Knicks will be upping the pace under Tom Thibodeau

The Knicks’ 2020-21 roster isn’t all that different from the 2019-20 roster after team president Leon Rose’s quiet first foray into free agency. 

However, that doesn’t mean this will be same sorry Knicks who usually garner ridicule around the NBA. One report quoted an NBA operative comparing the dysfunctional Rockets to James Dolan’s franchise, calling Houston the “Knicks of The South.” 

However, Kevin Knox, starting his third season, sees a lot of difference in the composition, possibilities and style. 

Run, baby run, surprisingly, is new coach Tom Thibodeau’s motto. 

“We brought in a lot of new guys [in 2019], so it was kind of tough really adjusting to the new players that we had brought in,’’ Knox said on a Zoom call Tuesday. “But I think this year we really did a good job of bringing in some veteran guys with the young guys. We’ve really got a lot of young talent on the team. We’ve been running in transition a lot in practice, using our athleticism, getting out on the fast breaks.’’ 

Tom Thibodeau Knicks
Bamidele Idowu/NYKnicks.com

On Sunday, Thibodeau revealed he wanted to “take advantage’’ of the club’s young legs and “athleticism.” And, apparently, it wasn’t just rhetoric. 

“I think coach wants us to play this year really fast,’’ Knox said. “We’re so young and we’ve got a lot of athleticism, so he really wants us to fly up and down the court. Which is kind of something different than last year.’’ 

Then Knicks president Steve Mills spent all his cap space in 28 hours in June 2019, bringing in a slew of veterans. But it amounted to a sorry 21-45 season. And this roster doesn’t return its No. 1 option/closer from last season in Marcus Morris. 

Despite the modest free-agent signings, the Knicks can actually be watchable this season if Knox makes the type of improvement Thibodeau is already seeing, if RJ Barrett becomes more efficient and if athletic center Mitchell Robinson plays smarter. 

They can actually be a playoff competitor, too, if 2020 draft picks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, both super athletes, make an impact after no having a summer league to play in. 

It’s a lot of “ifs.’’ But Knox’s revelation could also mean a stronger role for point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who was on the trading block all offseason. 

The uber-athletic point guard from North Carolina State is no longer being overlooked for the starting role — which would add to the Knicks’ high-flying bent. This all could be to boost Smith’s trade value that hit rock bottom after his stagnant third season. 

For certain, Knox, the Knicks’ 2018 lottery pick, is showing positive signs through the first three days of practice. Thibodeau has been extremely complimentary in noting the 6-foot-7 forward is no longer forcing shots and taking and making the right ones. 

“I’m doing really well, just going out there and knocking down shots, making the right plays defensively and offensively,’’ said Knox, who averaged 6.4 points in a limited role in 2019-20. “I just want to be able to continue that for the rest of the camp and throughout the rest of the year.’’ 

New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox
AP

In furthering comments from a day earlier, Thibodeau said Knox has also been an eager defender. 

“He’s working very hard, he’s concentrating,’’ Thibodeau said. “As I mentioned, from what I watched last year, particularly from the offensive end, knowing when to shoot and when to pass is a big part of this league. And when he took open shots, ones in which he had good rhythm, good shot preparation, he made those. And then sometimes he may have forced it a little bit, which is not unusual for a young guy. But you got to correct that. If you’re guarded, you drive the ball or move the ball and make a quick decision, and help someone else.” 

If Knox emerges and Smith supplies a dynamic element that scouts saw from him in college, who knows what this pandemic season can bring. 

To boot, the NBA has a 10-team postseason format — with the final four teams in each conference playing off for the seventh and eighth seeds — to spice up matters. The Knicks have missed the playoffs for seven straight miserable seasons. 

“I think it makes it interesting,’’ Thibodeau said. “Obviously, where we are, hopefully we’ll have a shot at that. It’s something that we have to work towards.” 

And if they compete for a top-10 slot, maybe they no longer will be the laughingstock Knicks. Even former President Barack Obama cracked on their ineptitude this week

“We can’t worry about what other people think,’’ Thibodeau said. “The important thing for us is to focus on what we can control, what we think, how hard we play, how smart we play, how together we play. We have great fan support. I was here when it was great. I grew up as a kid and the Knicks were great. I know what that’s like. 

“I think when a team wins the fans enjoy it. So we have to give the fans something to be proud of. That’s what we’re striving towards.” 

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