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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Knicks' goal is to continue to build on last year's success

From left, Knicks president Leon Rose, Kemba Walker,

From left, Knicks president Leon Rose, Kemba Walker, coach Tom Thibodeau, Evan Fournier and GM Scott Perry are set to begin a new season. Credit: Getty Images/Dustin Satloff

The Knicks’ leadership sat relaxed Friday afternoon, Leon Rose making jokes about his extended silence over more than a year, Tom Thibodeau — his voice bearing none of the gravelly tones that come with a long season of screaming at officials and his own team — smiling widely.

There were plenty of reasons for them to enjoy the moment. Since Rose had last spoken with the media — Thibodeau’s introductory Zoom news conference in July 2020 — the Knicks had exceeded any reasonable expectations by grabbing the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Thibodeau was named the NBA Coach of the Year, too.

The summer also had gone well, filling holes with free-agent acquisitions Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier while bringing back all of the key pieces to last season’s run.

With the league, like most every part of the nation, mired in questions about COVID and controversies about vaccines, general manager Scott Perry proudly stated that the entire team — players, coaches, staff — had been vaccinated, putting a bow on a fine first year in charge.

What came of this most of all was that the Knicks, after two decades of dysfunction, of court cases and questionable decisions, were, well, normal.

Matching last season’s ascension through the standings might be tough with the Eastern Conference improved and powerhouse teams expected in Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia (maybe, if the 76ers solve the problem with their second- most-important player), Miami and even Atlanta. Injuries happen. The success from last season, as Thibodeau noted, doesn’t carry over with the team starting at zero again.

But normal — that’s something that the Knicks can aspire to and maybe achieve.

If that sounds sarcastic, it’s not. It’s important, and it’s the admitted goal of the team.

"Last season was definitely a successful season," Rose said Friday. "Most importantly for us, we created a culture and built a foundation. Coach Thibodeau and his staff did an incredible job, our players, in building that culture and foundation . . . With that being said, as we went into the summer, in order to build on last year, continuity and stability were two important factors in what we did."

Rose hadn’t spoken in more than a year, and in this 45-minute session, he said little that you’d have thought was worth the wait. Just like his days as an agent, he admittedly wants little to do with creating headlines with his words.

If you want to talk about Bruce Springsteen, you’ll get an animated discussion. If you want to hear about the contract talks with Mitchell Robinson, well, you’ll hear about Bruce Springsteen.

If you don’t say anything, you can’t say anything wrong. You can’t anger your star player — hello, Phil Jackson! — and you can’t make silly proclamations.

Should fans expect to hear thoughts from the organization when a player they love is traded? Should the plan be enunciated out loud if the fans are going to throw down hard-earned money to fill Madison Square Garden? Sure, but there is some charm in boring.

With an assist from Perry, who was part of the previous regime before being kept on last season and extended this summer, the Knicks have stabilized what had been a sinking franchise, far below the "ship be sinking but the sky’s the limit" proclamation of Micheal Ray Richardson decades ago.

Not only did they post a 41-31 record last season and manage to keep that group largely intact while filling holes in free agency and the draft, but they are, as they openly aspire to be, stable. They have six first-round picks in the next four drafts (along with nine second-round picks). The contracts, even for the stars, are not onerous. If they find themselves the desired location for a disgruntled star who currently is somewhere else, their contracts are movable and the closet is filled with assets.

"I’m not going to comment on what’s gone on before," Rose said of the front office groups that preceded his arrival. "But with our group here and [William Wesley] and Brock [Aller] and Frank [Zanin] and the rest of our group, we’re going to take it one day at a time.

"We’re going to be aggressive as far as knowing what’s going on and as far as being on top of things and looking at opportunities. But at the same time, we’re going to be prudent and disciplined in decisions that we make that are going to take into account positives and negatives, short term, long term, all those factors in a decision-making process."

Continuity has been a rare commodity in New York on the roster, in the coach’s usually hot seat, in plans that blow up with a sudden chase for a star. But the Knicks’ leadership stressed that a priority was bringing back much of last season’s team and finding pieces that fit in the culture that has been created by Thibodeau.

"We wanted to bring enough of those guys back from last year that started to set a bar for us to get better," Perry said. "And as you look around the league, teams that improve tend to have a lot of the same guys back. You’ve got to be able to have enough time to develop a core group of guys, so that was reflective of what we did this summer."

"We always think about our own guys first, the development of our own players," Thibodeau said. "So that internal growth, like at the start of last year I mentioned about Julius [Randle], at the end of the year now we have an All-Star. So hopefully we can develop another one, or another guy can make that jump, and then you have the draft, and we’re excited about the guys that we got in the draft, then you have the free agency, and then you have the trade possibilities.

"All four areas, Leon and his staff, Scott, Wes, they’ve been terrific. Every day we think about improvement, and we start with internal improvement and then we go step by step to try to improve the team, and we think we have a lot to offer. Leon mentioned the arena, our fans, we’ve got a great owner, we’ve got the best city in the world. We think we’re in good position."

It would have been hard to predict that a year ago, but now the Knicks have a culture, they have continuity and they have expectations. It may be hard to repeat the success of last season, with much needing to go right again with unforeseen circumstances. But for once the Knicks at least have a sense of calm, and that’s something.

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