At the surface, the 2020-21 NBA season could very well provide more humiliation for the New York Knicks, who start a new year on Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET, MSG Network).
They are tabbed to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference yet again as their postseason-less streak is poised to extend to eight-straight years.
On top of that, their geographical rivals — the Brooklyn Nets — are one of the powerhouses of the East and could very well represent the conference in the NBA Finals this summer, further shifting the balance of power along the New York basketball landscape.
But for the first time in what feels like decades, there is a legitimate reason for hope that the Knicks are beginning to claw their way out of the doldrums.
New team president Leon Rose brought in established, respected head coach Tom Thibodeau, who is now flanked by a supporting coaching staff needed to develop the bevy of young talent at Madison Square Garden.
Rather than this offseason being about hopeless free-agent pursuits for superstars or trades that would gut the organization’s draft capital, the Knicks are rolling with a core of youngsters that could one day blossom into a squad of contenders.
This is a pivotal season for 22-year-old guard Frank Ntilikina and 21-year-old forward Kevin Knox to prove they can stick in the NBA. Twenty-two-year-old center Mitchell Robinson can be a dominant defender on his day, but this year is about seeing an offensive uptick, too.
RJ Barrett, the 20-year-old second-year product out of Duke will only be saddled further with the responsibility of being this team’s offensive star — one that was sporadically given under the previous coaching regime.
Just a few months ago, the Knicks added to its youthful revolution with the drafting of forward Obi Toppin — the consensus college basketball player of the year — with the No. 8 pick of the draft while adding Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley 17 picks later.
Rose and general manager Scott Perry went to work this offseason on providing a support system for the youngsters, adding the likes of veterans Austin Rivers and Alec Burks while bringing back Elfrid Payton to mentor the guards. The once-highly-touted Nerlens Noel, a center, was also added to the mix to work alongside Robinson.
Rather than acting as a team with no direction, the Knicks have made it clear that the kids are the future, but Thibodeau won’t just be handing out playing time to them.
“Every day after practice, we talk about the rotation,” Thibodeau said. “We have a pretty good idea. But that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Obviously, over the course of the season, you need everyone, and particularly this year under these circumstances, quality depth is important, and I feel like we have that.”
The largest competitions for playing time feature Robinson and Noel at center along with Toppin, Knox, and Julius Randle in the frontcourt. A more pleasant surprise, though, is coming from the point-guard spot, as Quickley has quickly impressed in preseason, making a strong push to start at the 1. He played a pivotal role in a successful Knicks exhibition slate that saw them win three of four games.
“Everything is based off merit. You evaluate practice, who’s practicing well, what groups are playing well,” Thibodeau said. “Then you take that further with the games and you take that information. So if someone’s practicing well, that is important to us. Then when you have your preseason games, if they play well and the team is functioning well when they’re on the floor, that’s important as well. And that’s all you can do.
“I think you play the people you feel are going to give you the best chance to win. But you also have the understanding that over the course of an NBA season, everyone gets an opportunity.”
If anything, that mindset is at least positive in finding the best people to build the organization upon.
To see how we picked the Knicks to finish this season, check out our full NBA preview here.