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Knicks made great progress and need to keep upgrading

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau got everyone on

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau got everyone on the same page defensively and the club needs a few more pieces to put together a deeper playoff run next season.   Credit: AP/Troy Taormina

First, consider the good.

If you have followed the Knicks any longer than the last two weeks, it’s not hard to look at what the organization accomplished this season and consider it a rousing success.

With new faces in the front office, a proven coach in Tom Thibodeau and an assortment of low-cost additions, the Knicks shed decades of dysfunction and earned a playoff berth for the first time in eight years.

The Knicks jumped far above the expectations of anyone outside of their locker room, winning 41 games, earning the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed and filling Madison Square Garden for three playoff games infused with hope and enthusiasm.

It ended in disappointment, though. All of that was dimmed by the abrupt ending, a five-game ouster at the hands of Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, who talked and taunted and backed up every bit of it in humbling the Knicks.

"I think you learn from each experience," Thibodeau said after it was over. "Atlanta really added some good pieces to complement Trae and I think that helped them. Every year, you analyzed the things you did well, the things you didn’t do as well as you’d like. You look at how you match up with the teams — you start with the division, then you look at the conference, then you look at the league. Then you see where you might have opportunities, whether it’s through the draft or free agency or trades, your own player development. All four areas factor into it."

What do you see now? Is this a grittier version of the last Knicks team to dip a toe into the postseason, full of hope and belief until the veteran cast ran out of gas in Indiana? Or is it following the blueprint of what the Nets became, a hard-working, overachieving group in a major market that became a destination for stars?

The image of the organization was shifted this season. Orlando coach Steve Clifford called the Knicks a team no one wanted to play. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich praised the accountability put in place by Thibodeau and laughed at anyone who didn’t know it was inevitable that he would succeed. LeBron James praised them.

"Of course, I mean that's one of the reasons why I wanted to come here, because they had a great, great core," Derrick Rose said. "The guys there, the young nucleus, with me being my age, like who wouldn't want to come in, try to build on top of that? So I think there's a lot of people on this in a league that think the same thing. But like I said, it's all out of the players' hands. It's up to the people with us in the front office."

The problem for the Knicks is that while they earned the admiration of outsiders, bringing the stars on board is not quite as simple as it was for the Nets. When the Nets made the playoffs under Kenny Atkinson with their young core, it attracted Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, sweeping the star attractions of the free-agent market out from under the Knicks, who had cleared their cap to chase them and couldn’t even get a sit-down with any of them.

The problem for the Knicks is that the upcoming free-agent market is nothing like that 2019 summer. Back then, it was Durant, Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton. Now, if Leonard or Chris Paul don’t opt out of their deals, the best of the class is 35-year-old Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, 33-year-old Mike Conley Jr. Kelly Oubre and, yes, Tim Hardaway Jr.

So the task facing Leon Rose and his front office is not as simple as lining up the Knicks' spending cash — up to $60 million — and waiting for the stars to sign on. The Knicks have not just the cap space but a pair of first-round picks (Nos. 19 and 21), as well as the No. 32 pick. And if there is one sure thing in Thibodeau’s plans for the next step, it is not adding three rookies to the roster.

There certainly is a need for an upgrade in talent. Look at some of the teams that have been knocked out in the first round — the Lakers, the Heat, the Celtics and Trail Blazers — and give an honest look at their talent versus what the Knicks have on the roster.

Thibodeau surely knows it, too, dropping hints of what the Hawks added around Young. He pushed for the addition of Rose and Taj Gibson and lobbied for some of the shooters the Hawks signed last offseason.

"We need to get away," Thibodeau said. "It’s a long year. They put a lot into it. We’ll take two, three weeks, get away to decompress, re-energize, and then we’ll start talking about the plans for the summer and what we have to do next. The coaches will look at the season and generate new ideas.

"Our whole organization was terrific all season, the whole organization. Jim Dolan gave us everything we asked for. It was great to have the fans in the building at the end of the year. We’re looking forward to next season."

It’s not that far away. But there is a lot of work to do before it begins.

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