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Knicks' success this season can be traced to a minicamp with Tom Thibodeau last summer

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau gestures during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Dallas. Credit: AP/Ron Jenkins

These are heady times for the Knicks, riding a five-game winning streak and ascending to sixth place in the Eastern Conference entering the final 15 games of the regular season. Julius Randle is playing like not just an All-Star but maybe an All-NBA player.

This all seems unlikely and abrupt, with the team in a place few could have expected. But it was really a year ago that it all began.

The season had been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Knicks (21-45) were one of only eight teams left out of the restart.

With the disappointing season lost, they went to work.

 

Randle headed home to Dallas to work on every aspect of his game — his shot, his conditioning and, maybe most of all, his mind.

Leon Rose, who had been officially named team president less than two weeks before the season was cut short, went to work assembling a front office and a new coaching staff, a thorough process that landed right where he always believed it would, with Tom Thibodeau in charge of the on-court product.

And maybe most important of all, the Knicks convened for a minicamp while most of the NBA teams were finishing off the bubble restart to the season in Orlando. The Knicks had two weeks in Westchester to work together, with the players learning what Thibodeau wanted and expected of them.

While they were meeting a new staff, much of the team was back from last season. And with their familiarity, now guided by an established coach who could demand accountability, the team found stability in the midst of chaos.

"Nobody ever, ever wants to talk about this stuff, but look, they go into last year, they get off to a rough start and then they decide they want to make a coaching change," New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said. "So they make the coaching change. So now the players go through training camp, not far into the season, coaching change . . .

"Now they bring back players who have played together. Tom got that little extra training camp in the summer with the bubble to start putting things together with them, so he got a little bit more time. And now they’ve stayed doing the same thing all year.

"That stuff actually helps when players can play in the same system all year. Continuity is a helpful thing. And Tom’s a great coach and they’ve been able to learn his system and play his system from the summer into training camp into the season.

"And so I think that summertime in the training camp, he did a great job getting that in and they had a highly, highly motivated group, and then he’s had a hell of a year out of Julius Randle, who’s gone just from being a scorer to be a great, well-rounded player, one of the best forwards in this league."

Stability is an often unheralded factor in the NBA. I may have set off some Nets fans last week by pointing out in a tweet that the injury to James Harden as Kevin Durant was returning kept the team at only seven games with their Big 3 together on the floor. That may not matter in the regular season, but it does factor in when a team faces a well-coached opponent in the playoffs and its first and maybe second options are taken away in a series.

For the Knicks, the worry is less about how a championship run might take shape. If few saw a playoff berth in their future when this all began, no one — maybe even in their own locker room — sees them as a championship contender.

But for them, stability is something that has been lacking in the franchise for decades as they have shuttled through coaches (15 in the last 20 years, including interims), executives and players.

Now, with Rose and Thibodeau tied together as longtime friends and the coach given the green light to do things his way without worrying that there are dissenting voices in the corporate offices, he has brought the Knicks together faster than most expected.

His first year coaching in Chicago was a 62-win season, but he already had a .500 team coming back with a young core that is, perhaps not coincidentally, his veteran core now in Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.

In Minnesota, it took one season out of the playoffs before he brought the Timberwolves to their first playoff berth in 14 years.

But in the strange atmosphere of constant testing, isolation and individual workouts in the summer, Thibodeau was able to lay a foundation for the Knicks that is paying off now.

Instead of his usual demanding push for practice time — by now you’ve heard him repeat over and over, "The magic is in the work" — he has had to resort to film sessions and teaching and preparing for games in the morning shootaround or ballroom walk-throughs. But in September, he had their full attention.

"It was great for us," Thibodeau said. "Not just the players but the coaching staff, front office. It just gave us a chance to spend a lot of time together and get to know each other and also to sort of build your foundation. But more importantly, spending time around each other at night and just having an opportunity to build relationships. I think that’s a critical part of this and so that gave us a good sense of where we would start off and what we would try to get accomplished in training camp."

Where it ends is uncertain. The NBA has never been more unstable, with COVID threats remaining (the Knicks just lost Alec Burks Friday for an undetermined amount of games) and injuries looming in the condensed schedule. But with the summer work and what they have done this season, and with the growth of Randle and RJ Barrett, they have started to create believers.

"I’m not really surprised," Van Gundy said of the Knicks’ success. "I don’t really know why anybody is surprised. I mean, if you look at the East, I think that their talent certainly matches up with the teams in the middle of the league. I don’t think like you’re looking at that team and going, ‘Oh my God, they’ve got nobody.’

"I mean, Tom’s done a fantastic job with them defensively and I think their talent is pretty good, certainly compares favorably, you know, to the people in the middle of the pack there in the East. I’m not quite sure why everybody’s really surprised but, you know, whatever."

And that is something you would not have said when Thibodeau and the Knicks convened last summer for lessons that are paying off now.

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