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Jeff Van Gundy was on the phone Monday with a reminder that Pat Riley had an expression for the team-building step that aligns with today’s Knicks. The innocent climb, Riley called it.
The guilty pleasure might be more fitting.
According to one online definition of the term, this is something “such as a movie, television program, or piece of music, (editor’s note: or second-tier Eastern Conference basketball team) that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard.” New Yorkers love these Knicks for their work ethic, generosity of spirit, and ability to win more games than their talent suggests they should. These Knicks have also done a fine job of making two oppressive decades seem a bit more distant.
But deep down their fans know what they are, and what they are not. One of those fans, Van Gundy, the last coach to lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals, was asked if it were at all possible in a crazy COVID season that his former team could get a few lucky bounces, go on a magical underdog run, and return to the Finals for the first time since he lost to Gregg Popovich’s first championship Spurs team in 1999.
“Oh, the Finals,” he said with more than a trace of incredulity. “If Durant, Harden, Irving, Embiid, Simmons and Antetokounmpo are all in the same building and crash into each other, then maybe.
“But could they win a first-round series? Absolutely. And if they win a first-round series, are you not just one tweaked ankle away from having that next series be a little more even? Yeah, you are. If they win a first-round series, from where they started this season in December, it’s amazing, it really is.”
Having won 11 of their last 12, the Knicks faced Memphis on Monday night on the second leg of their six-game road trip that closes with Denver, Phoenix, the Clippers and the Lakers — a stretch that could imperil New York’s bid to stay out of LeBron James’ cherished play-in tournament. No matter what happens from here to their expiration date, the Knicks have done a great service to their fans and, perhaps, to the cause of ending the franchise’s biblical championship drought. They have established a standard of accountability, and a program of player development, that could lead to serious contention in the coming years.
But for all the coach of the year consideration Tom Thibodeau has earned, what he’s accomplished actually represents the easy part of the process. Turning a dysfunctional operation into a functional one is not as difficult as the next step — becoming the best in the business, or damn close to it. One of Thibodeau’s biggest admirers, Bill Parcells, knew that he was doing the easy part when he turned Rich Kotite’s 1-15 Jets into his 9-7 Jets in one year, and that he was doing something much more challenging in Year 2 when he went 12-4 and stood fewer than 30 minutes away from the Super Bowl.
“You can’t get any more out of a moderately talented team than Tom has,” Van Gundy said of his former assistant. “But you don’t win 60 games or go deep in the playoffs with a moderately talented team. So this is going to be all about the roster, and who you find, and who you pay from this group, and who you move on from.
“A lot of these players are in the last year of their contracts. If you paid them all, would you get the same type of performance or better next year? That’s why, to me, the summer is the hard part.”
A Knicks fan of a certain age might compare this team to Riley’s 1991-’92 Knicks, who started it all that decade by winning 51 games, beating Detroit in the first round, and extending Michael Jordan’s Bulls to a Game 7 in the second round. “The difference is we had a top 25 all-time player in his prime,” Van Gundy, an assistant on that team, said of Patrick Ewing.
Van Gundy loves how Julius Randle has made himself a star, and how RJ Barrett has elevated his game. He also loves the Knicks’ depth, an underappreciated part of their resurgence.
“But if you look at the home-run hitters other teams have, you don’t have nearly enough for what you want to be,” Van Gundy said. “You can still be proud of what this team ultimately accomplishes, but you can’t hamstring yourself with pretty good players. You’ve got to find some greatness.”
And that’s the hard part. The Knicks will confront it whenever this current joyride ends.
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