For New York Knicks fans, the 2021-2022 season has proven to be a struggle. Their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 24 was just another moment of agony for their fans. After starting to turn the game away from their 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Knicks actually had a chance at victory, but Julius Randle’s 3-point attempt fell short, and the game ended 95-93 in the Cavs’ favor.
With new head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm, fans had hoped for better. And they’d had a taste of it: The previous year.
A season of success
In their 2020-2021 season, the Knickerbockers finished in fourth place in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference, with a 41-31 regular season win-loss record. It was the first time they’d made it into the playoffs since 2012-2013, when they posted a 54-win season. Although they lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, the fact that they’d gotten so far put some spirit back into their followers, many of whom hoped for more to come.
Among the notable games of that winning season was the one on May 3, 2021, against the Memphis Grizzlies. That was the match that ensured the Knicks would post a winning season, after they finished off the Grizzlies 118-104. Randle scored 28 points, with Knicks point guard Derrick Rose adding 25.
A winning coach
That season also scored an NBA Head Coach of the Year for Thibodeau, who received 43 first-place votes and 42 second-place votes that propelled him toward the honor, the first for a Knicks coach since Pat Riley won it all the way back in 1993. Thibodeau won wide praise from sports journalists for the effects of his leadership on the team.
The consensus was that he’d turned his players around not just in a few respects, but in a way that showed noticeable improvement in every respect. Offense was solid in 2020-2021. And Julius Randle received a nod as Most Improved Player, thanks both to his own achievements and those of the overall playing scheme into which Thibodeau deployed him. All of Thibodeau’s assertiveness about pushing his team translated into on-court success pretty much across the board.
Going into 2021-2022, the Knicks still seemed to be the fire-eaters that took the entire NBA by surprise the previous year, racking up an impressive 5-1 record over their first six games. But the fire quickly sputtered and, by the end of January 2022, looked to be on the verge of going out. At that point, the Knicks were 23-25 in wins and losses, placing them 11th among the 15 teams in the NBA Eastern Conference. This consistent lagging under .500 was a situation that most sports pundits attributed to the unraveling of Randle’s All-Star skills.
One of the worst nights of the new season was when the Knicks faced the New Orleans Pelicans on January 20. The humiliating 102-91 loss on their home court at Madison Square Garden featured Randle sending a pass cross-court, 5 feet above teammate Evan Fournier’s head, into the stands and with minutes left in the third quarter.
Time to trade?
That was also the point that increasingly saw fans and sportswriters speculating about what the team could do to improve. One of the top—and the loudest—suggestions was to trade Randle, whose successful bids for tough shots had made him a star of the previous season, but whose shooting splits and scoring have since plummeted, and who has made any number of poorly judged plays.
This line of reasoning goes that, if the Knicks could swap Randle for a younger forward from, say, the Hawks, it could improve their chances. But with Randle so recently a darling of the NBA for his excellent work over 2020-2021, it might be too soon to ask him to call it quits with the Knicks.
Rose as the glue
There are other ideas about what’s responsible for the Knicks’ sorry recent performance. The absence of Derrick Rose has certainly been felt on the court since he underwent ankle surgery in December 2021. In the eyes of plenty of fans, Rose, not Randle, is the Knicks’ center of gravity.
While he averages fewer points than Randle, Fournier, and other teammates, Rose has played a significant role in all the best lineups, and most of the closing units, that we’ve seen recently. What’s more, he’s developed into a star shooter: During the winning 2021-2022 season, this youngest-ever NBA MVP succeeded in making well over a third of his 3-point attempts, and even improved in this respect during the following season. With Rose returning to the court, a number of observers anticipate a turnaround from a better-staffed team.
Thibodeau needs to work his magic
It’s also not a good idea to underestimate Thibodeau’s coaching skills, or his eye for talent. Among other smart moves, he’s been developing his 2021 first-round pick Quentin Grimes, whose fierceness on defense can’t go unnoticed. Thibodeau formerly coached the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Chicago Bulls, and has a career record of 416-302. He earned a previous NBA Coach of the Year nod in 2011, when he was with Chicago. He’s especially known for bringing his teams together for a strong defense, and has confidence in the abilities of his players.
If he can help pull Randle back into All-Star category play, all these assets together could still make the Knicks a formidable opponent—again.