By John Schmeelk
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Before this season began, many assumed the Knicks were going to very bad this season and get a top pick in the 2018 draft. The theory was that New York was in the early stages of rebuilding and needed more elite talent. The only place you can get that talent is early in the draft, giving a very tangible benefit to a bad season.
I was firmly in that camp. I watched Luka Doncic during EuroBasket with the thought he might be donning a Knicks hat at June’s draft. It wasn’t far-fetched, and it would help the team become a long-term winner. The Knicks looked like they were going to be bad and the losing would be worth it.
There’s one problem: The team isn’t losing. It’s not bad. The Knicks have won three straight to get to .500 and are playing solid, fun, entertaining basketball. Some Knicks fan are worried that this will ruin the team’s future draft position and keep them from landing another significant piece. First of all, there’s no guarantee the winning continues. The Knicks could still easily win fewer than 30 games if things break a certain way. They’ve had hot stretches early in previous seasons, only to see the team fall apart.
Second and most importantly: Enjoy the ride. The Knicks are winning because of their young players doing special things. Power forward Kristaps Porzingis jumping to superstar status is the primary reason the team is where it is. No Knicks fan should want to put that genie back in the bottle. Developing the team’s youth was the main goal this season, and the early returns are good.
Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s hot shooting against the Cavaliers and strong fourth quarter against the Nuggets were huge reasons the team won those two games. You want Hardaway to be a good player after the team spent that type of money on him (four years, $71 million). Rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina has brought much-needed stability and defense when he has been in the game. Center Enes Kanter, still just 25, has put up numbers even if that isn’t reflected in his plus-minus stat. He could turn himself into an asset come the trade deadline.
It isn’t just the players. It is how they are playing. Coach Jeff Hornacek has the team doing things well on a fundamental level on both sides of the ball that the Knicks haven’t done in years. There are more screens and movement from players away from the ball in the last three games than in any stretch in the recent past. The ball is moving quickly, with players making quick decisions and not holding the ball. Even with Porzingis shooting a ton, he gets it and makes a move quickly.
The change in defense is even starker. The Knicks are 16th overall in defense, but seventh in defensive rating (98.7) over the past six games. Even more impressive is the fact that the Knicks did that against three good offensive teams in the Nets, Cavaliers and Nuggets. Players are trying hard on that end, and there seems to be a much better understanding of the defensive principles Hornacek and his staff tried to impart to the team during training camp.
It is good fundamental basketball, which is something Hornacek deserves credit for. He seems to have reached these players. His decisions to move point guard Jarrett Jack into the starting lineup and play center Kyle O’Quinn have paid dividends early in the year. It’s a fair question as to whether it will continue, but it has worked so far. He also deserves credit for putting Porzingis in the right position to maximize his skills and blossom into a star.
The Knicks are fun to watch. They are playing good basketball. Knicks fans haven’t seen good basketball since the team won 50 games and got to the playoffs in 2013. They are doing all the things fans complained Carmelo Anthony never did. The team looks like it is growing young players and developing a style of play that could be sustainable and successful in the long term. If the Knicks were winning in a unsustainable way because of a bunch of 30-year-olds, this would be a much different conversation.
Despite what some have said, the Knicks were never tanking. The players and coaches don’t tank. They have to try to win every game. It’s part of their nature. It’s the front office that tanks. When you bring in Hardaway on a big contract, trade for Kanter and sign veterans Jack and Ramon Sessions, a team isn’t tanking. Everyone just thought the Knicks were going to be bad. They aren’t, at least not for the last three games.
It will set up an interesting pivot point for the Knicks front office at the trade deadline. If the team is only a couple games out of a playoff spot and starts receiving attractive offers for guys such as O’Quinn, Kanter, Courtney Lee or Lance Thomas, will the execs pull the trigger? How hard will they go for the eighth seed even if they have offers from other teams that can help down the road? It will be an interesting decision that the front office will have to make if the team keeps playing this way.
Knicks fans shouldn’t worry about that. The team is fun. The offense flows. The ball moves. The defense has been good. The young players are improving. It’s real basketball.
Worry about the draft later. Enjoy it. Because with the Knicks, you never know how long it’s going to last.
For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk