stuff, really. Kind of for me, it came together as far as coaching, opportunity. The team and what everybody else is doing, how we believe in each other, how Thibs has everybody buying into this so

you know it’s great."

And Thibodeau knows it, too, having had star talent in Minnesota who did not all buy into his approach.

"I think it’s critical for success," he said. "And I saw that right away. I asked him when I first got hired to come in for a few days. I wanted to see where he was conditioning-wise, get to know him a little bit. And when I saw the way he came in and I saw the way he worked and we had our first conversation, I pretty much knew.

"And I worked him out, so I felt like, OK, this guy has a great capacity for work, has the ability to concentrate, he’s in great shape. And you start there. He’s been tremendous. I’ve said it many times. He’s our engine, and he’s been a great leader right from the start. So in the end he’s growing, he’s still getting better."

The Knicks have hit a lot of bottoms in the last two decades — hello, Phil Jackson — but this time they have bounced back by finally putting the right pieces in place, even if it was a fortunate accident.

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