During the much better days of the Knicks, when wins weren’t counted by the month, Jeff Van Gundy used to tell a story about leadership, describing how his job was made easier because Patrick Ewing was the hardest worker on the team. If the best player on the team was working that hard, no one else could ever have an excuse to slack off.
Maybe someday soon, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant will be that leader and star for the Knicks.
The current Knicks do not have a Patrick Ewing on the roster. Only two players — Lance Thomas and just-acquired DeAndre Jordan — can provide a true experienced veteran presence.
So Thomas, 30, the longest-tenured player on the roster, has been appointed captain this season, tasked with trying to guide a young, impressionable roster through the malaise of a campaign that has a good shot at being the worst in franchise history.
But Thomas is doing it in a far different role from Ewing. Not only has he never been the star, but this season he has been one of the victims of the youth movement. He’s stuck on the bench most nights, including Thursday, when the Knicks finally ended their losing streak at a franchise-record 18 games. He’s averaging 3.8 points in 16.5 minutes per game.
Is it difficult to be that voice, imploring players to play the right way when he’s not allowed to remove his warm-ups?
“For the weak-minded, yeah,” Thomas said. “For someone like myself, no. I know the direction the franchise wants to go in. As a lifelong Knicks fan, I only want success for this organization. I’ve always been a part of things that are bigger than myself. This is one of them. Whatever I personally have to do to make success happen, that’s what I’ll do. Right now, I’m making sure that the young guys just have a winning spirit and play their hearts out every time they go out there.”
That has meant correcting things he sees wrong in practice or in games. But it also means the kind of contribution he made Sunday night in Cleveland, gathering the team for a group dinner to keep spirits up.
“Whenever I see anybody with their head down, I correct it,” he said. “Whenever I see spirits being down, I correct it. I think that’s key. We’re losing, but I don’t want any of our guys to have a losing spirit. That’s something that’s really hard to shake. If you accept that, it’s really hard to get rid of it. I’m doing everything in my power to make sure of that, that it’s not plaguing our team.”
“He’s special,” coach David Fizdale said. “I’m telling you. That’s the only thing I can say about Lance Thomas is he is special. I’ve been around some really great leaders in this game. A big part of leadership is consistency. No matter what situation he’s in, playing, not playing, starting, not starting, he is the same leader all the time. I’m just happy that he’s on my side.”
Players such as Thomas and DeAndre Jordan try to speak up on the floor. Thomas said he has noticed one unlikely voice emerging, and he wants that voice to be even louder.
“We have guys that aren’t as vocal, but they’ve gotten better throughout the year,” he said. “Mitchell Robinson is one guy — church mouse. He’s still not at the level that we want him to be at vocally on defense, but he has defensive gifts that just make him so special. Once you add the walk and the authority behind that, he’s going to be one of the best defensive players ever.”
Shouldering the load
When Dennis Smith Jr. was playing for the Mavericks this season, he averaged 28 minutes per game and sat out a handful of games with injuries or as a protest to force a trade, depending on whom you believe. But he also didn’t have to be depended on to carry the load offensively with the Mavericks happy to put the ball in rookie Luka Doncic’s hands.
With the Knicks, he has seen his minutes and his responsibilities rise. He admits that he wasn’t in the best of shape earlier this season, and he is trying to change that.
“I do [agree],” Smith said of the notion he wasn’t in peak condition. “He’s placing a larger load on me, larger than I ever had in Dallas in terms of responsibility. That’s what I want. That’s what you need to be one of the great players in this league. I’m taking the challenge head on. It is a lot more. I got to get into the paint. My minutes are up here way higher than they were in Dallas. It’s an adjustment. Any challenge I’m taking head on. I can be in better shape, for sure.”
Smith made it to All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, representing the Knicks in the Slam Dunk competition.
Opening for Allen
Part of the reason Smith has been thrust into such a prominent role is that Emmanuel Mudiay, who has started much of the season, and Frank Ntilikina, who was selected one spot ahead of Smith in the 2017 NBA Draft, are injured, leaving point guard minutes up for grabs.
One player who has taken advantage of the opening is Kadeem Allen, who was promoted from the Westchester Knicks two weeks ago.
“It’s been fantastic,” Fizdale said. “The kid, he fits our culture. He fits the kind of guys we like from a work standpoint, how he treats his teammates. He’s so receptive to coaching, and Coach [Mike] Miller and those guys have really done a great job of getting them ready for us. The fact that he can hit the ground running up here, because again, the symmetry between our G League team and our NBA team, we just overlap. Kadeem didn’t have to learn a new play, he didn’t have to learn anything new. He could just fall in line. He’s really taken great advantage of it.”